The New Gold Standard - Part 1

Redefining an American icon

Three factors have shaped long distance motorcycle travel in America: first, the sheer size of the country itself; second, the undaunted spirit of the American rider; and third, the indomitable character of one motorcycle-the Honda Gold Wing.

For one motorcycle to maintain such a pervasive influence is unprecedented. How has it been possible? The forward thinking that created the original GL1000 Gold Wing in 1975 has also held a finger to the pulse of America's long-distance motorcycle travelers. From the creation of the first GL1000 to the latest alloy-frame 1800cc Gold Wing, the inspiration for market leadership always begins with a process of looking and listening.

"We began noticing a significant number of younger couples-people in their late '20s to mid '30s-who really liked the level of amenities a Gold Wing provides, but wanted a motorcycle that embodied a younger, more performance-oriented image," says Gary Christopher, Honda's senior manager, motorcycle press and motorsports. "At that point, we decided to see where that image would take us."

Further research brought that initial picture into clearer focus, revealing a motorcycle with traditional Gold Wing virtues such as luxury, reliability and transcontinental comfort, but with a much more powerful, athletic persona.

"That athleticism projects an image any rider can identify with," says Christopher, "creating what Honda feels is the next logical expression of the Gold Wing ideal." The biggest change in that ideal reflects a clear trend in today's upscale luxury car market. As Christopher puts it, "You don't have to choose between luxury and high performance anymore." A little history proves this was not always the case.

FORGING A LONG-DISTANCE FOLLOWING

At a time when few motorcycles left the factory with the reliability or the legs to cross America in comfort, the original Gold Wing delivered both, and then some. Introduced at Germany's Cologne show in October of 1974, the GL1000 also displayed a ravenous appetite for short distances. Cycle magazine's test bike covered the standing quarter-mile in 13.0 seconds at 102.38 mph: numbers that placed the GL near the top of an emerging class of superbikes. Though it debuted a host of Honda performance firsts such as liquid-cooling and shaft drive, the quickest unacknowledged superbike of the mid-'70s is best remembered as the first truly dependable long-distance runner worthy of the American road.

Having defined the luxury touring category with a progression of more capable, more luxurious Gold Wings, from the 1980 GL1100 Interstate-the first factory-equipped, full-dress Japanese touring bike-to the fuel-injected 1985 GL1200 Limited Edition and the landmark six-cylinder GL1500 in 1988, it was becoming clear Honda had taken the luxury approach as far as it could.

"The traditional Gold Wing customers we've talked with have been amazingly happy with the motorcycle," says Honda's Christopher. "The changes they'd like to see us make have been surpassingly simple. Things like a lower seat height, less weight, new colors or adding a CD player. Therefore, it is clear that the customer looks to Honda to decide what the next Gold Wing should be. To us, that means achieving a level of comfort that has always been synonymous with the model, plus adding a much broader performance envelope and styling to match."

That task was as clearly defined as it was daunting. How do you create a luxurious Gold Wing that's capable of defining high-performance motorcycle travel for the next decade or so? Thankfully, Honda had just the person to meet the challenge.

THE MAN BEHIND THE MAGIC

The story began in 1993, when the brain trust at Honda's Asaka, Japan, Research & Development facility began work on a totally new Gold Wing. At the same time, a decision was made to put a younger engineer in charge of the project. As it turns out, finding the perfect man for the job was the easy part.

Masanori Aoki is the Large Project Leader on the Gold Wing. That means he is The Man when it comes to anything related to Honda's new flagship, though his perpetual grin and infectious laughter belie such momentous responsibility. At 33 years of age, Aoki became the LPL for the NSR250R-an unusually young age for a Honda LPL. By the time Aoki was selected to head development of the Gold Wing, his LPL's resume featured a number of high-performance motorcycles including the CBR250RR, CBR400RR, and the CBR600F3. Masa-san, now 46, is a sportbike guy, which is exactly why he was chosen to lead the Gold Wing project.

"We set out to keep 80 percent of the Gold Wing's touring capability," Aoki says. "That's a vital foundation. My job is to add more fun factor to the machine, to build a Gold Wing with the kind of acceleration and handling people normally associate with sporting machines. Even the sound is important. It's another reason you ride a motorcycle instead of driving a car."

RESEARCH IN AMERICA: THE HONDA WAY

Every Honda is born of bright ideas from engineers immersed in the machine's environment. Aoki began by surrounding himself in American culture. "First I had to learn English," he says. "I lived in the U.S. from 1993 to 1996. During that time, I had to learn how people were enjoying the Gold Wing. I went to many rallies-Wing Ding, Honda Homecoming, the Honda Hoot, Americade and Sturgis. Basically, I went everywhere," Aoki says.

