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Honda GL1000 Gold Wing Road Test

Motorcyclist Illustrated 1975

Honda GL1000 Gold Wing

I've made this mistake before. I should know better by now, but it's due to an inner conflict, a tussle between the rider and the mechanic in me. The Gold Wing. Ever­ything about it is so damned unusual that I only have to mention one of its perfor­mance mannerisms and I'm off into a world of how, and then why its done and before you know it, there's no room left to describe the ride. As riding the beast is what it's all supposed to be about, after all, I think it preferable to concentrate on that and provide a slightly more comprehensive specification list than unsual.

At base, the Gold Wing is conventional, or at least it appears so, which in fact is often nothing more than camouflage intended to persuade the majority of die-hards who make up our ranks that nothing's changed so it must be good that it is. in many respects, imitative of previous and present machinery I can now appreciate is not due to any lack of imagination on the maker's part. Honda have very obviously seen the need for radical change, but they also have the wit to realise what a miserable shower of traditionalists they are seeling to, so have screened what changes have been wrought by disguising them so as to appear ordinary-It's a great bike; make no mistake about it. A much better one than I originally gave it credit for, but one that is spoiled by its maker's inability to introduce the necessary radical changes needed by such sophistication, weight and power.

You might be forgiven in querying the need for any thing special about what is nothing more than a one litre flat four with shaft drive. The whole point is, of course, that the Gold was not intended to be one of those dedicated and uncom­promising bikes, such as the other monster in this issue — (which is why both were in­cluded, because the comparisons are fascinating) — but a charismatic all rounder.

Purists might well question the need for charisma, deriding it as a useless.piece of glamorous chicanery intended to do no more than pander to the conceited egos of boulevard cruisers, conveniently forgetting that it's just this that has lifted yet it is flexible, simple to operate, reasonably economical, and the whole bike is as equable through traffic as it is at high speed under most circumstances, although I do have slight reservations on the last point. Primary transmission is still conventional and well proven Honda style with a Hy-Vo chain (a type of chain-cum-steel belt). The clutch is a wet multi-plate device, where a car type unit might well have proven ad­vantageous. Lifting petrol from the low fuel tank is a mechanical pump of a type I thought fell out of favour with Ford l00Es, and it's mounted in such a lazy place, right behind the right side cam box. Four carbs of the familiar Keihin CV pattern mix the gas, where I would have thought that a single, twin barrelled instrument of the Dell Orto or Webber type would have provided a performance more suited to the big Honda's needs. Little things like that. You only have to check inside the top, dummy tank to realise what an awful lot of otherwise very useful light luggage space has been wasted by simply plonking the huge air filter dead centre instead of angling it forward to tuck high under the steering head. Such exercises take time, however, and Honda had precious little of that if they were to beat BMW.

The American version John McEditor and I rode in the Isle of Man during TT week were — and this was a general concensus of opinion from all the other experienced bike testers we met over there — unbelievably unstable. Poor old Allan Robinson, who is experienced enough not to try to hoodwink any of us was nearly at his wits end trying to explain that these bikes were American versions, and were in no way representative of the European one expected shortly. He knew that none of us believed him, cynical bunch of disbelievers that we are. Robinson, incidentally, is Honda's Press and Publicity Officer, and being a rider of no mean ability himself, knew exactly how we all felt.

The European model var­ies considerably from the American one in the little detail that seperate the two continents' riding styles beautifully. Ours pulls a higher overall gear ratio, has stiffer suspension and flatter, narrower handlebars and boast a Lucas 60 watt quartz halogen headlamp, small things but they have transformed performance into something approaching the optimum all round that could be obtained from 9 conventionally constructed motorcycle of this weight power and price.

When I first saw the thing I thought how big it looked, and when I first sat on it I realised how right I was because, although it's one of those bikes you sink into, you, at least I did, remain acutely aware of the bulging steel muscles all around. And then the weight, ah, the weight. Sorry if I seem slow getting to the point, but it's that kind of a bike. If I don't take things in very easy stages I shall get all mixed up in the incidentals and emerge cluttered with a fas­cinating miscellany of associated paraphernalia.

