Few motorcycles can lay claim to establishing an entirely new market sector but, effectively, Honda’s Gold Wing did exactly that when it was announced in 1974. With the superbike power race going at full chat, Honda wanted to offer something different from their competitors – a ‘super tourer’ rather than a super sports model.
The first prototype was an outrageous creation using a flat six water-cooled engine of nearly 1500cc. It was mounted longitudinally, with three cylinders on either side of the bike driving a shaft to the rear wheel. The engine arrangement gave a low centre of gravity but imposed an unacceptable riding position. The design team had to find a better compromise between engine characteristics and chassis layout.
They found the answer by shortening the engine to create a 1000cc opposed four, still with shaft drive and tuned for maximum torque rather than power. Honda baked in all the ingredients for effortless touring: the shaft drive offered low maintenance over high mileages, and the riding position was relaxed for day long comfort. A whisper quiet exhaust reduced rider fatigue, the camshafts were belt driven for long life and silent operation, while water-cooling gave robustness and high speed stamina, even when fully laden.
It took Honda a year or two to evolve the Gold Wing into a complete touring package with a full fairing, top box, panniers and deluxe seating for rider and pillion. To haul the extra weight, engine capacity was increased to 1100cc in 1979. By 1982, an on-board air compressor was even added to the specification to adjust the air suspension for optimum comfort. Long distance riders, particularly in the USA, found nothing could compete with a fully equipped Gold Wing for comfort and effortless mile munching. In fact, the biggest limitation on trans-continental trips was rear tyre life, which could be as little as 2500 miles.
As other manufacturers launched models to compete directly with the Gold Wing, Honda grew the engine size again to 1200cc, but by the mid-1980s a bigger step was needed. In an ironic twist of fate, the original 1500cc opposed six prototype from the early 1970s was re-visited. Honda found it was able to develop the flat six to reduce the packaging compromises, for instance by cutting the number of carbs to just two, and after a number of design iterations it launched the production GL1500 in 1987.
Apart from the monster engine, the new bike incorporated swooping, co-ordinated bodywork and luggage boxes, which even had central locking! At around 800lbs (360kg) dry weight, it was now getting so difficult to manoeuvre that Honda incorporated a reverse gear, using the starter motor.
The GL1500 was produced, with various upgrades, right through to the end of the 20th century, when Honda replaced it with an even bigger 1800cc derivative that was, itself, superseded in 2018. It may make more sense on endless American highways than on winding European roads, but it has defined and dominated a market sector for almost 50 years.
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