This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Motorcyclist.

We take the Honda Gold Wing for granted, really. To an entire generation of riders, it’s always been there, the gentleman’s touring rig, the butt of jokes made by young riders that involve excessive modifications and vests with destination patches. Was there ever a time without it? Gottlieb Daimler crafted a crude motorcycle from hardwood and pig iron, and, a millisecond later, here comes the Gold Wing, instantly the rig of choice for the hard-core long-distance traveler.

Exaggerations all, of course. But Honda is relishing a few moments in the sun on the 40th anniversary of the GL1000’s launch. It is fair to say that the Gold Wing put Honda on the map for long-distance riders, continuing a reputation for smooth, reliable, and forward-thinking motorcycles that in so many ways began with the smooth, sophisticated CB750.

Honda Gold Wing
Honda celebrated 40 years building the Gold Wing with three seemingly similar models.Justin Kosman

Based on its current reputation for civility and refined (read: modest) performance, it might be hard to imagine that the Gold Wing’s genesis was a wicked six-cylinder, opposed-piston engine called the M1. Sure, it made only 80 hp from nearly 1,500cc, but it was tuned for torque and created more than enough as a proof of concept to be a world-beater on power.

That groundwork led to a truly radical machine introduced for the 1975 model year as the GL1000 Gold Wing. Consider the competition. The Japanese manufacturers were moving rapidly away from simple, light two-strokes to heavier, more powerful four-stroke multis. This is the era of the CB750, Kawasaki’s amazing Z-1, Suzuki’s vaunted GS series, and the beginning of Yamaha’s inevitable shift from two-stroke twins to four-stroke twins and triples. Seismic just about covers it.

Honda Gold Wing
Welcome to Mission Control. The Gold Wing cockpit greets the rider with an almost baffling array of buttons, knobs, and dials. Accommodations for riders and passengers alike are all-day excellent.Justin Kosman

If that’s so, the Gold Wing was a 7-plus on the Richter scale. Liquid-cooling was used rarely, and the opposed engine was largely the province of BMW. To stand back and gaze at the finless GL1000 engine hanging beneath the Gold Wing’s faux fuel tank apparently breathing through four automotive-style carburetors and pushing its future of long-distance capability. Our May 1975 issue contained an eight-page teardown of the GL engine and breathless prose by Bob Greene—who said “Honda’s 1000cc flat four wears a bulletproof kimono”—that at every turn displayed how the GL engine had thrown moto orthodoxy to the wind.

How so? Rubber belts spun single overhead camshafts on each bank; a HyVo chain transferred power to an under-slung, five-speed gearbox; and a complex arrangement of gears and a sub-shaft provided power to the oil and water pumps while simultaneously (and ingeniously) opposing gyroscopic precession. Touring riders probably suspected at the time that the GL would fuel their long-distance dreams, offering an eerily smooth, predictable, almost maintenance-free experience. They were only half right.

Honda Gold Wing Lineage
Honda’s Gold Wing has taken many shapes over the past four decades, from naked musclebike to the current luxury titan.Honda

Of course, Honda continued to develop the Gold Wing after the introduction in 1975, and it proved instantly popular with riders for whom the next state over is just the beginning of the ride. Without a doubt, the big leap came in the form of the Interstate—debuting in 1980 alongside a number of core changes, including an increase to 1,085cc. To that point, riders seeking ultimate comfort turned to Craig Vetter’s Windjammer fairing, a common addition to the Gold Wing. Now Honda nabbed the basic idea and created the first “turn key” tourer in the Interstate. From that point on, the standard, un-faired GL would never sell as well and would reach the end of the line four years later. Sort of.

