Choppaholic – The Fastest Virago?

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Stan Stephens may build some ultra-fast racers but there’s a darker side to his complex personality – a fondness for factory customs and things with high bars and long forks. Stop laughing at the back of the class and pay attention.

Courtesy of Performance Bike magazine

Courtesy of Performance Bike magazine

Why tune a factory custom Stan? “Well, I’m getting old. I must be. I like these kinds of bikes now. They’re much more relaxed. You can just blat about and admire the scenery. Relaxation. But standard, these engines are terrible. We thought, seeing as there are so many Viragos about, that we could just breathe on them a bit. Make them a bit more fun to ride. I had a V-Max before this but the Virago definitely handles better.”

Coming from one of the biggest (now reformed) hooligans this side of Millwall, this is rich indeed. Taking it easy? Relax? Leave it out Stan.

Stan’s idea of relaxing isn’t yer normal pipe ‘n’ slippers routine. This becomes clear the moment the Virago bursts into life. The thunderous din from the slash-cut drag pipes is loud enough to wake the dead. Well, it may not resurrect stiffs but it does set curtains a-twitching. Stan likes his bikes noisy – he’s an ex-sidecar racer, remember. My neighbours aren’t quite so impressed.

But it’s not all noise and trousers. It goes too. In standard trim the 1100 Virago suffers from the same chronic, emission-passing, strangulated carburation as all the other big factory custards. This Stephenised version gets round the problem with a new air filter and jets big enough to squeeze your head through. This eliminates the asthmatic throttle response but caused major headaches when we came to dyno it.

Without at least a 50mph wind wafting over the pancake air filter, the Virago runs chronically rich on the test bed. So rich that it misfires under full throttle loads. Not a problem on the road with a headwind leaning off the carburation, but in the foetid, benzene filled test room, the Virago’s combustion chambers couldn’t cope with all that fuel.

The richer carburation, freer flowing exhaust system and less restrictive air filter make this Virago much more fun to ride. Throttle response, when you blip to down-change, is instant and snappier than an angry alligator. It’s much crisper higher up the rev range, too.

Handling isn’t much different, despite softer damping for the rear shocks (“surprisingly they were far too hard”) and firmer damping and springing for the front forks. It’s hardly going to post a fastest lap round Cadwell Park but on the road, things are noticeably better (not difficult) than the stocker. Less dive on the brakes, less wallowing mid-corner. But ground clearance is still inherently abysmal.

But it’s not about going round corners, sadly. Life with a Virago, tuned or not, is about cruising straight lines. Stan added a small perspex screen to make dual carriageway life less arm-stretching, effectively removing the role of parachute from the rider’s list of tasks. It’ll comfortably cruise at 90-95 now (and sounds like a Sopwith in a death-spin) if your ears can stand it. The screen doesn’t stop the wind cooling your armpits or the breeze howling up your trouser legs.

Courtesy of Performance Bike magazine

At motorway speeds there’s a useful reserve of roll-on power to squirt safely into gaps or change lane. Whack the twistgrip open and hurtle forward. Noticeably better than the stock XV1100. It’s the kind of instantly available oomph to unsettle (or lose) unsuspecting passengers. In their undeniable generosity Yamaha have provided a special passenger-steady which, in sad chopper-speak, is called a sissy bar.

Power happens in a shaking, juddering kind of way from idle to 6500rpm, tailing off noticeably at seven. It’s plenty. With this kind of power-band the gearbox is almost redundant and life becomes a largely top gear affair. All you have to do is roll the throttle on and off, stroke the brakes occasionally and point it in roughly the right direction. Easy peasy.

(Above article and images are reproduced courtesy of Performance Bike magazine.)

You’re happy with your Virago, right? You like the way it rides easy, pulls like a train from low down & has easy power right through the rev band. Good isn’t it? Imagine if you will, having all this but more. Way more. In fact, 20% more power & 15% more torque. More power & torque than an 80 cube Harley… Interested? Then read on…

Steve Hyde, a regular attendee at the Bull, Marsham Arms & Robin Hood meetings, came to the Virago from a YZF750R. Not just any old polymer projectile, but a real race-rep with all the usual compromises when ridden on the road. No low down power, bad for the passenger, etc. One ride on an XV1100 was enough to convince Steve that the Virago was for him. So he bought one. A rather nice ’93 model with about 5K on the clock & in showroom condition.

Mr Hyde’s XV1200.

Below is an article about Stan that was first published on the Essex Crusader’s website in 1998!

Having ridden the bike for a while, Steve felt that something was lacking. What he needed was a “Dr Jekyll” to make his bike into a real schizophrenic. Enter a certain Mr Stan Stephens, former sidecar ace & bike tuner of some renown. It just so happens that Stan is a cruiser fan. He had an XV1100 himself & did a bit of work on it. It went well. Very well indeed.

