The History of the Virago

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A while back, Tom Fortune, Contributing Editor of Motorcycle Online wrote an article about the 15 year history of the Virago and the heritage which it built. The article was titled “15 Years of Viragos—Since 1981, Providing that Unique American Style”.

Without going into tremendous detail, Tom has been able to capture the essence of the history of the Virago in this abbreviated article, following is Tom’s interesting article:

Heritage – mention this word to a crowd of motorcyclists, and Harley-Davidson usually comes to mind. Mention Yamaha to that same crowd, and look out for a fight.

But Yamaha has been slowly building a heritage of its own around their Virago line of cruisers. The 1981 Virago 750 was the original V-twin cruiser from Japan, and 15 years later it is still, arguably, the most popular Japanese bike in what has become an American styling tradition. Back in the mid to late 1970’s a new style of motorcycle began appearing on the American scene – the Custom. Tired of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle look, owners were personalizing their bikes themselves. But US-based stylists for the Big Four kept noticing the popularity of one home-grown look – the chopper. High, pull-back handlebars, brightly chromed exhaust pipes, stepped seats with sissy bars and extended front forks were the rage among customisers.

The stylists pleaded with Japan to offer this flair in a “factory” package. Hence the Customs and Specials were born. Based on the Standard models, Customs provided the rider with extra styling touches like spoked wheels, plush stepped seats and two-tone paint jobs. They were an instant success, often out-selling the Standard models they were based on. But, of course, the most popular bike to customize continued to be Harley-Davidson’s. During that nascent period, Yamaha’s Manager of Motorcycle Product Planning in the U.S. was Ed Burke. Burke’s research found that although riders loved the look of the UJM-based Customs, they also wished to have the appearance and power characteristics of an air-cooled V-twin, but at a better price.

So Burke, working closely with Yamaha’s engine designer “Hap” Ueno, headed up a new project and together they developed something very unique. The design centered around a 75-degree V-twin with an offset rear cylinder. They figured this layout would offer the optimum balance of wheelbase, weight bias, and vibration control while providing improved cooling for the rear cylinder-Harley-Davidson cylinders are not offset- they share a crankpin with fork-and-tongue connecting rods (one rod is normal and the other is forked on the end so it has two journals and resides on the same centerline as the other rod). So in 1981, the XV750 Virago was born.

Quite a departure from any previous Japanese design, the Virago became the first mass-produced street bike to use a single shock rear suspension. Other unique styling touches Burke incorporated into the original design were low-maintenance shaft drive, air-adjustable forks, cast aluminium wheels, and of course, lots of Custom features – low-slung frame, high handlebars, stepped seat, and plenty of chrome. To give the Virago motor that “open air” look, the engine was hung from the stamped-steel backbone frame in stressed-member fashion. The unusual frame also doubled as an air box, housing the air filter. It was an immediate sales hit, one that continues today. And it was the start of a importer’s phenomenon – the V-twin cruiser – that had all the other manufacturers following suit.

Over the ensuing years, the Virago has undergone several notable changes. In 1982, Yamaha introduced a larger version of the 750, the XV920 Virago. The 920 offered several deluxe features not found on the 750, such as dual front discs, adjustable handlebars, and liquid-crystal display gauges. In 1983, the baby of the family was introduced, the XV500 Virago. The 750 and 920 Viragos each came in a Midnight version for 1983, replete with high-gloss black paint, and blacked-out engines with gold accents. The troublesome liquid-crystal display on the 920 was replaced with more traditional analogue gauges. Yamaha brought about a major redesign for both the 750 and 920 Viragos in 1984.

Riders wanted the bikes to have even more custom styling features – like more chrome and even more of a “chopper-like” appearance. So the air filters were moved outboard of the engine and chrome air cleaner covers were mounted over top. The mono shock rear suspension was scrapped in favour of exposed, dual shocks with bright chrome springs and bodies that actually worked much better than The mono-shock ever did. The gauges were enlarged for improved readability, and a “teardrop” gas tank completed the styling make-over. 1984 was also the first year of the Harley-induced U.S. government tariff regulations, and the 750 Virago was reduced to 699cc to squeak in under the tariff cut-off.

Conversely, the 920 Virago was enlarged to a full 1000cc, and a secondary, one-half gallon fuel tank was added under the seat to bolster its small 3.3 gallon main tank. The Viragos remained unchanged until 1986, when the 1000 was bumped up in displacement to 1,063cc and renamed the XV1100 Virago. The secondary fuel tank was eliminated and the main tank enlarged to 4.4 gallons. 1987 saw the littlest Virago grow to 535cc, and in 1988 the motorcycle import tariff was rescinded, allowing the return of the 750cc Virago.

Other than the introduction of new paint schemes every couple of years, Yamaha hasn’t changed the Virago since. And why should they? The classic-dare we say traditional-lines of the Virago series have amassed quite a following in its 15 years, spawning the Virago Owners Club along the way, and has become one of the most popular cruiser bikes in history.

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