A TRIO OF CLASSIC TOURING MOTORCYCLES PERFECT FOR SEEING THE WORLD
Touring is grand from behind the wheel of a ’32 Bentley 8 Litre, a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country, or Buzz and Tod’s ’61 Corvette. But if it’s grand touring you want, get a bike. The right touring motorcycle offers all the performance of a vintage GT car while costing many thousands less. Plus, on a bike, you’ll more fully experience the rushing air currents, smell the desert sage, and enjoy unobstructed views of mountains, canyons and coasts. And when you arrive, you'll gain a huge sense of accomplishment.
Prior to the late-1970s, most motorcycles were universal. That is, basic bikes could be adapted for all sorts of uses. Want an off-road scrambler? Strip off the lights, change the tires, and add high exhausts and a skid plate. To go road racing, lower the handlebars, change the gearing and reduce weight. And for touring, add a windshield or fairing, a rack and saddlebags, and head out. But after the industry segmented, manufacturers began offering dedicated touring machines. Already well devoted to the cause, Harley-Davidson continued with its Electra Glide and added a Tour Glide model, while Honda introduced its Gold Wing Interstate and Aspencade and BMW brought out the R100RS and R100RT.
Fortunately for future classic touring riders, the run-up in prices for blue-chip bikes such as Vincents, Ducati “bevel” twins and BSA Gold Stars has not particularly affected classic touring bike prices, and you can still get plenty for your money. Between $5,000 and $15,000 should get you onto a fine example of the Harley, Honda or BMW models mentioned above; built in ample numbers, they remain reasonably available today. These bikes range from 1,000cc to 1,340cc and for good reason; large-displacement bikes are best for battling the wind at highway speeds, pushing a big fairing through the air, carrying passengers and luggage, and tackling steep grades and high altitudes. If 1,000cc is too big for your interests, a 650cc or 800cc bike will suffice, although it may struggle in some conditions.
When shopping, take your time and find a cream puff, not a rust bucket. Restoring paint, chrome and mechanicals adds up, and despite their relatively small size compared to cars, motorcycles have lots of parts — many of them finely finished and visible. You will be ahead paying for a well-cared-for example, rather than snatching a downtrodden mess and then bringing it back.
Although there are many fine touring bikes, the examples included here are relatively easy to find and offer good reliability and parts availability.
1984–96 HARLEY-DAVIDSON FLH ELECTRA GLIDE
Since the 1973 thriller Electra Glide in Blue, Harley’s iconic cop (and touring) bike has continued on in its hefty, V-twin way. Weighing 716 pounds dry, the ageless Electra Glide is like a two-wheel Conestoga wagon. However, its bigger-thanlife size is fully intentional, because just as a giant crew-cab pickup can tow and haul over long distances in comfort, an FLH Electra Glide can too. And beneath the surface, over the years H-D has maintained its trademark look while modernizing the Electra Glide to more contemporary standards.
A huge advancement was the 1,337cc “Evolution” engine that debuted in 1984. Substantially oil-tight and modernized from its con-rods to fit and finish, the engine necessarily lifted the company’s quality, capability, reliability and performance across the board. The two pinnacle Evo-engine touring Harleys were the Electra Glide, which features a fork-mounted fairing that turns with the handlebars, and an FLT Tour Glide, whose frame-mounted fairing provides equal protection with lighter steering feel. As well, in windy conditions, the Tour Glide will handle more easily since forces are fed into the frame rather than the handlebars.
Both models use the larger of two Evo engines (a 997cc version powered the Sportster) and were built from 1984 until the late 1990s (’96 for the Electra Glide and ’98 for the Tour Glide). Despite their big 40-cubic-inch cylinders and narrow 45-degree Vee angle, thanks to rubber engine mounts, little of the motor’s nasty inherent vibration reaches the seat at touring speeds. As a result, if you choose the right gear and rpm, on the open road these big, throaty beasts can be smooth operators. Just don’t mistake them for sport bikes, as their heavyweight stature makes any sort of apex strafing particularly challenging. As with any other prospective bike purchase, prior use and service history are crucial.
1980 HONDA GOLD WING 1100 INTERSTATE
In 1989, Lexus changed the car universe with the LS400, which forced other luxury marques to rethink technology, performance and value. Honda had pulled a similar move in 1980, with the launch of its first fully outfitted touring bike, the 1,085cc GL1100 Interstate. This Interstate was followed in 1982–83 by the GL1100 Aspencade and the larger 1984 GL1200 Aspencade, with an 1,182cc opposed four that would anchor the Gold Wing lineup until the six-cylinder GL1500 arrived for 1987.
