Honda Gold Wing: the gold standard in two-wheeled grand touring
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Honda Gold Wing: the gold standard in two-wheeled grand touring

By MarkOastler - 11 October 2021

It’s been called a Cadillac on two wheels and the most luxurious motorcycle in the world. The Honda Gold Wing is an icon of long-distance touring, launched in 1975 and remaining in production to this day. It has evolved through numerous generations and many advances in performance and luxury to maintain its status as arguably the world’s definitive touring motorcycle.

Over time it has adopted many features most would associate more with cars than bikes including windscreen wipers, central locking, ABS, airbag, sat-nav, heated seats, feet warming, adjustable air-vents, hill-start assist, reverse gear, cruise control, traction control, air suspension, LED lighting, multi-speaker sound system, trip computer, automatic dual-clutch transmission, different drive modes and more.

All of that conspicuous luxury has come at a cost of course, not only in terms of retail price but also weight gain. From the start the Gold Wing was far from featherlike with a fully-fuelled kerb weight nudging 300kg. Today, even with Honda’s best efforts to minimise it, the heaviest variant exceeds 380kg. And that can easily balloon to more than half a tonne with two occupants and luggage!

Although the Gold Wing has built a loyal customer base around the world including Australia, its primary market has always been North America. In fact, for many years Gold Wings were manufactured solely in the US, providing solid employment that strengthened American affection for this remarkable machine.

The Gold Wing has won many awards and is revered in its homeland, with the Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan endorsing the original GL1000 as a significant landmark in Japanese automotive technology. It also holds the Guinness record for the longest motorcycle ride of 735,000km, set by Argentinian adventurer Emelio Scotto when he crossed 279 countries in 10 years on a Gold Wing GL1100.

An engineering study code-named M1 pushed the boundaries in development of Honda’s new flagship.
Image: Honda

Stretching the envelope

Given the phenomenal success of Honda’s CB750 ‘superbike’ launched in 1969, it’s not surprising that the company under its inspirational founder and leader Soichiro Honda then set its sights on developing a new flagship in 1972.

Given that the company considered its seminal CB750 to be the ‘King of Motorcycles’ it faced a formidable challenge in creating a machine superior to not only the CB750, but also the newly released Kawasaki 900 Z1 which in raw performance terms had already dethroned Honda’s monarch.

The answer could only be an even larger capacity machine. To assess how far Honda could push the boundaries, an R&D team was established under project leader Shoichiro Irimajiri, with his background in the design of Honda’s grand prix-winning multi-cylinder motorcycle engines.

The GL1000’s compact liquid-cooled flat-four was at the cutting-edge of 1970s motorcycle design.
Image: Honda

His team produced an experimental motorcycle code-named M1, which instead of the CB750/Z1’s transverse air-cooled four-cylinder layout with chain-drive had a liquid-cooled flat-six mounted longitudinally with shaft-drive. How’s that for thinking outside the square!

With almost twice the CB750’s displacement (1470cc) the horizontally-opposed engine not only had superior power but also a much lower centre of gravity, along with lower noise levels and more consistent internal tolerances due to its liquid-cooling. The size and weight of the drivetrain was problematic in terms of packaging in a compact sports bike, which in itself helped to define the Gold Wing's design objectives.

Honda determined that the M1 concept would be ideally suited to a burgeoning long-distance touring market in the US. Here was another segment in which Honda could have a major impact with a quiet, smooth and torquey drivetrain, comfortable seating, luggage space, long fuel range and effortless performance over vast distances.

The R&D team, now headed by Toshio Nozue who worked on the CB750 program, created a production prototype code-named Project 371, based on the M1 concept but with a more compact flat-four with smaller 1000cc displacement. The Gold Wing’s die was cast.

The original Gold Wing GL1000 looked conventional but its design and performance characteristics were unique. The fuel tank, neatly displaying the Gold Wing badge, was located below the seat.
Image: Honda

GOLD WING GL1000 (1975-1979)

The original Gold Wing K0 (as in zero) was revealed to US dealers in September 1974 before stealing the international spotlight at Germany’s annual Cologne motorcycle show in October.

Its robust tube steel dual-cradle frame, with 1540mm wheelbase (80mm longer than CB750) and 2305mm overall length (105mm longer) was big but largely conventional, with most interest focused on its all-new drivetrain which was the first mass-produced liquid-cooled four-stroke engine in a Japanese motorcycle.

