Sure, you may have heard of the muscle car wars of the 1960s but what about the muscle bike wars of the 1980s?
That’s right! Here in America, the 1980s were significant for many reasons (some that we shouldn’t be so proud of) and the decade of excess and innovation spawned some fascinating creations in both the automotive and the motorcycle world. Chief among these exercises in excess was none other than the subject of this deep dive; the Yamaha VMAX.
Way back in 1985, this incredible motorcycle debuted to rave reviews, even garnering a coveted “Bike Of The Year” from Cycle Guide magazine for its maiden year. The formula was simple: outrageous styling, a hellacious engine, easy cruising, and long-term reliability. With this stiff competition from both Honda and Kawasaki, as well as American stalwarts Harley - Davidson - the VMAX had to be good, and good it was. Oh, and it also basically created an entirely new class of motorcycles while it was at it.
We’re going to cover everything you need to know about this incredible machine:
- Styling & Development
- Muscle Bound Performance
- Legacy & Today
History & Development
Unlike many of Yamaha’s other motorcycles, the VMAX was always destined for the United States market. Originally, Yamaha had no plans to bring this bike to other markets (that would change down the line) as it was designed with the unique American aesthetic and the American obsession with acceleration. Originally, Yamaha was simply looking to capture some of that big cruiser market from brands like Harley - Davison and they knew that the styling of this bike needed to be as outlandish as the performance. Plus, they were essentially creating an all-new category of bike called the “power cruiser” and unbeknownst to them at the time, people were about to go nuts for it.
Akira Araki, the man at the head of the VMAX development, and now the General Manager of Yamaha Japan, was tasked with creating a design that would turn heads and quicken pulses. In 1983, Araki and a few handpicked members from Yamaha set about to design the bike at GKDI Design Co. in Santa Monica, California. The goal from the beginning was to jam a screamer of an engine in a strong frame and coat it all in a layer of Detroit-style, muscle car-inspired goodness. I mean, just look at those scoops on the side of the VMAX! If those aren’t inspired by 1960s muscle cars, we don’t know what is.
Other styling elements that are classic VMAX include a whopping 62-inch wheelbase and a massive (biggest ever fitted to a bike at the time) 150/95 series rear tire.
The story goes that reception at Yamaha was originally less enthusiastic, as the VMAX was the most un - Japanese like of bikes to hit the street. However, Araki and the rest of the engineering team insisted that his bike would garner the kind of praise and notoriety that would place it among the legends. After some intense market research, and speaking to actual riders, it turns out, Mr. Araki was dead on and Americans could not wait to get their hands on this machine.
Muscle Bound Performance
Those austere, sinister muscle car inspired looks instantly make you think that this is going to be one hell of a fast bike, and it turns out, you’d be right.
The engine on the VMAX was developed from Yamaha’s own Venture touring bike but was massaged for duty in this new muscle cruiser. Yamaha already had some of the best engines in the motorcycle game and had mastered the V4 format (although Honda really did it first). Displacing 1200 CC, rocking double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, and liquid cooling; these specs already put the Venture engine among some of the most powerful of the day with 90 Horsepower. Ah, but that was not going to be near enough for something known as a muscle cruiser now, is it?
Araki and his team set apart to modify the 1200 CC powerplant by starting with the intake and exhaust valves, along with the four carburetors, a beefed-up camshaft, and other internal engine components. The 5 speed, wet clutch transmission was also beefed up to handle the additional power. At the time, Araki and his team heavily considered turbocharging the VMAX (it was all the rage) but instead designed an incredibly effective system that would put the focus on deep breathing to achieve its desired result.
Rather than relying on forced induction to make power, the engineers at Yamaha came up with a clever system that used servo-operated butterfly valves to jam as much power into the VMAX as possible.
In a way, the V-Boost system functioned as a sort of a carburetor-driven supercharger. Here’s how it worked:
- 2 Servo operated valves (operating off the engine’s ignition) were located on a passageway between the 2 banks of cylinders
- At ~ 6,000 RPM, this valve would open gradually until it was fully opened at 8,000 RPM.
- This allowed all 4 carburetors to dump in their air-fuel mixture into the engine, which would then burn off on a single stroke! Bigger explosion, bigger power.
- Since the pistons are different strokes, no power-robbing would occur.
- The power cut-off was 9000 RPM.
So, what’s the result of all this engine trickery? How about a claimed 145 crankshaft horsepower in a package that weighed only 631 pounds wet! Interestingly, the VMAX would not opt for a chain drive, but for shaft-driven power instead (incredibly unique for the time).
Handling & Numbers
While sharp handling was never the sole goal of the VMAX, thanks to its air-adjustable 40mm Kayaba fork and Kayaba twin rear shocks, riders of the day claimed that VMAX was agile, if a bit choppy. There have been better long-distance cruisers, but there were certainly not faster cruisers.
“It’s still the best motorcycle overall of the big cruisers. Its engine is above reproach and its chassis is the finest in the class. Only its seat and somewhat choppy ride keep it from being as comfortable as some others for general cruising.”
Braking was accomplished by two-piston calipers on both the front wheel and the rear wheel. Again, riders of the day remarked that although incredibly powerful, the braking system in the VMAX could send the front end diving and rear end going squirrelly. Here’s the thing though, no one really cared! It was made to be tamed.
The ¼ mile was dispatched in a mere 10.89 seconds, limited only by the traction at its massive rear tire. Top speed? Damn near 150 MPH. This thing was insane, and it had power everywhere in the powerband. Low, mid, high - it didn’t matter. The VMAX was simply a monster.
Legacy & Today
Yamaha’s VMAX was so good, that only minor changes to the design and engine would be needed for a staggering 22 years. Yes, you heard that right. The VMAX went unchanged for 22 years! It wasn’t until 2007 that Yamaha relaunched the VMAX with an entirely new design that carried a similar attitude (including ridiculous acceleration) but rolled in a much more modern chassis, an electroluminescent instrument readout, Yamaha Chip Controlled Intake (YCC-I), fully adjustable suspension, anti-lock brakes, slipper clutch, a fuel tank beneath the seat, and a distinctive key set.
In reality, the real legacy of the VMAX is the fact that it created an entirely new class of motorcycles that really didn’t exist before it! Yes, brands like Triumph, Harley, and even Japanese Big Three all had something kind of like the VMAX but they all stopped just sort of the pure craziness that this unique bike represented. The press of the day said it best when they said that the VMAX accelerated like a “scalded ape” and thrill-seeking Americans absolutely went crazy for it.
It didn’t have a long range, it didn’t handle tight turns well, and it was squirrelly under hard braking. Who cared? No one. Not a single person gave a damn about any of this once they fired up the monster, and the V-Boost system ripped open, positively throwing riders off the back of the bike in the process.
Today, there are plenty of imitators:
- Kawasaki Vulcan S
- Moto Guzzi Audace
- Harley FXDR & Road Glide
- Triumph Rocket
- BMW K1600B
We don’t know about you, but a bike that made riders question their decision to hammer the throttle deserves a place in the halls of Motorcycle glory.
Just make sure you hang on tight.