Home » The Honda Goldwing Started Out As A Confused Motorcycle. Here’s How It Became The Ultimate Touring Bike

The Honda Goldwing Started Out As A Confused Motorcycle. Here’s How It Became The Ultimate Touring Bike

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If you’re the kind of motorcyclist who likes oodles of tech and La-Z-Boy comfort, it’s hard to beat a Honda Gold Wing. Now nearing five decades of production, the Gold Wing is known for being about as close as you could get to a car while still retaining just two wheels. But the Gold Wing wasn’t always like that. In its early days, the mighty Gold Wing was a naked machine that Honda dubbed “the ultimate motorcycle” and Honda wouldn’t even sell you a windshield for it.

Last month, I sold my 1999 Triumph Tiger 855i. Despite my best efforts to make it a reliable motorcycle, I’d fix one electrical problem just for another to pop up. The last issue to materialize was a mystery, intermittent miss. I got over two years out of the yellow steed, so I think it had a pretty good run. Now comes the exciting part where I get to replace it with something different! I’ve been looking at a few bucket list bikes like a Yamaha RD350, an old BMW Airhead, or perhaps a Triumph Rocket III. During my searches for classic metal, one bike has been showing up, and often for $1,000 or less.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Oldwings

That motorcycle is the Honda GL1000 and the Honda GL1100, the first two generations of the venerable Gold Wing. These are nothing like the rolling laptops that Gold Wings are today.

The Ultimate Motorcycle

A Brief History Of The Honda Gol (1)

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The story of the original Gold Wing takes us back to 1972. As Honda UK writes, the brand was riding on a wave of success from the CB750. This was a time when competition between Japanese manufacturers was sizzling hot and Kawasaki entered its own Z1 into the fray in 1972. That same year, Honda decided to develop another motorcycle. The company created a new R&D division and put Soichiro Irimajiri at the helm. At that time, Irimajiri was known for auto racing and for being the head of design for five- and six-cylinder motorcycle racing engines in the 1960s. Honda gave the team one mission: build the company’s next flagship motorcycle.

Honda Cb750 7
Honda CB750 – Bonhams

Irimajiri’s team broke from Honda’s norm of parallel twins and inline fours by conjuring up a concept machine powered by a horizontally-opposed six-cylinder. The resulting motorcycle was the M1 (also called Project 371), and its 1,470cc longitudinally-mounted flat six had more in common with a BMW or a Moto Guzzi than it did existing Honda products.

That chunky engine–double the size of the CB750’s–was mated to a shaft drive. The shaft drive, engine layout, and the engine’s liquid-cooling were all firsts for Honda. The M1 was also seriously fast and benefited from a low center of gravity.

72 M1 Prototype Source

During the time, it was found out that to accommodate the chunky engine, the rider would have to sit in a rather uncomfortable position. Thus, the engineers scaled the engine down to four cylinders and 999cc of capacity.

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In 1974, the smaller engine from Project 371 was lowered into a steel, full duplex cradle frame and the resulting machine was named the Gold Wing, a reference to the Honda logo. Honda’s engineers didn’t stop with the then novel engine setup, either. The tank was not where you thought it was, instead finding itself located under the seat behind those huge side covers. Where the tank would normally be was a glovebox that contained the motorcycle’s tool kit and a kick starter that could be used in the event of a dead battery or bad electric starter. Honda also stuffed the coolant reservoir and fuses in there.

1975 Honda Gl1000 Gold Wing 2460
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As a result, Honda was able to keep the 602 pounds of dry weight low. The engine also had some clever business going on as well. It utilized single overhead camshafts and instead of noisy cam chains, the motorcycle utilized belts. That engine also featured a cush drive on the end of the crankshaft for smoothness.

1975 Honda Gl1000 Gold Wing Gl10
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The first Gold Wing, the 1975 GL1000, was not the cushy tourer like today’s Wingers. Instead, it had sort of a mixed identity. The Gold Wing had that super buttery-smooth engine, but it pumped out a sporty 78 HP. It had cruiser-ish style, but an uncomfortable seat. That drivetrain boasted low maintenance and high longevity, but Honda didn’t offer saddlebags, fairings, or even a windshield.

Dual disc brakes stopped the machine from the front while a single disc brought up the rear. The original Gold Wing wasn’t a proper tourer, but it wasn’t a sportbike either. Really, it sort of blazed its own path as a high-tech superbike-ish roadster. And the motorcycle holds the distinction of being the first water-cooled four-stroke Japanese motorcycle.