Its flat-four design had a 999cc (61cid) displacement, silent belt-driven single overhead camshafts and two valves per cylinder, with electric start and according to Motorcycle Classics “a gear-driven alternator rotating in the opposite direction to the longitudinal crankshaft, helping to counter-balance the slight sideway surge of the longitudinal crankshaft when the throttle is blipped at rest, a phenomenon that BMW (Boxer) riders know well.”

Fed by four 32mm Keihin carburettors, it produced 60kW (80bhp) at 7500rpm and 83Nm of torque at 5500rpm, compared to the CB750’s 49kW at 8000rpm and 60Nm at 7000rpm. The multi-plate wet clutch and five-speed gearbox were located beneath the crankcase to keep the drivetrain as compact as possible, with final drive to the rear wheel’s crown wheel and pinion via a silent driveshaft.

Interestingly, in keeping with the flat-four’s low centre of gravity, the 19-litre fuel tank was located beneath the seat. The higher ‘dummy’ tank between the rider’s knees held no fuel; it was instead a glove box with hinged opening top and side panels that stored an engine kick-start lever, tool kit, radiator expansion tank, electrical components and engine air filter.

Honda was justifiably proud of its engineering achievements with the original Gold Wing.
Image: Honda

At launch the GL1000 lacked the fairings and saddle bags that characterised its full-dress successors. Even though Honda-designed fairings were initially proposed as genuine Hondaline accessories, they never went into production. However, this void was quickly filled by the US aftermarket.

Its official 273kg dry weight was a hefty 55kg heavier than the CB750, which was also considered no lightweight at 218kg. Even so, the Gold Wing’s peak power was lineball with the potent Kawasaki Z1 superbike but delivered in a unique way that won many friends.

“The watercooled flat-four may appear to traditionalists to be the antithesis of what motorcycling is all about, but it’s this very motor that gives the Gold Wing real character,” noted Motorcyclist Illustrated in its GL1000 review.

“The motor’s response to the throttle is so fluid, particularly in the mid-range but essentially throughout the 8500rpm power band, that the power flows to the back wheel with an effortless surge which makes high-gear acceleration an incomparable pleasure…the way the Wing picks you up and pushes you progressively towards the horizon is a rare and endearing feature.”

The GL1000’s silent shaft-drive was a revelation for Honda loyalists. To minimise noise, the camshafts were driven by toothed belts that were easily replaced by removal of the front covers.
Image: Honda

It could also clock rapid 13-second quarters at more than 160km/h with a 190km/h (120mph) top speed, although some reports claimed less than that. The new Gold Wing (like the CB750) was another hit with US buyers, which was no surprise given they were its primary targets, with Honda finding more than 13,000 North American homes for the GL1000 in 1975 alone.

There were no significant technical changes for the 1976 K1 and 1977 K2 models but 1978 brought engine revisions for the K3, with a reduction in carburettor chokes from 32mm to 31mm, a redesigned exhaust system and other changes aimed at producing more torque at lower rpm. Honda’s new aluminium ComStar wheels replaced the original wire-spokes.

GL1000 development ceased with release of the final K4 in 1979, with the most noticeable change being new-design ComStars with stronger steel spokes, replacing the previous year’s aluminium versions which had triggered a factory recall.

Although Honda never offered its own fairing, Hondaline saddle-bags and rear storage compartment (called the ‘trunk’ in the US) did become available for the K4 during the GL1000’s final year in production. In total, GL1000 sales topped 97,000 units between 1975 and 1979 in the US alone.

GL1100 Interstate was the first full-dress touring version. Many would follow.
Image: Honda

GOLD WING GL1100 (1980-1983)

When Honda released the second-generation Gold Wing in 1980, it faced growing competition. This prompted significant changes to defend its turf, with engine upgrades prioritising torque and smoothness over raw power. A 3.0mm bore increase bumped engine displacement from 999cc to 1085cc (66cid), the carburettor chokes were reduced again to 30mm and cylinder heads and gearing were revised to make more torque available at highway speeds.

The 60kW output matched the previous GL1000 but peaked at a lower 7000rpm. Torque increased to 88Nm at the same 5500rpm. Other advances included a 65mm stretch in wheelbase to improve directional stability and provide more room for rider and passenger, the cushioned ride of adjustable air-assisted suspension, larger 20-litre fuel tank and new ComStar wheels.

