Thursday, September 11, 2014

Honda Gold Wing

For the third time, lightning from the Japanese Isle hit the US. This time it was a small but growing part of motorcycle demographics, the highway cruiser, that was struck.

These long distance bikers would roll their two wheels down the Interstates and highways, often riding 400 to 500 miles a day. Typically riding a Harley “Dresser” or BMW, these bikers would load up their possessions into bags and compartments, frequently accompanied by a lady rider on the back or on her own ride, or gathered with a group of friends, they would tour the American highways.

This new, large, and very highway worthy offering from Honda revolutionized the segment just as the 750 cc Four had changed the high performance market. Although the CB750 was big enough for long distance drives and Honda did produce models with fairing and bags to compete with the aftermarket business that flourished making any large bike into a highway cruiser, this new model, even in its most bare factory configuration, was set up to be a touring bike.

The new 900 plus pound motorcycle, eventually equipped with electric reverse, was at home on the highway. From the quiet yet powerful engine to the large gas tank, the Gold Wing was an accomplished touring bike right off the factory floor. Again many firsts are established and the direction of motorcycle evolution was again redirected. In the following years hundreds of thousands of these special, high end, and fairly pricey bikes were sold and are still being sold today. Total sales are more than 640,000 "Wings," most of them in the U.S. market.

(Sales are also strong in Western Europe, Australia, as well as Japan, but it is the US, and especially amongst we aging baby boomers that the Gold Wing has won over hearts and minds.)

In 1974, the first Gold Wing, the GL1000, was introduced at Cologne, Germany. It reached the U.S. market in early ’75. The ’Wing is the first Japanese production four-stroke to be water-cooled. It also features shaft drive and is one of the first production bikes to be fitted with a fuel pump. The pump is required because the “tank” in the normal position is actually an electronics bay and conceals the radiator overflow, while the real fuel tank is under the seat to help keep the center of gravity low.

Often written as the “Goldwing" or “GoldWing,” how ever you spell it, it is considered the finest of Interstate bikes right up there with the smooth BMW touring bikes and the best Harley and other V-Twin highway models.

The Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan includes a Honda Gold Wing GL1000 manufactured in 1974 as one of their 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technology. Through 2012, Honda GL models have appeared eighteen times in the Cycle World list of “Ten Best Bikes.”

Over the course of its history, the Gold Wing has had numerous changes to its design and production. In 1975 it had a 999 cc (61.0 cu in) flat-four, 80 hp engine and eventually grew to a 1,832 cc (111.8 cu in) flat-six with 118 hp. In 2012, the GL had a fairing with heating and an adjustable windscreen, saddlebags and a trunk, a seat-back for pillion rider, satellite navigation and radio, a six-speaker audio system with MP3 and iPod connectivity, anti-lock braking, cruise control, electrically assisted reverse gear, and an optional airbag, none of which were present when it was introduced.

I remember the first Gold Wing I rode. The owner proudly showed me a little trick. With the bike on its stand, he balanced a nickel on the top of the fuel pump, and then revved the engine. It was so smooth and vibration free that the nickel didn’t fall. That’s amazing — THERE’S A FUEL PUMP! Modern motorcycles often come with fuel pumps, mostly hidden inside the gas tank to support fuel injection. But this was another first for motorcycles back in ’75 when regular carburetors were the norm.

Gold Wings were manufactured in Marysville, Ohio from 1980 until 2010, when motorcycle production there was halted and transferred to Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan in 2011.

It all began back in 1972 when Honda assembled a design team to explore concepts for a new flagship motorcycle, something Honda R&D had deliberated over ever since the CB750 was introduced. The project leader was Shoichiro Irimajiri, who in the previous decade had designed Honda’s five- and six-cylinder Grand Prix motorcycle racing engines (as well as the RA273E V12 engine for Honda in Formula One auto racing) and then helped with the development of Honda’s car business. Irimajiri-san was thus an apt choice to create an amalgamation of disparate technologies — automobile engines and multi-cylinder race bikes.

A related event was the introduction of the CVCC clean-burn auto engine at the 1972 Tokyo auto show. The CVCC was Honda's first liquid-cooled engine to go into production; Honda cars as well as motorcycles had all been air-cooled up to that time. Soichiro Honda was not easily convinced that liquid-cooling was superior to air-cooled engines (which he had worked on for 50 years), but younger engineers eventually prevailed.

