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Twenty years is a long time for a manufacturer to churn out the same basic motorcycle powered by the same basic engine, and still find buyers for it. Rob Smith chucks on the chaps to look at the larger capacity Yamaha Virago range

No matter how you look at it, you can't deny that if a design was fundamentally right back then, and is largely unchanged now, there can't be a whole lot wrong with it...

Let's rewind the clock a bit here. The very first Yamaha XV750 cruiser hit these shores in 1981 and at that time the reception was decidedly cool, as Yamaha's previous attempts at gaining a slice of the ‘cruiser' market (a term which hadn't been applied to motorcycles back then) had been somewhat less than spectacular. Up until then Yamaha had tried using derivations of existing twin, triple and four-cylinder models restyled and labelled "custom" or "special". Of course everyone knew that in order to get anywhere near the errm, ‘real thing', you needed two cylinders, and they had to be arranged in a "V" configuration.

Yamaha refused to be put off and was nothing if not stubborn, and so it came up with the air-cooled, 749cc, SOHC V-twin unit that is still seeing service today as the platform for the larger capacity XVS1100. As points of difference from the alternatives, the XV featured a clean and simple shaft drive. There were twin discs up front, curved spoked wheels called ‘italic' and while the finish left a bit to be desired, it was technologically superior and more reliable than anything similar that was around at the time.

The XV750H stuck around until 1984 as the MK with little more than in increase in fuel tank size and a lick of paint. However in 1983 it was joined by the 981cc XV1000 which answered the call for more cubes and featured twin rear shocks instead of a monoshock, different styling cues such as fifteen inch rear wheel, stepped seat and a lashing of chrome for polishophiles. The thousand itself remained largely unchanged until 1987 when it received a make-over and a ream with the boring bar to become the XV1100 Virago.

Meanwhile, over the other side of the pond, the septics who had been getting XVs' in all manner of sizes including 700cc and 920cc, were buying mountains of the things and the XV was establishing itself a large and dedicated following. In Australia the Virago eleven stuck around unchanged for twelve years, and witnessed the return of its little brother the 750 in '94. Both models finally took the final curtain call, bowed out and exited stage left in 1999. Concerned fans of which there are many had to wait until 2000 for their favourite motorcycle to return as the XVS1100.

With around 50-60 ps available from the two engine sizes and up to 220kg to lug about, performance from either the 750 or 1100 is never going to raise pulses. However what there is, is pleasingly energetic and spins up quite nicely, especially once some pipes and jets are fitted, more on which later. Away from the lights both bikes will launch with enough punch to elevate the wheel and stay ahead of the quad-wheeled Kelvinators. The 1100 can even put on a decent show if the mood is upon you, laying rubber in a good-natured sort of way.

Out on the highway loping or loafing along is the order of the day. The little 750 being the smoother of the two units even if it does give away a bit of grunt when it comes to hills and overtaking. As for the twisty stuff, you'd be right if you thought these things might not be over-sharp. Ride either motorcycle at anything above the aforementioned loaf, and be prepared for leaving long and entertaining trails of metal, as the pegs scrawp and scrape across the bitumen. At the back the pre-load adjustable twin shocks stop the mudguard from dragging and cosset the rider's backside, but little else. That said, ride quality is fairly good with the soft-suspension and sumptuous seat being kind on the rider even if the handlebars have been designed for the hands of a gibbon. These bars have no place on a motorcycle, and should be attached to a wheel-barrow where they can perform some useful function.

The riding position, with its forward mounted footrests, is apparently bearable for sustained distances, although it's my experience that a riding position that resembles a birthing chair seems strangely at odds with motorcycles over long distances. Mind you with a small tank range the opportunity to get off and stretch may alleviate the waters breaking... errr, I mean back aching...

Pillion passengers get a bit of a raw deal. Despite the seat footrest relationship being good, there isn't a great deal of actual seat available. Aftermarket ‘sissy bars' with back pads seem popular as they allow the passenger to lean back and away from the rider in order to have more room.

