Honda Gold Wing: Five generations of hits and misses

In case you missed it, Honda is expected to announce a new Gold Wing model at the end of the month. We’ve seen what are allegedly spy shots of the machine, but that’s about it. The rumours could be nothing more than idle gossip, but considering the current 1800 model has been around since 2001, it’s probably time to expect some updates.

So here’s a look at the Gold Wing over the years. Some were better definitely better than others.

Honda GL1000 (1975)

The GL1000 debuted at the 1974 Intermot show, and quickly established itself in a market space that had long been neglected: the luxury touring bike. It was almost an accident, since it came naked from the factory, as much of a muscle bike as a tourer.

Apparently, the “most sophisticated bike in the world” doesn’t get you high-tech wizardry like drilled brake rotors.

There were already a few touring-focused models on the market, mostly from European manufacturers or Harley-Davidson, but none of these bikes were as advanced as the GL1000. The GL1000 combined a technological edge with real-world usability: there was a big gas tank (under the seat!), a reliable liquid-cooled flat-four engine, a shaft drive — all features that were benefits when touring, but not necessarily desirable on your standard street bike. The Gold Wing was a responsible rider’s machine, not made for hoonery.

The GL1000 did have a few drawbacks, most notably its weight, at 265 kg dry (and that’s before adding bags and a fairing). For comparison, the CB750 weighed 218 kg dry in that time period, and even that is a heavy bike by today’s standards.

And, as mentioned above, no version (there were a few sub-models) came fully-equipped for touring;  all came from factory without the classic windscreen that’s associated with the model today. Many surviving GL1000s sport aftermarket Windjammer fairings and luggage, but those were added later. Some bikes were available with factory bags, but that was it at the time.

But riders at the time loved the engine’s smooth power, and its ability to eat distance. Honda quickly knew the bike was a winner, and the Gold Wing has been a fixture in Big Red’s lineup ever since.

Buying a used GL1000

There are hundreds of GL1000s available even today on the Canadian used market. The bike’s high-quality construction and clever engineering means many are still on the road, and often in relatively stock form; the bike’s bulk means the GL1000 was an uncommon choice for choppers, cafe racers and other customs (although you do see them). The machine was reliable enough that one man in the US managed to hit the million-mile mark on his GL1000 this summer.

Along with the usual bearings, tires, fork seals and other wear items you want to check out on a used bike, the GL1000’s flat-four engine means there are some things you want to keep an eye out for that are unique to this bike. You definitely want to make sure the timing belts are up to snuff, and you want to make sure the charging system works properly, as it’s tricky to replace — you have to remove the engine to get at it.

The carburetors also can be tricky to maintain, so make sure your bike comes with properly balanced carbs. More info on that, and other GL1000-specific purchasing tips, at Steve Saunders’s Gold Wing page.

The Interstate version of the GL1100 offered everything American buyers wanted: accessories, more accessories and also, accessories. And the Gold Wing had just started its growth spurt. More impressive weight gain was still to come.

Honda GL1100 (1980)

The GL1100 was a big step forward for Honda. It was the first fully-dressed Japanese touring bike, available from the factory with full windscreen and bag setup in the Interstate and Aspencade models. A naked version was still available, but Honda had nailed down its target market and was ready to capitalize.

It was a good time to be building powerful touring machines; the other Japanese OEMs hadn’t really built comparable bikes, the Euros were falling behind with dated designs, and Harley-Davidson was in deep trouble, thanks to mismanagement by AMF.

The GL1100 came in this tastefully stripped-down version as well. Easier to work on, as long as you’re okay with nudity. The naked Gold Wing was soon to be discontinued, though.

Honda capitalized on the MoCo’s troubles by actually building many Gold Wings in Ohio, saying the bike was “made in America,” which certainly wouldn’t have hurt business in the States and in Canada. As the 1980s got underway, the Gold Wing was the bike to buy for long-distance riding.

The 1980s was a decade of excess and this was certainly true of the Gold Wing. While the GL1000 was a fairly spartan machine in stock form, despite its technological advancements for the time, the GL1100 was available with any geegaw that Honda figured would sell, especially on the Aspencade model.

Stereos, CB radios, onboard air compressors to adjust suspension, linked brakes, lots of luggage space — the Gold Wing we recognize today had arrived.

