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Honda GL 1500C Gold Wing F6C Valkyrie
Since its announcement a few months ago, Honda's 1500cc, assembled in America, six-cylinder Valkyrie has all the pre-release hype of a Beatles reunion built up around its not inconsiderable bulk.
But can it play the blues? Honda let the U.S. motorcycle press ride the Valkyrie last week, in the hill country above Santa Barbara, California.
We knew it was going to be big. Any motorcycle based on a Gold Wing motor and transmission is going to be huge.
But even so, nobody can be prepared for just how substantial the plot was until they clamber aboard.
Tipping the scales at 682 pounds dry - according to Honda figures - this cruiser really deserves its heavyweight title. Still, in the transition from full-dress tourer to cruiser with the works, a lot of weight was left off.
Most of it in the critical areas above the midpoint of the bike. So the center of gravity is low, and effort required to physically muscle the bike around is minimal, although nobody dropped the bike on its side to see how easy it would be to pick up.
Just sit on the bike, and the tank reaches forward like a football field. Thumb the oversize starter button, and a familiar whirr of the six cylinder 'Wing erupts. Despite their size, the controls are easy to use. Surely, with this motorcycle, Honda have reached the limit of cruiser size. We thought the Royal Star was big: the Valkyrie is every bit its equal in the size stakes, although some critical functions are different, but more of that later.
Aside from the wide handlebars, the motorcycle has much of the feel of the Gold Wing, because the physical limitations of the engine configuration make some changes impossible.
For instance, Honda's designers would surely have loved to make the riding position the feet-forward style adopted by their Shadow series, where the rider's feet and legs are splayed forward, so his or her toes are about parallel with the front of the frame cradle, ahead of the engine.
But a bank of three cylinders sticking out either side prohibits all but the extremely long and flexible of leg from ever getting a foot forward of the front cylinder, so the footpegs have to be behind the cylinders. Far enough behind that the rider's feet don't hit the rear cylinders either. So the rider's legs are forced into one posture, that of the sit up straight tourer. Actually, the riding position is a natural one, and probably offers greater comfort over a long ride, but the fact remains that it's unalterable.
Most impressively, once you get over the feeling of size, is the way the avenging angel handles the road. It feels like you're riding a 'Wing with huge bars and no fairing. That is until you get into the first corner, and the Valkyrie wallops through with no problems at all. No weave, no wander, no terminal wobble even if you hit a big set of bumps mid-corner.
The huge 46mm inverted fork and twin rear shocks soak up the bumps with ease. After all the cruiser foibles that we've reported on in the last few months (after all, none of these motorcycles are designed to be the best in cornering technology) the Honda is a revelation. Those big, fat tires and big, thick suspension components devour whatever you can throw at them, and you've really got to be trying to touch down the footpegs (don't try any harder, the next bits to touch down are bound to be hard).
The other big limitation of this huge, six cylinder lump is its power characteristics. Honda made a big deal of the changes to the engine, including solid lifters, different cams, and the fitting of six individual chromed carburetors. All in all, these differences don't make as much difference as you'd think to the power
characteristics of the 'Wing motor. I was expecting, if not a throbbing idle, at least some kind of seriously lumpy powerband. Not quite. The flat six is the epitome (knew I'd use that word sometime) of smoothness. At any speed, from idle up, opening the throttle results in a turbine-smooth whoosh of seamless power, right up to the 6,250 rpm redline, above which the rev limiter cuts in to end the fun.
Five gears are fitted - and all are well spaced, in a welcome change from the four gear shuffle on many cruisers. The time spent on this first ride was limited, so there was no chance to get performance figures in all of those gears. But cruising along just as fast as the laid back Southern California law allows (well, maybe a little bit faster, at 75mph) the tach was just brushing the 3,000 rpm mark, and vibration was totally absent.
The twin disc front brakes are powerful, pulling the bike up smartly, and the suspension is stiff enough that brake dive is not a problem. The rear brake is a tad on the wooden side and not the most effective in the world, though the effectiveness of the front binders more than makes up for any lack in the rear.
One fitting 'Wing owners may miss is the Gold Wing's electric reverse gear - it adds extra pounds, say the Honda men, and anyway, all the weight is low down on this bike. So they left off the starter-motor powered crawler gear, and expect all Valkyrie owners to be careful parkers. The huge bike is easy to maneuver at low speed, but ponderous. U-turns on a Valkyrie are equivalent to meeting a grizzly in the forest. Don't make any sudden moves, and you won't have any problems. If something does happen, let it do whatever it wants to, then shout loudly for help.
Here's the beef that most cruiser riders will have. They're looking for a motorcycle that rattles their fillings at 75 mph on the highway. A little bit of mild dental annoyance isn't out of place, to them, at 65 mph. It's the price you pay for being on a real motorcycle, and it's something that Honda have engineered very carefully into the Shadow 1100 American Classic Edition, by using offset crankpins to give the rider a dose of the shakes.
Yet the Valkyrie, for all the hot rodding, is still a smoothie. So Honda have not only created the ultimate cruiser - they've gone beyond ultimate. And this may be enough to kill the Valkyrie's chances of success. The price is right, at around a grand less than a Royal Star, but everything else is just too right. It's just too smooth, too good handling, too comfortable.
So the 1500cc six-cylinder hotrod cruiser is all that Honda promised, and more. Yet the flaw in this masterpiece is its lack of flaws. It's hamstrung by the very thing that makes it unique - its huge six cylinder engine that makes it too smooth for the cruiser crew. Hey Honda, what about a five cylinder? Disconnect one of the carburetors, and you'd have the perfect shaker.