Years produced: 1985-present
Claimed power: 119hp @ 9,000rpm (1985 test)
Top speed: 150mph
Engine type: 1,198cc double-overhead cam, four valves per cylinder, water-cooled 70-degree V4
Weight (dry): 271kg (596lb)
Price then: $5,299 (1985 model)
Price now: $3,500-$5,500 (1985 model)
In 1985, the brand-new 1,198cc, 70-degree V4 monster Yamaha V-Max was an unapologetic two-wheeled hot-rod. It was the undisputed king of the boulevard, and the most American bike ever to come out of Japan. Virtually unchanged 22 years later, it still may be.
The V-Max boasted unheard of road-burning acceleration, introduced Yamaha’s innovative V-Boost technology, and raised the stakes for the then-new “muscle-cruiser” category. Its looks, while jarring at the time, predated the styling of the BMW R1200C and Harley-Davidson V-Rod. From its headlight nacelle to its squared heads, V-layout and wide, low-slung wheelbase and fat tires, it’s an icon of motorcycling. It has enjoyed a rare 20-plus year production, has built a worldwide fan following with V-Max clubs from France to Japan, and still earns reverence and accolades from top motorcycle publications each model year.
This is a bike built for the moody loner. No factory repli-racer resplendent in rainbow hues … no weekend offroading with the kids. The V-Max is all about wicked attitude in spades, anti-social behavior and burning up the other guy in stoplight to stoplight races. The V-Max was a hooligan bike a decade before the term existed.
Inline out? The V4 revolution
When it was released in 1969, the air-cooled, inline-four, SOHC Honda CB750 revolutionized motorcycle design and sales, offering riders a reliable, easy to maintain bike with aggressive performance and a smoothness American V-twins and British vertical twins simply couldn’t match. Almost immediately, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki released their own inline fours. So ubiquitous was the engine style that Japanese four-cylinder bikes as a whole were labeled with the unflattering moniker “Universal Japanese Motorcycle.”
For the next decade, most large Japanese bikes retained the same engine design. But in 1982, Honda broke the lock of inlines with their 750cc V45 Sabre and Magna models, a euro-styled standard and muscular chopper-esque custom, respectively, that were both powered by liquid-cooled 90-degree V4s. This engine layout offered perfect primary balance for unbelievable smoothness as well as meaner performance. The Magna, in particular, with it’s wide mid-range and “American Custom” styling, was Japan’s most overt attempt to tap into Harley-Davidson’s American customer base, and began the era of the “muscle cruiser” that continues unabated today.
Honda fired another salvo in 1983 by introducing its 1,100cc V65 Magna, which quickly established itself as THE bike to beat. To promote its introduction, Honda aired notorious television spots highlighting its quarter-mile performance on the drag strip. During this time the motorcycle press declared the V4 power plant “the engine of the 80s” and the design other companies would surely have to copy, which some immediately did.
Yamaha soon released its Venture touring bike, powered by a 70-degree, liquid-cooled 1,198cc V4, while Suzuki rolled out its forgettable 70-degree V4 Madura, a thinly disguised Magna clone. Kawasaki simply dolled up their existing (inline) KZ in drag strip-inspired bodywork and released it as the Eliminator. But Yamaha wasn’t done. They wanted to meet and beat Honda’s challenge by building the strongest V4 motorcycle on the market. And from the start, mind-blowing acceleration was a prerequisite.
“The first concept I imagined,” Akira Araki, project leader for the V-Max (and now general manager for Yamaha’s motorcycle operations in Japan) has stated, “was to make a bike which is strong at straight lines and really fast. It was the birth of the V-Max concept,” he said. It was the American Hot Rod.
In 1983 Araki and two Yamaha engineers holed up for 30 days in the GKDI Design Co. studios, an external Yamaha design center in Santa Monica, Calif., working the new concept into form. The bike would come together as part of that most American of formulas, which has worked for everything from muscle cars to .44 Magnums to Mack trucks: Shoehorn big-ass horsepower into a strong, simple frame, dispense with all bells and whistles, and don’t add an ounce of anything unnecessary.
The goal was a balls-out performer with wide mid-range, and the logical starting point was the V4 from Yamaha’s own Venture tourer. Displacing 1,198cc with a 10.5:1 compression ratio and four valves per cylinder, it was a solid 90hp power plant that already possessed strong low and mid-range, and offered ample room for power increase. Intake valves were enlarged from 29mm to 30.5mm and exhaust valves grew from 25mm to 26mm. Flow was improved by slightly reducing the size of the valve stems and enlarging the carburetors from 34mm to 35mm. Beefier camshafts would further increase mid-range power. Key engine and transmission components were strengthened to help withstand the additional stress.