When the Gold Wing flat-four with shaft drive debuted in 1974, it combined technologies from previous motorcycle designs, as well as existing automotive technology. Following the traditional BMW Motorrad layout, a wet-sump unit construction boxer-twin using shaft final drive, goes back to the BMW R32 model that began production in 1923. Many other similar designs and four-cylinder boxer engines were produced before and during the War and after.

In automobiles, the four-cylinder boxer power-plant goes as far back as the early 1900s. In the 1970s flat-four engines were being manufactured by Subaru, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, VW, and Porsche as 4 and 6 cylinders, and used in aircraft as the Porsche PFM 3200 motor, as well as Citroën. The Citroën engine is worth mentioning because it was used (with only a few modifications) to power the BFG 1300 (French) touring bike, which was also popular with the French police in the 1980s.

The Gold Wing was the first production motorcycle from Japan that had a four-stroke engine with water cooling (needless to say, the first for Honda) but the Suzuki GT750 with a water-cooled, two-stroke triple, preceded the GL1000 by four years. Two-stroke water cooled engines from The Scott Motorcycle Company go back at least as far as the 1920s.

The primary market for the Gold Wing was the potential long distance rider needing a motorcycle suitable to the task. In North America that required comfort for the long haul: wind protection, smooth ride, comfortable seat, storage for the necessities, and power in abundance. The secondary market was to be in Europe where riders, constrained by nearby borders, were more interested in performance over long-distance luxury.

In the early 1970s, Americans with an inclination to cover vast distances had few manufacturers to choose from: Harley-Davidson (Electra Glide), Moto Guzzi, and BMW. The Electra Glide was a comfortable, yet high-maintenance, and high-vibration bike with fanatically loyal riders. Even so, Harley faced some serious competition from Moto Guzzi's then-new 850cc Eldorado.

The BMW was smoother, more reliable, but as expensive as the Harley, and better suited to a weekend trip than crossing a continent. Large Japanese bikes of the time, such as the Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki Z1 were relatively inexpensive, but troubled by vibration, by the need for drive chain maintenance, and by gas tanks too small for their thirsty engines.

The Gold Wing was aimed at a market segment that did not yet exist: American riders not likely to buy a Harley or BMW but who would open their wallets for an affordable machine offering comfort, endurance, low-maintenance and a high-torque, smooth, quiet engine. Honda would ultimately be quite successful in attracting a new kind of long-distance rider.

One little detail that always interested me was these sort of “floor boards” Harley dressers had instead of pegs for the riders. Harleys came with these large foot rests which were often converted to pegs by performance riders and customizers. (My Honda 550 four had custom floor boards when I bought it used. I converted it back to pegs and sold the boards and some other chrome goodies for $100.)

The Gold Wing came with these same comfortable platforms. While the pegs are good for racing and turning round tight turns and jumps, a highway cruiser was looking for long distance comfort that comes from a restful resting place for the rider’s “dogs.” It takes more than saddle bags and a windshield to make a highway cruiser!

The success and popularity of the GL1000 spawned many new and improved Honda models starting with the GL1100 which changed the bore and stroke to increase torque, adding a “dresser” version, and changing gear ratios to keep up with new products from competitors that had larger engines. This was the first Japanese "turn-key tourer," called the Interstate model (GL1100I) with a factory-installed full fairing, saddlebags and a removable trunk, plus a long list of optional extras including a stereo system.

The GL1200 came out in 1983 with a 1,182 cc (72.1 cu in) engine, improved fairing, and “taller” gears. Honda refined the Gold Wing's fairing so that it would looked like a basic part of the bike and not as an afterthought. The new model Interstate (called De Luxe in Europe) had an automotive-style instrument panel up front and increased luggage capacity in back. Honda continued to adjust the gear ratios to perfectly match the weight and use of the bike.

These relatively minor updates were followed by the new GL1500 in 1987 that increased the power with a 1,520 cc (93 cu in) SOHC, flat-six. This engine pushed the power to the century value, measuring an even 100 brake horsepower. Various other improvements were made from brakes to camshafts and carburetors, as well as continued modifications of electronic accessories, fairing, and saddle bags.

In 2001, the GL1800 was the first new model in 13 years. The engine for this model increased to 1,832 cc (111.8 cu in) and 118 hp, and was fuel injected. At the same time, the weight of the bike decreased from that of the GL1500. This was done by making the frame out of high-strength aluminum. This was an extruded frame, and was composed of only 31 individual parts (almost half the number of the previous frame). This engine design has continued to the current models, however the so-called "second generation" GL1800s have plenty of incremental improvements including better saddlebags, fairing, and even improvements to the heat vents for the rider's legs. The latest versions of satellite nav and radio have also been added.

