The subject of urban mobility is one that designers, corporations, and governments around the world are trying to solve. How do you get people around a city without clogging up its streets with cars? For some, the solution is making personal transportation vehicles smaller. But motorcycles aren’t exactly the safest way to travel and trains are sort of stuck to a predetermined path. Back in the 1990s, BMW thought it had the solution when it created its first scooter. The BMW C1 was a scooter that tried to be better than a train and as safe as a car thanks to a safety cage, crumple zones, and seatbelts. But, there’s a reason you don’t see these in the United States.
With exceptions for bikes like the Honda Super Cub and scooters like the Vespa, most motorcycles don’t really try to solve major mobility problems. My Triumph Rocket III is just a whole heaping of a good time and not much more. Some motorcycle manufacturers aspire for their wares to do more. A recent example is Erik Buell’s Fuell Fllow. That electric motorcycle isn’t just trying to be a fun ride, but it wants to be the ultimate solution to urban mobility woes. Fuell is so confident that it thinks you’ll ride the Fllow rather than ride a train. I stumbled upon another occurrence of this concept, but it happened two decades ago with BMW, and it’s properly crazy.
If you live in a major city, you’re likely well aware of the pains of getting around. Drive into Chicago, Los Angeles, or just about any major city and you’ll find yourself sitting in traffic. Then, once you finally get into the city center, you have to navigate your vehicle around the streets, find parking, pay for that parking, and do all of that while reaching your destination on time.
Maybe you don’t want to drive a car. Ok, now you have to figure out your way around a public transportation network, which may or may not totally suck where you live. Some cities have problems with buses and trains just not being where they should be when they need to be there. What I’m getting at here is navigating a city can be a real headache.
One solution is to buy a scooter or a motorcycle. The benefits rack up quickly. Bikes can be bought for cheap, take up little space, get really good fuel economy, and can be insured for less than the price of a good lunch. Motorcycles can also slice their way through a crowded city in ways cars and buses cannot. Of course, going against the motorcycle is your riding gear as crash protection and if the weather is bad, you’re probably not going to have a good time.
Automakers and motorcycle manufacturers have been trying out different ways to make city driving better for decades. Using Europe for an example, Mercedes-Benz has been trying to make the perfect city car since 1972. Meanwhile, Volkswagen with its Lupo and BMW with its Mini are other attempts at making a good city car. Unlike Volkswagen and Mercedes, BMW also tried to make the ultimate city two-wheeler.
In 1992, BMW rolled into the Cologne, Germany motorcycle show with what it called the C1 Concept. This vehicle wasn’t quite a motorcycle, but it wasn’t really a scooter either. As BMW writes in its retrospective, the C1 Concept was the beginning of a new kind of vehicle:
The idea was thus to create a vehicle combining the merits of a motorised two-wheeler (the particular pleasure of riding a singletrack vehicle, feeling the air rushing by, reducing space requirements to a minimum when riding and parking, and ensuring relatively low cost of purchase and cost of ownership) with the benefits of an automobile (comfort, safety, transport capacity). And this special combination of qualities had to be visible and tangible for the driver, meaning specifically that he or she should be able to drive without a motorcycle helmet and special protective wear, while nevertheless enjoying superior safety on the road. Another feature of the concept was to provide at least a certain standard of protection from wind and weather.
BMW’s conclusion was that while cars will be necessary for mobility, cars cannot meet all mobility demands, especially in densely populated areas. Those are ambitious plans. The C1 Concept (above) was supposed to be a motorcycle that was as safe as a city car but with the space savings and thrill of a motorcycle, and all for a price so cheap that its monthly payments would be lower than a train pass.
As BMW notes, the project for the C1 started two years before with a contest in subsidiary BMW Technik GmbH. Bernd Nurtsch, an avid motorcyclist, paid attention to motorcycle crash statistics, especially honing in on the crashes he and his friends had survived. This compelled Nurtsch to submit the idea for a new kind of scooter. This scooter would protect its occupants with a safety cell, crumple zone, and seatbelts so that helmets weren’t needed.
BMW was also very serious about safety and set out to engineer a scooter that could crash like a car:
Detlef Helm, at the time the specialist at BMW Technik GmbH for complicated calculations, made a significant contribution to the ensuing feasibility study by his special computation model examining a frame support structure made of pressed aluminium profiles. Providing a kind of safety cell to protect the occupant, this structure with its special longitudinal and transverse stiffness was to be combined with additional deformation elements for the controlled absorption of energy, protecting the driver in a collision with a stationery or mobile object at a speed of up to 50 km/h just about the same way as in a car. And in a collision from the side this configuration was also to give the driver much better protection than on a motorcycle.
