Multiple motorcyclists asked me about the longevity of Honda’s new front suspension after seeing a video by Max McAllister, president of Traxxion Dynamics, an aftermarket suspension outfit. You might want to watch if you’re interested in reading this article and going full nerd on their new fork for a few minutes. Take a peek:
McAllister has clearly had ample time with a 2018 Honda Gold Wing. At the time of this writing, he has about 30 videos uploaded to his YouTube channel dealing with the front end specific to this bike. If you’re unfamiliar with the 2018 version of the Gold Wing and Gold Wing Tour, you should know that Honda completely redesigned the fork, using a Hossack-style front end that they call a “double-wishbone,” a huge departure from the previous generation’s conventional telescopic unit.
Honda, unsurprisingly, touts the benefits of its new system. McAllister thinks there are some flaws with Honda’s execution of the new design. That difference of opinion got me interested enough to investigate on my own.
Obviously, both parties have some skin in this game: Honda wants to move units of their flagship bike, which has been plagued lately by flagging sales. McAllister, of course, is in the business of selling suspension components, and a customer who has both the budget and interest level in motorcycling to purchase a Gold Wing is probably a likely candidate to spend additional money to improve his mount.
McAllister’s video is titled “2018 Honda Gold Wing front shock sags onto bumper! It's sad…” He continues to effectively describe how the suspension setup works: When the bike is loaded with a rider, the shock absorber is a few millimeters away from beginning to compress what he calls the bumper, and that compression occurs all the way until the shock reaches its maximum front wheel travel, as given by Honda.
McAllister sees this as a design flaw, so I approached Jon Seidel and Colin Miller of American Honda to get their explanation of the front suspension action.
“The bumper is designed to be a working part of the suspension, much like a damper. Unlike a traditional shock design, where the bumper is used near the end of shock travel, the Gold Wing shock has a damper/bumper that is active during normal use. This design, unique to the Gold Wing’s double wishbone front suspension, allows for a more progressive approach to the end of shock travel,” they responded in a written statement.
In essence, the bumper is not the traditional bump stop intended to reduce the sudden jolt (and clang!) that a bottomed shock delivers to a rider. Instead, it’s an integral part of the suspension designed to add progressivity to the spring by offering greater resistance as the shock approaches its maximum travel.
I asked McAllister how he felt the new Gold Wing rode. “The stock suspension on the new Gold Wing follows a consistent philosophy as has been applied to the bike for decades," he said. "It is extremely undersprung and underdamped for the intended use of the motorcycle."
McAllister also doesn't think it's a good idea to use the bumper as an active part of the suspension. “Honda could choose to simply design a mechanical spring that has the progressive rate they are achieving with a spring and a bumper,” said McAllister. “Past that, modern springs hold their rate and don’t degrade over time. Elastomers do not last, especially if they are being pounded constantly. They degrade from environmental conditions as well.”
Miller had addressed this very topic in a separate email to me. “As one would expect, we tested the shock with a higher-rate coil spring and higher damping force during the prototype development stage, but we decided not to adopt those settings because they had too many negative effects. The handling felt uneasy as the behavior of the chassis became too reactive, the stability performance decreased for the same reason and, most importantly, riding comfort suffered on normal roads as the rider felt small bumps through the handlebars more, resulting in decreased overall ride comfort.”
McAllister shows the shock operation in the video, but the demonstration has potential to be misinterpreted, due simply to the fact that front wheel travel is not a 1:1 ratio with travel at the shock shaft. The suspension, acting as a lever, moves the front wheel quite a bit more than the shock shaft travels.
“The ratio of vertical front wheel travel to shock piston travel is approximately 2:1, at 110 mm and 57.2 mm respectively,” according to Honda’s written explanation. McAllister himself agrees with those numbers, with only a tiny variance.
“I believe that the front bumper will not survive the high mileage Gold Wing owners will subject it to. I believe this will be a problem for Honda,” McAllister stated. I asked him about his video title, which seemed a bit incendiary, to which he replied, “The front suspension bottoms very easily. The mechanical spring is extremely soft. The bumper comes into use at 40 percent wheel travel. Most shock bumpers come into play around 70 percent wheel travel.
“It is obvious that Honda did this intentionally, but I find it sad that there is a piece of foam that cost Honda less than $1 acting as an actual spring on an 800-pound motorcycle that will have 500-700 pounds of riders and gear on it typically.
“The bumper will spend virtually all of the time the motorcycle is moving with a load on it, and it will be cycled to 100 percent travel (bottomed) constantly. The only time the bumper will not be under pressure will be under hard acceleration or when the wheel dips down into a low spot or pothole in the pavement.”
Honda’s Miller emphasized that the compound the bumper is made of is a proprietary urethane blend. “Of course we produce and sell motorcycles and expect to make a profit, but we will not do so at the expense of our customers’ satisfaction," he wrote. "Nor do we build motorcycles with the intention of just getting through the warranty period. That is not how Honda has built its brand reputation.”