Through the third generation (the still-carbureted GL1200), the fourth generation (the six-cylinder GL1500), and the fifth-gen (GL1800), the Gold Wing both spawned fierce competition from the fellow Japanese companies and smote them with contemptuous ease. By the time Honda had the Gold Wing in a form that’s very, very close to the current bike—the similarly seismic 2001 update that brought an aluminum frame and a beefy, 1,832cc flat-six to the party—its competitors had largely fallen away, retreating to the “sport touring” realm or hedging bets by trying “touring cruiser” on for size. Today, the only true competition comes from BMW’s K1600GTL and Harley-Davidson’s FL series machines.

Honda Gold Wing F6B
The F6B counters claims that Grandad’s Gold Wing doesn’t have any attitude.Justin Kosman

Our prologue brings us to the present, where Honda is celebrating 40 years building the Gold Wing with three seemingly similar models: Gold Wing (of course), the Gold Wing F6B, and the Gold Wing Valkyrie, introduced last year. (We’re going to omit the Gold Wing prefix for the F6B and the Valky from here on, if you don’t mind.) Under the skin, these are very similar motorcycles, with virtually identical engines and chassis—all stem from the basic two-valve-per-cylinder flat six and massive aluminum-beam frame. Where they are different is where this story (finally!) gets interesting.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Gold Wing wears 40th Anniversary badges and new paint schemes, but it’s mechanically the same bike as the 2012-later versions. And even that update—there was no 2011 model, incidentally—was little more than a reshaping of the saddlebags and a refinement of the fairing shape. The hard parts didn’t change much from the 2001 redesign, and that’s one of the first impressions you get throwing a leg over the Win’s impressively thick, soft saddle. This is an incredibly familiar motorcycle.

Honda Gold Wing F6B
The cut-down windscreen and chopped trunk give the familiar machine a rakish new profile without sacrificing much of the Gold Wing’s fundamental capabilities.Justin Kosman

For most, that’s a good thing. When you order a vanilla shake, you don’t want anything but that; here, Honda delivers. A riding position that moves your tailbone forward to make a generous amount of room for your passenger makes this 900-pound brute feel almost cramped for taller riders. But the cast-aluminum bars end in thick, heated grips right where you expect them, and the wide footpegs are right down the middle—not forward like a touring cruiser and not back like a sport-tourer. Sit at your office chair, reach for the phone with one hand and a cup of coffee with the other, There you go, the Gold Wing fit.

On the flat, featureless interstates that crisscross our country, the Gold Wing is king. Smooth, utterly without a ripple or seam or imperfection in the power delivery or engine character the flat six has the torque you need to move you, your passenger, and your stuff with a casual disregard for physics. Credit more than 108 pound-feet of torque and 100 hp—both delivered more than 1,000 rpm away from the 6,500-rpm redline—for this effortless performance. Handling is good for the size and age of the Gold Wing, with light steering effort thanks to the engine’s low center of gravity, but suspension compliance, particularly at the fork, lags behind today’s better machines—read that mainly as BMW’s K1600GTL. We’re also a little surprised to see so much wasted space in the Honda’s top trunk and really miss a USB connection in the fairing pocket. Doesn’t everyone have that nowadays? Massive mirrors, slightly cumbersome low-speed steering, and a tall, wide windscreen seem to emphasize the Gold Wing’s bulk. On the open road, you rarely notice; everywhere else, you do.

Honda Gold Wing F6B
Even though it’s not, the F6B feels smaller, more compact, lighter...better.Justin Kosman

Remove some of that bulk and what do you have? The F6B. Honda was straight up with the motivation for the F6B, to inexpensively create a lighter, leaner, meaner version of the Gold Wing to capture some of the sales going to the Harley Road Glide Custom. By jettisoning the bulky, adjustable, vent-equipped windscreen for a wee polycarbonate wedge and leaving the top box behind in Japan, Honda effectively shaved a couple hundred pounds (in reality, 62) off the Gold Wing. It’s that dramatic. Park the Wing and leave on the F6B and you’d swear there were different motorcycle under you. Steering effort goes down even more, accuracy improves, and the ever-important subliminal messages are that of a more agile motorcycle. And even though the suspension is largely the same, it feels better, more compliant over the scarcely assembled blocks of concrete we call freeways.

