Honda GL1800 Gold Wing
Recasting an American icon in a sportier direction
The new Wing began as a concept pencil sketch. After hundreds of more detailed design sketches, Aoki’s team settled on this mechanical design
The new Wing began as a concept pencil sketch. After hundreds of more detailed design sket
It’s 1993. You’re in a room full of Honda heavyweights, deciding who gets to head the new-generation Gold Wing project. Let’s see. the single most profitable model in the Honda lineup, a half-million copies in circulation since its 1975 unveiling, the two-wheeled Honda flagship. No pressure there. So who gets the job?
Masanori Aoki, large-project leader for the NSR250R at just 33 years old Honda’s youngest LPL ever. Check his resume. The CBR250RR was his, plus the CBR400RR and the CBR600F3. It’s perfect.
He’s a sportbike guy.
A sportbike guy? What sort of corporate nonsequitur is that? Maybe the same kind that took Honda Motor Company from a one-man show to a household word in any language you can name. It all makes sense, really.
The Gold Wing, as it transitioned through 1000, 1100, 1200 and, finally, 1500cc iterations, had become bigger, heavier and a lot more ponderous–and a lot less fun for anyone with a trace of sportybike DNA. Gold Wings were for the chronologically challenged, and since Honda’s new flagship couldn’t become the harbinger of Sansabelt slacks yet to come, 1990s-style luxury was out. Performance was in, and Aoki-San would be the man to redefine it–just as soon as he figured this whole touring thing out.
First I had to learn English, Aoki says. I lived in the United States 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’s Homecoming and Hoot, Americade, and Sturgis.
Basically, I went everywhere. Aoki’s everywhere included ZIP codes lucid tourists fear to tread, like the 2200 miles between Anchorage, Alaska and Seattle, Washington, where he learned many things. 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 focus-group research beginning in 1994, Honda heard America’s long-distance motorcyclists order the same thing in different ways: more performance. Just as American luxury cars had morphed from 1980s land yachts to 2000 cruise missiles such as Cadillac’s 141-mph Seville STS, Aoki-San knew his new GL had to be lively, yet maintain the tradition of first-class comfort.
We set out to keep 80 percent of the [current] Gold Wing’s touring capability, Aoki says. That’s a vital foundation. My job is to add more fun factor, to build a Gold Wing with the kind of acceleration and handling people normally associate with motorcycles.
Even the sound is important, he says. It’s another reason you ride a motorcycle instead of driving a car. The GL1500 engine has an electric motor feel to it. Good power and torque, very linear, but it signs off too early in the rev range.
I wanted more character, more excitement. He wasn’t waiting around to get it, either.
Creating one-eighth-scale clay models before a final life-size version added a radical step to the design process. This design didn’t make the final cut.
Creating one-eighth-scale clay models before a final life-size version added a radical ste
Returning to Japan on February 1, 1996, Aoki and one of the largest development teams in Honda history went to work on what would be the 2001 Gold Wing. In February of 1997, the first of four top-level engineering forums decided basic chassis and ergonomic dimensions. As it turns out, fundamental engine configuration was determined in 1975.
The Gold Wing is the flat cylinder design, Aoki insists. After testing the signature, horizontally opposed layout in four-, six- and eight-cylinder denominations, the six won going away. Juggling incompatible dynamics such as exhaust emissions, noise, weight, fuel mileage, horsepower, torque and driveability made finding the magic engine size difficult.
Testing on American roads, Aoki’s team started with a 1657cc mutation of the existing 1520cc six. After dissecting everything from the current 1500 to a two-liter beast, input from American riders on American roads finally set the 2001 six’s displacement at 1832cc. And because the new engine would be a stressed chassis member (no rubber mounts to squelch vibration), attaining Gold Wing smoothness meant moving beyond the flat six’s theoretically perfect primary and secondary balance factors.
For starters, that meant scrutinizing the balance factor of any engine bit that spins to cut high-load harmonic tremors.
Given the new bike’s more sporting mission and Honda’s familiarity with nonferrous skeletal systems, even greeters at Wal-Mart predicted an aluminum-framed Gold Wing months ago. Meanwhile, Aoki and company set chassis numbers such as wheelbase and steering geometry in January of 1998.
Ponder the dynamics involved in sporting around on 792 pounds of motorcycle (plus fuel, two people, personal effects and that full-scale stuffed Alf on the trunk) and the strategic advantages of aluminum make even more sense here than on a CBR600F4. Just ask Aoki-San.
The new Gold Wing’s higher dynamic performance levels demand more of key structures such as the frame and swingarm, he says. Those demands and limited space made the internal frame shapes very complex. That complexity delivered a claimed 119 percent more lateral rigidity and 77 percent more torsional stiffness than the GL1500’s steel-pipe chassis, and weighs 25 pounds less.
Credit the single-sided Pro-Arm swingarm for much of that, and for making rear tire changes radically easier when the time comes. What’s more, because each part of the aluminum frame can handle several roles, there are just 31 components in the dual-spar GL1800 frame–compared with 130 pieces of steel in a GL1500 skeleton.
From an antidive system that works in concert with Honda’s Linked Braking System (and available antilock brakes) to an electrically adjustable shock-spring preload system and a new drive shaft damper, there are 36 newly patented technologies inside this thing.
Although every contour of the new design was calculated to communicate the strength beneath, the bike still had to look like a Gold Wing. According to American Honda’s Gary Christopher, focus-group feedback helped outline a bike with less bodywork to play up the new hardware. People wanted a more athletic Gold Wing, wanted it to look the part.
If the bike was lighter, says Christopher, it should look lighter. Honda designers on both sides of the Pacific generated more than 100 prospective design sketches, and in October of 1997 they had a winner. Adding an unprecedented extra step to the design process, both Honda Research America and Honda RD Japan rendered a 1/8-scale clay model from that final sketch.
In February of 1998, an internal design challenge commissioned one life-size mockup incorporating the best facets of both designs.
Meshing those powerful new ideas with adaptations of established ones, Aoki constantly looked for relationships connecting seemingly independent systems. By moving the rider into the pocket of neutral air behind the fairing, he says, we were able to design a smaller faring with 10 percent less aerodynamic drag. Moving the rider forward also creates an additional two inches of seating room for Gold Wing passengers. Moving the rider forward meant moving the engine ahead too, which helps handling.
Finding room for the rider’s feet and legs meant clipping the bottom-rear corner from each cylinder bank, but doing that required a new parallel valve train that puts 32,000 miles between adjustments. Seven years of orchestrating thousands of potentially discordant details into one harmonious piece may have taken its toll on Aoki-San.
If it did, you won’t see any evidence when he laughs like the kid who just discovered you can launch flaming strawberry Pop-Tarts across the kitchen by pinning them in the toaster (don’t try that at home!), or when he does an a cappella version of The Monkees’, Daydream Believer. After burning seven years of midnight oil on this thing, the bottom line is simple. I just hope people like the bike, he says. –T.C.
A peek beneath the plastic of Honda’s new GL
Despite 20 percent more displacement and 23 percent more horsepower, the GL1800’s six (right) is 2.5 pounds lighter than its ancestors. Putting the water pump aft of the engine cuts warm-up time, and nickel/alloy crank bearings cut noise.
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