Firing up, like so many other aspects of the machine, is strongly reminiscent of a sporty car, for Honda have played great attention to mechanical silencing, achieved by the sensible adoption of water jackets and plastic cam belts which reduce the old timing chain lashing to little more than a very pleasant whirring hum. This same water cooling also keeps engine temperature much lower than is possible with air cooled units, thus oil vapourisation is minimised and consumption, at least during my test period remained nil.

At risk of sounding stupid I have to admit I could not find the kickstarter. Starting was easy, just like the transverse operation of the old BMWs. I suggest that anyone with a flat battery shuts up all the panels first, kicks the bike into life and then pops the crank under a luggage elastic until the en­gine has warmed up anough to idle reliably, or he will find himself on an intermidable mery-go-round of kicking, locking, unlocking and kicking.

The car type choke button on the instrument panel was needed for a couple of miles after nights out in Autumn mists and the occasional frost, but nothing more, and the power unit quickly settled down to silent and smooth running, so silent and smooth, in fact, that once or twice I was forced to concentrate hard to discern idling.

Interesting enough weight only became a problem manouvreing into the garage, when I felt that slight overbalancing would quickly escalate into an avalanche of metal with me underneath.

This, without a shadow of doubt is the principle weapon of the Gold Wing's critics, but quite frankly I see no way around the prob­lem until those same Dodos are willing to accept the fact that their very insistence on conventional motorcycles brings about that which they hate most — weight. Honda have gone as far as they dare, without constructing an unmarketable motorcycle, in reducing the existing problems to a minimum, as can be seen clearly in the sensibly, but highly originally mounted petrol tank, just ahead of the rear wheel and over the transmission housing. At least this reduces the centre of gravity as far as possible which, combined with the horizontally opposed cylinders, assists greatly in partially redress­ing what could have been a major problem.

Through city traffic I was amazed by the controllability of the machine, and at open road cruising speeds was equally impressed, the two principle ingredients of my pleasure being the docility of the engine, and also the stability and comfort afforeded by the immense weight of the machine which, although claimed by the makers to be 6311b ready for the road, I measured on a public weighbridge at 6901b. this included a full fuel tank, tool roll and associated bits and a dusting of road dirt. Couple this to the added weight of a rider and his clothing, say 2001b, and another 200 for a pillion rider, then include l00lb of luggage and you begin to appreciate how high the gross outcome could quite easily be 12001b — which includes an extra l0lb for dirt and wet mud. Say it again as 10.7cwt, just over half a ton, and you begin to appreciate what I mean when I say how stable and unshakably secure I felt rolling around the country­side. Just the bike and a few extras and I weighed close on l000lb - 9cwt.

I'll be the first to admit that so deceptive was the sheer luxury of the ride, itself produced by the blend­ing of a velvety power style, gratifying silence, and com­forting stability, there is a danger of unskilled riders, to who, unfortunately in my opinion, the Gold Wing will be largely selling because of its glamorous attractions, being lulled into a wholly false sense of security.

When you tank around most heavy metal at speed you know pretty well it can be handled under the sort of situations you can reasonably anticipate arising because the machine responds in a familiar manner, and gives advance warning of impending performance limits. This is because just about every bike in the world conforms to a set of largely predictable manner­isms thanks to their family connections.

From hereon we are in unfamiliar territory, because not only has the Gold Wing a power unit in advance of most other machinery, so tempting unsuspecting riders to speeds higher than they might oth­erwise use, but the incredible weight of the bike ensures that ordinary riding techniques are not enough at high speeds, so only skilled riders, not simply enthusiastic ones, should try on this what they could achieve on, say, a Bonneville.

Once more, I blame the general public for this, and not Honda, who have been cornered into disguising what radical changes they have been able to introduce so necessary for the Gold Wing, by public traditionalism. To a greater extent than any other motorcycle, the big Honda positively states the definite limitations of tubular steel frames and telescopic front forks. No good defending them any longer with meaningless claims of "What was good enough for Hailwood/Saar-inen/Cecotto is good enough for me." They rode (comparative) lightweights and neither asked for, nor got, creature comforts.

