Big Ben Roethlisberger no doubt wishes he had been wearing a helmet when his Suzuki Hayabusa sport bike famously met the business end of a Chrysler New Yorker last summer. But had the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback been cruising helmetless on a Honda Gold Wing—the first motorcycle equipped with an air bag—his face might not have met the car’s windshield quite so suddenly.
Honda’s flagship touring bike does not render the helmet redundant, and it cannot compete with sport bikes capable of exceeding 190 mph. However, it is the latest in a series of technological tours de force that span more than 50 years. Whether it is a 50 cc moped, an all-terrain vehicle (Honda created the category in 1970 with its three-wheeled ATC90), or a $3 million MotoGP race bike, a Honda motorcycle has employed breakthrough technology.
The Gold Wing features such novelties as a liquid-cooled, horizontally opposed 6-cylinder engine, as well as optional GPS navigation, antilock brakes, and a six-speaker sound system. The addition of an air bag makes the Gold Wing the gold standard for motorcycle safety.
Honda also has been focused on speed. In fact, if it were not for Honda innovations, extreme street-legal motorcycles such as the Hayabusa would not exist. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Honda NR750 sported a V-4 engine with twin connecting rods and twin spark plugs, which essentially created the performance of a V-8 engine through the use of four oblong-shaped pistons. Since its introduction in 2002, the lightweight RC211V has dominated MotoGP with a V-5 engine that achieves more than 14,000 rpm and 200 mph. Seeking to make its race bikes as light as possible, Honda became the first manufacturer to use carbon-fiber wheels in the early ’80s. However, the company learned to its chagrin that when carbon fiber breaks—as the rear wheel did under rider Freddie Spencer in 1984 as he was trying to qualify for a race—it shatters. Still, as anyone who is spared more serious injury by the Gold Wing’s air bags will attest, Honda’s feats far outweigh its flubs.