All the bells and whistles came at a price. The original GL1000 is generally considered the best-handling of the four-cylinder Gold Wings, but its weight stops it from being a real corner carver. The GL1100 added even more weight, especially when the owners paid for all the options. An Aspencade could weigh as much as 321 kg, and that’s without luggage or passengers on board.

Buying a used GL1100

Japanese machines from the 1970s and 1980s have a reputation for dodgy charging systems, and the GL1100 has a worse reputation than most. Check online for information on which symptoms to check before buying one of these bikes, as some of the charging system’s bits are very labour-intensive to replace.

The engines themselves are capable of doing a lot of miles, so don’t be scared off by a high odometer reading.

These bikes were available with many more factory options than the GL1000, and some of those add-ons might have deteriorated significantly at this point; the plastics could be faded or cracked, and the onboard electronics might have shorted out or otherwise met their end. Check all this stuff, and remember that this machine is more complex than your standard UJM, and repairs are going to be a little trickier.

Aside from that, the GL1100s are all old bikes now, and unless the owner has kept up with maintenance, you can quickly spend a small fortune on brake parts, bearings, tires and the like. It’s the same as any other old machine: check on the wear parts, and adjust the price accordingly.

Find more specific problems to check for at Steve Saunders’s Gold Wing page.

For the motorcyclist who wants to sit on the couch, but also wants to tour across North America: the GL1200 Aspencade. This is the version without the home theatre.

Honda GL1200 (1984)

Honda finally had significant competition from Yamaha, with the Venture Royale touring bike. Previously, the Japanese competition had simply stuck Windjammer-style fairings and bags on their inline-four models and called it good enough. This new Yamaha was built around the V-Max’s exciting new V4 motor, and Honda knew it was time to step up the game.

Wot, no naked version? The Interstate version was the economy model of the GL1200 for most of its run, for buyers who were fine with futon-level comfort, instead of the full-blown living room set.

So, Big Red big-bored the Gold Wing to 1200, bringing its final version of the flat-four to market in 1984. Aside from that, not much was new; the naked GL1200 only lasted one year of production, and unfaired Gold Wings dropped from the lineup for several years after that. Honda knew customers wanted touring bikes, and the GL1200 was designed from the ground up towards that end, which meant for a more visually cohesive design.

Other than that, the GL1200 was just about adding a little more of everything: A little more luggage capacity, a little more power, a little more weight. The competition was finally catching up, and Honda was about to make a bold step forward.

Buying a used GL1200

The GL1200 is supposedly the worst of the flat-four Wings for charging system woes, and it doesn’t help that there are even more plastics to peel off if you want to service the bike. But if you’ve got a bike with a decent charging setup, you’ll be happy to know the rest of the bike has an excellent reputation for reliability. The GL1200 still uses a complex four-carb setup, which can be tricky to work on. The fuel-injected GL1200L version can be ace if it’s in good running nick, but you don’t want to have to service the EFI of one of these rare beasts if you can help it. Find more details at Steve Saunders’s Gold Wing page.

Hardly a sleek performance machine, but the GL1500 had improved handling to go with the added horsepower. Carl Fogarty was rumoured to be so impressed that he wanted to run this version around the Mountain Course instead of his RC30.

Honda GL1500 (1988)

The touring scene was really heating up at this point. Harley-Davidson was seeing new life, BMW’s K series bikes were establishing their reputation as solid runners, and all the Big Four had powerful four-cylinder mile-munching machines. So, Honda one-upped (or should that be two-upped?) the competition by introducing the GL1500, complete with a flat-six motor.

The Gold Wing was finally starting to take the form we recognize today. The engine was still carbureted (but with only two carbs, not one per cylinder as before), but styling was now 100% fully-faired touring bike. No naked version was available until the Valkyrie debuted in 1997, with a slightly modified powerplant and cruiser styling.

Naked Wings were a thing again, with the Vaylkyrie (aka the F6C) entering the lineup. There were some changes when compared to the regular Gold Wing (more carbs, less bodywork).

Along with the six-cylinder engine and updated styling, the GL1500 also included another innovative feature: a reverse gear was fitted to many models. By now, the bike had a 360-kg dry weight, and customers needed help muscling the behemoth around in parking lots. Despite that bulk, Big Red’s engineers had spent time figuring out how to make the bike handle better, and the machine started to shed some of its image as a slow-handling motorcycle, with a much better reputation than the outgoing GL1200 model.