A Two-Wheeled Car

Gl1000broch
Honda via eBay

Some magazines didn’t really know what to make of the machine, from Cycle World:

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Cycle World’s test in April of 1975 never painted the GL as ground-breaking; we referred to it on the cover simply as “Honda’s 1000cc Four, The Gentleman’s Choice,” and the Gold Wing name was mentioned just once in the entire issue. Only in the test’s conclusion did we write that the bike “may soon be the touring machine on American highways.”

At Cycle Guide magazine, where I was editor at the time, we praised the bike’s smoothness and powerband but stopped short of predicting its eventual dominance as a long-ride partner. And although the GL’s promotional materials occasionally mentioned touring, Honda offered no optional saddlebags, fairing, or even a windshield.

1975 Honda Gl1000 Gold Wing Long
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While others, as BikeSocial notes, compared the ride of the GL1000 to that of driving a car. Hagerty UK notes that one publication even lost Honda advertising because of a negative review:

“Two Wheeled Motor Car?” sneered Bike, Britain’s best-selling monthly, before describing the Wing as ugly, overweight, too complicated and boring. That was enough to lose the magazine Honda’s advertising for a year.

Brochre
Honda via eBay

Eventually, Gold Wing riders learned that the machines were actually really good at touring and owners started piling on the miles. A strong parts aftermarket grew out of owner desires for fairings, bags, and windshields. Search your local classifieds for an old Winger and you’ll almost certainly find one with a Vetter Windjammer.

Gold Wings proved not only to be reliable but also affordable compared to the touring competition. A 1975 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide was $3,555 while a BMW R90/6 was $3,395. The Honda? It slid in at $2,895. By 1979, 80 percent of Gold Wing production went to America. In response, Honda spent $50 million on a factory in Marysville, Ohio, to build Gold Wings.

Honda was watching how riders used their Gold Wings, too. Not willing to let the aftermarket have all of the fun, in 1980, the Gold Wing got a sequel with the GL1100. The new Gold Wing was still available as a naked standard, but the GL1100 gained features like a cushy seat, air suspension, and a longer wheelbase. Power came from a 1085cc flat-four making 80 HP and the motorcycle also gained an electronic ignition system.

Gl1100
Mercedes Streeter

I had one of those naked GL1100s and riding it was a memorable experience. My 1980 GL1100 felt a lot like riding a Harley-Davidson, but the engine was smooth enough to balance a coin on and it felt like it rode on a cloud. Yet, it was devoid of everything that most riders think of when you say “Gold Wing” today. My GL1100 had no fairings, no windshield, and no fancy technology. It was the exact opposite of a modern Gold Wing. Heck, my GL1100 ditched the factory four carburetor setup for a single big carburetor meant for a Volkswagen Beetle.

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The Gold Wing Gets Dressed

1980 Gl1100 Gold Wing Interstate Source

That said, the GL1100 also marked the beginning of the modern Gold Wing. The GL1100 Interstate and Aspencade introduced full fairings, windshields, stereos, storage cases, more lights than a semi-truck, and even a CB radio. Weights of those models ballooned past 700 pounds. If those original GL1000s felt like cars to journalists, the fully faired GL1100 Interstate and its Aspencade siblings must have been something like a Lincoln Continental on two wheels.

Perhaps the best part about these old Gold Wings is that you can get them for dirt cheap. A quick search of my local classifieds shows piles of old Gold Wings for under $2,000 and many are under $1,000 if you don’t care about minor title issues or a little bit of needed wrenching. Even in this market where everything is outrageously expensive, an old Gold Wing remains cheap.

1982 Gl1100 Gold Wing Aspencade Source

I ended up selling my GL1100 after 6,000 miles of riding it because the bike blew its starter clutch and a head gasket at about the same time. Online guides suggested that I’d pretty much have to tear down most of the bike to do both jobs. I paid a whole $950 for the machine, so that felt like a bit too much to save a nearly worthless machine. I passed it on to a new rider. I haven’t seen it for sale again, so maybe it got fixed and is on the road again.

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Today’s Honda Gold Wing is a fine-crafted motorcycle with more tech than many car drivers may ever need. They still use boxer engines, though now the Gold Wing is powered by a 1833cc flat-six making 124 HP. Riders have a choice of a six-speed manual transmission with a slipper clutch or a snappy seven-speed DCT automatic.