I pinged my buddy, Evan Aamodt, who’s a mechanical engineer, to see if he could give me any more info that might not be evident to a layman. “There's a notched section about a third of the distance from the end of the bumper that tells me it's intended to compress in that area relatively easily. As for the durability of the bumper, that really comes down to the properties of the material and how hard it's being worked. There are plenty of examples of polymers holding up over high cyclic loading, like the boots over the CV joints in your car's axles, or the boot around the stick on a manual transmission car. In both cases, there are folds in the rubber that allow it to move easily under light loading. The notched section in the bumper is likely doing something similar.”
McAllister says that the shock shaft’s dust cover is compounding this issue. “The gap in the dust cap around the shock bumper cuts into the bumper constantly. Eventually, it will continue to cut core samples from the bumper, and the foam will fill up under the dust cap, and begin to damage the seal.” The photos of a bumper you're looking at came from a motorcycle with allegedly very limited use (375 miles). McAllister claims the damage stems from the shocks body's dust seal, which appears to be made of sheet metal.
McAllister had one final problem. “Given that the entire weight carrying capacity of the new Gold Wing is 423 pounds, Honda didn’t just miss the mark, they didn’t even enter the ballpark. After 43 years of Gold Wings, the engineers at Honda clearly refuse to build a bike for the typical people that ride it. The typical male rider of a Gold Wing in the United States is 250 pounds, and a typical wife is 180 pounds. Together, they weigh 430 pounds, and have exceeded the GVW of the new Gold Wing. That is before they put on a helmet!”
Honda’s Miller had a rebuttal to that. “We usually don’t list the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) in the traditional sense but we do give curb weight (wet weight) and max weight capacity (load capacity). These two values combine to yield the GVWR. Most bikes in the touring area have a weight capacity in the 400-pound range, so we are not out of the norm on our weight capacity. The GL1800 GVWR can be a little deceiving. It appears to be lower when comparing other models from previous years and that is due to the lower wet weight of the motorcycle. It’s important to note that the 2018 Gold Wing has a higher load capacity than the ’17 year model, by 34 pounds.”
For reference, a 2007 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide has a weight capacity of 471 pounds, a 2005 BMW K1200LT has a weight capacity of 470 pounds, and a 2013 Yamaha FJR1300 rings in with a 476-pound capacity. Honda is low, but not crazy-low — and the reality is that many bikes are regularly overloaded. This problem is not isolated to Honda.
I’ll take a moment to inject my own opinion, because it’s the very thing that got me interested in researching the article. I rode this bike. I’ve told you what I thought about it in our review: The suspension rides nicely! The brake dive is reduced. (Though BMW’s implementation of this system is, to me, better.)
I do think McAllister has made a few good points, though. The front of the new Wingy is definitely undersprung for a man of my portly stature, and loading (and overloading) these bikes makes it worse. Naked Lem (yick!) and naked Mrs. Lem (whoo!) ring in at basically the Wing’s load capacity. Since we make a habit of riding dressed (and bringing additional items along on our little adventures), we were overloading this bike slightly every time we took it for a ride.
To me, the best evidence Honda’s system works is… that it works. This new Gold Wing is a vast improvement over the previous-gen Wingy I reviewed back in 2015. But that doesn’t negate McAllister’s experience — he’s been around the block before, and this isn’t the first fork he’s ever pulled apart.
Relying on a little squishy rubber piece rather than simply installing a progressive spring from the get-go seems maybe a bit chintzy. The dust cover on the shock does seem to be beating that urethane bumper up prematurely, and that could be detrimental to the service life of the bumper in question.
My suspicion is that Honda’s main goal differs a bit from that of Traxxion Dynamics. Honda wants to make money, and they can do that by using inexpensive suspension pieces that are engineered to work very well, which I think they did. They operate under the assumption that no pieces need to last indefinitely, and that suspension component replacement is a reasonable expectation for a customer who intends to ride the bike for a significant period of time.
Traxxion Dynamics also wants to make some coin, but they are doing that by producing excellent suspension components. Given that most people would find an increase in price on such a costly bike rather objectionable, McAllister is simply catering to customers with higher budgets and higher expectations.
I think the Honda solution works fine and will make it through the warranty period no sweat. I also feel that since rebuilding this shock isn’t likely to be financially prudent, replacement with a superior aftermarket offering makes sense if the customer finds value in such an upgrade. It’s almost a non-issue for many people, because the bumper is part of the shock assembly; it’s not offered separately nor is it meant to be replaced.
Most riders who are truly interested in the best ride comfort for their particular payload will respring and revalve this bike anyway, so it’s a moot point for them. Once a heavier spring is fitted, even if the stock shock is retained, the beating the bumper takes will be greatly lessened. (Though it would likely prove too progressive, so a shock and spring swap at the same time would probably the more intelligent way to to approach a fork upgrade.) Me? If I bought one of these, I’d probably leave it alone. It worked brilliantly for Mrs. Lem and I. Could it be improved? Sure. Did I have that high on my list of needs? Nah.
Long story short: Honda's arrangement will probably work (and work well) for a reasonable time period, but as McAllister shows, there are other, better (and more expensive) ways to skin a cat. Of course, Honda may simply update or improve the part — if it proves to fail prematurely, which we have yet to see. OEMs are generally good about refining designs, especially on important models with long model runs… just like the venerable Gold Wing. If they don’t, odds are good Traxxion Dynamics will have an alternative on their shelves.