Honda Gold Wing GL1000: PH2 Heroes

The Gold Wing was somewhat unloved in its day, but a sales revolution over time. Now there’s a lot to like

Cars are cars, and bikes are bikes. That was pretty much the size of it in September 1974. Life was simple then. A month later, however, everything had changed – in the eyes of ‘proper’ motorcyclists, anyway. In October 1974, at the Cologne Bike Show, Honda launched the Gold Wing – and even in Germany you could hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from British bikers outraged by something that they regarded not as a bike, but as a car missing a couple of wheels. The kerfuffle was mighty.

Two years earlier, in 1972, Kawasaki’s twin-cam Z1 had ripped the performance crown away from Honda’s groundbreaking CB750 superbike. In that same year, Honda started planning its next flagship bike. The expectation – and, from Honda fans anyway, the hope – was that it would be a huge smack in the eye for Kawasaki. The machine that turned up at the 1974 Cologne Bike Show certainly ticked the ‘huge’ box. At a time when any bike over 500cc was regarded with a mixture of reverence and fear, the Gold Wing’s 999cc capacity was suitably gogglesome, but one look at its 273kg bulk was enough to confirm that this glistening beast was never going to threaten the Z1.

Nobody quite knew what it was threatening, other than the health of anyone attempting to pick up a dropped one, but there was general agreement that the Gold Wing was certainly remarkably large. Bending the scales at 273kg, it was about 50% heavier than Triumph’s contemporary Bonneville 750. Even today, that’s a fair old weight for a bike. In the early 1970s, when everyone was much littler and we all had spaghetti legs, it was an outlandish figure. By the looks of it, the Gold Wing was a one-way ticket to the hernia clinic.

Much of the Gold Wing’s bulk was concentrated within the polished flanks of its flat-four watercooled engine (Japan’s first liquid-cooled four-stroke). The flat-four design was alien to anyone too young to remember the ‘industry revolutionising’ post-war Wooler or the Jowett Javelin, both of which failed. Honda scored a major engineering bullseye by fitting their boxer four with a contra-rotating alternator to quell the torque reaction. To minimise the negative handling effects of the weight, they put the 19-litre fuel tank under the seat and turned the original ‘tank’ into a cover for the air filter, coolant tank and electrics and, quaintly, a kick start lever (removed from post-1978 models, along with the wire wheels).

On learning that this new Honda would deliver smooth, refined power – pretty much exactly the sort of power that motorcyclists of the time weren’t really interested in – plus the uncertain delights of shaft drive transmission, previously restricted to ‘boring’ tourers like BMWs and Moto Guzzis, the inherently conservative two-wheeled community immediately categorised the Gold Wing as a two-wheeled car. It was the ultimate insult.

Honda carried on anyway. The name of the bike was a big clue as to its intended purpose: effortless and sophisticated long-distance travel on big, straight roads. What Honda had built, three decades on from the demise of Brough and two on from the death of Vincent, was arguably the first ‘premium’ motorcycle of modern times. It was fast, comfortable and, perhaps most importantly for those who were literally disinclined to grind the footrests everywhere, it legitimised the art of mainly vertical riding.

In its first road test, the American bike mag Cycle World described it as ‘the gentleman’s choice’. If you understood what it was about, as 13,000 US riders did in 1975 and hundreds of thousands of worldwide riders have done in the 43 years since, the decision to buy a Wing was never that hard.

The current owner of this GL1000 Wing, Patrick Bullimore, was an early Wing adopter. He bought a new GL1000 in 1976, the second year of manufacture, only to sell it two years later to buy a Honda CBX1000 (which he still owns). In 1990, Patrick saw the ’76 bike you’re looking at here. “It was a non-runner but it had only done 500 miles and was in totally original condition,” he recalls. “Even the lacquer on the engine cases was perfect.”

He bought it. 20 years later, he took the engine out of the frame and gave it a thorough clean. The carbs were treated to a sonic bath and all the jets were cleaned. “Many fasteners were zinc plated and a few brackets painted,” he says. “All the pipework for the water cooling system was corroded, so it was dismantled and repainted in the original silver colour.” It became a multiple gold concours winning bike. “Luckily I didn’t need too many parts. They’re very hard to find now.” That explains the only obvious deviation from stock, the blue tacho face, the original green one having been broken.