Stan had a recipe for a “super Virago”. “Take K&N air filters, megacycle cams, gas flowed heads, Dynojets & that old favourite, a Laser exhaust system. Bake in hot oven, then serve to unsuspecting tupperware pilot”. This was enough to knock 2 seconds off the standing quarter compared to stock. The bike would also power wheely in the first two gears. Steve was hooked, this had to be done!

But, Stan being a cunning Dr Jekyll, suggested something yet more tempting to our Mr Hyde. A big bore kit, using modified XT600 pistons, taking the capacity from 1063cc to 1155cc. Yamaha call the standard bike an “1100” so Steve’s calling his one a “1200”, and why not indeed. Well, all this proved to be far too tempting & the bike was duly taken to Stan Stephens’ workshops at Brands Hatch for the work to be done.

And what a job he did! The bike was dyno’d both before and after modification. In stock trim (save for Laser pipes) the bike gave 58 bhp @6000 rpm, with 63 ft/lb of torque @3000 rpm. It now has 74 bhp @6300 rpm, with a whopping 73 ft/lb @4000 rpm. “Ah ha!” you say, “it’s all been shifted up the rev range a bit, the bike is now peaky like all tune up jobs”. But you’d be wrong.

A quick scan of the dyno charts reveal that the new curves sit right over the old ones. Also they’re broader. Steve’s bike now produces as much torque as the stock bike’s peak, at 2200 rpm. The same power as the stocker’s peak is reached at 4300 rpm. 72 bhp is still being made at 7200 rpm! Note that these are real figures measured at the rear wheel, where it counts.

So, enough of the anorak stuff, what’s it like to ride?

Well, picture how the standard XV1100 goes, then add a lot. For a start, you can tell by the exhaust note that this is something special. Those familiar with the dulcet tones of Laser pipes will notice the slight increase in volume, accompanied by a treblier tone. Yes, it’s a bit louder, but not so much as to be offensive. Then there’s the throttle response. If you “flip the grip” from tickover, there is no discernible lag, the tacho needle just belts toward the red line with gusto. Pulling away, it becomes evident that the sensation is not just limited to a quick blip from tickover. You feel as though the twist grip is directly linked to the rear wheel. You twist, the bike takes off.

“Take off” is a most apt phrase, as, if such is your wont, the front wheel can be lofted with ease in any of the first three gears. Acceleration feels very urgent, I found that 90mph (where permitted) came up pretty darn quick. Also when accelerating hard over transverse ridges, the bike hopped across all the peaks, with little bursts of wheelspin over the troughs. Presumably, if it were possible to measure it accurately, an improvement would be seen over & above Stan’s two seconds over the quarter.

At the other end of the scale though, Steve’s ex-vee-twelve is a docile puppy. Usable power is there from tick over, (at 2500 rpm the standard bike produces 30 ft/lbs of torque, at the same engine speed, this one produces 66 ft/lbs!). It’s possible to short-shift the gears and chug around very lazily indeed. The bike will pull cleanly from any speed in any gear, whether you go slowly or quickly really is just a question of how much “fist” you want to give it. Two up, or laden with luggage, it makes no difference to this machine. She’ll get up and go anyway.

With all this usable power on tap, overtaking is a breeze. Changing down is not usually needed, just squeeze on the power and go!

But all that glitters is not gold and this is no exception. Tuning any type of engine is definitely quid pro quo. So what’s wrong with this then? Well, there is a tendency to pop & bang a tad on the overrun. This could become a bit wearing on a long journey. Also early indications are that fuel consumption might suffer as well. The engine is still tight though so time will tell. In any case, it’s only reasonable to expect worse fuel mileage at this state of tune. Cosmetically, the bike looks a little different because it has a pair of big K&N air filters on it, in place of the standard chrome “blisters”. The filter on the left side is a dummy, to balance the appearance. Otherwise no one need know of the secret.

Top speed is limited by the overall gearing & so is the same as the cooking model at about 115mph. I’ve always felt that the XV1100 could use another gear or taller overall gearing. This bike would really benefit from such a thing if it were possible. I mentioned this to Steve. He had that glint in his eye when he said “It’s being looked into”…

Overall then, this is a package which adds up to a whole load of fun. All the traditional Virago virtues are retained, plus you get the benefit of loads of “grunt”, more power and an extended rev range. Reliability should not suffer, as the Virago bottom end is built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Your bank balance will suffer though, as the cost of all this work is about two grand. Still, this is a bargain, since it fulfils Steve’s vision of what his bike should be like. Some spend as much if not more on paint & chrome doohickeys. Anyhow, it’s all in the true Virago spirit of putting something of oneself into ones bike.

Stan Stephens offers tuning starting with the basic Dynojet kit, all the way up to the big bore option that Steve chose. Whatever you choose is quoted on an individual basis. Who’s going to be first with an XV1500?

Stan Stephens can be contacted on : 01474 879331.

Dave Bailey
April 1998

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