A Tale of Evolution
Honda GL1000 Gold Wing
Years produced: 1975-present
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 80hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 125mph (est.)
Engine type: 999cc single-overhead cam, two valves per cylinder, water-cooled flat four
Weight: 295kg (650lb)
Price then: $2,895
Price now: $2,000-$5,000
MPG: 35-40 (approx.)
Looking back, it’s easy to think the first Honda GL1000 Gold Wing in 1975 was a revolutionary motorcycle. It was, in fact, evolutionary, built to appeal to the American bigger-is-better theory. Today, the Honda Gold Wing is an icon for the cross-country touring motorcycle. But back in the day, it was just Honda’s best guess at what Americans wanted in a touring motorcycle.
In the well-lit upstairs offices of any large corporation you’ll find legions of employees who do nothing but analyze things like costs and expectations. Like any huge corporation, Honda’s headquarters had (and has) bean-counters by the bushel, and founder Soichiro Honda, impressed by the strength of the American market, wanted to build a motorcycle that would specifically appeal to U.S. buyers: He told his boys to look into it.
Price-point analysis is an unrefined art, dedicated to the unvarnished truth of the bottom line. If the cost of any piece of the product can be reduced without harming its function, it’s done. In our industry it boils down to the MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) of the envisioned competition; in 1975 the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide cost $3,555, (with bags and fairing standard); the BMW R90/6, $3,395; the Moto Guzzi 850-T, $2,699; and the Kawasaki Z1, $2,475. Honda slotted its planned new model right in the middle at $2,895.
The second consideration was how many of the new model they could sell. With the memory of tens of thousands of Honda CB750 motorcycles sold in that model’s first year fresh in mind, the prognosticators were hoping for something similar. Soichiro’s notion was to build something grand, something luxurious and powerful that would make the Honda marque stand out as it had with the CB750. And he did not want to go head-on against Kawasaki’s 903cc Z-1, which had effectively eclipsed his own CB750. Instead, he wanted to light a new path with a very different motorcycle that would have the cycle-buffs applauding.
Soon after the introduction of the CB750, the R&D staff at Honda was contemplating new concepts. They saw how popular the 1,200cc Harley-Davidson was in the U.S., and figured if Americans liked 600lb motorcycles, Honda could build one.
Soichiro knew his new bike needed a smooth, four-cylinder engine. He’d already created a superb inline four, so he was left with either a V-four or a flat four. Both designs had been tried with limited success in the 1930s, with the Matchless Silver Hawk V-four and the Zundapp K800 boxer four. Soichiro settled on a flat four, but it was almost a flat six.
The GL1000 Gold Wing (the name came from the Honda logo, a golden wing) introduced in late 1974 had a 999cc opposed four-cylinder engine, a wheelbase of 60.6in and a curb weight of 650lb. This was a hundred pounds more than the Z-1, which many pundits thought was the motorcycle the GL was supposed to beat. This was not necessarily so; the Z-1 was a rev-happy machine, sullen under 5,000rpm, arm-socket-wrenching above. The GL1000, which had almost the same power and performance, was calm, quiet, and comfortable. Honda was broadening the field, rather than going head to head.
There was little truly remarkable or innovative about the GL1000, yet it was so well executed it seemed like the Gold Wing represented a new frontier in motorcycle technology.
Take, for instance, the Gold Wing’s liquid cooling. Scott motorcycles in England had been water cooled for over half a century, right up to the mid-1960s, and Colonel H.C. Holden of the Royal Engineers had his water-cooled, flat-four-powered motorcycle on the market in 1900. And then there was the Suzuki GT750, a liquid-cooled in-line triple, presented in 1971.
Then there was the matter of operating the overhead camshafts, one on each bank of cylinders. Bevel-driven overhead cams had been around since before World War I, followed by chain-driven and gear-driven cams, but in 1975 toothed rubber and fabric timing belts were a decided rarity. The 1971 Moto Morini 3-1/2 Sport used a short belt to turn the camshaft in its OHV V-twin, and in 1975 Ducati was already planning to use belts in its OHC V-twins. Belts are both less expensive and quieter than chains or gears, the only drawback being the need to change belts before they wear out and break. On the Wing this is an easy job, done by removing the front cover from the engine.
An interesting touch is a gear-driven alternator rotating in the opposite direction of the crankshaft, helping to counter-balance the slight sideways surge of the longitudinal crankshaft when the throttle is blipped at rest, a phenomenon that BMW riders know well.