Both bikes are long — well over 1500mm — and the front wheel is raked out on long travel (100mm) non-adjustable, leading axle forks. Despite the geometry which makes the Virago slow-steering and stable it'll turn with a high degree of delicacy thanks to the skinny nineteen-inch front wheel and the perversely shaped but wide bars. In town the Virago is a piece of the proverbial to slip between the traffic. A low centre of gravity makes low-speed trickling easy, as does the super low seat height at 715mm.

Both the 750 and 1100 breathe through twin 40-mm Mikuni carbs, which allow about 200 kays from the stupidly small 14.7 and 16.8 litre tanks on the 750 and 1100 respectively. I know, before you write in saying the maths doesn't add up, there's a reason. The reason is have a look where the filler is, you can't fill the tank right up because the filler isn't at the top. What was that about style over function?

Achieving close to twenty klicks per litre is good in anybody's book, and many manufacturers of ‘tourers' would do well to take note. After all where's the point in having a great long distance package that can't manage a decent distance because the inside of the tank is as dry as a dead dingo's donger.

When it comes to pulling the thing down to a stop, the brakes, are just about on the right side of okay. At the front a pair of 267mm solid discs gripped by twin-piston calipers do the job required more or less adequately, while in the supporting role, the rear gets a 200mm drum.

The XV lump has withstood the test of time and a billion kays pretty well and as a result has a well-deserved reputation for simplicity and reliability. However it's not without some faults, most of which centre around the starting system.

First up, the starter clutch on the 1000/1100 wears out, This manifests itself by a delay in engaging, spinning when you hit the button, or clattering when it does. The starter clutch protects the engine from backfires when starting and is within the realms of owner replacement. The Virago owners club, which is a vital web-based resource, recommends adding three shims to take up any wear caused by prolonged use. Because the 750 doesn't have a starter clutch, the recommended fix for the same symptoms are a new idler gear and tension clip. On the other hand, if the starter is reluctant and noisy to disengage, the idler gear compression spring and starter gear tension clip is up for replacement.

There can be any number of variations in symptoms all associated with the starter and if you find yourself with a misbehaving Virago starter-stress that you can't resolve, it may well be more economical to get an expert on the case.

Backfiring on the over-run can be a persistent nuisance, and as infuriatingly frustrating to track down as the starter problems. The most common cause of backfiring on the over-run is an air leak in the exhaust system. If the motorcycle is fitted with aftermarket pipes this may well be the cause. It may be that the plugs are fouling, there could be rust in the tank, or the emission system is playing up and needs bypassing.

Virago ownership is generally a trouble-free experience and the costs associated with servicing them are relatively pain free. A lot of owners elect to get their hands dirty and do the maintenance themselves. As has been said the engine is pretty low-tech, and access to the major components is fairly easy. Valves are adjusted using simple screw and locknut, and spares are pretty cheap and plentiful. A minor service every 5000 kays and a major every ten can be as cheap as $100 and $150 if you do the work yourself, or $150-$200 if you get your local dealer involved.

MODIFICATIONS This is a cruiser. This means chromey bits, leather saddle-bags, tassles, a ton of stuff to make the thing look good. The fact is, the Virago is already well taken care of in the chrome department, so I'd be looking at improving the very soggy suspension, the brakes and the riding position. The suspension needs re-valving at the front and a pair of decent shocks from someone like Ikon which does chrome custom style units at the back. Brakes would get braided lines and quality pads and those dreadful bars would be in a skip replaced by something that allowed easy operation of the levers and a natural hand position. A small screen to combat the wind pressure wouldn't go astray either. After that it'd be hello mister exhaust man, and a dynojet kit to crisp up the performance. Sorted!

Well, it all depends on whether size really matters to you. To my mind the 750 is the sweeter running machine and the added bonus of being a little cheaper to run really appeals. Because there were so few changes there's nothing to choose between them in terms of looks and equipment. I'd probably make my decision based on the number of kilometres, whether there were any accessories thrown in, and whether I liked the colour.

You either love cruisers or you hate ‘em. The fact that the Virago is the Grandaddy of all of them shows that loads of people love them. In simple term's it's a decent motorcycle for riders who don't place a lot of store by which bike's three tenths of a second faster around the Island. It's not how fast you travel, but the way you travel. Just like the Virago, you can't find a lot wrong with that!

Published : Thursday, 1 May 2003
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