A Minimalist Build for Maximum Riding: The Roughchild Bobber
Photography by John Hebert
The BMW R80RT Bobber is a bike of contrasts. It is both rugged and refined, aggressive yet sleek. At a glance, the monochromatic silhouette is strikingly custom in design. Still, as you pore over the build, factory original components begin to jump out, and a sense of familiarity sets in. It is evident that this machine was designed and built from a place of true appreciation for the boxer platform.
Roughchild is a Los Angeles-based vintage motorcycle shop founded by Robert Sabel. While the shop maintains a low public profile – intentionally so – they are industrious behind the scenes, producing 25 custom motorcycles a year. The design and build elements in each handcrafted model are given painstaking attention. Without exaggeration, every nut and bolt has been sorted and each aftermarket component sourced from top shelf manufacturers. Sabel has a clear understanding of his objective as a builder, a form of shop ethos imbuing each Roughchild bike with a common aesthetic.
“Customization is a form of elevating the factory identity, or at the very least tidying it. Despite making modifications, I try to stay true to the original vision.”
Another key to the shop’s success is specialization. Every Roughchild build candidate is a BMW from the 1970’s or 1980’s – the epoch of the legendary “Airhead” era.
Throughout the 1960’s the Bavarian Motor Works company faced increasing financial tribulation. In a push to remain viable, the aircraft division – BMW’s product of origin – was sold off. Sidecar and single-cylinder motorcycle production halted, permanently. As the European market waned, an increase in demand from the United States inspired a sport-oriented shift forever altering the frame and engineering of the revered flat-twin motorcycles. In December 1969, the Motorrad factory in Munich, relocated to West Berlin to produce the /5 generation. The Airhead was born.
While American, Japanese, and even British machines often come under the wrench of professional and amateur builders, the Airhead niche has largely been occupied by purists and preservationists. A newfound surge in demand for European-model customs has been followed by an even more recent trend in solo-saddled ultra-minimalist concepts. It may come as a surprise that this particular Bobber was built by someone wearing metaphoric blinders to current stylistic trends, choosing instead to honor the heritage of the 50-year-old drawing board.
“I love these bikes,” Sabel emphasizes. “I love them in their original form. Take the hand controls, for instance, nothing competes with them. They are ergonomically perfect. Your hands find the buttons instinctively. They’re large enough for comfort but not too big. They give the handlebars just the right dash of color.”
Sabel’s introduction to Airhead motorcycles was entirely incidental. A native of England, his former trade was in the purchase, restoration, and sale of German automobiles, particularly Porsche. He met his now-wife at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France, eventually following her back to her home in Los Angeles. In lieu of his international relocation, he sold the vast majority of his possessions, including his modest car collection, and began anew stateside with nothing more than the money in his pocket.
After some time in California, during the acquisition of an early SWB Porsche 911, a BMW motorcycle was offered to sweeten the transaction. It was a /2 generation conversion powered by a /5 motor. When he began servicing the motorcycle, Sabel was amused by the similarity to boxer automobile motors, and took an immediate liking to the Airhead. He began acquiring others, one day coming to the realization that the bikes outnumbered the cars. To give form to his vocation, “Roughchild” was created in 2014 as a motorcycle-specific entity.
Prior to this build, Sabel was reluctant, even resistant to the idea of creating a bobber. One reason is the preponderance off ill-conceived, home-built examples with crude or downright unsafe design implementations. It is common to see a dual-shock model developed and operated with either shock removed purely for style pursuit or imitation. Equally dismaying and dangerous are the varied ways by which the tractor seat is mounted, evidenced by their proud display on social media.
Sabel recalls his moment of conciliation, “When this particular customer insisted on a bobber-styled bike I eventually relented to build it, but with the understanding that it would be done correctly and to the best of our ability, with no shirking of quality or safety precautions.”
The 1985 R80RT was selected, having been developed and produced by BMW with a single-shock chassis. Safety being a top priority, the suspension was upgraded to a modern Öhlins unit with a stylish external reservoir hidden in plain sight atop the swingarm. The forks were sourced from a later K-series bike, providing a touch more stability for the front suspension while still preserving the period correct look. To augment the bobber appearance, the entire factory-made subframe was deleted. Mounting the solo saddle directly to the frame, the structural spine of the R80 was extended, forming a post for the seat and taillight.
“BMW spent a fortune on research and development; why waste all of those factory resources?” Sabel explains, “No sacrifice was made to the Bobber’s natural suspension or ergonomic handling, to the rider’s full benefit.”
Surviving original components include the exhaust headers and collector, which were carbon wrapped and blacked out, still utilizing their proper mounts. Shortened exhaust pipes create a “mean” look while producing a phenomenal, throaty exhaust note.
With the intended aesthetics achieved, careful consideration was given to performance. The R80 motor was replaced by the 1000cc powerplant from a 1983 R100RS, fully rebuilt to factory specification. Brand new Mikuni carburetors were installed and re-jetted to accommodate changes to the bike’s breathing, including the K&N cone air filters. A “fastback” body component replaces the factory airbox, giving the engine’s profile a satisfying rounded appearance.
Absolutely no shortcuts were taken with regard to the Bobber’s fit and finish. The frame and wheels were powder-coated prior to reassembly for maximum longevity. Each bit of hardware is zinc-plated to ensure the future owner won’t have to wrestle with bolts seizing to the aluminum – a common occurrence with stainless steel hardware.
For improved reliability, prudent modernization is undertaken, which includes fresh electrics. The Bobber’s wiring harness is brand new and a low-profile lithium battery is hidden beneath the fuel tank along with the proper rectifier. A high-torque starter unit and modern charging system ensures consistent electric starts after many rides. A complete set of LED lights provides excellent visibility while also reducing draw.
In addition to heaps of brand-new equipment, there are plenty of details left for the purists to savor. The subtle contrast between the matte and gloss paint schemes are divided by the iconic BMW twin pinstripes. The fuel tank emblems maintain their OEM composition, the metal badging produced by a CNC router. Sabel’s beloved hand controls have been retrofitted to comply with the new wiring. The valve covers, headlamp ears, and headlamp bucket all derive from the /6 generation for truly retro Airhead styling.
All Roughchild motorcycles are built for daily use. Every customer is offered a one-year warranty. This high level of confidence in reliability is seldom seen in the world of vintage vehicles. Riders are emboldened to take long rides in remote locations without fearful consideration of the bike’s age.
Despite his initial inhibitions, Sabel freely admits that he is absolutely enamored with the finished Bobber and intends to build more.
“Every one of these bikes has our name on it, and with that comes accountability. My only sense of competition comes from myself, to always be improving. There will always be fleeting trends and valuations – I saw that in the car world and learned not to be caught in momentary successes. Everything we do is for the long-term consideration. We will continue pushing for the highest level of quality and look forward to many more years of Roughchild motorcycles.”