In 1980 Honda expanded the range by launching the GL1100 Interstate. This was the first full-dress Gold Wing ‘turn key’ tourer with a fairing, saddle bags and removable rear storage compartment offering enough luggage capacity for two people. Many luxurious options were available including a stereo sound system. No surprise that the Interstate also added 38kg to the standard dry weight, for the first time nudging it over 300kg.

GL1100 Aspencade appealed to Gold Wing buyers wanting a burger with the lot.
Image: Honda

All Gold Wings were manufactured in Japan until May 1980 when production switched to Honda’s assembly plant at Marysville, Ohio. From the 1981 model year, all Gold Wings would be manufactured exclusively in the US for the next three decades.

Braking was enhanced in 1982 with twin-piston front callipers and the Interstate offered many new options including a 40-channel CB radio and even an on-board compressor to adjust the air-suspension pressure. This handy device could also be used to inflate tyres, airbeds etc.

The same year also saw another expansion of the Gold Wing range with the GL1100 Aspencade, which honoured a major annual AMA motorcycle rally of the same name. It set a new benchmark for full-dress tourer luxury with more sumptuous seating, increased luggage capacity, two-tone paint plus many Interstate options included as standard.

The final year of GL1100 production in 1983 saw more upgrades including new 11-spoke cast-aluminium wheels, anti-dive suspension technology and Honda’s first combined braking system which like a car activated both front and rear brakes simultaneously when the brake pedal was applied.

GL1200 Interstate offered more than 90 litres of luggage volume for two.
Image: Honda

GOLD WING GL1200 (1984-1987)

With competition continuing to increase in full-dress tourers, particularly in the US market, Honda responded with its largest displacement Gold Wing to that point.

The third generation GL1200 had new bore and stroke dimensions that raised engine displacement from 1085cc to 1182cc (72cid) and the quartet of Keihin carburettors returned to the 32mm choke sizes of the original GL1000.

This produced more power with 70kW at 7000rpm and increased torque of 105Nm at 5500rpm, matched with longer gearing to optimise smooth, low-stressed performance at cruising speeds. Hydraulic clutch engagement and self-adjusting hydraulic tappets also made the new engine all but maintenance-free.

The GL1200 was built around a new stronger frame, with fuel tank capacity increased from 20 to 22 litres. The Standard or ‘naked’ GL1200 was withdrawn from sale after only one year, due to poor sales compared to its more luxurious full-dress siblings.

The new GL1200 Interstate featured styling refinements, a more car-like instrument panel with analogue instrumentation and increased luggage capacity, with more than 90 litres of load volume shared between the saddle bags and rear compartment.

1985 GL1200 Limited Edition celebrated the Gold Wing’s 10th birthday in fine style.
Image: Honda

The top-shelf GL1200 Aspencade had a new automotive-style dashboard with LCD digital display, Panasonic audio system with AM/FM radio/cassette player and intercom between rider and passenger, plus adjustable passenger foot-boards instead of the previous pegs.

A limited-edition GL1200 was released in 1985 to celebrate the Gold Wing’s 10th anniversary. Also known as the LTD, it had unique metallic gold paint and was loaded with new technologies including auto-levelling rear suspension, cruise control, electronic trip computer, quad-speaker sound system and, for the first time, electronic fuel injection.

Its 355kg dry weight also set a new benchmark that was destined to continue rising in future models. Even so, the Gold Wing was unrivalled in its ability to cover vast distances with minimal effort and maximum comfort.

There were minor revisions and refinements between 1985 and 1987, including single-year production of the SEi (Special Edition injected) model in 1986 for the US market. Honda rejected EFI for mainstream Gold Wing production after that, although it was destined to return in later models.

By that stage it had also became clear that the flat-four’s displacement had been stretched to its practical limits in terms of maintaining its near-silence and smoothness. The only way ahead, as proven with the experimental M1 engine, was to increase the number of cylinders.

GL1500 with new six-cylinder power raised the benchmark for smoothness, not only in engine performance but also styling with its more enclosed and streamlined bodywork.
Image: Honda

GOLD WING GL1500 (1988-2000)

The fourth-generation Gold Wing went back to the future, in drawing strong inspiration from the M1, by introducing the model’s first six-cylinder engine.