2023 Gold Wing Gallery 05 2400xa

Features include a mode to reverse the steed, cruise control, TPMS, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, LED lighting, hill start assist, and even a garage opener. That’s just a sliver of the list, which even includes a Gold Wing variant with its own airbag safety system. The Gold Wing of today is more carlike than ever and it has the GL1000’s incredible aftermarket and the subsequent GL1100 to thank for it.

Should you buy a vintage one? I’d say yes if you’re like me and you find yourself in love with classic Japanese motorcycles but want something a touch different than the typical “universal Japanese motorcycle.” As I found out, if you get one of the naked ones, few will know it’s a Gold Wing. I was frequently asked if I had an engine-swapped Harley or something Italian. It seems old Gold Wings are exotic to those who don’t know what they’re looking at.

Img 20190608 093518
Mercedes Streeter

The original Gold Wing and its sequel could be argued to be another example of Honda being a bit weird. It wasn’t quite a true tourer, but it wasn’t really a sportbike, either. Instead, it was in a league of its own, and without the GL1000, its long-distance touring riders, and that aftermarket, we might not have the incredible machines that Gold Wings are today.

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(Photos: Manufacturer, unless otherwise noted.)

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Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
1 year ago

Wasn’t the Suzuki rotary the first water cooled four stroke Japanese bike?

Ed Friese
Ed Friese
1 year ago

At the same time, I owned an ’89 GL1500 and an ’84 Civic CRX
The ‘Wing had a 1.5L 6-cyl, a 67″ wheelbase, and weighed just under 800 lbs.
The CRX had a 1.3L 4-cyl, a 87″ wheelbase, and weighted about 1700 lbs.

Gas mileage on both was about the same (35-40mpg)
Both sat 2, with similar luggage space.
The ‘Wing’s radio, with 4 speakers, was better (no sound deadening in the CRX)
Both had heat (but the CRX’s was better)
Safety – a toss-up

30-years later, I wish I still had both of them

Jakob Johansen
Jakob Johansen
1 year ago

12 year old me, loves the idea of freedom, riding your autobahn cruiser in the summer.

Adult me realized, after multiple motorcycles, that none of them will ever get even close to the comfort you will get from even a Hyundai I10:
-AC
-Radio you can actually hear @120+km/h
-Windshield wipers (and an actual windshield)
-A roof!

And at the same time:
-Half the fuel consumption
-A million times safer
-10 times the luggage capacity
-Room for 4 people

At a third of the cost of a Goldwing.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 year ago

I love the old naked GLs! It’s just so brilliant that the “tank” isn’t a tank at all.

One of my friends built this supercharged one some years ago

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

Good analogy, two wheeled car evolves into two wheeled luxury SUV! America baby!

Does that ‘gas tank’ storage qualify this as the first bike with a frunk?

C.A.R. Doctor PhD
C.A.R. Doctor PhD
1 year ago

Every time the weather is nice and I see an old bike like this, I want one again. Then I remember the one old bike I owned, a 1974 Yamaha TX500. When that bike was running well, I loved it. Easy to ride, plenty of power for me, and I always liked the look of that type of bike. I’m much more into cars than bikes, and living in Phoenix at the time, the idea of taking it on a freeway terrified me, so I stuck to surface streets, in the winter when it wasn’t too hot to wear decent gear. But then sitting over the summer (even in indoor storage) meant the seal on the gas tank decided to dry up and crack, let water in (the few times it was ever in rain there), and ruin the inside of the tank. So then it sat longer waiting to find a place that would clean/rust remove/reseal the tank. Then by the time that got done, the carbs had dried out so much all gaskets were gone, and they immediately gushed all of the gas on the pavement when I got the repaired tank back on. From then on, no matter what got repaired, it never ran right (and hardly ever ran) again. And I moved to a small town with only one place that would even work on it, and that was slowly and poorly. Until I gave up and got rid it. I decided at the time I wouldn’t own another old bike unless I had the time and inclination (and a simple enough bike) to do all maintenance/repair work myself.

I remember that, and it makes me put the wallet back in my pocket (temporarily, until I start looking for another Jeep again).

Steven Coates
Steven Coates
1 year ago

The GL1200 was still available as a naked bike. They just didn’t sell as many as the dressers.

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
1 year ago

Wonderful motorcycles, but the most confused bike is the GL500/650.