Honda Gold Wing Valkyrie
The Valkyrie is weighs in to be 108 pounds lighter than the F6B.Justin Kosman

Ergonomics play a role here too. While the footpegs are in the same place and the cast bars are identical, the F6B’s flatter saddle carries a much less obtrusive butt bolster, and it’s narrower at the front, so both its roominess and its apparent leg-over distance are better. Even though it’s not, the F6B feels smaller, more compact, lighter...better. Aside from the increase in turbulence from the stunted windscreen and the reduction of cargo capacity, we like the F6B a whole lot more than the Gold Wing. For us, we’d rather start with the $20,499 F6B than the $29,129 40th Anniversary (with Nav/XM/ABS) Gold Wing to build an “American-style” touring rig. Is that just our sporting bias showing through? Perhaps. If you believe that, you’ll be shocked to hear this: We like the $17,999 Valkyrie even more. What’s this? A group of avowed performance junkies getting all weak-kneed for the modern Valky? Yes, when you assume that we already appreciate the six-pot’s torque and capabilities and would rather have a lighter bike over a heavier one. Get this: The Valkyrie is 108 pounds lighter than the F6B. The Valky carries just a half-gallon less fuel, so the remaining difference comes from what the power cruiser doesn’t have—fairing, bags, electro gizmos, flab.

Honda Gold Wing Valkyrie
The power cruiser doesn’t have a fairing, bags, electro gizmos, or flab.Justin Kosman

In every way, this is a more entertaining motorcycle. Even with the same power, the reduced weight makes the Valkyrie feel quick—not stunning, this-will-leave-a-bruise fast, but it has so much acceleration in each of the five gears that the tiny LCD tach is not much of a distraction. (Once you get an ear for the six’s low growl, which is more prominent on the Valky than on the other two Wings, to anticipate the low redline.)

Are there elements of the much-derided Rune on the new Valkyrie? Sure. Do we care? Not so much. For one thing, the Valky does righteous rolling burnouts because of all that torque and the utter lack of rider “aids.” (It’s true, neither the F6B nor the Valkyrie can be had with ABS, while you have to go to the second of two rungs on the Gold Wing ladder to get it. Traction control? Nowhere to be found for any GLs this year.) For another, the Valky’s brakes and suspension are much more modern feeling than the other two variants, mostly, we think, because the wheels are lighter and the components themselves are of a slightly newer vintage. Oh, and taking all that weight off the front end can only help. So as we watch Honda celebrate four decades of Gold Wing, take a moment to consider personality as part of a motorcycle’s DNA. Some aspects are immutable—the faint gear whine and the grumble of opposed pistons doing their balancing act that have been hallmarks for the Gold Wing since the beginning—while others change so readily and dramatically. Honda’s three Gold WIng models share so much, it’s true, but they succeed in very different ways.

Honda Gold Wing Valkyrie
The Valkyrie is as close to undressed as a Gold Wing can get. Shaving 170 pounds off makes a remarkable difference in performance and riding dynamics.Justin Kosman
Tech Spec
Price: $29,129
Engine: 1832cc, liquid-cooled opposed-six
Trans/Final Drive: 5-speed with reverse/shaft
Measured Power: 100.6 hp @5500 rpm
Measured Torque: 108.1 lb-ft. @4250 rpm
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar
Front Suspension: Showa 45mm fork; 4.8-in. Travel
Rear Suspension: Showa shock with adjustable spring preload; 4.1-in. Travel
Front Brake: Dual Nissin three-piston calipers, 296mm discs with ABS
Rear Brake: Nissin three-piston caliper, 316mm disc with ABS
Rake/Trail: 29.2º/4.3 in.
Seat Height: 29.1 in.
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Fuel Capacity: 6.6 gal.
Measured Weight: 921/881 lb (tank full/empty)