You are indeed reading that right! When the C1 reached production, it had an aluminum space-frame safety cell, crumple zones, and a rollbar. The complex safety structure also makes up the roof and windshield that protects the vehicle’s rider from the weather. To test this new motorcycle safety technology, BMW engineers developed special dummies with unique sensors that were used to measure the effectiveness of the vehicle’s structure.
Earlier, I noted how BMW wanted people to ride these without helmets. In order to ensure safe operation without a helmet, BMW studied and tested different types of seatbelt configurations.
After trying out different types of belts, BMW settled on a two-point shoulder belt and an additional three-point belt. These belts featured an inertia-reel system like you’d find in a car, but BMW found that they locked up way too much. So, they were designed specifically to work with the forces involved with riding a motorcycle. The result was that in testing, a belted C1 rider received a lower load on their neck without a helmet than with a helmet.
BMW says its work on making the C1 a safer motorcycle was so good that after years of development and five generations of prototypes, in 1998, both the German Federal Ministry of Transport and the German TÜV Technical Inspection Authority approved the C1’s use without an otherwise mandatory helmet.
BMW also notes other development challenges, including creating a body that was sleek enough to cut through wind while also providing weather protection and maintaining the C1’s safety. The flow of air and water was optimized in a wind tunnel, but on the road, prototypes were at the whims of the wind. BMW says this issue was bad enough that it wondered if the C1 would actually be feasible. Apparently, it took a supercomputer 110 hours of computation against 1.1 million surface cells to come up with a solution that fit BMW’s goals.
When BMW got closer to launch, it reached out to Carozzeria Bertone to handle producing the body while Bombardier’s Rotax would provide the engines.
In 2000, a decade of development became a reality when the BMW C1 finally hit the road. BMW seemed to pull it off. In its marketing, BMW said that the C1 was so safe that it provided the kind of protection offered by a city car and that you wouldn’t need to wear a helmet to ride it.
In the UK, BMW started an aggressive marketing campaign where it touted the C1 as being “less expensive than a monthly tube ticket.” In 2001, monthly London Underground tickets for zones 1 through 3 ran £86.10. BMW decided to undercut it with a financing offer for £75 a month. A base model C1 ran £3,395. To make this scheme work, you had to make a £440.26 down payment, BMW would then make a payment of £255.55 to bring the financed amount down, and you would pay the remaining £2,699.19 over 36 months at £75 a month. Due to 2.6 percent APR, your total cost was £3,060.55.
Of course, as you’ve probably already noticed, the £75 a month deal did not include fuel, insurance, or repairs, so it was almost certainly more expensive than taking the train. It also didn’t apply if you wanted a higher-end model than the base C1.
The base C1 was targeted at the buyer who just wanted a safe commuter scooter without any bells and whistles. It came painted in an orange-red or a jade. BMW said that the regular C1 was also targeting rental fleets, government fleets, and railway stations. A special white version of the regular C1 was available for authorities.
Next up was the £3,745 C1 Family’s Friend. As the name suggests, this one was supposed to be the family runabout. To make it family-friendly and to attract teenagers, the Family’s Friend comes painted in a bright orange or yellow with blue.
The idea here is that the parents had a fun little around town vehicle and when the family’s kid turns 16, they could also ride the C1 Family’s Friend. BMW notes standard equipment including large graphics, a frunk, and a kit to fasten luggage cases.
Finally, the flagship was the £3,920 C1 Executive. Again, the name isn’t very imaginative here and it was for businesspeople and insurance agents looking for a commuter. These came in a fancy metallic gray color and came with features like a reading light, a cellphone support, an additional storage box, the aforementioned luggage case fastening kit, a luggage net, and luggage railing.
Other neat tricks with the C1 include an onboard computer system that could be removed and used as an alarm clock, a two-speaker sound system, and even a heater. BMW also had some wacky ideas for C1-specific gear. Since your body sits within the safety cage, BMW said you didn’t need to wear any motorcycle gear. But it still wanted to offer such items as a jacket with cuffs that turned into gloves, a raincoat, and jackets with pockets that wouldn’t be blocked by the seatbelts.
I couldn’t find many period reviews, but one from the staff of Motorcycle News didn’t paint a great picture of the riding experience:
Small wheels, quite a bit of weight and some of it’s carried high – it’s not the recipe for perfect handling. The BMW C1’s not about scything round long sweeping country bends though – it’s an urban dodger. It works fine in that role except it’s a little wider than conventional scooters which can be annoying. The BMW C1’s 125cc engine’s an unremarkable four-stroke single producing a respectable 15bhp. But it’s a heavy motorcycle at 185kg – all the 1000cc sports bikes weigh less. This means performance is pretty sluggish – the BMW C1 willl pull away from cars when the lights go green but not by much. The 200 version (which was actually 176cc) is nippier.