Although regarded as a big touring barge by sport riders, the original Gold Wing GL1100 Interstate is highly relevant for its commitment to comfort (and safety, as the current version offers a front airbag). With standard “bucket seats,” pullback handlebars for an upright riding position,
TOURING PREPARATION AND SAFETY
For maximum enjoyment and safety, consider motorcycle tires perishable, like peaches. That’s because old rubber simply does not grip like new rubber. This may not be as big a deal with a classic car, which might squiggle in a turn with old tires. But on a bike, such squiggling may be followed by a fall. As such, inspect the tires on a prospective touring bike to determine their age. (The manufacturing date is a four-digit code molded inside an oval on the sidewall; the first two digits represent the week, and the last two represent the year. For instance, “2399” means the tire was made in the 23rd week of 1999.) My personal rule is to replace tires (and helmets) every five years, whether used up or not.
Also from a usability and safety standpoint, consider the carburetors’ relatively tiny jets compared to cars. Modern ethanol-laced gasoline can do bad things to rubber fuel lines and rubber-tipped float needles, as well as to aluminum carb bowls, creating deposits that clog the vulnerable idle circuits. In short, make sure the fuel systems are in good nick, and if there are any concerns, sort them out before touring. Your bike will start easier, idle better, respond to the throttle more smoothly and backfire less.
The same care should apply to battery condition. An old battery may hold enough charge to start the bike, but vibration can take a toll on the highway, unexpectedly leaving you stranded. And unlike being stuck roadside in a car, which offers some element of safety from rushing traffic, the same scenario with a motorbike puts you in harm’s way.
Finally, however winning or wobbly your riding skills may be, consider that a big ol’ touring bike is way heavier than any other two-wheeler you’re ever likely to ride. Weighing in some cases nearly a half-ton loaded with passengers, luggage and fuel, riding one well requires the skill of Fantasia’s pirouetting hippos. Practice up before you take on a passenger; even better, take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation RiderCourse on the bike (msf-usa.org).
With the right bike properly prepared, and with practice handling the added mass, on your first road trip you’ll discover what touring riders have known for decades — traveling on two wheels feeds all your senses. From the coral beaches of the Florida Keys to the High Sierra pines, touring is definitely better on a bike. generous storage space, full wind protection, available audio and intercom systems, and plenty of alternator juice to power heated vests, grips, driving lights and other accessories, the Interstate really was “full boat.” Layer on Honda’s typical reliability and manufacturing precision, and it’s easy to understand why Gold Wings quickly earned a loyal following.
The engines are nearly dead smooth, and with liquid cooling and voluminous mufflers, Gold Wings have a reputation as the quietest bikes on the road. Hushing wind, mechanical and exhaust noise as it did, the Gold Wing Interstate thus offered a magically comfortable interstate riding experience. Best of all, they could run almost forever.
Downsides? Gold Wings are big, heavy and complicated, with their bank of four synchronized carburetors awkward to access. Paint, upholstery and chrome, although pretty when new, may not survive well if left to the elements. And due to their mass and bulk, Gold Wings are happiest going straight down the road or, at most, sweeping through long, open curves. Twisting Mulholland Highway? Try another bike. But if your goal is cross-country touring, a Gold Wing is an epic ride.
1977–84 BMW R100RS
First produced in 1923, BMW’s opposed-twin established a utilitarian template for the German company that reigned until the breakthrough 1974 R90S superbike arrived. Except for its racing Rennsport models, BMW found a dignified niche in hard-working transportation products that lasted for more than 50 years. But the market-savvy Japanese made European firms change their approach, and following BMW’s groundbreaking R90S came the 1977–84 R100RS (which beautifully combined “sport” and “touring”), along with the 1979–84 R100RT full tourer. With sleek fairing designs and a full liter of displacement, these fraternal twins vaulted BMW into an avant-garde market position that finally gave the company touring performance with pizzazz.
Daringly handsome, the R100 twins were also mechanically stout. Their pushrod engines were understressed and could go well over 100,000 miles. Service tasks like tappet adjustments and plug changes were a cinch, thanks to the easy-access cylinder heads. The riding ergonomics and wind protection were also ideal. And the flat torque curve, tall gearing, long-travel suspension, zero-vibration sweet spot in the powerband, generous 6.3-gallon fuel capacity and fuss-free shaft drive were brilliant on the open road.
A few quirks define this model range. First, OE parts were expensive then and remain so today. Second, the longitudinal (fore-aft) crankshaft peculiarly rolls the bike sideways when you rap the throttle while at rest, and the shaft drive makes the suspension lift when you get on the gas in lower gears. The gearboxes are slow shifting and can be clunky, and under some conditions, torque pulses from the big cylinders shudder through the bike. The dry clutches are also inconvenient to service, and there is no backup kickstarter in case of electrical failure.
But when they’re right, the R100RS, R100RT and R100S (with minimalist bikini fairing) are an absolute joy on tour. Due to the cost of putting things right on neglected bikes, take your time to find an R100 that’s been well maintained and garage kept. If those criteria are met, overall mileage shouldn’t be an issue. Proceed apace!