The new liquid-cooled SOHC flat-six, with an unprecedented cubic displacement of 1520cc (93cid) being larger than many small cars, produced 75kW (100bhp) at 5200rpm and 150Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Other firsts were electronic ignition and two 36mm Keihin carburettors replacing the previous 32mm quartet. Honda’s key objectives of achieving unprecedented smoothness and silence with an even larger and more effortless surge of power were easily met.

A five-speed manual gearbox was retained but clever use of the electric starter motor linked to the gearbox provided a reverse cog for the first time. Given that the premium GL1500 Aspencade’s dry weight had risen to 360kg, with its fully-fuelled kerb weight nudging 400kg, Honda was rightly concerned that some riders might struggle to back the latest Gold Wing using the traditional leg-paddling method – particularly up inclines!

The GL1500 was not only the heaviest Gold Wing to that point. Other benchmarks included another wheelbase stretch to 1690mm, overall length increased to 2630mm, fuel capacity raised to 23 litres and seat height dropped to 740mm. It was also the first Gold Wing to be exported from the US to Japan.

Comfort was unparalleled, with a new fairing and larger windscreen designed for minimal drag with greater weather protection. The passenger seat backrest, huge rear storage compartment and saddle bags were more integrated and now featured central-locking. And there was continual refinement of adjustable air-venting (both heating and cooling) to optimise rider comfort.

In 1990 Honda released a 15th Anniversary Special Edition (GL1500SE) and the following year the company’s Marysville, Ohio plant celebrated production of its half-millionth vehicle which appropriately in this context was a 1991 Aspencade.

GL1500-derived Valkyrie featured a cruiser-style frame, hotter engine and retro styling cues.
Image: Honda

A 20th Anniversary Gold Wing followed in 1995, which was the same year in which the premium Aspencade reached its highest dry weight of 364kg. In 1996 a GL1500 Aspencade also became the one millionth Honda motorcycle made in the US, the same year the lesser-equipped GL1500 Interstate was discontinued in preparation for a new addition to the Gold Wing family the following year.

That was the GL1500C ‘Valkyrie’ named after a war figure from Nordic mythology. It was the first naked GL since 1984 in response to a growing market for large displacement ‘cruiser’ motorcycles with a sportier flavour. The Valkyrie, or F6C (Flat Six Custom) outside the US, was effectively the GL1500 engine in a retro cruiser-style frame with performance modifications including six 28mm Keihin carburettors, hotter camshafts and sports exhaust system.

Even so, Honda also offered a Valkyrie Tourer in 1997 with windscreen and saddle bags followed in 1999 by a Valkyrie Interstate with full fairing, saddle bags and rear storage compartment. However, both touring variants were short-lived, leaving only the standard Valkyrie which was also dropped after 2003.

The year 2000 marked not only the dawn of a new millennium and the Gold Wing’s 25th anniversary but also the end of GL1500 production. Proof of the flat-six GL1500’s enduring popularity was its remarkable 13 years in showrooms, which equalled the combined years of its four-cylinder predecessors.

GL1800 raised grand touring performance and luxury to new heights.

GOLD WING GL1800 (2001-2018)

The fifth-generation GL1800 launched in 2001 was developed by a team under chief engineer Masanori Aoki, who was a sports motorcycle enthusiast charged with increasing rider engagement and enjoyment.

“We have retained 80 per cent of the Gold Wing’s tourism capabilities,” Aoki stated at launch. “My job was to add a dose of fun, to build a Gold Wing with the kind of acceleration and handling that people would rather expect in a sports car.”

After Aoki’s team assessed flat-four, six and even eight-cylinder engines of up to 2.0 litres displacement, it decided the best option was an even larger 1832cc (112cid) version of the flat-six with electronic fuel injection and unprecedented outputs of 88kW (118bhp) at 5500rpm and 167Nm of torque at 4000rpm.

Honda celebrated another Gold Wing milestone with a 40th Anniversary GL1800 in 2015.

To reduce weight and lower the centre of gravity for more agile handling, the traditional steel frame was replaced by an all-new design made from rigid box-section extruded aluminium with a single-sided rear swing-arm. Fuel tank capacity increased to 25 litres.

Braking was boosted with three-piston callipers and optional ABS. In 2006 those safety options expanded to include an industry-first SRS airbag and a comfort package with heated handlebar grips and seats.

For three decades Gold Wings had been manufactured exclusively in the US but in 2010, as part of a global rationalisation of Honda's manufacturing, all tooling was transported to Honda’s Kumamoto plant in Japan for future production. Therefore, GL1800s produced in Ohio from 2001-2010 are regarded as first-generation models, while Japanese-built versions from 2011-2017 are second-generation.

