I can’t abandon this giant, crappy motorcycle—and I’ve tried

Kyle Smith

Sitting right in front of the garage door, perfectly centered under a warm incandescent 60-watt bulb, sits 850 pounds of five-speed, four-cylinder, three-shades-of-brown Honda Goldwing. It’s the motorcycle equivalent of a sad old shop dog. It mainly just sits around, but you know there will come a time—and soon—when it will be sent to a nice farm in Ohio.

I take pity on the Goldwing, but only when my tolerance for its bullshit stacks up high enough. This is the other side of tolerance stackup. If you’ve know that term, you probably heard it used in reference to a mechanical assembly that involves bearings or some other component that requires precise calculation to ensure a proper fit.

Think of something like a solid-lifter valvetrain in a cam-in-block V-8 engine. Change the deck height of the engine by milling the surface, add a thinner head gasket, and switch to an aftermarket roller-rocker cam, and a stock-sized pushrod will no longer be the correct length. You often cannot calculate correct sizing until you assemble all those parts, either, as the tolerance on each is a window, sometimes defined in thousandths of an inch, and those thousandths can stack up and create a very ill-fitting assembly.

Goldwing on lift
Kyle Smith

Sloppy assemblies are side effects of production budget. Machining everything perfectly every time requires time and precision that is incredibly expensive to do at scale. In this garage, tolerance stackup is totally different. Here it is best described as the slow buildup of willpower required to accomplish jobs that are just plain unfun. That triple-brown Goldwing is a collection of exactly those.

In the middle of a busy summer, it got parked under that light, blocking the garage door. It became a nuisance—I had to roll its great heft around anytime I needed access to both garage doors. There was, and really is, no great place to park this behemoth.

This bike might photograph well, but it is scruffy. If you find Sam Smith’s Weissrat BMW project heroic, know that this Goldwing is truly garbage. There are missing and broken parts galore, yet the bike still runs. The wiring is hacked up. The seller provided no maintenance history, so the timing belt has likely been the same one for all of the 81,000 miles this bike has travelled. It got fresh fluids and a quick carb refresh when it arrived in my garage, and … nothing else. Then I took it on thousands of miles’ worth of adventures, waiting for the day it would leave me stranded.

It never has.

Often it would strand itself at home. I guess technically that is still stranding me, but the situation is not truly inconvenient, so I’m not sure. The latest instance was the expected culprit: the rack of four Keihin CV carburetors. It had reached a level of internal gunk buildup that meant the carbs acted more as air restrictors than as air/fuel mixing devices.

This bike gets the cheapest of everything, and that includes gas. Ethanol, the dreaded E word, had conspired to wreak havoc inside the carburetors’ bowls and passages. I knew this back in September. I took months to actually pull the rack of carbs.

The process is a pain in the butt. From removing the chrome farkles added by previous owners to re-routing the push-and-pull throttle cables so that they don’t bind when the airbox is installed, doing the job right takes all my patience. If just one piece of my proverbial mental assembly is out of spec, my will power evaporates and I avoid that project for another week.

My acquisition of this GL1100 is rooted in a joke. An off-hand comment about how cheap and shitty it was. A challenge to a group of friends that if they raised the funds to procure it I would not only get it running but do something stupid with it—a road trip, or jump, or any number of bad ideas involving a $450 vintage motorcycle.

Instead it became something I actually loved having around—a commuter whose hard luggage had plenty of space for anything I needed to carry, even if they weren’t waterproof any more. It is also the only motorcycle I have that is honestly street-legal and capable of highway speeds.

Goldwing in winter
If it’s warm enough to have the roads clear, I’ll ride. The big fairing makes even 35 degree weather tolerable. Kyle Smith

Even when I tried to let the Goldwing die, I couldn’t. Instead, I recruited a friend to help me push the stupid thing onto my motorcycle lift so I could clean and reassemble the carbs. This winter has been so mild I can still commute on this beast, so imagine my excitement when it fired right to life.

Then I went to start it this morning. The starter clutch died, and now the bike won’t start. A Goldwing’s starter clutch is chain-driven on the tail end of the engine and accessing it requires a lot of disassembly. The tolerance stackup inside that clutch finally hit the point it no longer works, and guess what? So have I. Sorry, Goldwing. I just don’t see my tolerance for the annoying parts of that repair building up anytime soon.

I’ll wait a bit, anyway. Maybe the way I’m measuring how annoying the job will be is wrong and I actually can tolerate the task. We’ll see. For now, it’s back under that lonely light bulb, blocking the garage door.

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    I have the exact (and I mean EXACT) same bike. I’ve done the starter clutch job; I assume you mean the pins aren’t engaging. It’s easy, except for the engine out part. I’m kind of shocked that no one has rigged up the right tubes to shoot some silicone into the clutch via the crankshaft access port. It must be possible. Anyway, I still have occasional clutch stickiness and you might spend some more time jiggling the starter button. You tap it, then tap it again just as the starter spins down. This gooses the clutch pins. Sometimes it works.

    What are the chances! Funny.

    There is still a non-zero chance that I do pull the engine and fix this. I’ve been fidgeting with the starter button for a few days thinking it would break loose, but hasn’t happened yet. It also came to me that the clutch has been sticky for awhile and I just didn’t think about it. Having read about using something like Marvel Mystery Oil flush if you can get the thing running. Not jumping for joy at the thought of push starting this beast. Tow starting is something I avoid more often than not.

    I know a guy too…it’s me. Thanks for pointing that out, I fixed it. I appreciate you bringing this to my/our attention.

    Bullet proof!
    I have a 1987 GL1200 Interstate with 15k miles on it and other newer touring and cruisers.
    Let me say something, it’s a fun, nice and pleasant ride and I love it.
    I don’t know if it comes to be as heavy as 850 pounds, I would say that is more like 750 (ish).
    Yours is nice and worthy project.

    I saw a guy that’s putting the motor from one of these in a little homebuilt car… got me thinking. A three-wheeled goldwing-motored carish-thing might be a fun project

    Interesting. With the shaft drive rear it’s a decent project to use this engine outside of its designed chassis. The chains drive stuff if pretty easy to adapt, so I’d be interested in how your friend is solving that! Surely there is a neat solution.

    I have a 1200 with 105000 miles on it and thought it was starter clutch but it was gear reduction assy in the not very old starter. Sounded just like a starter clutch. I get teased about the old bike but its more comfortable that the sporty bmw i got

    Interesting. I’ll open up my shop manual and see what I can do without pulling the engine.

    I’ll admit I made fun of Goldwings and similar bikes for awhile but now that I have one you won’t hear me say anything bad about riding them…only working on them! Ha!

    I’ve had the six-pack off my Valkyrie (flat six) so I know that level of patience. You think nothing is worth that much pain…until you ride it….And with the surprising collectibility of ’70’s bikes shouldn’t anything that complete and functional be worth something respectable?

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