From 1973 to 1983, the United States was going through what’s now known as the “malaise era”. It’s not really hard to figure out why this was happening, after all, the Vietnam war had just come to a close, fuel economy/emissions regulations were stricter than ever, and political turmoil was mixing with disco dancing in a way that no one really needed. As a result of all these unique elements, automobiles of the era were slow, bland, and frankly, uninspired.
Motorcycles of this period, however, were anything but malaise and it seemed like our country had found its passion not in Automobiles but in the culture of motorcycles. This era produced some of the most legendary bikes, machines that would go on to inspire, slightly terrify, and build a permanent place in the hearts of fun-loving men and women everywhere.
Among the best example of bikes from this era is the legendary Honda GL1000 Gold Wing, and today, we’re going to tell you all about this incredible touring bike icon:
The American Market
Cheaper, Faster, More Reliable
Legacy and Today
The American Market
After many years of success in the American market, Honda simply wasn’t content with resting on its laurels. The end of the 1960s brought about the incredible CB750 Superbike that, at the time, was considered Honda’s king of motorcycles and had taken the moto world by storm. If you know anything about Honda in this era, you know that setting a new bar, a new standard was never out of mind for these passionate engineers, and they quickly decided the CB750 wasn’t their flagship. They needed a new flagship motorcycle that would be undeniably fast, but also be a willing steed to criss-cross the great roadways of America and would showcase technology in a way that no bike before it had. Honda was going to build a touring bike.
At the time, long-distance riders only had a few brands to choose from: Harley Davidson, BMW, and Moto Guzzi. By in large, these motorcycles were considered extremely desirable, but they came with a premium price tag to go with their premium features. Seeing an opportunity in the market, a team was assembled and led by project leader Shoichiro Irimajiri, a man who had not only been by the design of Honda's multi-cylinder MotoGP engines but also their Formula One V12 engine as well. The goal was simple: build a touring bike with groundbreaking features, that wouldn’t break the bank. Easy, right?
The GL1000 would need to have a large fuel tank (unlike the tiny tank in CB750’s), comfortable upright riding position, plenty of storage options, wind protection, and of course, ample power combined with Honda reliability.
Cheaper, Faster, More Reliable
Honda cast aside the traditional, transverse / chain driven layout found in its other bikes for a more durable, more refined SOHC flat-four setup, that was not chain driven, but shaft driven. Just like a car. Crucially, the GL1000 was the very first Japanese motorcycle to utilize a water-cooled flat-four, a design that would only continue to be refined and perfected by Honda over subsequent generations of the Gold Wing.
By going with a flat-four design, Honda was able to tuck weight down low in the chassis for a secure, buttoned-down feel. The traditional fuel - tank location was actually a dummy tank, with the real tank being located beneath the seat. Again, to lower the center of gravity. Cylinder blocks and the crankcase were both an integral part of the structure of the bike, leading to a stronger frame and less NVH. A front telescoping fork, rear swingarm suspension, double front disc brakes, and a single rear disc brake completed the package.
For the time, the GL1000 was one of the quickest bikes on the market, easily running a ¼ mile in under 11 seconds, with the magazine after magazine heaping praise upon the big Honda for its performance and smoothness. Even though the Gold Wing weighed a heady 584 pounds, the clever management of its sizeable heft (keeping it low in the chassis) means it was a joy around corners as well. Initially, the GL1000 was only offered as a “naked” bike. This meant that touring bike goodies like saddlebags, and luggage racks were not offered initially on the Gold Wing.
To make up for this, accessory manufacturers offered fairings in droves. From saddlebags to luggage accessories, and Craig Vetter designed “Windjammer” series windshields; the accessory selection on Gold Wings was frankly incredible.
Over its 6 year run, the GL1000 would see several refinements:
(K1 - 1976): Bicentennial Edition
(K2 - 1977): New exhaust pipe heat shields, revised seat and handlebar, as well as a new fuel gauge
(K3 - 1978): Revised engine mapping to increase low-end torque, revised electrics, and the edition of Honda ComStar wheels.
After selling 97,000 units, production of the GL1000 would end in 1979.
Legacy and Today
If you know motorcycle culture than you already know that the legacy of the Gold Wing continues strongly to this day. Although Honda definitely wasn’t first to the game (BMW and Harley Davidson were playing the game long before) it was the first of the Big 4 to take a stab at a market that seemed to be saturated with entries. What the market didn’t did have was an affordable entry or an entry that put refinement and reliability at the top of its list of engineering objectives. This is where Honda really made its mark.
Since the Gl1000 was introduced in 1975, it has gone on for a staggering 5 generations and sold hundreds of thousands of units over this time. The days of the naked Gold Wings are long, long gone with today’s bikes sporting everything from touchscreen infotainment to electrically operated windscreens. Modern Gold Wings even sport a flat-six engine that has ballooned to a staggering 1800 CC of displacement.
The mission of the modern Gold Wing is no different than it was back when the Gl1000 was brand new; create a bike that could crisscross this great country, and provide a bucket of thrills in the process with minimal fuss. For a unique type of rider, this was the perfect bike for so many occasions.
There are those (sportbike riders, we’re looking at you) who tend to thumb their nose at Gold Wings. Lauding them as old man bikes that are more dress than go, built for a snooty rider who values looks over performance. For a hardcore Gold Wing rider, these lot instantly show their true color because those that have ridden these monsters know that they make some serious power, and with high levels of clearance, can scream along a back road at breakneck speed.
When the fun is all done, or you need to gobble up some serious mileage, this is where the Gold Wing shines best. Relaxed, comfortable, powerful, and full of charisma.