I bet the last thing Edgar Heinrich and the BMW Motorrad Design team ever expected to see was their behemoth R18 cruiser transformed into a cafe racer. But that’s exactly what we love about the custom motorcycle scene. No matter what style, brand or capacity a motorcycle may be, there’s a builder out there who sees the potential for something different.
To their credit, BMW Motorrad has been inviting custom builders to modify the ‘Big Boxer’ since well before the production model was unveiled. And they are continuing to do so after its release. The latest such initiative was spearheaded by the brand’s Canadian constituent and involved 3 of the country’s eminent custom motorcycle builders. Among them was Jay Donovan of Victoria, British Columbia who took the opportunity to do something with the R18 that hadn’t been done before.
For the project, each of the 3 invited builders was given a stock BMW R18 and carte blanche in regard to the style direction they took. The only stipulation BMW Motorrad made was that the end result should remain operational and road legal. As simple as that may sound those 2 rules could be considered restrictive by some, but not Jay. His BMW R18 is a dramatic departure from the bike’s cruiser roots. Nicknamed the ‘Future Cafe’ it’s officially one of the biggest engined cafe racers on the planet.
“I used this project to explore some of my own curiosities around design; primarily what are the benefits/consequences of routing high pipes on a boxer engine. I wasn’t particularly interested in facing some of the tensions that people may have about the bike as a cruiser, I felt that was an aspect that would be taken on by many others,” says Jay. “This custom R18 was designed to enhance the presence of the large 1800cc engine and evoke a sense of flight. The proportionally small bodywork and taller seat height are meant to expose as much of the engine as possible from the rider’s position, and to create a more engaged feeling of riding atop the wicked 1800cc engine rather than behind it.”
The hand-formed fuel tank, seat pan and rear cowl of Jay’s Future Cafe have been shaped from .063 thick 3003 aluminium. Anyone who has seen Jay’s work knows he has a penchant for organic forms. His R18 is no exception, but in this instance, he’s mixed smooth lines and hard edges to emphasise his bike’s aggressive attitude.
Despite its seemingly svelte proportions, Future Cafe’s deep scalloped tank contains more than just fuel. With a lack of alternative storage space, the tank is home to all of the fueling related electronics. Building it required shaping 8 separate pieces of aluminium. These were all then welded together and the welds smoothed out for a seamless finish.
The new tail is aluminium too but it’s made from thicker alloy since it’s a load-bearing structure. Building it required the fabrication of 3 pieces. The upward kick at the rear creates the wasps tail look which is synonymous with cafe racer style.
Jay is the first to admit that the seat is more form than function. “It’s built for show, not comfort. For all those whose ass starts aching just by looking at it, just remember a thicker seat can always be added.” The thin foam saddle is covered in black leather and Jay has repurposed a part from the original fuel tank assembly to secure it in place.
In keeping with his theme the R18 now wears 50mm clip-on handlebars which are bolted to the fork legs. They’re another custom made item which had to be built due to the R18’s unusual 7/8 throttle and 1-inch master cylinder setup. For the headlight, Jay opted to not reinvent the wheel. Instead, he flipped the stock headlight mount upside down which has positioned it level with the top of the tank.
Where ever possible Jay has tried to ‘add lightness’ to his R18. One opportunity came with the front fender which is the stock item, trimmed down to a fraction of its original size. As for the rear fender that’s another handmade aluminium item.
One stand out (or head scratch inducing) feature of the design is the set of wings that are perched on the exhaust headers. According to Jay, “The integration of stainless-steel winglets into the stainless-steel exhaust pipes was created to sharpen the soft radius from the side profile, as the tube transitions from vertical to horizontal. It’s a blend of modern performance design and art deco style.”
Increasing the R18’s performance was never a goal of this project. And let’s be honest, the 158Nm, 91hp R18 is exactly lacking in that department. But to complete the look Jay was after the gargantuan stock exhaust had to go.
Replacing the factory pipes is a full stainless system that takes an entirely new route on its way to the rear. Rather than tucking under the cylinders, the 2-into-2 system heads upward before curving back along the bike’s bone line. A modest heat shield on each side helps to reduce the likelihood of inner thigh burns and the system is capped off with slash-cut tips that mirror the line of the tail.
Then came the all-important decision of what paint to go with. “For the surface finish, I wanted to balance out the black mass towards the rear of the machine,” says Jay. “So I chose to go with a classic black and polished alloy two-tone theme, edged with a classic BMW hand-painted double pinstripe.”
A build such as this would be daunting for anyone to undertake. Modern bikes pose many challenges when it comes to customisation. Add to that the pressure of presenting the finished bike to BMW Motorrad and it’s likely there would be more than a few sleepless nights spent in the workshop. But Jay’s biggest challenge was much more personal.
“I tend to get a bit ahead of myself still, and when an opportunity like this shows up, my ambition starts out quite high and I get attached to ideas I don’t necessarily have the ability or time to execute,” he explains. “This can add a feeling of loss and having to make concessions right out of the gate, rather than getting to enjoy what should be nothing but a positive creative opportunity. I don’t think it’s a matter of learning to hold myself back, and not letting my mind run away with ideas, as much as it is about developing the experience, to not getting overly attached to any of those ideas until the time is right. This is continually the most difficult part.”
As for the builders’ own thoughts about his custom BMW R18, Jay had this to say. “I quite like how some of the lines interact between the tank and tail section. The rear 3/4 view from a low position is a particularly favoured angle. The winglets as a tool for covering up the soft radius of the pipes, I think did their job nicely. And I like the exposure that the minimal bodywork gave to the great factory details of the bike.”
Jay’s approach with the BMW R18 was certainly ambitious. There’s a reason no one has attempted to build a cafe racer from the Big Boxer before. Yet despite this, he’s given it a go and the outcome is undeniably impressive.
Photography by Caveman Media & Fraser Evans Photo