Honda Gold Wing History
As 2015 came to a close and many riders packed away their bikes for the winter, we were reminded that that the year marked the 40th anniversary of Honda’s Gold Wing. No other motorcycle model has been in (nearly) continuous production for this length of time, and the evolution of the Wing describes not only the machinery, but also the fabric of motorcycling for two score years.
In 1975, Honda released the Gold Wing as a high-performance premium motorcycle, putting out 80 horsepower at 7500 rpm from its 999cc liquid-cooled, OHC flat-four motor. The price: $2899—about $12,500, adjusted for inflation.
Honda calls the Gold Wing, which was developed by Toshio Nozue (the man behind the equally iconic CB750), “the ultimate motorcycle.” As the first GL1000 weighed 647 pounds at the curb and had shaft drive, along with a five-gallon fuel capacity, buyers recognized its potential as a long-distance touring mount.
A unique segment was born, though it took until 1980 for Honda to offer a standard faired Gold Wing. Another bold step was taken in 1988 when the GL1500 arrived with a six-cylinder engine. This fulfilled the dream Soichiro Irimajiri began in 1972, when he led a team at Honda that built the Project 371 prototype powered by a 1470cc flat-six motor; incidentally, that original bike had sidebags.
Forty years later and highly evolved, the heavy touring genre still flourishes and the Honda Gold Wing reigns as a major player. While that first model, by today’s standards, was not a big motorcycle, in its day it was one of the heaviest in production. That GL1000 model gave way to generations of evolution, reaching the pinnacle in the models that we see today. Yet, the DNA, construction, and mission of each—from the oldest to the newest model years—remains remarkably connected and on target for the segment.
Funny thing, I have been riding Gold Wings for over 20 years and have owned several, though I never thought of myself as a “Wing Guy.” Perhaps that is because my requirements vary and I don’t automatically go from Wing to Wing. I’ve liked them all, and still have a customized, and much loved, 1981 GL1100I bagger in my garage, so it is with that relationship to the bike that I lean into this story.
Wing Guys know who they are—60,000 of them are in the Gold Wing Road Riders Association—and that Honda’s flagship tourer has always occupied a special place in their hearts and the motorcycling hierarchy. Even though there are now many entrants in the heavy touring category—some faster or more modern—Wing Guys, more often than not, don’t stray from the fold. Few Wing Guys will consider a BMW K 1600 GTL, Victory Vision, or Harley-Davidson dresser, the Wing’s fiercest competitors, just as riders of those models will usually eschew the Wing. It is a unique machine and, once bitten by this bug, it’s hard to consider anything else for touring.
This may be because there is nothing on the road with the smooth, refined, gentle yet powerful character that has always been the byword of the Gold Wing. Its turbine-like power plant, effortless shifting, comfort, lack of electronic rider aids (and commensurate myriad menu and sub-menu controls) has made this bike one-of-a-kind. Add in plenty of amenities like multiple banks of control buttons for suspension, entertainment and navigation, or an airbag, and you’re set.
Aside from the usual evolutionary path of the Gold Wing, Honda has experimented with several variants of their then-current models. From 1997 until 2003 the Valkyrie, a naked bike with traditional styling, entered the cruiser category as the GL1500C model. It utilized the GL1500A motor and running gear, and found a contingent of followers.
Like the present model Valkyrie, this original edition benefitted from a sizable weight loss and was a blast to ride. We don’t see that many nowadays at the Rock Store, a place to see everything imaginable, but its fan base is wide and it is a big, fun cruiser.
In 2014, the Gold Wing Valkyrie was reintroduced as the GL1800C. It was built on the Gold Wing platform, albeit with small changes to rake, wheelbase, seat height, fuel capacity, brake dimensions, and the like. The Valk is a cruiser like no other and offers a splendid, smooth conveyance for the minimalist (as relates to amenities, not size) rider.
There is no storage and few options but, man, is it fun. I rode the Valk around town and surrounding areas on day rides. It is about 165 pounds lighter than the touring Wing, depending upon options on the tourer, and it sure feels it. The suspension feels firmer with more rebound than the Wing, and it happily corners to the limit of clearance whenever the pilot calls for such maneuvers.
In urban confines, the Valkyrie is smooth as a chocolate shake. When riding down the boulevard, it imparts on the rider that feeling described by dirt track racers as “high, wide and handsome.” The Valkyrie is an aluminum fist in a velvet glove.
At the end of the Valkyrie’s first run, Honda produced the Transformer-like Valkyrie Rune for 2004, again utilizing the basic Gold Wing twin-spar, aluminum frame encapsulating its flat, horizontally opposed 6-cylinder, 12-valve engine. Led by unique trailing-link front suspension, the Rune was a wild, Vikingesque look unlike anything that had come before and, probably, anything that will ever be produced in the future.
The Rune was destined to be a bike with limited sales and was an audacious, ambitious project. Some might say it was just too radical and any observer did not have to be a motorcycle industry expert to know this. Honda, in its unique and typical fashion, built it because they could.
