Luxury, size and brand cred. If you like it big, the Honda Gold Wing has everything you will ever need. And more…
Honda’s flagship Gold Wing can trace its venerable history right back to the GL1000 of 1975 – a bike that was built from a clean sheet of paper and one that smashed contemporary norms in many ways, including making use of a radical engine configuration, liquid-cooling when just about everything on two wheels used air and/or oil to disperse engine heat, dual disc brakes at the bow, a concealed fuel tank – to point out just a few of the bike’s technical idiosyncrasies.
The team at Honda Japan was busy at the drawing board in the early seventies. Chock full of market success driven confidence, the idea was to build a ‘grand tourer’ – a bike that was smooth and effortless in power delivery, that would carry the flagship moniker for Honda, all at a time when the brand was trying hard to follow the ground-breaking nature and sales success of its 750 Four.
It needed a ‘hero’ bike and the GL was the focus. And, like it or lump it – when Honda focuses, things happen.
The simple fact is that this was about as far from the norm as you could expect from a manufacturer in the mid-70s.
The engine was a liquid-cooled, OHC, horizontally-opposed, four-cylinder, displacing 999cc for starters! Toss in performance numbers of 59.9kW at 7500rpm and a wet weight of 290kg and it’s easy to see why the bike caused such a stir – at least as far as press coverage is concerned.
Little could Honda know at the time that it would be building a bike of similar layout some 45 years hence – and that the GL1000 was to be smallest and lightest of them! This was the start of something very big indeed.
Uptake was slow in the beginning, but the brave early-adopters of the period, who could see beyond the GL’s techno-weird appearance, were rewarded with a very functional and competent mount. In fact, the GL’s stout frame was perfect for hanging things like fairings and panniers from – a cornerstone of the GL/Gold Wing design brief as it became subsequently ever more refined.
The bike was all about making life easy for those aboard, coupled with the corporate desire at Honda for yet another category leader. The drive shaft took the mess and fuss out of a long trip and the substantial engine capacity and physical room offered very relaxed long distance touring for both rider and passenger.
It’s easy to see, when viewed in that light, why the GL/Gold Wing has gone on to represent the pinnacle of the luxo-touring category – brand lineage will do that for a manufacturer.
“Honda’s ultimate touring master-piece, as the 750 Four that preceded it, will take off on a trip all its own, pioneering a sophisticated concept yet untouched, but soon to be pursued by those destined to follow the leader,” wrote Motorcyclist in a quote picked up for the Gold Wing brochure. A little clumsy in its structure, but you have to pay it respect for its prophetic nature.
Indeed, it’s history now that more than a million Gold Wings went on to be made at the Marysville Motorcycle Plant in Marysville, Ohio USA from 1979 until 2009, and Japanese manufacture continues full steam ahead as we speak.
Five models (there were more subtle model variations in amongst this, but the main game is accepted to represent five models) were produced over that period. The GL1000, GL1100, the GL1200 both with upped capacities, the GL1500 which brought the most changes seen to the Gold Wing series since its inception. The biggest difference was that the flat-four engine was replaced with a 1520cc, six-cylinder engine, of course, horizontally-opposed.
In 2001, an upped capacity Gold Wing was introduced, representing the first new Wing in 13 years. Displacement was increased to 1832cc and the engine was fuel-injected, making 88kW at 5500rpm and 167Nm at 4000rpm. Dry weight was down to 363kg from the 1500’s 372kg, mostly achieved by constructing the twin spar frame of aluminium.
Note that there was a serious recall matter affecting the 2001 bike that was worded as such: On some motorcycles, certain frame welds do not meet manufacturing specifications. High loads created when riding on rough road surfaces or through potholes can cause the affected welds to crack.
The welded area could break, resulting in rear suspension collapse or lower cross member separation, increasing the risk of a crash. There should be a sticker suggesting the bike has been seen and either fixed or passed as okay by a dealer.
So, how does the bike handle? There is no doubt that the Wing takes a bit of getting used to. The simple fact is that if you happen to drop it on the deck, well, you may as well hail a cab (or limousine for those that can afford a very late model version), because you are not going to pick it up on your own. Notice those little crash bars at the front of the heads? Yes, they are there for a reason.
It gets better however, and a rider improves at dealing with the size of the thing. If you are going to drop it at low speed, the chances are you will do it early in your ownership, if that is any consolation.
Once on the move the bike becomes surprisingly easy to maneuver and the controls nice and light. You’ll need to think about where you park it – it’s not going down any narrow sideways in a hurry. The reverse gear might sound like a bit of a gimmick, but it is an essential arrow in the Wing’s quiver. Parked it nose first into a gutter downhill? We don’t care who you are – you are not going to wheel the Wing backwards uphill, simple as that.
On the road proper, it is surprising just how quickly that generation of Wing can be hussled. The engine makes delightful loads of creamy torque, so there is no need to stir the five-speed gearbox much at all. It will pull from just about anywhere and this is especially nice when coming out of corners – simply use the very predictable power to pull the bike upright.
Now seen as the undisputed king in the luxo-tourer category, the bike has gained that status by offering a list of standard specification that includes the following (depending on model year):
AM/FM four-speaker stereo system, electronic cruise control and electronically adjustable suspension (preload on the rear shock), heated handlebar grips, independently-operated electrically heated rider and pillion seats, rider to pillion intercom system and reverse gear, there’s even an airbag available on the Luxury versions!
You can have a multi-disc CD stacker (with MP3 adapter), pannier bags (to unpack or pack the bike’s integrated panniers and top box in seconds), driving lights and satellite navigation. Added to this is the list of bits and bobs made by aftermarket operators, which has to be seen to be believed. In short, you can get a chrome armrest with built-in cup holder for your Wing or for that classy touch you can go for a blue LED windshield surround. Of course, there are many more practical options available, but the list is endless. Check for yourself here.
Yes, it is all about ‘up-spec’ on the Wing.
While the whole luxo-tourer thing comes in for some derision from sectors of the motorcycle riding fraternity, – ‘why not just buy a car?’ is an oft-muttered question – for cutting out big distances in supreme comfort, only the BMW K1200LT came close to the Wing and its incredible list of accessories. Yep, they are big and bargey, and it could be said, a little ostentatious, but the Wing belongs on the wide open road and once in that environment, it offers a hugely rewarding ride.
It’s little wonder then that the bike is a big favourite among the Ulysses Club members and a first choice with the trailer towing mob.
Pillions will bow at the altar of your decision-making prowess if you buy a Wing – the bike is the most comfortable pillion option there is, with armchair comfort the order of the day.
If you are looking for that supreme comfort, every conceivable bell and whistle there is, sports performance doesn’t interest you and everything you plan on doing will be on sealed surfaces, well, the Wing is for you.
It has a proven track record for comfort and if paying upwards of $20k for a second-hand motorcycle doesn’t raise your eyebrows, this one comes with much to recommend.
Just remember… If you haven’t ridden a big luxo-barge like this, take a test ride before considering purchase. It’s motorcycling, but not as we know it Jim…
2001-2012 Honda Gold Wing
You’ll pay: $10K-$20K, dependent on year and condition.
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 29 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.