To tell the truth, this is the only bike review we’ve ever approached with a sense of trepidation. Not least because the Goldwing legend is as big as the bike itself. Sure, everyone knows it’s huge, but figures only tell part of the story; we could, for instance, tell you about the almost 40 year production history, the 640,000 units made, the whopping 6 cylinder 1832cc engine and an all up weight of about 405 kilos (900lbs). But it’s not facts and figures that are hard to grasp. Hardest of all is doing justice to a phenomenon – a two wheeled paradox that fools the eyes but wins the heart. People who dislike the motorcycling Marmite that is the Goldwing call them ‘two wheeled cars’, and you can see where they’re coming from. Your eyes tell you that nothing as outrageously heavy and bulky as this can possibly ride like a bike…. on TWO wheels…but your eyes would be fooling you; it does just that, and does it implausibly well. Star Trek’s Scotty may have thought you can’t change the laws of Physics, but it seems that Honda have, somehow, proved him wrong.
Make no mistake, the Goldwing is 100% (or perhaps that should be 110%) motorcycle; It’s powerful, fast and you can throw it through the twisties like you’d never believe from looking at it. You get the excitement of any bike; the open air, the fast overtakes, the ride that turns a bendy lane into a theme park; you just don’t have to do without the comforts of modern day life. How this is achieved is a mystery, but there it is – an engineering enigma.
We’re not even going to attempt an overall history of the bike – that would take a book. Instead we’re going to split our humble article into two halves; starting here with the most recent model, the GL 1800 and working backwards in the next piece to the preceding bikes.
That way, we can begin with the bike most people know (and is in the showrooms), review performance, handling and ownership experience, and then look back to see how it came to be that way; the biggest, best loved / loathed but certainly most recognisable bike in the world. This is also the bike that two of us at Bigbikemad have actually owned. We’ve added links to YouTube video behind most of the images – just click to go to video. So, having brewed a large pot of coffee, it’s time to contact the Goldwing clubs and forums, reach for the book of superlatives and begin.
If ever a bike was sui generis – in a class of its own – this is it. A story of the Goldwing’s unique development will feature in the next article, but it’s impossible to begin here without briefly setting the context.
The ancestry of today’s Goldwing begins in 1975 when the first GL1000 – a flat-4 naked – went on sale. This early unfaired ancestor had, by 1988 metamorphosed into the more tourer-orientated flat-6 GL1500 made in USA since 1979.
But it’s arguably today’s GL1800, with its bulbous fairing and armchair pillion seat that most people recognise instantly as the definitive Goldwing.
2001 Goldwing. Back then there was nothing like it. Rather like today then….
The GL1800’s road history begins in 2001, when the 99 bhp GL 1500, a model that had enjoyed a 13 year long production run, was replaced by the new flat-6 1,832 cc (111.8 cu in) engined version. The new engine churned out 123 ft/lbs and 116bhp of creamy power, but surprisingly the machine was lighter than its predecessor, thanks mainly to a new extruded aluminium frame.
These were radical changes, but since then development has been, er, well, glacial; just mainly refining the design…larger radiators and cooling fans, better rubbers between the engine guards and exhaust cowls, ABS, an on-bike airbag and cruise control in 2006, GPS and heated seats among other toys. In 2010 production in the US ended and subsequent models, made, after a brief hiccup (no 2011 bikes were made) in Kumamoto, Japan, from 2012 became known as ‘Second Gen’ bikes.
Engine and Transmission
The GL1800’s engine is an opposed Flat 6 – a design used by both Subaru and Porsche to keep weight and hence centre of gravity low and reduce vibration. It works here too. The mill delivers an unstressed 116bhp at 5500rpm and a stump-pulling 123ftlbs of torque at 4000rpm. Curiously, those figures give the bike about the same power to weight as a Porsche 911…
We ran a 2008 model for a year and on the test track it blasted up to 60 in just over 4 seconds, 100 mph came up in just over 11 and it ran the quarter mile in just under 12 at 111mph. Not bad for a fat old girl. Enough power for most folks anyway, although you can buy an aftermarket turbo which is stonkingly good fun.
Transmission is a standard 5-speed actuated by a hydraulic wet clutch, but the unique USP in the transmission is the electric reverse gear. This actually engages the starter motor to drive the 8 foot long monster backwards at a sedate 0.5 mph. With something this heavy it’s a useful feature.
Frame Suspension and Brakes
The GL 1500 had already reached the limits of traditional steel frames, and when the GL1800 was built in 2001 Honda started from scratch with an all new welded aluminium frame. This not only weighed less than the smaller bikes frame, it was stiffer and had fewer parts. Final weight of the built bike was in the order of 895 lbs – some 25 lbs lighter than the outgoing model despite the increase in engine size.
Front suspension features a 45mm fork with anti-dive and a total of 140mm travel. The rear, a pro-arm single sided swing arm, has electric preload adjustment with a 2 setting memory. You might think that hauling this beast down from speed would require the anchors of the Titanic, but the job is accomplished quite well by dual 296mm discs with 3 piston calipers on the front and a single 316mm disk on the rear. Front and rear braking is linked and, from 2006, bikes came with ABS.