Shaft drive like a BMW? Check.
V-twin motor perpendicular to the frame like a Moto Guzzi? Check.
Water Cooled like a Wing? Check.
Then, Honda added a turbo and a fairing to make the CX500/650…

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Green

And don’t forget that it was a 10,000rpm pushrod, water-cooled Vtwin, so when it came out, it might as well have come from another planet. Water cooling was unusual at that time, never mind the rest of it.

The OG version was the CX, the GL showed up later with that Silver Wing thing and then we had the CX500, then CX650 Turbos.

The CX was a weird bike, but indestructible enough that London moto messengers called them the “Plastic Maggot”. I liked the original, but the Custom versions of that bike were just ugly AF.

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
1 year ago
Reply to  Dudeoutwest

I had a GL500 Silverwing, naked, and I have to tell you that it was wonderfully smooth, just about the best ride I’ve ever had across 20+ motorcycles (perhaps better than a BMW R1100RT), had enough power and stopping for modern traffic and freeways, but for me, at 6’2″, I was cramped. I sold the bike, and every time I sell a bike, I regret it, until I sit on or ride a similar bike, and I remember why I got rid of it…

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
1 year ago

The Goldwing would not have become the success that it was without the addition of the Vetter Windjammer. Big comfy fairing on a big shaft drive bike. Just the ticket to wail across the country.

Gubbin
Gubbin
1 year ago

I appreciate that Honda brought back the “naked Goldwing” as the Valkyrie like two or three times, even though it didn’t sell that well.

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 year ago

My interest in motorcycle coincided with getting my hands on the dealership pamphlet of the first gen Goldwing..
One piece of data I’ll always remember, I read sometime in the mid 2000s I think; the Goldwing has more parts than a Civic.. Unbelievable until you think of how many more parts a flat 6 has over an inline 4.

InTheBackround
InTheBackround
1 year ago
Reply to  Black Peter

Thats a fun fact id like to see corroborated somewhere

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago

I’m going to start off by saying the naked Gold Wing is most definitely not a cruiser. Put it next to contemporary CB750 and it’s obviously a “Standard” or UJM (universal Japanese motorcycle). That said the Wing was a brilliant and innovative design and against the backdrop of 1975 was seriously radical. I can understand the British magazine disliking it because in 1975 both the Norton Commando and Triumph Bonneville were still available as new bikes. Also the only bike with a factory fairing was the Electra Glide. This was the heyday of the Vetter Windjammer and aftermarket hard bags. The Interstate ans Aspencade were Honda responding to the aftermarket. You can get sense of how prevalent the Windjammer was by the existence of the 1978 BMW R100S Touring, which was a US only variant with no bikini fairing and high bars intended to fit a Luftmeister or Vetter fairing. The GL1000 is best understood as a high tech R90 /6.

Martin English
Martin English
1 year ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

Mmm …
In my understanding, UJM presumed the bike had an inline 4, mounted across the frame and was a term used for lack lustre / imitative bikes.

For example, the original GS750 was rarely referred to as a UJM, but (in Oz, anyway), it was applied to bikes like the original CB650 (’79 to ’85).

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin English

You beat me to it!

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin English

In my understanding, UJM presumed the bike had an inline 4, mounted across the frame and was a term used for lack lustre / imitative bikes.

Agreed on the first part; respectfully disagree on the second. The term may have been applied to boring bikes, but it was not limited to them (at least in the US).

A UJM was simply a bike that was not built by the factory for a specific purpose, meaning it wasn’t a tourer, it wasn’t a cruiser, it wasn’t a sport bike, etc.

It was a basic motorcycle that did most things reasonably well and was a blank slate for the owner to modify/customize (possibly to focus on a specific purpose).

The plain Suzuki GSs (not the Es or Ls) were indeed UJMs and were called as such, along with many of the Honda CBs and Kawasaki KZs.

One might argue that UJM also connoted a chain drive, so the GS850G for example would be less UJM-y.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin English

My understanding from the period is UJM meant a basic motorcycle that could be adapted in ay direction. Typically either hang a fairing and bags on it to make a touring bike or a 4 into 1 pipe, pod air filter, super bike bars and rearsets to make sports bike. Or add buckhorn bars and a stepped seat for a cruiser look.
Gold Wings mostly ended up as touring bikes but a few,went in other directions.

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 year ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

I’ll argue that it’s not a UJM because those were pretty much indistinguishable, kinda like the “all SUVs look alike” meme, if you took a 750 or 1000 from all 4 Japanese makes and played with the colors and contrast, they would look a like. The Goldwing didn’t, I’ll agree though that “standard” does fit better than cruiser however both terms post date the Goldwing. Harleys were “heavy weights”, “standards” were just “motorcycles”..