Today, Patrick’s bike is worth maybe £15,000, but it’s a notional value as he has no plans to sell. That’s understandable, because quite apart from any considerations of financial value, and despite all the development over the last forty-odd years that has seen the Wing grow into an 1800 flat-six (still single-cam, mind), the original GL1000 remains remarkably well fitted to its design task of whisking two people from one end of a continent to another with minimal fuss. “I have very happy memories of riding it down to Spain with my wife and then catching the ferry over to Minorca,” says Patrick. “It was so comfortable on the motorways, and there was no chain to worry about.”

I’ve ridden every Gold Wing iteration: the 1000, 1100 and 1200 fours and then the 1500 and 1800 sixes. In 1985 I borrowed a GL1200 Aspencade from Honda US in Los Angeles. By that time, Honda was ten years into the Wing phenomenon. They knew the US touring market inside out, and the 1200 Aspencade was the rolling focus point of that knowledge. To say that ‘my’ bike was fully equipped was an understatement. As standard, it had a full music system, cruise control and adjustable air suspension via an onboard compressor. That’s just the gear I remember. There was a ton of stuff you could get for your Wing, either from the dealer or from the huge accessory aftermarket that sprang up to supply everything from sparkly lighting kits to matching trailers. Owners were only to willing to hang bits onto their bikes to enhance their touring abilities, or sometimes just to individualise them.

By starting off with a naked bike, Honda had left the door wide open for that aftermarket. It would never have happened if the Gold Wing had been launched in 2018, and in fact it wasn’t meant to happen in 1974: US fibreglass guru Craig Vetter had built some small fairings for the first Wings, but the moulds were accidentally broken. As it was, fully kitted out factory Wings didn’t join the range until the 1100 Interstate appeared in 1980.

Back to 1985 and that Aspencade 1200. I took it south to Ensenada in Mexico and then north to Kamloops in Canada, not on the usual route up the Californian coast but north-east inland via Four Corners in New Mexico. The Mexico-Canada trip of around 2300 miles was despatched over a long weekend. I will admit to being glad to get off the Aspencade by the time I got to British Columbia – even the king and queen back-support seat that came with it wasn’t that comfy for really long distances – but I will also add that, after a few evening beers and a night’s rest, I had no qualms about getting back on it the next day for the coastal cruise south to LA.

By 1985, the flat four motor was coming to the end of its life. The market’s thirst for more power to keep increasingly heavy ‘full dress’ Wings moving at a respectable rate was adding the unwelcome side effect of driveline harshness in the 1200, which for this reason turned out to be the last four-pot Wing. It’s all relative though: even the ‘rough’ late-model fours are turbine-like compared to the average transverse four. My experience on Patrick’s bike suggests that the early 1000s were the sweetest four-cylinder Gold Wings of all – and I could easily be persuaded to leave ‘four-cylinder’ out of that sentence.

“It’s become a classic and I still enjoy taking it out,” says Patrick. “It always draws a crowd. It really is a magic carpet ride.” To my surprise, I find myself nodding in agreement. Why the surprise? Well, as a footling youth in bike journalism back in those days I too fell into the general anti-Wing sneering. Coming back to the first GL1000 now, seeing and enjoying it in all its accoutrement-free stripped-back glory, I’m beginning to think that this might be the ultimate Gold Wing. The sixes are whizzy-smooth, but cranking the throttle on the 1000 is like pouring molasses out of a stone jar. In period, the non-cammy (and yes, car-like) engine characteristics plus the extreme weight never endeared it to regular bikers, but in today’s supersized world, this once outrageously massive feeling machine feels normal and perfectly at home on British roads.

The limitations of shaft drive, rudimentary rear shocks (replaced by air suspension on later models), non-taper roller head bearings on pre-’78 bikes and of course the 1970s spindly-tube chassis mean that you don’t want to mess about with throttle settings in the middle of a corner. That will confuse it and get it heaving biliously on its springs. Do it once and you learn not to do it again.

What’s really extraordinary about the GL1000, even by 2018 standards, is the refinement. Sadly, this wasn’t recognised as a desirable feature for a touring motorcycle back in the late 1970s. Unforgivably, refinement was conflated into a perceived lack of character and was used as one of the sticks to beat the bike with. I feel quite guilty about that.


Engine: 999cc SOHC 8-valve horizontally opposed four
Induction: 4 x 32mm Keihin carbs
Power(hp): 78@7000rpm
Torque(lb ft): 62@5500rpm
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft drive
Weight: 273kg
Top speed: 115mph
Frame: Steel duplex cradle
Seat height: 32in
Wheels: 19in front, 17in rear
Braking: (front) mm twin discs; 200mm drum rear

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