An article in Top Speed magazine described the latest GL as, "A true limousine on two wheels, the Gold Wing comes fitted with airbags, ABS, Comfort Package, heated seats, and feet warmers, features without which any normal rider wouldn’t be able to put the number of miles that this bike is capable of." ABS braking was an option, added because of the increased power of the new engine, from 99 bhp to 117 bhp.

These various engine and model updates through the years were produced in model variations called the “Interstate” and “Aspencade.” The primary differences was in the seats, fairing, and other luxury amenities that I won’t try to list because, frankly, I’ve lost track.

Back in 1997, Honda brought back an incarnation of the "Standard Gold Wing," renamed the Valkyrie in the US, and produced F6C in the rest of the world. It had a higher performance engine, based on the GL1500, in a cruiser-style frame. Producing many variations of this Valkyrie line with engines from the "Gold" and dropping some models that didn't do as well in the marketplace, Honda continues to produce variations of Valkyrie as well as models with saddle bags and windshields. Going beyond the naked bike genre, with as much as 150 pounds less than the more "dressed" models, the Valkyrie's horsepower-to-weight ratio puts it clearly into the muscle bike class.

So though the Gold Wing is now in its fortieth year of production, it continues to be enhanced and updated, so it is not a stale series. Honda has improved and enlarged the original design, its engine, the accompaniments, the technology, and the style to respond to use and industry trends. Although the ground-breaking 750 cc Four is no longer built, Honda provides other large displacement choices for the buying public besides the Gold Wing such as the V-Twin, VTX models with upwards of 90 hp.

In 2013, Honda brought out a new variation on the traditional Gold Wing, itself being available in two models, The F6B and F6B Deluxe. The F6B is basically a greatly stripped down version of the standard Gold Wing with most of the chrome trim being 'blacked out', giving the F6B a look that should appeal to many cruiser buyers. The storage options has been modified and even shrunk a bit from earlier versions, but otherwise, the same as the full blown Gold Wing that came before. Honda continues to "tune" and update their largest engine line to keep current with the latest styles and technology.

While at the “Little America” truck stop along I-80 in Wyoming recently, I inspected a modern Gold Wing. What caught my eye were the two boxes above the handle grips, each with something like ten switches. I pondered why so many switches are required on a motorcycle. My bike only has two: a cutoff switch and a headlight dimmer. But then I realized this bike has cruise control, radio and music player, heater, and air conditioning. (I’m just kidding about the A/C. The rest is the truth — I swear.) How bikes have changed. This was, in reality, a two-wheeled car. In fact, three-wheel Gold Wings are quite popular. That way you don’t have to put your feet down at a stop.

In response to changes introduced by Honda and other Japanese manufacturers, Harley Davidson developed a very reliable versions of their big twin starting in the mid-80s with the "EVO" engine. In fact, those examples of Milwaukee big iron are still the most common long distance riders I see on the Interstate. BMW is still producing popular cruiser powered by four- and six-cylinder mills. Attempting to match the style and sound of the Harley V-twin, other Japanese models (including Honda) have mimicked the Harley design, but I think that the Gold Wing looks to me like the most comfortable ride available for serious distance riders.

Let me conclude this third article about the Honda motorcycles that have appeared over the last 60 years by reminding the reader that Honda has been a regular manufacturer of "firsts," at least in the mass market arena. Although other brands have contributed to the steady march of technology and engineering that produced the variety of rides available today, Honda has consistently been in the forefront of this advance. Seems to me they even beat Toyota to the first mass-produced hybrid car. However, the Honda model didn't catch on like the Toyota Prius. In my opinion, largely due to the styling and interior room that Toyota has achieved, so it's not "All Honda — All the Time." Other companies and countries have taken their turn at leading the transportation industry with new models and new designs. But, when it comes to motorcycles, the perennial technology leader has been Honda since World War II.

And I’ve been told by people I trust that no motorcycle handles a trailer as well as the big Honda Gold Wing. See, I told you they were just two-wheeled cars. I think that proves my point.


  1. The Gold Wing was launched in Cologne in Germany, not France.
    There is a small French village called Cologne, but no relation to the German city, and as far as I know it's never held an international bike show!

  2. Boo Long, Thank you for the correction. I suspect I made a mistake. Apparently my geography knowledge is at fault here and your correction is appreciated.

  3. Gold wing engine, a British design
    I believe,which I dont think anyone has ever acknowledged, or researched!
    jacob saunders, nz