To further increase horsepower, Araki’s team considered using a turbo (then all the rage in bike production) before devising the innovative “V-Boost.” In this system, a passageway links the intake manifolds of the front and rear cylinders on each side of the engine, with cylinder #1 linked to #2 and #3 to #4. Two servo-operated butterfly valves, one between each cylinder pair, close off the passages at low rpm. But past 6,000 rpm, the servo opens the butterflies, and whatever cylinder is drawing a charge at any given moment is filled with the air/fuel mixture from two carburetors, “supercharging” the cylinder.
The styling, not surprisingly, took its inspiration from Detroit muscle cars and American drag strips. Probably Max’s most instantly recognizable styling touch is the set of imposing chrome (later black) “air scoops” astride the gas tank. These aren’t functional — they’re merely styling elements — although they do house Max’s horns. Similarly, the “gas tank” is merely a cover for the air induction and filter systems. The V-Max’s 4gal fuel tank is actually contained beneath the seat. The hard plastic, stepped midsection of the seat pivots forward to expose the filler cap.
A staggering 62in wheelbase leads you around to the gargantuan 150/95 section rear Bridgestone tire. At the time of V-Max’s introduction, this was the widest tire ever seen on a production motorcycle. The Max’s tires were necessarily large and soft – its claimed 145hp and rocket takeoffs meant the rider would need all the traction he could get, though owners found the factory-recommended rubber wore quickly, and replacements were fairly expensive.
When Araki and his engineers presented their sketches to Yamaha, they were greeted with less than universal enthusiasm. “I thought it was because the style of this model was too eccentric for most people at the time and nobody knew how to react,” Araki once explained. It’s not hard to empathize: One look at the V-Max and the adjectives spill out: Audacious! Outrageous! Crude, rude and unrefined! The first impression you get upon viewing a Max at rest is that it possesses all the grace and beauty of an A-10 Warthog. The bike looks so … well, un-Japanese.
In fact, its brute Teutonic looks and the sonic scream of its exhaust bring to mind a modern day Stuka. But during their design time, Araki’s team sought out customer input and conducted market research that showed public acceptance of the radical styling, and Yamaha management gave the go ahead.
The result was a motorcycle that absolutely shouted the American credo of “Go faster, roar louder, and be meaner.” And the Max guaranteed bragging rights: No other cruiser would accelerate faster from stoplight to stoplight.
Debuting at an October 1984 U.S. dealer meeting in Las Vegas, the V-Max garnered immediate anticipation and praise from the motorcycling press. Released in 1985 to a public teased with claims of 145hp, the V-Max hit showrooms with an MSRP of $5,299 — fully $2,000 more than Honda’s V65, its closest competitor. Fortunately, those seeking performance and a blunt statement found it worth every nickel. Cycle Guide named it “Bike of the Year,” calling the Max “outrageous” and “the most thrill intensive motorcycle” of 1985.
Part of Max’s instant success must be attributed to Yamaha’s excellent advertising strategy and clarity of focus. Yamaha accurately identified the specific market for V-Max and spoke the appropriate language. Introductory year advertisements burst with references to “blown vee-eights” and “Hemi heads,” comparisons to fuel dragsters, and the assertion that Max was “motorcycling’s first hot rod.” Perfectly clear about the image they wanted to capture, Yamaha consistently played on it for years. Period magazines continued the theme, splashing their evaluations with photo spreads of the V-Max on drag strips. Cycle World even pitted a Max against a Shelby Cobra for bragging rights.
Riding the V-Max
To the uninitiated, the Max is full of surprises, possessing a Jekyll and Hyde split personality: It is simultaneously more sedate and pleasurable than you’d expect and every bit the broncing bull you feared. The engine is smooth-running and surprisingly vibration free, offering more comfort than appearances would suggest. Hit the starter button and you are treated to a lumpy idle Cycle called “reminiscent of leaned-on V-8s from the late 1960s.” Power comes in a seamless flow — there is no sudden jerkiness or choking — and the wide midrange is immediately noticeable: You can accelerate quickly in any gear, no questions asked. Said Cycle World: “What sets the Max’s engine apart from other powerful motors is that it has power everywhere. Off the bottom it’s torquier than a Honda Gold Wing, on top it hits harder than a Kawasaki 900 Ninja, and from the bottom to the top, the power band is broader than that of a BMW K100s.”