InTheBackround
InTheBackround
1 year ago

As a guy who works on these regularly they arent for the feint of heart owner. Fantastic machines when well sorted with a good bit of aftermarket support (randakks). Getting one well sorted now is a chore. needs a clutch? pull the motor. Needs a stator? pull the motor or bolt on a car alternator. starter/starter clutch? some are easy, some are pull the motor, some are cut a chunk of frame out. Dont even get me started on fixing the carbs the previous owners buddy cleaned for him in an hour… Want to make a nice GL1000 thats sat for 20 years a reliable runner again? expect at least $4k in it, maybe 8. Worth every penny though if you want a cool, reliable, vintage motorcycle.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 year ago

I had a ’76 GL1000 almost 30 years ago. It was a great bike, but if I laid it over, getting it back up really let me know just how much it weighed. Even so, with all the weight down low, I could still throw it around a bit. Maybe I should get another one…

Drunken Master Paul
Drunken Master Paul
1 year ago

When I was into cafe style bikes I saw some old Wings set up cafe style and, surprisingly, it really works. Google “cafe style goldwing” and a lot of great examples come up. Make sure you use “goldwing” though and not “wing”. Now I am all hungry.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago

my GL1100 ditched the factory four carburetor setup for a single big carburetor meant for a Volkswagen Beetle

I found this really intriguing and started poking around. There is someone in Lithuania selling (on eBay) aluminum and stainless intake manifolds for the GL1000 and 1100.

Also available for the GL1200 is a manifold + an EMPI 34PICT carburetor! Only 439 US dollars for the kit.

*mental gears turn*

So, if the 34PICT – which worked on a stock 1600cc (okay, 1585cc) VW engine – will work on the GL1200, then a pair of 40mm 1-bbl Solex carbs (sold years ago as a Kadron-branded kit) – which worked on a stock 1600cc VW engine – should also work on the GL1200.

Stock Beetle engines were intentionally undercarbureted from the factory to ensure low heat and low stress (i.e. longevity) and low fuel consumption. The Kadron kit worked wonders on a stock engine. One might think that two 40mm carbs would be too much for a 1200cc engine, but the GL revs higher than the Beetle so the seat of my pants says it should be fine. (aka talking out of my arse)

I was thinking there must then be a conversion kit that uses two Weber 2-bbl carbs to replace the four OEM carbs on the GLs, but haven’t found one yet. I’m gonna keep looking. Oh yes, I’m gonna keep looking.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago

It may have been a Weber 32/36 (progressive); those were pretty common replacements for the stock VW Solexes. I think they were also available with electric chokes.

With a single carb and multiple intake runners, the design and flow become more important: if the flow isn’t right, there will be eddies inside the manifold which can result in fuel condensation and a jacked-up mixture. With one carb per cylinder, the runners can be shorter and more direct.

I’m picturing one 2-bbl Weber per side, with short vertical intake runners. That would require a shortened throttle linkage to connect the carbs but that should be NBD.

I think your mechanic friend was right: maintenance would be much easier because you don’t need to synchronize one carb. 🙂 It also simplifies the throttle cable arrangement.

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 year ago

IIRC there was an Alpina kit (Yes that Alpina) for a pair of IDE Weber carbs for the early Goldwing. It was a cool looking set-up. A guy I once knew also had a 390cfm Holley on one, I had a chance to ride that bike and it made good noises, but I don’t like Goldwings, I always felt the half a car description was well deserved.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago
Reply to  CSRoad

A Holley 390 is suitable for a stock Mopar 318cid V8; it seems like a lot of carb for a 1.2-liter four-cylinder.

I searched for “alpina carbs goldwing” and the first hit was your post. 😀

MiniDave
MiniDave
1 year ago

My brother had one of those original 1975 Gold wings, I was living in Colorado at the time and he rode out to see me. I had a Honda 550 4 cyl and we swapped bikes for a bit. He warned me that on tight high speed corners it would feel like the frame was folding in the middle and the back end would try to steer the front – it did exactly that! I don’t know if it was due to wear, tires, shock setup or what but it was a weird sensation. He put over 100K on his and is now looking for another……

Frackle
Frackle
1 year ago

No room for two bikes in my apartment parking space (currently have an RE continental tucked behind a hyundai kona), but if I’m ever in such a situation, a 1980s Goldwing is my next purchase. Just riding around in an old barcalounger.

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