The GL1800’s fuel-injected flat-six with 40mm throttle-bodies and long inlet tracts to optimise torque at low rpm. Note also more durable chain-driven camshafts with noise-dampening tensioners. This remarkable engine's performance characteristics have been compared with jet airliners!
Image: Honda

Independent Online’s Dave Abraham, who described the GL1800 as “an intimidatingly large motorcycle” reported in a 2011 test that “once you get used to its weight and bulk, the Gold Wing is surprisingly rideable…nevertheless…you have to think ahead and plan every move in advance.”

The Orlando Sentinel’s Bill Andrews was effusive in his praise of “that great six-cylinder powerhouse” when he wrote: “The motor produces a smooth acceleration, best described as the sound and feel of a jet engine. If you’ve ever been on a commercial flight, you know that feeling as the pilot is coming in for a landing and drops the engine speed a little before throttling up to come in. That surge and sound is what the Gold Wing provides as you let off the throttle for a turn, then twist the wick for another hard charge up a hill.”

The steady evolution of Gold Wing design made a seamless transition in 2011. The Japanese-built models continued to spoil owners, with ducting that directed warm engine air onto the rider’s feet, a six-speaker audio system with multiple connectivity and more integrated styling with an unprecedented 150 litres of luggage volume.

1975 GL1000 and 2015 GL1800 show how much the Gold Wing has grown over the decades.
Image: Honda

2013 saw a return to the Gold Wing cruiser concept which had been shelved a decade before due to slow sales of the sporty GL1500C Valkyrie. The new GL1800-based cruiser, affectionately known as the ‘Bagger’ (in reference to its slimline saddle bags) was available in two models called the F6B and F6B Deluxe.

A new Valkyrie F6C derived from the GL1800 was also launched in 2014. It combined the Gold Wing’s 1832cc EFI flat-six with a substantial 70kg drop in dry weight, resulting in a very muscular power-to-weight ratio.

The fifth-generation GL1800 enjoyed an even longer production life than the GL1500, remaining in showrooms for a staggering 17 years. This was further proof of the Gold Wing’s enduring popularity, having been honed to near-perfection after decades of roaming the planet.

Sixth-generation GL1800 included new four-valve heads and first dual-clutch auto transmission. Note the exhaust pipe design with tailpipes neatly integrated with the bodywork. 

GOLD WING GL1800 (2019-present)

It was only fitting that the sixth-generation received a comprehensive makeover that incorporated the latest advances under project manager Yutaka Nakanishi. At launch it was available in two models comprising Standard Gold Wing (which also replaced the F6B) and premium Gold Wing Tour.

Although the fuel-injected flat-six design (now 1833cc) was carried over, its SOHC cylinder heads featured four valves per cylinder and new benchmark outputs of 93kW (125bhp) at 5500rpm and 170Nm of torque at 4500rpm.

Also for the first time was a choice of two transmissions, comprising the Gold Wing’s first six-speed manual gearbox and first automatic in the form of a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).

Although the 1695mm wheelbase was near-identical to the previous generation, the new GL1800 featured a stronger aluminium frame and new front suspension design which for the first time allowed the front wheel to pivot forwards under compression rather than rearwards with conventional forks. This provided more room behind the wheel, which allowed designers to move the rider further forward to reduce the size of the windscreen/fairing and therefore aero drag.

Epitome of refinement. The Gold Wing has evolved into the world’s most iconic grand tourer.
Image: Honda

Fuel capacity was also reduced to 21 litres which combined with a shorter overall length contributed to a significant weight loss of around 40kg. Even so, kerb weights (fully fuelled) were 365kg for the manual Standard and 380kg for the manual Tour.

Highlights of many new technical features included a forward/reverse ‘walking mode’ to assist with low-speed manoeuvring, six-piston front brake callipers, fly-by-wire throttle control, traction control, hill-start assist, choice of ride modes, LED lighting and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Android Auto was added the following year and in 2021 the rear storage compartment load volume was increased.

So, the iconic Honda Gold Wing will continue to evolve, as it has done since the original rewrote the rules on long-distance touring in 1975. And it will remain in production for as long as its loyal band of global customers are satisfied that Honda remains resolutely committed to its pursuit of Gold Wing perfection.