Aoki learned what was important to the long-distance motorcycle traveler by traveling long distances on a motorcycle, including a 2220-mile trip from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seattle, Washington. "It's a long way between gas stations out there," he says. "Our original target for the new Gold Wing was 234 miles on one tankful, but we ultimately got more than that." In addition, since the Gold Wing had been such a uniquely American product from its birth, it was logical to involve American Honda with the project early on-earlier, in fact, than on any Honda motorcycle in history.

Beginning in 1994, Honda's focus groups (a broad cross-section of riders, journalists and businessmen familiar with long-distance motorcycle travel) confirmed Honda's direction: customers wanted a Gold Wing with more performance and agility. Interviews conducted over the spring and summer of 1995 at significant American motorcycle rallies further sharpened the concept. Beginning in late 1995 and continuing into early 1996, Honda mailed 23,000 surveys to owners of Gold Wings and other models to better quantify and qualify the direction of the new Gold Wing's development. Aoki and his staff were ready to turn all that data into a motorcycle.

FROM CONCEPT TO CREATION

"I returned to Japan on February 1, 1996, and we went to work on the new Gold Wing on February 3," says Aoki. In the first of four engineering summit meetings held in February of 1997, Aoki and his team settled on fundamental dimensions-wheelbase, riding position, etc.-that would give shape to their ideas. Before the Gold Wing project was completed, Honda would patent no less than 20 new technologies incorporated into this remarkable machine.

ENGINE DEVELOPMENT

Certain design elements were clear from the beginning. Since the Gold Wing had become synonymous with the horizontally opposed or flat-cylinder arrangement, basic engine architecture was a given. "We considered the flat-four, the flat-six and the flat-eight," says Aoki, "and almost 100 percent of the people we asked preferred the flat-six." The new athletic persona called for a bigger engine, but how much bigger? Only the highway could tell for sure.

Using a heavily modified GL1500, powered by a 1657cc version of the existing flat-six, road testing began in 1997. "We needed to find out what displacement would best meet emissions standards and deliver the right fuel consumption, as well as optimum horsepower, torque and weight balance for the bike," says Aoki.

Aoki's team tested the flat-six in displacements ranging up to 2000cc. A displacement of 1800cc seemed appropriate after weighing numerous variables, but Aoki's team was still not sure. As has been the case with the GL from the beginning, owners once again played a major role in the final direction.

"Ultimately," Aoki says, "it was still very difficult to decide on the optimal engine displacement, so we asked American riders what size they preferred. Ninety percent of them liked the 1800."

In April 1999, an 1832cc design was evaluated. "We tested it on California's I-15 on the way to Las Vegas with two people on a fully loaded machine. The goal was to have enough horsepower to accelerate up the Victorville Grade."

With the final displacement established at 1832cc, there were more challenging questions to address.

A BIGGER, STRONGER, CLEANER ENGINE

A bigger, stronger, leaner Gold Wing engine that was also lighter and cleaner in terms of emissions presented a forest of thorny engineering problems. Additionally, the original design brief called for a lighter motorcycle with more rider and passenger room. This had to be done while maintaining the GL1500's wheelbase, which meant the new 1832cc six would have to be more compact. The key to creating roomer accommodations for the rider was more room at the rear of each cylinder head.

To achieve this without scrapping the engine's proven foundation, Honda engineers devised a new parallel valve arrangement. Arraying intake and exhaust valves parallel to each other allowed engineers to slice off the bottom-rear corner of each cylinder head, creating more room for the rider's feet. The two-valve cylinder head design utilizes direct shim-under-bucket valve actuation and requires no 600-mile service. Indeed, the first valve inspection is at 32,000 miles. Side-mounted radiators similar to those on the VFR™800FI Interceptor®, VTR1000F Super Hawk®, and RVT1000R RC51™ also help keep the new GL's engine area short, while routing hot air away from the rider.

Combined with a more compact chain-drive system to spin the cams rather than the previous belt-drive unit, the more compact engine sits about a half-inch farther forward in the frame for improved handling. And with the benefit of the parallel valve design, the rider sits 2 inches farther forward in the cockpit compared to the previous GL1500. The resulting ergonomics are nearly ideal, shortening the handlebars for a more direct steering feel and opening up more area in back for even greater passenger room.

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