Bringing An Old Honda GL-1000 Back To Life

WORDS: John McGowan - Sunnyvale, CA

SUBMITTED: July 19th, 2012

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to find an older classic motorcycle and fix it up!  I’d owned several Honda motorcycles and a Vespa in the Sixties and Seventies, and considered myself a competent basic mechanic, though I made my living in an office working with contracts. This would be an inexpensive way to reacquaint myself with motorcycles, now that the children were grown, and it would be a pretty tame mid-life adventure for a 50-something motorhead...

I had nearly finished restoring a $20 Puch 50cc Moped my son talked me into buying, and completed the Basic Rider course from Motorcycle Safety Foundation to get my California M1 motorcycle license. As I neared completion of the Puch, I began to worry about the 50cc engine and 2 horsepower, thinking more would be better....  I started scouring want ads, hoping to find a shaft-drive liquid-cooled motorcycle of 500cc or greater. Three weeks later, after a few heated discussions with my wife, we were the proud owners of a 1976 Yellow GL-1000, with only 8200 miles, but which had been casually stored under a blanket in a garage untouched for nearly 20 years.  The retired owner had let a friend work on it, but the bike never ran well afterwards, and it never made it out to a shop after he parked it.  It was ugly and dirty, with brown saddle-stitched seat and some of the body parts in a shopping bag, but it was pretty much all there and mostly free of rust or corrosion.

After 8 months of detective work, restoration labor, and many parts searches, I finished my project, and it was ready to ride. Since others may consider similar projects, I wanted to share some lessons learned with future project bikers. Finding and buying a suitable project Wing is the first challenge.  While there are lots of GL-1000’s or 1100’s out there, many have such serious problems that the cost to restore could never be recovered. The good deals are often not widely advertised, since the owners are reluctant to spend lots of money on ads for something they might sell for a few hundred dollars.  Craigslist and eBay have become the new low-cost national Classifieds, and you should become familiar with wide-area searching on each.

While the cosmetics and trim are easy to restore (paint/upholstery/ tires/chrome) the major moving mechanical parts can be difficult and costly to repair, and also likely require removal of the engine and disassembly of the frame.  Since a naked Wing weighs over 675 pounds, you need to plan for handling it while working, and may need a helper. A number of old Wings with broken transmissions or valve trains are pretty much parts bikes.  Rust and corrosion are like “wild cards”, in that you may be unable to estimate the real cost of rework needed. Honda still supplies most of the mechanical parts (belts, gaskets, brake parts, etc.) but body parts like the fuel tank, chrome fenders or side/tank covers are only available from salvage resellers.

Since a “showroom” condition GL-1000 can be worth up to $4,000, you should realistically budget to spend a lot less on purchase and parts, plus any work you ultimately give to a mechanic to handle for you. Ours cost $500 (only $300 after selling the unwanted fairing and floorboards via the Internet) but a reasonable price would be anywhere from free (yes, some will sign it away to get it out of the garage) to $1,000, if only moderate restoration work is required.  One additional bit of advice is to decide first how you’ll use your Wing. If you plan to do lots of long distance touring two-up, look for one with fairings and bags, because these old accessories can be hard to find.

As you begin settling into your project, several critical items should be at hand.  You’ll need at least one good shop manual (the Honda original or Hanes British book are both good), metric tools, a good place to work, and sources for advice and parts.  I was lucky in the San Jose area to have several good local Honda dealers, plus several salvage shops, plus others ahead of me on their projects for advice. The internet is amazing, as even years ago I could search and locate tips or parts from across the country, and a question asked on a forum was often treated to several replies within hours. My general rule became to buy body/chassis parts and hardware used, rubber and trim and unique parts new from Honda if available, and general parts (battery/tires/fluids and filters) from aftermarket shops.

I’d decided to send body parts to a painter, for new polyurethane clearcoat paint, and also to send the seat to a motorcycle upholsterer for a recover, at total cost together of $400. After these were off and away, I began working through the systems as defined by the chapters in the shop manuals.  My sequence would be: engine/ transmission, fuel system and carbs, brakes/bearings/suspension and tires, electrical, cooling system, ignition and finally trim.  I started with engine and clutch and transmission checks, as bad news here could scuttle the job. Fluids OK, cylinders and plugs OK, turnover with kick-starter OK, and no cracks, leaks or holes, so we kept going. The timing belts were replaced, though they looked new, since confidence in any 22 year old rubber is a bad idea. I waited too long to start the fuel system and tank, as I found rust inside the tank, along with real bad smelling brown gas. A serious rusted tank or leaky tank means removal from the frame, and that means disassembling the entire rear end.  The frame was in excellent shape, and I removed an old Vetter fairing and the aftermarket floorboards and reinstalled a refurbished headlight, foot pegs and shift/brake levers from a used parts source in Tennessee.

The brakes were awful, with frozen pistons clamped onto all 3 discs,(2 on front wheel – a Honda first), and corrosion lots of places. Long hours with a dental pick, crocus cloth and cleaner plus master cylinder kits and pads from Honda got them all working.  Wheels and spokes were cleaned and checked, new tires and tubes installed, and the bearings and drive shaft splines were lubricated or replaced. The cracked, dried out   battery went away, after restoring the battery box and retracing a number of the hanging wires near the diodes and main fuse. Fortunately, the original headlight bucket was still attached, though all the wiring had been chopped up to install the Vetter wiring harness for the fairing. After checking all the major wiring and connections, the new battery went in for the “bzzztt” smoke test. So far, so good.

As I indicated, I started late on the fuel system and carbs, but finally got the tank cleaned out using a pressure washer, stainless cable on a drill as a “whip” plus an acid wash, sealer and many flushes to assure both pickups were clear and working.  The carbs were in poor shape, having become “petrified” over the years, with no movement possible in the linkages or slides or butterflies. After balancing the cost of damage I could do and the time it would take working every other weekend outdoors, I gave up and sent the carbs to a mechanic for cleanup and new jets/seals.

Meanwhile, the valve clearance checks and timing checks were done, and the cooling system reassembled, with new thermostat and non-silicate coolant. The removed and repainted body parts re-attached, the recovered seat bolted on, and we were almost done.  After reinstalling the carbs, popping and poor idle indicated the internal problems had not been solved. Some grumbling and arguing led to the purchase of another used carb set, with updated seals and floats, but the problems were solved.  A few test rides led to replacing the 55 Watt H4 Headlight bulb with a standard sealed beam unit (kept blowing fuses), and fixing minor coolant leaks and some other little bugs.

Looking back, I spent 2 more months than planned and $1,600 beyond the original $500 purchase price. I learned that almost every part on the bike is available “somewhere”, though some of those places are pretty expensive. Honda deserves credit for continuing to make so many of the original parts available, at any price. I also learned that between the Internet, Shop Manuals and Honda, almost any hang-up can be solved technically. Finally, I learned that my plan to rely on skilled mechanics for some jobs wasn’t a bad idea, especially where special tools or capabilities are required. Saving and returning to the road a bike as great as the original GL-1000, and doing it for ~ $2,000 was really satisfying. Even though I don’t have the digital electronics and radios of a new Gold Wing, or the most chrome, or even much luggage capacity, I know a classic Wing will draw a crowd wherever motorcyclists gather.  As a bonus, I’ve got one of the more solid and comfortable cruising bikes ever built, in near original condition, for a fraction of the cost of most new motorcycles.