In another period review archived on Visorcat, a tester from newspaper Business a.m. managed to tip one over:
How does one refer to the C1? The newer and larger C1 200 certainly does not feel like a motorcycle, despite its 170cc engine and the fact that you need a full bike licence to ride it. With its big, comfy, car-like seat you can sit back, almost put your feet up, and enjoy the ride. It is a twist ‘n’ go like a scooter, but how many scooters have an interior light, a roof, windscreen and wiper, a glovebox, and seatbelts? But something tells me it is not a car…
Maybe it is the car for motorcyclists, or the scooter for car drivers. Whatever it is, this caped crusader of a vehicle attracts a lot of attention wherever you go and is brilliant fun to ride, especially if you don’t mind people laughing, staring, smiling, waving and pointing at you. In the end, you just smile and wave back.
Ironically, it was the roof of the C1 that was to be the undoing of my brief but mostly pleasurable relationship with this strange machine. Turning tightly to position myself at a set of traffic lights, I lost my balance – and dropped it. Unfortunately, the C1’s biggest “safety” feature sandwiched my hand between it and an ambulance, so I am now nursing a broken wrist and a bruised ego.
At first, power came from a 124.9cc Rotax single making 15 HP. It was good for a top speed of 64 mph. In 2001, a version with a larger 176.3cc single making 18 HP was released, and that one was good for speeds up to 70 mph.
Despite the innovative features, the BMW C1 never really caught on. From 2000 until the C1’s cancellation after 2002, BMW moved just 12,614 units. Part of the failure of the C1 to catch on is attributed to Sweden and the UK not allowing the C1 to be ridden without a helmet. Still, the UK made up a quarter of those about 12,000 units.
Sadly, those of us in America still have to wait a couple of years before these start becoming legal. If you’re one of our European readers, I have good news! These seem to be relatively cheap and you can find them for under €2,000. The most expensive one I found is still an affordable €5,000.
This is a scooter motorcycle thing I’m putting down on my import wishlist. The BMW C1 is certainly not the only enclosed scooter out there, but from the looks of it, the C1 was certainly one of the most ambitious. How many other times has a motorcycle manufacturer tried to call their bikes as safe as a car?
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transportation network, which may or may not totally suck where you live.
My theory is if the public transportation system existed before the interstate system it’s probably pretty good. While I don’t have a lot of experience with it I think the DC Metro is the exception. I have some crazier ideas around using cable car tech to solve the challenges of new public transportation problems too.. (Mountain cable car, not San Fran cable car)
Bob’s Motorcycle in Jessup, MD had one on the showroom floor at one time, which was not able to be sold. It was one of those funky ideas that they had at the time.
BMW is about feeling sexy, having lots of power and thinking you’re a great driver and not using your indicators, so this little small wheeled safety thing just didn’t fit in anywhere. Other than commuting in Paris with your nice hair.
Please also write something on the Swiss similar and a little more sexy (IMHO) concept:
The safety part is interesting. I keep wanting to say ‘sure it’s better in this scenario, but…’ and I’m having trouble finishing that sentence. I’d definitely still want an abrasion resistant jacket, gloves, and boots but it seems it might actually be safer in most city environments. A top heavy 400 lbs with 15 hp and such tiny wheels/suspension components seems like a bit much though-it’s definitely not an enthusiast vehicle, and I have a hard time believing a competent rider wouldn’t have an easier time on a proper motorcycle.
As a guy with almost 50 years of cycling experience, I have to tell you, I’ll never ride a cycle with a cage on it. I don’t care what the safety engineers say. There have been so many times where I recovered from a near crash by throwing my weight one way or the other, that being belted in is a no-starter for me. Also, if you can see you are going to crash, you can jump off the machine, and let the bike take the hit, while you fly through space for a while, incurring less injury upon landing in your leathers.
Because let’s be real. If you ride cycles, these situations WILL occur.
I am NOT strapping in.
whenever I see that type of vehicle I think of the Toyota iRoad, that pushed that concept to its limit, too bad Toyota never gave it a fair chance in the market
If you want to see one of these in action, the 44Teeth channel ran one as part of their “Budget Bike Battle: Britain” series. It performed well, but the weight and lack of power were a drag. And you’d have to be a lunatic to strap yourself to it with those seatbelts.
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