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- Written by Carole Nash Editor
- Created: 23 June 2008
Ask 100 non bikers to name a motorcycle and the most popular response would be ’Harley-Davidson’, not Honda.
Those same wannabe Easy Riders will usually end up buying a Yamaha Virago as their first machine - why?
Because Yamaha created a suburban ticket to cruiser heaven. This handy little lowrider has enough chrome bits to polish, just the right amount of bhp to please the novice and it’s damn cheap to boot. OK, it ain’t the real thing, but you don’t require a mortgage to buy one.
Since its introduction back in the 1980s, the Virago 535 has gone on to become the best selling cruiser bike in Europe by some considerable margin. This feature takes a look back at the development of the model range in 250, 535, 750 and 1100cc sized variations and picks out some the best used bargains amongst the range.
There are many reasons for buying a motorcycle, but as one astute bike dealer told me several years ago, one of the most potent is the ’mid-life crisis.
This is when perfectly sound middle-aged blokes, suddenly put on spandex glitter slacks, go nightclubbing three times a week and have an affair with their daughter’s best mate, just to prove they’ve still got what it takes.
Deeply sad...but let me and Rod Stewart tell you, it feels great.
Another symptom of course, is buying a motorcycle to recapture that wild freedom of your lost youth. It might be that you decide to dress up as a demented Power Ranger and pop wheelies on a Fireblade, or you could go for the slightly balding, Peter Fonda look, on a throbbing V-twin cruiser.
If your bank balance has been irreparably damaged by the mortgage/family/messy divorce after daughter’s mate got pregnant, then check out a pre-owned Yamaha Virago 535, 750 or 1100.
I guarantee that you will - like the Fonz - look a bit older, but still cool. Just.
Many moons ago, Yamaha made a bit of a turkey in the shape of the TR1 V-twin sportbike, which didn’t sell too well. Not to be deterred from utilising its 75 degree, liquid cooled Vee shaped motor and spine framed chassis layout, they produced first the XV750, then XV1100 and later in the 1980s, the XV535 and XV250.
Out of them all, the 535 Virago is undoubtedly the best one to choose, mainly because, it’s benefited from serious development, making it a better motorcycle to actually ride, but also because it remains Europe’s best selling factory cruiser, selling in the thousands for over a decade now, so there’s lots of used models to choose from.
The XV535 Virago was launched back in 1987 and the first models can be easily spotted, as they were all painted burgundy and had an 80s style, flip-up saddle and dummy fuel tank. A year later, the bike got a normal - if tiny - petrol tank, some lower handlebars for the UK market and a colour choice between green, or greyish blue.
At heart, the late 80s Virago makes a good buy, assuming you can find one that’s never seen winter roads, because it is exactly the same easy-peasy, low seat height, pleasantly underpowered bike it remained into the late 1990s. It is an ideal learner/novice motorcycle, with a tremendously stable feel to its handling which gives the newcomer to biking a bit of confidence. It also has shaft drive, so there’s no chain pain to deal with either.
It’s also basically reliable, although the early ones were renowned for having a slightly feeble starter motor. This was modified from the 1993 models onwards and the following year saw the UK debut of the XV535S model, which had some extra chromed parts, higher handlebars as standard, a deep buttoned style saddle for anal pleasure and two-tone paintwork. Yee-ha.
Actually, the ’94 S spec 535cc Virago is a great little bike to ride, with all day motorway cruising at 70-80mph being no problem, (try that on a Harley 883 and you’ll have no teeth left by lunchtime) predictable handling and a decent front disc brake - for a cruiser. It is also a far easier bike than the XV750 or XV1100 Yammys to manhandle at low speeds, which carry an extra 65lbs and 85lbs in dry weight respectively.
That alone may be the deciding factor for you if you’re physically small, or so new to biking that you find big stuff too intimidating. Given a full service history, a few accessories and plenty of previous owner TLC, I’d say a mid 1990s Virago 535 offers the best secondhand value in the range, with mint examples going for between £2,500-£3,000.
There’s a simple reason the 535 sold like hot cakes; it was the best value cruiser you could buy - still is in fact, although Yamaha’s own 650 Drag Star competes within the 2000 model line-up.
Yamaha tested the water for small cruiser machines back in 1994/5 with this highly popular (on mainland Europe) 249cc sized variant on the 535. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same, pleasant all round cruiser, but featuring old fashioned chain final drive, rather than shaft.
It weighs substantially less at 137kgs dry (301lbs) however, so that may sway your opinion should you see one knocking about the classified ads. It wasn’t a big seller over here, but some parallel imports have crept in, so you might spot one, usually going in the £2,000, or thereabouts, price area.
Both the XV750 and XV1100 were launched way back in 1981 and had long, rather dull, model lifespans stretching to the mid 1990s. There were no major changes to the V-twin powerplant, or the TR1 derived spine-type chassis, (the engine hangs from the frame, rather than being cradled by metal tubes) although both machines rapidly lost the Yamaha ’italic style cast wheels, ending up with better looking, if harder to clean, spoked wheels by the late 1980s.
The bigger brothers to the 535 are slow steering, ponderous handling, softly sprung dinosaurs from another age in motorcycling, and to be blunt, best avoided, unless you get one ridiculously cheap. Like many bikes from this era, they tend to wear pretty badly and seized brakes, sagging suspension, plus clattering engines are all typical problems to look out for on Eighties examples.
Late model XV750/1100s might have had an easier life, although UK cruiser sales plummeted in the early 1990s along with everything else on two wheels, so there aren’t many about secondhand. Your nearest independent import dealer may be the best bet, with something halfway decent in from the sunbelt States in the USA, if you simply must have this brand of Harley imitator.
The bigger Virago bikes do have more room for taller riders, or two-up touring, plus a plusher saddle, sissy bar backrest and highway screen are all likely to be fitted by previous owners, especially grey imports. Used in the 60-70mph speed range, they make a decent budget machine for long distance riders who want the easy rider styling.
You’ll find optimists asking £2,000-£2,500 for either of the big Viragos, but they are so much harder work to ride than the 535, you should try and avoid forking out more than £1500 for a very clean example. Rusting, but running, dogs are worth about £600-£900 in your local Loot if you like ’projects,’ a.k.a. ’someone else’s living nightmare.’
Engine V-twin, set 75 degrees, 4 stroke, air cooled Valves; 2 per cylinder
Claimed power (bhp) 44bhp @ 7,500rpm
Transmission Five speed
Front tyre 3.00
Rear tyre 140/90
Front suspension 39mm telescopic, 175mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension Twin shocks, 78mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake single disc
Rear brake drum
Top speed 80 mph
Fuel capacity 13.5 litres
Current price £2,500-£3,000 for a mint example
£1500 for a very clean example