The Gold Wing was aimed squarely at the American long distance rider, requiring high levels of comfort from the long haul including wind protection, a smooth ride, comfort, storage and long-legged power. But, as we’ll see later on, the ‘Wing is much more than just a luxury tourer.
Nevertheless, it does superbly well in the touring role – indeed we think it still has no equal. Gadgets and luxuries abound, from the remote controlled lockable luggage (over 150 litres capacity – some people go further and add a trailer) to the heated grips and seats, cruise control, optional GPS and built-in sound system. The screen cossets the rider in a bubble of still air and the seats are as welcoming as your favourite arm chair. Pampering indeed.
If you think that acres of soft seats implies sofa-like handling abilities you could not be further from the truth. The same goes for weight – just look at it; this is a heavy, cumbersome beast -right? Er, nope. While most people looking at the bike imagine that maneuvering will be like steering a reluctant buffalo by the ears they’d be wrong. Sooo wrong.
Step aboard and you find that the Goldwing is completely counter-intuitive – and it’s by design. The big flat-6 engine keeps centre of gravity very low, and this enables the bike to appear to pivot about the crankshaft – bobbing left or right with all the bounce-back energy of a weeble. Astonishing! Your eyes can’t believe what your sense of balance is telling them.
The low-slung weight, 29 inch seat height and pinched in tank all keep the rider feeling they are in charge – just sitting on it at rest feels rock stable – feet flat on the deck – not intimidating at all. No sense of the weight, just a feeling of really planted serenity. But get it rolling and that’s when things really get more than surprising.
As you move off the sense of being on a large bike simply disappears. Steering is so responsive that slow speed work – which you might dread – is easy-peasy. Within a few minutes of getting on it we were riding round and round in 6 metre circles just for the fun of it. How on earth is this possible?! Folks looked on, waiting for us to drop the bike, but neither of our riders did. If the worst happens though, picking it up is surprisingly easy – as is putting it on the stand. Who says you can’t change the laws of Physics?
What to do if you do drop it
Perhaps a clue as to how Honda have managed to achieve what your eyes tell you is impossible is by having Masanori Aoki, a dyed-in-the-leathers sportsbike lover, who in 1977 was responsible for leading development on the NSR250 Grand Prix machine, as the project team leader. That has to be good insurance against creating a slug of a bike. However they’ve done it though – the design is incredibly clever.
The bike has excellent crash bars built in. Picking it up from a fall is not an impossible task.The bike has excellent crash bars built in. Picking it up from a fall is not an impossible task.
Bore x Stroke: 74.0 x 71.0mm, Compression 9.8:1, SOHC,
2 valves per cylinder ( adj. at 32,000 miles)
Fuel Delivery: Fuel Injection
Transmission: 5-speed & electric reverse, hydraulic wet clutch
Final Drive: Shaft
Electrical Output: 1,300 watts, 12V 20AH battery
Frame: Aluminum-alloy twin-spar. Engine stressed member. Single-sided swingarm. 66.5 in wheelbase, Seat 29.1 in high.
Suspension, 45mm stanchions w/ anti-dive, Pro-Link single rear shock, remotely adj. for spring preload
Brakes: dual discs, front: 3-piston CBS calipers & ABS, rear: Single disc 3-piston CBS caliper & ABS
Tyres: 130/70-HR18 180/60-HR16
Wet Weight: 910 lbs
Fuel Tank: 6.6 gals US, …gals Imperial .
Max range: approx 240 miles
Price New: £24,449 ($23,990 in US)
Performance: 0-60 4.1 seconds, 125mph max.
Fuel Consumption: 35-45 mpg
As the bike gets under way there is a gentle whine from the engine and understated growl from the exhaust. Power is smooth and the delivery linear. The engine runs out of puff at around the 6,000 rpm mark, but you soon learn to short-shift, riding the tidal wave of torque that exists lower down.
Overtakes are easily done with at most one click down in the smooth 5 speed box (four gears plus one labelled ‘OD’ for ‘Overdrive’).There’s plenty of power for relaxed cruising and even some fast blasts up the freeway. Ideally we’d like to see another 30 bhp, and possibly a 6th gear, but that would also require modifications to the somewhat dated suspension and brakes which are nearing their design limits already.
Cornering though is the biggest surprise – sure you can’t leave everything to the last minute, needing to plan your turns more than if you were riding a sports bike, but the Goldwing tips in neatly, with minimal effort, and holds a line perfectly. It can swap from left to right turns with a grace that is astonishing. She may be a big lady but this girl can surely shake her ass.
In fact cornering is so much fun that you find yourself seeking out windy roads and pushing the bike harder and harder. Two-wheeled car – No! this is one of the most fun bikes ever made. If you do push hard though, you’ll get a gentle warning as feet and then metal touch down. But manners are good and the bike lets you know, in a very unfussed way, that you are getting near the limits.
Ride is soft, and on good tarmac gives a feeling of almost floating along. Like the old British Jags of the 1970’s, the weight helps damp out the smaller bumps. On rougher roads though it’s not so good. Ruts and bumps can make the bike wallow and chop. Brakes are also limited in feel and struggle if you really work them hard.
