How one man took a total loss and turned it into a killer ride.
Three years ago, this 1983 GL1100 was sitting on the side of a building, having been parked after an accident and forgotten. The plastics on the right side were trashed beyond all forms of repair. The fluid in the shocks had leaked and taken on water, causing them to freeze after multiple cold Oregon winters. Although it had low miles, the bike was a total loss to anyone who saw it, with no chance of ever becoming something worth riding again. And it was hidden under a blue tarp.
But Kevin Rowland saw something different. Underneath those broken fairings lay a straight frame and a motor with less than 6,000 miles on the odometer. If it could be salvaged, then he could make it into something that he could use to zip around town, or take on longer rides around the Pacific Northwest and the California coast. There were a lot of ifs to be considered, but the price was cheap and he needed a project for the winter, so he bought the ’83 and brought it home. And, roughly six months later, he was riding it around town, beaming ear to ear. How did he accomplish the seemingly impossible in such a short period of time?
This is the story of the Naked Gold Wing.
STARTING OFF YOUNG
At 33 years old, Kevin Rowland doesn’t fit into the typical Gold Wing rider demographic, but it turns out that he’s had affection for these bikes since he was just a kid. “I was probably only 12 or 13 and I had a family friend that was into motorcycle touring,” Rowland recalls. “They had a 1980s vintage. I think it was a 1200.”
That bike would be the catalyst for a lot of things, including his interest in the quintessential Honda touring brand. What sealed the deal for him was a later visit to that same family friend’s garage, where the GL1200 was sitting there. Naked. “It was in a new garage and he had stripped everything down to work on it, you know? I remember seeing it then. Wow! That’s just a really cool bike under there.”
Rowland had seen a side of the Gold Wing that many today just don’t know about. In the beginning — a few years before Rowland was born — the Gold Wing was sold without any fairings or excessive accessories. The term was “naked,” a phrase that’s tossed about quite a bit with newer trim-less bikes on the market, but not as common in today’s Gold Wing world. Through products made by Craig Vetter and other manufacturers, the Gold Wing would gain fairings and accessories that would make them better for touring purposes from the start and fill in the gaps that Honda didn’t know needed to be filled. But in 1985, just two years into the GL1200’s run, the factory Honda naked model was removed because of dropping sales in favor of the Interstate and Aspencade. The naked Gold Wing was no more.
For Rowland, seeing a GL1200 without its fairings was an eye opener, but it would be years before he would ever own a Gold Wing of his own.
Life carried on and Rowland started his company, WagonGear, dedicated to designing and fabricating custom parts for Toyota Land Cruisers. With a background in mechanical engineering and industrial design, he has the skills to build whatever he needs. “I’ve fixed pretty much every thing that has come across my path,” he says.
And then he met the ’83.
NUTS AND BOLTS
When he came across that ’83 sitting under that blue tarp, at first glance it seemed like it wasn’t worth saving. A quick look at the odometer revealed otherwise, reading just 6,000 miles on the clock. Knowing that Honda produces a bulletproof motor and that the Gold Wing is known for its reliability, he decided that it was worth his time to try to salvage the old girl.
He loaded it up and took it back to his shop to take it apart.
The motor may have had low miles, but it was still an X factor, as he had no idea what happened to the motor in the accident. To start, he removed the carburetors to clean them up. He says, “The carburetors were just a ball of oxygenation and nothing moved. I actually soaked them in a bucket of carburetor cleaner for months and still nothing would move.” And even with that bad news, there was a ray of hope. “But the engine itself, short of oxygenation [on the] outside, had remained sealed and no water had gotten inside whatsoever.” He continued taking the motor apart, verifying its potential and nothing needed to be done short of some minor clean up. Now he had something to work with.
The suspension was next. “I originally intended to just use the factory shocks, but [changing the suspension] was done out of necessity, not of doing something different.” As previously mentioned, the shocks had taken on water at some point in their life and, with the dropping temperatures in Oregon, froze, damaging them beyond repair. Going back to factory equipment would be expensive and this was not that kind of build. He needed another option.
At the time, Rowland lived in a particularly college-heavy portion of Oregon and that meant that the local wrecking yards had lots of damaged sport bikes to choose from. One in particular was a prime candidate for parts. “The bike that the suspension had come off of was laid down at high speed and the middle of it slammed into a telephone pole,” he says. “The frame and the top of the motor were no good, but the two extremities were fine. So I was like, well, these are cheap and available, let me see if I can make this work.”
The rear suspension wasn’t ridiculously hard for him to do, although it did necessitate removing the factory gas tank and replacing it with a refurbished and shortened cylinder. The front end, on the other hand, that was a challenge.
The goal with the suspension was to keep the original handling characteristics of a Gold Wing, but to do so with a sport bike suspension. The problem is that his replacement forks were shorter than the Gold Wing’s forks, and that means that just swapping things over would have made for a lower center of gravity, lower ground clearance and a whole ton of other issues.
Were Rowland to be anyone else, this might be fine. But to him, that was a setback. “You’ll notice, too, if you look at pictures of café racers and all the kind of trendy bikes kids these days are building, any time there is an upside down fork swap onto an older bike, the bike invariably get lowered to the point where it starts losing some of it’s capabilities,” he explains. “And I wanted to avoid that with the Gold Wing for sure.” Why? Well, it wasn’t just the handling, but also because of the way the heads on the Gold Wing engine protrude from the frame. A lower frame means that on tighter turns he might scrape the valve covers on the ground — not cool. At the end of the project, he was actually able to raise the bike ever so slightly from the factory riding position. “I was happy with that,” he says.
There are dozens of other details on the bike that should be mentioned. The taillights are a necessity of the design; without a rear fender, the stock lenses had nowhere to mount, so he created something new. The shelter wasn’t going to function exactly the same way it did as stock, so pieces were combined, massaged and cleaned up, with a few straps to add some style to the situation. There are the creature comforts as well, such as the machined iPhone holder on the bars and the bag over the headlights to hold small items on trips. But ultimately, the reason he owns the bike is for the ride, both short and long. “Primarily I use to just put a smile on my face,” he says. “I ride it every chance I get.”
The response from other motorcycle riders has been quite positive, particularly among the Gold Wing community. Most who see him riding ask what it is and do a double take when he explains that it’s not just a Honda, but a Wing. “The nice thing for me is that Gold wing riders have been very receptive. Especially when I tell them the bike was scrap metal — I didn’t take a good one.”
What Rowland did was revive a bike that would have been otherwise sold for scrap metal and turned it into something positive that he could enjoy. And the respect and admiration he has for the traditional Gold Wing community hasn’t gone anywhere, either. “I love [Gold Wings] with the fairing. I’ve ridden them before. They are just the most comfortable, amazing touring machines I’ve ever been on.” Someday he may even buy himself a Wing of his own, complete with all the plastics and trim. But if he buys another for a project, that one will be a bit rougher. “Any one that I do this kind of project to, just for my own personal conscience, has to already be a basket case. I’m not a fan of throwing away good parts, shall we say.”
And that’s the important part. Forget the opinions of others, disregard whether it was right or wrong for him to build the bike the way he did. Instead, what Rowland accomplished by rebuilding a trashed ’83 GL1100 was to put a Gold Wing back on the road that otherwise would have been left to rot itself away. Lost to the ages and sitting under a blue tarp.
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