The result was a powerful bike that cornered well, and at this point, the rest of the Big Four basically stopped competing with Honda in the luxury touring segment. BMW’s K series eventually caught up with the GL1500, but the other Japanese manufacturers ditched their four-cylinder touring rigs, and stuck with outfitting cruisers with windshields and bags, which was what Harley-Davidson had been doing all along.

Buying a used GL1500

It should be much easier to find a GL1500 in good shape than the four-cylinder models, as the 1500 was discontinued in 2000. By now, Honda had figured out how to build a more durable charging system, and the starters (another bugbear of some earlier models) were more reliable. Plastics and luggage were made with modern manufacturing techniques, meaning they’re longer-lasting than the sometimes-brittle bodywork found on the original GL models. There were some issues with various model years in the GL1500 run, and some production runs are more desirable than others. Find out more at Steve Saunders’s Gold Wing page.

The GL1800 finally saw the inclusion of ABS brakes and fuel injection, options that Honda designers forgot beforehand because they were too busy determining the optimal number of seat cushions, and wondering how many coffee cup holders to include.

Honda GL1800 (2001)

Just after the turn of the millennium, Honda introduced the next evolution of the flat-six Gold Wing. There were two versions of this platform; the GL1800 got a significant overhaul around 2012. And not only was there a Valkyrie version of both the earlier and later GL1800, there was also a bagger version (the F6B).

The F6B was a new idea, a slimmed-down baggeresque GL1800. As you can see, it wasn’t slimmed down too much.

Again, the rest of the Big Four were reluctant to challenge the GL1800; its toughest competition were luxury cruisers from the US and sport tourers from Europe. The adventure bike boom certainly cut into the Gold Wing’s sales, but the GL1800 was still the machine to buy if you wanted to cross the continent.

This new version of the Wing finally had EFI, ABS, and even optional in-dash GPS and for 2006, an airbag. It was lighter than the 1500, thanks to a re-designed frame, but that frame was a problem, requiring recalls due to issues with cracking. Eventually, Honda pulled Gold Wing production out of the Ohio plant, and some said it was over ongoing frame issues. Maybe so, maybe not, but the GL1800 is now made in Japan, and despite the earlier recalls, is still the king of the luxury touring rigs.

Buying a used GL1800

First off, check to see if the bike was under a recall, and if so, was it performed? There were other bugbears beside the frame that were also addressed by official factory recalls.

Aside from those issues, most used GL1800s should be in good shape if the owner took care of ongoing maintenance. On a bike this complex, there are lots of niggly little things that can go wrong, but going over with a careful eye and paying attention to performance during a test ride should help you make a good choice. Or maybe you just want to wait until the new model comes out (maybe)? Find Steve Saunders’ tips for buying a used GL1800 here.

9 thoughts on “Honda Gold Wing: Five generations of hits and misses”

  1. None of the Japanese tour bikes came with fairings. The xs750 triple with shaft drive and the 1300 kawi six were sold bare.The K version of the 750/4 did not have a screen or bags.

  2. And with the early carbureted versions, if the bike has been sitting with fuel in the carbs, get ready to mortgage the kids. At our shop several years ago, Norm rebuilt the carbs on a GL1000or 1100 and the carb kits alone were $200 each from Honda – four required per bike. Labour extra. I don’t even know if the carb kits are still available.

  3. The 1000/1100/1200s are suffering major driveline problems as they age. The driveshaft universals, final drive gear and rear wheel couplers are wearing out and no parts are available from Honda. This can also cause the rear wheel bearings to fail, tearing out the centre of the wheel. If you’re thinking of buying one, pop it up on the main stand, put it in gear and give everything a good shake. If there’s any excessive movement or noise, take a big pass. What was acceptable in the original naked bike was woefully under engineered as they got heavier and heavier.

    1. Good point. Ever since Big Red discontinued 100% parts coverage for these older models, they’ve become somewhat less attractive compared to, say, a BMW of similar vintage. At least from that perspective.

      1. Zac- a lot of parts for older Hondas are still available, but the dealer has to make a special inquiry through Honda Canada and the pricing can be hideous ($25 each for CB350 points ?).
        And the used parts supply is drying up because of it.
        Last time I looked, not a lot of the OEMs were any better, and if you’ve priced, say BMW or HD parts for older machines be prepared to sell a kidney.

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