We know: The Honda Gold Wing F6B and Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom are not true competitors. Few riders lie awake at night trying to decide whether to buy a Harley or a Honda. Or if they do, they don’t admit it to their Harley-riding friends. Each has its audience, and the overlap between those two populations is vanishingly small.
Still, these bikes share the custom-bagger styling theme, and their curb weights, engine displacements, and price tags are nearly identical. So we felt we could ride them back to back and have an enlightening compare-and-contrast conversation. Or, in the words of Digital Editor Thomas Kinzer, we could “ride them around until someone has an epiphany.”
We did, and the insight gained was simple: Motorcycles are personal and individual. We choose them for our own good reasons, or for no reason we can fully articulate. They do not need to fit neatly into categories or market segments. And brand character counts. In fact, sometimes it’s everything.
Our broad conclusions will surprise no one: Honda’s Gold Wing-derived F6B is the better, nicer, more effective machine by most modern-motorcycle standards. Yet the Road Glide Custom is vastly superior at one thing: being a Harley-Davidson. It is, in fact, satisfyingly smooth and civilized by the historic standards of that unique marque—don’t be fooled by appearances, Harley has done quite a bit of work “under the skin.”
Yes, there’s a double standard at work here, but consider the different evolutionary paths these machines have followed.
Obviously, the talented engineers at The Motor Company could make anything they want. Or anything their customers want. A more modern, technically sophisticated motorcycle that is faster, smoother, lighter, and better handling could be built at any time. But the custodians of the hallowed Harley-Davidson image know a Harley has to look right. And feel right. And sound right.
So, whatever product planners and designers might have wanted to do with the Road Glide’s custom bagger look, they had very narrowly prescribed limits to stay within.
Simple, handy luggage literally makes the bagger. Harley’s is good (loading from the top)
A stereo borrowed from your buddy’s Trans Am takes center stage.
Passengers won’t love the stock saddle, but the rider won’t mind.
Honda’s situation was very different, but the effect was similarly confining. The notion to spin off an alternative style from the Gold Wing platform would have remained merely a notion if it couldn’t be done efficiently. That is, the existing engineering had to carry over and the change had to be accomplished with an inexpensive rework of a few cosmetic pieces. The cleverness went into getting a dramatic image overhaul with a minimum of new bits.
The long, low, sinister look of the F6B is profoundly different from a full-dress Gold Wing’s appearance, yet it entails only a cut-down windshield, slightly different fairing side panels, new seat and rear deck between the stylized bags, and a lot of flat-black finish. A personality makeover on the cheap.
So both Honda and Harley-Davidson got their custom baggers while staying true to their brand values and traditions. Riding the Road Glide Custom and the Gold Wing F6B together, the conversation becomes all about the people attracted to each brand, and what they expect from their motorcycles.
Just turning on the ignition and starting the engines, these two bikes already diverge. The Honda takes an entirely conventional one-click turn of its top-center-mount key, and a push of the starter button to stir the 1832cc flat-six to life. It isn’t a silent idle, with some primary-gear whine and muted exhaust growl, but it’s smooth and refined.
The Road Glide ignition “switch” is a giant chrome block atop the steering head that you rotate from Off to On. This heavy piece has that Real Steel feel even though its practicality is debatable. Push the Harley’s starter button and there’s loud, mechanical drama down below as starter-motor gears jam into place and get those giant pistons pumping. The 103 cubic-inch engine fires quickly, and dances crazily in its soft mounts at idle.
Already worlds apart and we haven’t even put them in gear.