Also, a cush drive is fitted aft of the crankshaft, reducing the jerkiness that can result from abrupt on/off throttle action. The idea was to deliver power smoothly. Another interesting feature is the complicated linkage operating the four 32mm Keihin carburetors, allowing one cable to open and close the quartet.
Then there’s the gas tank sitting under the seat, with the mechanical fuel pump’s drive coming off the end of the right-side camshaft. Carrying 5gal of gas up high would give the rider 35 extra pounds to balance, but down low it helps to centralize mass. This is a big bike, and Honda wanted to reduce any balance issues to their most manageable proportions.
This left the faux tank to become a small glove box. Pop the top and the sides fall away, revealing all the fuses and electrical paraphernalia, a top-off tank for the cooling system, a tool kit and a kick-starter lever, just in case.
To keep the wheelbase within acceptable lengths, the multi-plate wet clutch and five-speed transmission are tucked under the engine. A Hy-Vo chain provides primary drive, and a shock-absorbing system is built into the countershaft sprocket and connected to a shaft final drive. This was a first for Honda, who wanted to make absolutely sure the drive shaft assembly aided in the smoothness of power delivery; the Wing’s drivetrain was tested for a full year before it was shown at the 1974 show in Cologne, Germany.
The rear wheel on the GL1000 was a smallish 17in, but with a fat 4.0in tire like the Harley. It also sported a disc brake, a relative novelty, and people oohed and aahed over that fact, not appreciating that Harley had been using one for several years. The front wheel was a more standard 19in, with dual discs.
Here’s looking at you, Wing
Aesthetics are in the eye of the viewer, but not everybody liked the form of the GL1000. Large side-panels kept the under-seat gas tank from view, but gave the bike a slightly porky air. For 1975 the colors were Candy Antares Red and Candy Blue Green; the Sulfur Yellow that many people think was on the original Gold Wing was a 1976 color.
When journalists got their first taste of the GL1000, they were pleasantly surprised. With a claimed 80hp, it turned 13-second quarter-miles at over 100mph. And it was a helluva lot smoother than a Z-1, especially when consuming 500-mile days; with a top speed of 120mph you could go as fast as you wanted for as long as you wanted. The worst thing you might suffer was a numb bum, as the seat padding is woefully thin, reflecting an effort to keep the Gold Wing seat height to under 32 inches.
The Gold Wing is also unbelievably quiet. The liquid cooling keeps engine noise well abated, while a gigantic exhaust system gives a whispery exhaust note, even at 8,000rpm. The only real disappointment is the suspension, with rather stiff 37mm front forks giving 5.6in of travel, and less-than-compliant rear shock absorbers having 3.4in of travel. The factory thought some riders might try to dice with sport bikes, and best to be too tough than too weak, but limited cornering clearance kept the seriously sport-minded crowd away, as they preferred the Honda CB750F Super Sport.
The Gold Wing really appealed to travelers wanting to go from St. Louis to Denver in a day. Touring motorcycle riders took the bike to heart, and the aftermarket boomed like nothing ever seen before, from frame-mounted fairings to hundreds of chrome doodads to make your Wing, well, yours.
More than 13,000 Wings were sold in the U.S. in 1975, and as Honda saw how popular it was as a touring machine, its engineers began making small changes to boost its appeal in the category. Realizing that mid-range power was more important to these riders than top end, for 1978 the cams were changed and carbs reduced to 31mm for more low-end muscle, at the expense of a half-second in quarter-mile times. The forks were upgraded slightly, providing an inch more travel and better damping, and new shocks were fitted with improved damping characteristics.
Early reports of weak braking in wet-weather conditions roused the interest of the U.S. Department of Transportation, so new discs, calipers and pads were added. A recall was also made on all earlier models so that dealers could install new rear brake pads. Also in 1978, Honda’s Comstar wheels replaced the spoked wheels, which struggled with the speed and weight of the bike, especially with an aftermarket fairing and luggage bolted on. The saddle was improved, as was the whole styling motif. With changes to the faux tank and side panels, the new GL looked more like the CB750F.
The Gold Wing was a wild success; according to Honda over 97,000 GL1000s were sold in this country from 1975 through 1979. And come 1980, major changes were in order. The original, Japanese-made GL1000 was replaced by the new GL1100, built at the new Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio. It was now a real American motorcycle. MC
Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
• 10 Days with a BMW R90/6
• 1973 Kawasaki Z1: King of the Road
• Honda CB750 Four: A Classic for the Masses
• 22 Day Motorcycle Tour on a 1974 Suzuki GT750
• 1974-1976 Moto Morini 3-1/2 Sport
• Honda CB750F Super Sport