Updated From March 12, 2015

Who knew? Really, who even suspected in 1975 that the GL1000 Gold Wing, a new-from-the-ground-up model powered by a 999cc flat-four engine, would go on to revolutionize the entire concept of motorcycle touring?

To be fair, the designers and product planners at Honda probably hoped the GL might someday carve a solid niche in the market, though I doubt any of them actually expected things to turn out the way they have. But the history of the bike speaks for itself. The Gold Wing didn't just change the way people go touring on a motorcycle; it changed the way people think about touring on a motorcycle.

WATCH: Two Riders On 2018 Honda Gold Wings Cruise the California Coast

But not at first. Not quite. Aside from its torquey, silky-smooth SOHC engine—the first liquid-cooled four-stroke from Japan—along with an under-seat gas tank and Honda’s inaugural foray into shaft final drive, that original, naked Wing was pretty conventional. No cutting-edge suspension or techno trickery, with performance that, while excellent for a bike weighing well north of 600 pounds, wasn’t sensational.

honda gold wing on road action
Honda Gold WingJeff Allen

Cycle World's test in April of 1975 never painted the GL as ground-breaking; we referred to it on the cover simply as "Honda's 1000cc Four, The Gentleman's Choice," and the Gold Wing name was mentioned just once in the entire issue. Only in the test's conclusion did we write that the bike "may soon be the touring machine on American highways."

At Cycle Guide magazine, where I was editor at the time, we praised the bike's smoothness and powerband but stopped short of predicting its eventual dominance as a long-ride partner. And although the GL's promotional materials occasionally mentioned touring, Honda offered no optional saddlebags, fairing, or even a windshield.

honda gold wing gl1000 studio side view
Honda Gold Wing GL1000Jeff Allen

That kicked the door wide open for the aftermarket, whose rush of products groomed the Gold Wing for the starring role it has played ever since. Windshields, saddlebags, and other touring amenities for the GL started popping up everywhere, with Craig Vetter’s ubiquitous Windjammer fairing leading the assault. That barrage of equipment soon allowed long-distance riders to begin fully appreciating the big Honda’s open-road virtues.

From ’75 to ’79, the GL1000 remained essentially the same motorcycle, with a few incremental performance and graphic improvements along the way. Big changes in 1980, though, when the Wing got a displacement boost to 1,085cc and was renamed GL1100. Even more important was the introduction of the GL1100 Interstate, a full-dress turnkey tourer fitted with fairing, saddlebags, top trunk, and an optional sound system.

Next came the 1982 Aspencade that further upped the luxury factor via new instrumentation, an upgraded stereo, and an on-board compressor for adjusting the rear air suspension. The Gold Wing’s status as an open-road virtuoso was already flying high, and the Interstate and Aspencade kicked in the afterburners.

honda gold wing gl1200 studio side view
Honda Gold Wing GL1200Jeff Allen

In 1984, Honda again bumped engine size, this time to 1,182cc, with a name change to GL1200. And 1985—the Wing’s 10th anniversary—brought a collection of new technologies, including fuel injection, cruise control, auto-leveling rear suspension, and a trip computer.

During that decade, the Gold Wing had grown in every respect—displacement, length, weight, equipment, sheer complexity. The 1,185cc engine was producing more power and torque than those in its predecessors; due to the 1200’s increased weight, however, acceleration was not proportionately quicker, and the flat-four’s architecture had been pushed to its limits. The 1200 was still a superb open-road hauler, but the competition wasn’t sitting idly on its hands; something new and improved would soon be needed.

It arrived in 1988 with the GL1500, powered by a six-cylinder engine. Ironically, the engine in the initial prototype of this new model was an experimental six that the bike’s original project leader, the legendary Shoichiro Irimajiri of Honda’s championship-winning GP era, had wanted to use in the first GL. It didn’t fly in 1975; but thanks to improvements in engine design and metallurgy—plus several years of pains­taking R&D—a 1,520cc evolution of that prototype flat-six became the prime mover for the GL1500. The ’88 Wing also incorporated a clever reverse gear to allow anyone, even smaller riders, to easily back the heavier-than-ever GL out of a downward-sloping parking spot.

honda gold wing gl1500 studio side view
Honda Gold Wing GL1500Jeff Allen

For 13 seasons, the GL1500 continued on a path of constant evolution, receiving gradual improvements in the drivetrain, suspension, and countless other systems. But by the time Y2K rolled around, the big Wing again needed a redo.

Which is precisely what it got in 2001 with the GL1800. The heavily redesigned GL boasted a big cc jump up to 1,832, as well as a sportbike-inspired frame and single-sided swingarm, both crafted of aluminum. Use of that alloy, along with meticulous attention to weight savings, yielded an 1800 that was marginally lighter than the 1500. And on top of the awesome torque and impressive acceleration delivered by the big six, the stout frame combined with high-quality suspension to bless the GL with unprecedented handling and cornering qualities for a bike of such considerable mass.

Since then, the GL has retained the same 1,832cc six-cylinder engine while following the trail of evolution blazed by its ancestors: steady, systematic improvements implemented every few years. An in-dash navigation system was introduced in 2006, along with a model fitted with motorcycling’s first-ever airbag. A styling redraw in 2012 improved the GL’s weather protection and increased its luggage capacity. And now, for 2015, all Gold Wings come with special badging and embossed seats that commemorate the GL’s 40th anniversary.

40 years of Gold Wing line-up studio group view
40 years of Gold Wing line-upJeff Allen

Forty years is an eternity for any motorcycle to endure, much less to excel. Not only did the Gold Wing revolutionize motorcycle touring, but you could argue that it did so more than once. A measure of the GL's ongoing greatness is that in 38 years of Cycle World's annual Ten Best awards, Gold Wings have ridden off with the Best Touring Bike trophy 20 times. Even in the years when some upstart edged it out for top honors, the Wing usually finished a close second.

The Gold Wing is on a trip that started 40 years ago. It’s unlikely to continue for another 40; but if it does, people at that time will look back and ask the inevitable question: “Who knew?”

Check out more photos of the Honda Gold Wing:

honda gold wing on road cornering action
Honda Gold WingJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing front view road action

Action photo #3

Honda Gold WingJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing side view on road action

Action photo #4

Honda Gold WingJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing static right side view

Static right-side view.

Honda Gold WingJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing static left side view
Honda Gold WingJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing GL1000 studio side view
Honda Gold Wing GL1000Jeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing GL1000 group view
Honda Gold Wing GL1000'sJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing GL1100 Interstate studio side view
Honda Gold Wing GL1100 InterstateJeff Allen
Honda Gold Wing GL1800 studio side view
Honda Gold Wing GL1800Jeff Allen
1975 and 2015 honda gold wing studio group view
Honda Gold Wing 1975 to 2015Jeff Allen