In more relaxed cruising mode, the spacious cockpit is a fine place to spend time. Cosseted by a comfy seat (though riders do still fit aftermarket seats and sheepskin coverings) and cocooned by a big fairing and screen, the miles fall by in a pleasant blur. Wind protection is so good you feel as if you could ride through a rain storm without needing a rain suit. The downside of this is that there is not enough air when things get warm, although louvered vents in the screen do help.
Mirrors are large and give an excellent view, but the dash is starting to look like a 1990’s station wagon and needs an update. Similarly the abundance of large buttons looks a bit ‘play school’ – as one writer has accurately put it. Cubby’s though are welcome and the sat nav useful, though it’s not without the ability to make errors.
Living with it
The Goldwing is an easy going lady – and consequently easy to live with. Reliability is very good, with little typically needing to be done between services, although these do come up often – at just 4,000 miles. But until you reach big miles its most just a matter of oil and filters. Valves are easy to get at for a tune up, but air filter access is a pig. In fact to do anything on the bike involves removal of yards of fairing, and that can be a bit daunting.
Nothing made by man is perfect and there are of course a few owners’ grumbles about the ‘wing. Early models had some overheating issues, and even today the engine can get too hot if towing a trailer at slow speed, or doing a lot of uphill work two-up. Apart from that, steering head bearings can wear rapidly, cast wheels sometimes have finish problems and trunk and side case latches can be tricky. No real nightmares you can’t work round.
Fuel consumption is a bit on the heavy side, at around 35- 40mpg, but then again the engine has a lot to lug around. Tank range is comfortably good for 200 miles. Tyres are a bit of an issue – no-one yet seems to make a tyre that can truly handle the weight and performance to everyone’s satisfaction. Nevertheless tyre life seems reasonable at about 8,000 miles front and 5,000 rear.
Most writers have concentrated on the ‘wing’s touring ability. We think that’s only half the story. This is in fact one of the most practical bikes for modern living in the world. You wouldn’t take your sports bike to the mall, but you could easily take the Goldwing – the trunk and side cases just swallow shopping and it can weave in and out of traffic in a way that just seems impossible. In our view the bike makes a great commuter and general all rounder.
Goldwing owners must surely have access to the largest aftermarket accessory catalogues in the world. Hondaline does its own authorized accessories, but aftermarket suppliers like Kuryaykin list acres of chrome, floor boards, trunk racks and all sorts from exhausts to drinks holders and arm rests.
Fog lights fitted into the blanked off pods that the bike comes with.
Fog lights fitted into the blanked off pods that the bike comes with.Fog lights fitted into the blanked off pods that the bike comes with.
LED fog-lights are popular – fitting into the blanks provided in the standard fairing, as is an electric screen and air wings to direct airflow and build a micro climate for the rider. However, it’s something of a mystery why, at this elevated point in the food chain, these things are not standard already.
Fog lights fitted into the blanked off pods that the bike comes with.
The social scene that goes with Goldwings is legendary and something many owners enjoy. Clubs abound in every country, a few being the GWOC, GWRRA, the GWTA and the Goldwing Misfits.Social events include ‘Wing Dings’ (usually weekend camping events), ‘Treffens’ (major international events) and the well known light parades for charity.
Time for an Update?
Although 9 out of ten cats, er we mean owners, would buy another Goldwing, many agree that updates are now overdue, especially with the arrival on the scene of the BMW K1600GTL. Many favor a complete overhaul while retaining the same essential flat 6 engine and character.
Some would like to see a larger 2 liter engine with a tad more power and better fuel economy. The suspension now seems out of date and is generally agreed to be at the end of its design life. Better electronics and a weight loss program are also favored. All of this would be a nice birthday present to the bike when it reaches 40 years in 2015.
BMW’s dash looks far more up-to-date.BMW’s dash looks far more up-to-date.
A long standing and understandable gripe is why the bike, costing nearly £25,000 in the UK and $24,000 in the US does not have an electric screen when many other models, including Honda’s own Pan European (ST1300) has one as standard. A dated instrument layout, primitive suspension and a lack of traction control get criticized.
A whole load of bike costs a whole load of money. But as well it might with frames being hand welded and engines individually assembled. Knocking on the door of 25 grand in the UK (and $24 grand in the US) for the 2014 model, a new one is out of the reach of many. But low mileage bikes in the 3-6 year age range can be had for half that and less. The older GL 1500 is even cheaper.
For our money, we’d buy from a reputable dealer and get a warranty. Not a lot goes wrong, but if it does, then it could be expensive. Check out the underside for corrosion and inspect the service schedule and any receipts.
Once you’ve ridden one it seems odd that the Goldwing is seen as ‘an old man’s bike’. It handles and goes so well and is such a hoot to own. True, older folks can probably better afford to buy and insure one of these beauties, and there are indeed a fair few silver haired Goldie riders out there.
No doubt ageing bones appreciate a bit of Tender Loving Care – so luxury is may also favour an older demographic. But there could be another reason – perhaps experience lets you know when you are on to a good thing. And just perhaps, older folks are just plain smarter when it comes to picking a winner.