Telescopic forks are, in mass production terms, hideously expensive to make. They are also inherently weak, two faults amply displayed by high speed Italian machinery's use of stiff and short movement forks, vital to reduce their lack of rigidity to a minimum, and very expensive forks, because without top grade material and manufacturing they are no better than cheap units, such as used on the Honda, for instance. To incorporate racing type units, which would be necessary front and rear on the Gold Wing, would be to introduce suspension which would be the very antithesis of the original concept of the whole machine — a luxury tourer, and an inexpensive one at that. If Honda had used a racing Ceriani the resultant motorcycle would be far less creditable, even allowing for its ponderous high speed maners, than it is now because the extra expense incurred would have provided nothing but an uncomfortable motorcycle over the greater part of its speed range.

Until we, the buying public, are willing to forego the doubtful pleasures of blindly following road racing's
development path then I can see no possible avenue of reasonable roadster development left open, other than the Gold Wing's excellent compromises. Under very heavy braking, for instance, those stressed and straining teles fluttered in protest, perfect brakes, without a ripple in them, but the tele stanchions were bowed back as the brake bit, but then their elasticity whipped them forward again, and so on. Under; heavy cornering during direction changes they flexed, not enough to affect line, but enough to move the handlebars nominally. In wet weather, it could be dangerous, especially the braking flutter.

I must admit I did not have the chance to test the braking system during rain so am unable to comment, but in view of the continued adoption of rustless steel discs I feel obliged to criticise Honda for perpetuating what I believe to be a practice of ever-increasing danger, especially with a bike of this size. Stainless steel discs are dangerously inefficient in wet weather. Cast iron discs grip well. Who cares about the odd rust spatter anyway.

Do you? In the city the brakes were sensitive, controllable and very powerful, just about all anyone could wish for.

The riding position was exactly right for maximum touring comfort, but a word of warning here. In other countries Honda have ad­vised that no handlebar mounted weather protection shields be fitted because they upset stability. Only frame mounted fairings. Take note, then. For safety's sake, avoid handlebar fairings and windscreens.

The 'seat was fat and luxurious, instrumentation perfect, even down to a very useful pair of .engine coolant . Aemgerature and fuel level gauges, controls were typically Honda and more-or-less perfect and the mirrors reflected crystal clear images throughout the entire engine and road speed range. My only observation as far as rider comfort is involved would be my preference for footboards for both pillion and rider — and if you've never toured with them say nothing until you have because they are much more comfortable than mere pegs could ever be — and for the adoption of an ammeter to indicate the charging circuit's state of health.

The audible turn signal "beepers" had me in two minds. I liked their persistent and inescapable reminder, but in slow moving city traffic they occasionally proved to be something of an embarrasmant as car drivers, startled from their reverie, imagined the noise to be something connected with police business. In most cases, though, a good idea and one simple to adapt to other motorcycles by wiring in the wee transmitter, hidden on the Gold Wing, just under the instrument panel.

Despite being a complex engine it would seem that most routine and even first line garage maintenance should be relatively simple because so many of the engine's ancillaries are accessible, save the primary transmission, which I feel to be unnecessarilly complicated for a flat, shaft driven power unit. Major engine servicing is simplified by removal of the left side lower engine cradle frame tube, much in the pattern of Moto Guzzi.

In defence of the clutch though, it was, especially considering the torque it had to deal with, lighter than any litre job's handlebar lever has any right to be. Without the use of a 15 plate, double engine speed unit, whatever its typically complex Honda failings, its typically Honda efficiency could only be matched by an hydraulicly activated single plate, unit. That or a heavier fiercer unit than is in use now.

I do have slight doubts about the utilitarian aspects of the exhaust system. While I acknowledge it to be in advance of anything else around in terms of performance, and even construction, for at last Honda have broken away from the dreadful traditions of chrome plated bugles for each and every pot, I could see no possible way to remove the rear wheel spindle without first dismantling the enormous silencer. It might look like two, but in effect it is a single great "U" shaped unit wrapped around the front of the rear wheel. Luckily there's enough room for a bottle of that fine puncture repairer, Finilec, inside the dummy tank compartment Cruising speed is simply what you make being anything up to 120mph plus, although personally, because of the riding position, I found anything over 90mph a bit of a neck strain due to wind pressure. Talk of actual road speed on this machine, powerful though it is, seems out of place. It should not be the reason for buying, any more than the buyer of a luxury car includes it on his list of priorities.