Not surprisingly, the V-Max is most at home in straights, and beat all comers for speed and acceleration in its first few years, hitting 150.7mph in a Cycle World comparison and averaging between 119 and 135hp in various tests. However, many loyal owners say the V-Max is also a nimble, agile machine, and many praise its handling and stability.
The front dual-disc brakes work well, though considerable pressure is required, so the rider develops a strong braking hand. However, the V-Max lacks the anti-dive system of its contemporaries, so too heavy a brake can lead to nose diving. (Interestingly, Yamaha felt an anti-dive system was “too sport bike” and left it off.) The rear brake may likewise be a little too good at its job — a foot full of brake may find you hopping and twisting, as it’s easy to lock up the rear wheel. These aren’t problems once you know how the Max behaves and acquire a feel for it, but the V-Max is not forgiving of sloppy riding. It demands you respect it and commit to learning its likes and dislikes. Shifting likewise requires a beefy stomp, else you’re apt to miss a gear.
The tachometer, mounted above the faux fuel tank, has frequently been panned for its impractical placement. To properly view the gauge, the rider must turn his head downward, momentarily removing his eyes from the road. This is extra wrong for a bike that tempts, hell, outright begs for power rush take-offs and Formula One acceleration.
The V-Max glides slickly through twists, and the suspension, though exceptionally stiff, performs admirably. The unforgiving suspension, in fact, is one of the few key gripes riders give. The problem is especially noticeable while accelerating hard in lower gears — every imperfection in the road is felt, making the rider feel like he’s on a hardtail chopper. The problem is exacerbated by a small, sparse seat. The center seat step, which accommodates the fuel filler cap, limits backward movement: You have one position in which to sit and you’d better like it. In addition, the seat and foot peg arrangement leave many taller riders feeling cramped. If the sometimes-harsh ride doesn’t limit time in the saddle, Max’s voracious fuel consumption might — averaging about 30mpg, it’s a gas hog.
In fairness, what shortcomings may be perceived in the V-Max (stiff suspension, cramped riding position, gas hungry) are, appropriately enough, the same one would encounter in a hot rod or muscle car. And it’s not as though the prospective customer is torn between the V-Max and the Gold Wing — a specific individual will be drawn to the Max, and he or she knows going into the bargain whether or not they’re made for the wicked beast.
So, where does V-Max fit today? By 1989 the competition it towered over — the V65 Magna, Kawasaki Eliminator and Suzuki Madura — were all history, and a new breed of sport bikes easily eclipsed the speed records set by Max. Certainly, a Kawasaki ZX-14 or Suzuki Hayabusa will smoke it today, and brawny monster cruisers like the Honda Rune or Triumph Rocket III overwhelm it for visual spectacle. However, V-Max soldiers on as a tidy package with sharp, aggressive cornering capacity, still-impressive straight-line performance, and massive horsepower all wrapped in one of the most distinct and recognizable body shapes of the modern motorcycle era.
Although a new version is being readied for 2008, Yamaha seemed to just get it right the first time out with the V-Max, and it has remained, ironically, a “quiet classic” (as motor-journalist Peter Egan has referred to models that continue to sell respectably with little or no press long after newer, whiz-bang models have overtaken the spotlight). In a sea of interchangeable crotch rockets and cookie-cutter Japanese cruisers, the V-Max remains, 22 years on, as a still-popular new year model, a now collectible bike with clubs worldwide dedicated to it, that still snorts fire as a modern classic. MC
“When it comes to street-legal, production motorcycles, nothing, absolutely nothing can touch it in a straight line”
— Cycle Guide, May 1985
“When you cruise the streets on a V-Max … you aren’t innocently looking for someone to race with, you’re trolling for fresh
victims, for poor unsuspecting souls to chew up and spit out your exhaust pipes.”
— Cycle World, May 1985
“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.”
— Motorcyclist, April 1986
“Yamaha’s fire-breathing V-Max is about as subtle as a whack across the forehead with a
— Cycle World, May 1985
“In a perverse sort of way, the V-Max is the much sought after “standard” bike of the Eighties. Sure, the term conjures an image of a station wagon, when in fact the V-Max is more like a two-wheeled funny car; but the bike’s footpeg location, handlebar bend and overall riding position are all very standard-ish.”
— Cycle World, August 1988
Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
• Honda CB750 Four: A Classic for the Masses