I give them a lot of credit for this move and, possibly some credit, to the booming economy extant at that time. I rode that piece of moto-art once and, like all GLs, it was powerful and smooth. I did have to file a flight plan to make a U-turn.
Just before the Valkyrie’s triumphant return, the Gold Wing F6B was introduced. Now sitting between the long-distance standard Gold Wing and the city-bound Valkyrie, Honda did an admirable job making the weekend-touring F6B unique, exciting and relevant.
Everywhere I stopped when testing the F6B, it attracted attention; riders of every type of bike exclaimed that the F6B was gorgeous. Honda designers blacked-out most of the chrome, chopped down the windshield and removed the navigation system. Also gone are the famous reverse gear and the top trunk.
What remains is the best of the Wing, less nearly 100 pounds, and is offered in two feature packages—the F6B, and an F6B Deluxe equipped with a centerstand, passenger backrest, heated grips, and self-cancelling turn signals—all highly recommended.
I rode the F6B this summer from Los Angeles to Sturgis, solo. I put on about 3500 miles round trip. I laid the whip to the beast and rode two and a half days each way on mostly two-lane roads north of St. George, Utah. This included over 500 miles of Black Hills scenery, and a one-day 335-mile loop that took in Mount Rushmore, Little Bighorn Battlefield, and Devils Tower National Monument. Because I arrived, spent five days in Sturgis, and then departed the week before the Rally, this one-day ride was possible since there was no traffic. During that time I felt there could be no motorcycle better suited to do this trip.
The F6B offered enough shelter and comfort for all those miles, and a few rain showers, yet was sporty and fast on the twisty roads. There is quite a difference between the dressed Gold Wing and the F6B, due to the difference in windshield size; in the heat, I valued that extra circulation.
The bagger Wing gave me all the room I needed to pack. I put a bag on the back seat with the stuff I needed during motel stops, locked my camera and long-term gear in the side cases, and the F6B made life easy. The giant seat, just enough windshield height, cruise control and that beautiful flat-six made the miles melt away.
On the return trip I stayed on two-lane roads exclusively from Sturgis to Grand Junction, and still felt fresh after 750 miles in one day. With all this fast riding, I averaged 43 mpg.
Throughout these four decades, and the run of all the Gold Wing variants, the fully faired heavy touring patriarch has continued to be produced but with remarkably little change when one considers a 40-year time span. Sure, the GL1000 evolved into the GL1100, then to the GL1200 and GL1500, and on to spawn the GL1800 in 2000. Engines got bigger, added two cylinders, better brakes, auto-leveling suspension, entertainment systems, linked braking, and even airbags.
Still the Gold Wing’s heart, to this day, is a horizontally opposed engine driving a slightly notchy 5-speed transmission, with shaft drive and a fuel tank under the seat. The electronics incorporated into the machine have little to do with its operation—only its amenities. The throttle remains cable-actuated, there is no traction control or power modes, and the cruise control has a long delay until it takes over, which tells me it’s all analog under the hood.
But for the paint, re-styled bodywork and a few options, such as SAT NAV, airbag, and audio systems, the 2015 version is remarkably like the first-year GL1800 in 2001 (a 2nd Gen. version came out in 2012). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but gives me the feeling that Honda will either drastically update this bike soon—or never.
Riding the Gold Wing is an experience unique to itself. The cabin environment is the calmest of any bike I have ever ridden. It is hard to believe how little turbulence, or even airflow, there is, even at highway speeds. Taking it out on the road is a pleasure and it will acquit itself well on the curviest sections, as long as the rider keeps his pace reasonable. It’s no sportbike. It offers no negative surprises and is what it is—a 900-plus pound luxury motorcycle.
The Gold Wing platform may not be as user-customizable as some other bikes, yet there are a plethora of farkles available for any year and model. Honda’s ability to craft the three distinctly different models from one basic frame and powertrain has been successful, and these models are different enough from one another to appeal to quite varying types of riders and styles.
I would like to see Honda produce a 3rd Gen. GL1800, incorporating standard ABS, and modernities such as throttle-by-wire with all its commensurate goodness like traction control, ride modes and a cruise control with instant response. I would also like to see the entertainment system offer a Bluetooth connection option in addition to the cable-only hook-up that requires proprietary helmet electronics. Plugging in a helmet does not satisfy any longer. Is the development of BikePlay with Apple too much to ask, along with a high-resolution control panel?
Having ridden all of the 2016 Wings, and many of the old, I’ll go on record as claiming the F6B as my favorite Gold Wing flavor. With the F6B, I get most of the storage I often need, along with the best of the Wing options, like cruise control, centerstand, and heated grips. I like the tighter suspension and can really notice the 90-odd pound weight saving. It is a lovely package that was easy to live with, as I did for 10 days this summer.
Here’s to the next 40 years of GLs.
Location photography by Kelly Callan, King Cavalier II, Jonathan Handler and Don Williams
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine.