In the past 40 years, a friend of my has always owned at least one Honda GoldWing. He started out with a Honda GL1000 in 1977 and, as you might imagine, he’s owned quite a few since then alongside many other types of motorcycle. But there’s something about the original Honda GoldWing which keeps him coming back for more – and that says something significant about Honda’s achievement.
Aimed squarely at America, the Honda GL1000 was so successful that Honda sold more than 25,000 original GoldWings each year in the USA and ended up building the things in America. The Honda GoldWing is a lot like the Range Rover: it’s almost a marque in its own right.
After stealing the scene with the Honda CB750 in the late 1960s, Honda then had to share the spotlight with the superbikes of the early Seventies. The CB struggled to keep up with Kawasaki’s Z1 and couldn’t match the long-distance capability of BMW’s touring twins. So in 1975 Honda introduced a revolutionary motorcycle: pressurized water-cooling, a decade ahead of its time, equipped with an unobtrusive shaft drive that followed – a giant leap forward. And, by the standards of the era, simply gigantic.
The Honda GoldWing’s oversquare flat-four engine configuration was tuned to give Gran Turismo-type torque. Its modest power output of 80 horsepower at 7,000rpm was sufficient to propel the massive machine to just over 195km/h, but the 85Nm of torque at 5,500rpm was what really mattered to the rider. Each pair of water-cooled cylinders had s single overhead cam driven by a toothed belt; torque reaction from the transverse engine arrangement was minimized, with the alternator rotor turning in the opposite direction to the crank. The resulting supremely smooth power delivery offers effortless acceleration even today and its quiet efficiency significantly reduces rider fatigue.
If the engine was astonishing, the chassis was entirely conventional – just beefed up across the board. Although the twin downtube frame, telescopic forks and twin shocks felt familiar, the Honda GoldWing was the first Japanese motorcycle to be brakes by triple discs. It definitely needed them: they were never especially effective in the wet, and demanded plenty of lever pressure when the big bike was fully laden.
Although the Honda GoldWing seemed huge and heavy compared to most 1970s motorcycles, it was actually slimmer and lower than BMW’s touring 900cc twin. The Honda GoldWing’s low center of mass made it surprisingly manoeuvrable on the move. Honda neatly positioned the gearbox under the crankshaft and the fuel tank under the seat, making the motorcycle surprisingly responsive to rider input and rewarding the ride, even when not riding the main roads which couldn’t be considered its obvious environment. With a solo rider the Honda GoldWing’s performance is far from stodgy, delivering around 13 seconds for 400 meters (quarter mile).
However, it could be provoked into a disconcerting high-speed weave and owners soon found it productive to experiment with tire profiles and pressures, as well as uprated suspension units. Fully fueled, with pilot and passenger and luggage for a week away, a Honda GoldWing’s weight can easily exceed 450 kilograms, and all that mass has inevitable consequences for both handling and braking.
Hence Honda gave the Honda GL1000 a major makeover in 1978, fitting smaller carburetors, revised ignition and softer valve timing to improve the engine’s low-end performance. It mattered little that the GoldWing lost a couple of kilometer at the top speed, because outright speed wasn’t its forte. The six-cylinder Honda CBX had become Honda’s flagship sportster, si it made sense to improve the GoldWing’s low-rev rideability. In keeping with its transformation into an outright tourer, the Honda GL1000 also got Comstar wheels, a more comfortable stepped saddle, slightly better brakes and revised suspension. But these were only stop-gap measures until the Honda GL1100 arrived in 1980.
For some enthusiasts, the first GoldWings are also most desirable. My friend’s Honda GoldWing attracted a crowd at an European classic motorcycle show last year – it’s a KO-series, first edition 1975 machine, built in Japan before production moved to the USA, My friend owned it for a few years, gradually bringing it back to standard spec and as-new condition. ‘I still have a few small jobs to complete,’ he says, ‘but when my brother bought the motorcycle it was running very roughly, mainly die to carburation problems – these early GoldWings are notorious for this. It has been stood for a long time, so the carburetors were stripped and rebuilt with a carburetor refurbish kit, then balanced properly. The motorcycle now runs superbly.
‘I like to see these motorcycles in standard trim, so the only upgrade I recommend is to fit some better, aftermarket rear shocks. The saddle is extremely uncomfortable – a lot of riders used to fit aftermarket seats which were much better for riding long distances, but to my mind they ruin the looks of the motorcycle. My brother replaced the non-standard seat, and had all paintwork redone in the original Candy Antares Red paint. Polished the carburetor tops, cam-belt and rockerbox covers as these were very rough after being left for so long.
The Honda GoldWing’s weakest point is the standard exhaust which simply rots away, and it’s very difficult to find good standard replacements. Similarly, there’s a removable frame section on the lower left side which is also well known for rotting away - worth checking before you buy. If you can find a machine with good chrome mudguards, a good standard seat and decent original wheels then you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money. All these parts are hard to find – and expensive when you do.