The roots of this story date back to the late 1970’s when Yamaha designed their first motorcycle for the American market. Although they were having some success selling the style of bikes that were familiar to us at the time, they knew that the Americans wanted a different look. So they styled a bike to suit their taste and “The Specials” were produced. They took their existing ranges and produced a special edition of each, these all looked basically the same but used the existing engine configurations from single cylinder, parallel twin through to in line four. The next step was to alter the look slightly and produce the Maxims which were either XJ or XS giving a choice of both parallel twin or inline four engines. Personally I think that Yamaha knew they had the right look but were just trying to find out which engine the Americans wanted.

The final step was to develop a vee twin engine and put it in their original special edition style. These became the first Viragos and were launched in 1981 as 750cc and 920cc. Outside of America the 750cc was not called a Virago during it’s first year and was known as the XV750SE, SE standing for Special Edition. The 920cc differed from the US model, it was chain driven, had a 980cc engine and was called the TR1.

A year earlier in 1980, Yamaha approached British custom bike builder John Reed, they gave him one of their new Vee Twin engines and a brief to create a custom bike that they could use to promote it. This bike became a legend in custom bike circles and is known as “The Gold Yamaha”

It was shown around the US custom show circuit as a viable alternative to use on new build projects and it had just become available in a production bike. The success of the Virago was pretty much sealed by this move and by 1983 the American motorcycle manufacturers could see themselves going the same way as the British motorcycle industry. You have to remember that back then Harley Davidson were not the company that they are today. They lobbied their government in an attempt to have large capacity motorcycles from Japan banned, however the government stopped short of this and imposed punitive tax levels on the ones that were 750cc and over. These became known as the Import Tariff Years.

… in 1980, Yamaha approached British custom bike builder John Reed. They gave him one of their new Vee Twin engines and a brief to create a custom bike… This bike became a legend in custom bike circles and is known as “The Gold Yamaha”
By now all four Japanese manufacturers were producing bikes in what the British motorcycle press were calling “US Custom Styling”. Yamaha responded to the tariffs by cutting the 750cc down to a 700 and restyling the bike with more chrome and brighter colour schemes, which made them even more appealing to the Americans. These were the next generation of Viragos that most people are more familiar with and they gave birth to our club.

Fast forward to 1993 and the Virago is a now a worldwide best seller. In The UK John Bryning and Peter Healy placed an advert in MCN asking if anyone would like to form a Virago Owners Club? This was very quickly picked up on by many owners and within a year the club became established. This also happened in many other countries, all of whom are now in contact with one another and we have an international rally circuit.

In 1994 Yamaha built on the success of the Virago by creating a new brand name for the American market, it was called Star Motorcycles and both it’s design team and headquarters are in California. From then on all of the cruisers they sold in America would be Star Motorcycles not Yamaha. In 1996 their first range, the Royal Star was launched. The following year came the Dragstar and the Roadstar (Wildstar in the UK) just after. All of these bikes had a similar look to them that is very American, more so than the Americans make! Personally I think they look more stylish. In time these original ones became the bedrock of the brand with new styles being added over the years. They have now built up a stable of bikes to suit all tastes and produce 14/16 differing models every year. Unfortunately they are only available in the US and we only get a few basic ones here, however, imports are plentiful.

By 1999 many of our members had started to buy these new bikes, so, after a lot of debate it was decided that the club should adopt them and we became the Virago Star Owners Club.

Our club is now approaching it’s 25th anniversary and many of our bikes are now classic ones. Both the club and the bikes have an awful lot of history, I became aware of this a few years ago and started piecing it together. One aspect of this was to run club stands at classic bike shows which I have filmed and are on You Tube.

Bob Barber
heritage@vsoc.org.uk

 

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