Harking back to the suspension, before we move finally away from that area altogether, the efficiency of the hydraulic damping system was without doubt extraordinarily good. After whirling around 200 miles of my favourite Welsh border roads I could sense absolutely no reduction of damping tenacity despite the fact that the rear units were too hot to hold and the front forks were uncomfortably warm as well. I feel sure that this, as much as any other contributing factor assisted in making the Gold Wing as stable as it was during cornering.

The tyres were Japanese Dunlop K81, which followed our own Dunlop pattern faithfully, except for a few extra sipes, and to their external credit both gripped very well on early morning dew wet roads and other wet roads slicked by the usual slime of Autumn. Whether it was the weight of the machine involved, the excellent damping systems, or the tyres themselves I don't know, but I am satisfied that no owner need worry about searching for improved substitutes.

Fast bend swinging caused much wider lines than might otherwise have been expected, principally because of the inertia involved. Any attempt to beat this unavoidable characteristic introduced unpleasant waltzing, although of far milder disposition that I have found normal with a great many other big motorcycles. With this firmly in mind — weight — the ride returned was su-prisingly safe, security of line being assured throughout. As' might be expected, grounding was all too easy, but of no account because no owner in his right mind should expect much else, for if he does then he needs a different kind of motorcycle entirely.

What it means is that on crowded roads you simply do not use the Gold Wing as you would a lighter machine, but you sit there, much as you might in a powerful car, comfortable and relaxed, awaiting your chance to utilise fully the mighty power of that big engine when the occasion arises. No zip-zapping around and sudden bursts of revvy line changes, breaking, and explosive acceleration. More of a yacht-like surge through lesser vehicles; regal, rhythmic unrelenting yet smooooooth as melted butter.

Maximum gear speeds tended to be little more than barely interesting excersises, simply because engine flexibility was such that once pulling 1800 revs top gear was best engaged and left so for the duration of everything above 25mph. Responsive and flexible certainly, but for all that I wouldn't put the engine torque characteristics in the V trim tradition, for instance. A light flywheel effect, while promoting a quick throttle response, also reduced low speed punch, simultaneously cutting engine braking into the bargain. As a matter of interest Honda have ingeniously set the generator, geared off the rear end of the crank to run in the reverse direction to the en­gine and so cancel out any transverse torque reaction.

That the engine is fast is not in contention for a moment, indeed, I expect to see any number of them showing up in chair meets within the forseeable future. Acceleration was on par with a Kawasaki Zl and top speed was approximately the same, despite the extra 200 pounds or so hauled by the Honda. Although without a power band, delivery im­proved markedly at around 5000rpm, increasing to almost 7000, from which point it declined gradually, making the redline Honda warning slab between 8500 and 9500rpm beyond the ability of anyone but a moron to reach. Knowing Honda practice, I doubt even then the engine would come to harm, or even prematurely wear. I generally ignored the rev counter altogether and notched up when I felt like it, which appeared mostly to be something around 2500/3000, and rarely any more than 4000 unless T was time-winding.

Fuel consumption for such a big, heavy and powerful motorcycle was remarkably good. The entire test period, which included a lot of high speed riding which I usually refrain from mentioning due to the unnaturally low mpg figures it can present, re­turned 30mpg exactly. Excluding these high speed test runs, but including fast touring speed riding between towns the average rose to 45mpg, and dropped to 41 mpg during heavy traffic and suberban use. At 90mph exactly, a metered measure resulted in a gallon being used in 29.8 miles. Not bad going at all in my opinion, but one that could be bettered by the adoption of a single twin or four choke carburettor.

To summarise I would say that the Gold Wing is what could well turn out to be an historic motorcycle in that it might well represent the peak of non-sporting, conventional motorcycle, mass production achievement. Not, as the factory claims, a breakthrough in technology or sophistication, or anything like that at all, but perhaps the last of the old school. Maybe public attitudes will have changed enough to allow the "Automatic", when it arrives, to be one of the new school.