Vinago: Billy Joel’s Vincent-Inspired Yamaha Virago

The Vinago, Greg Hageman of Doc’s Chops’ custom Yamaha Virago Vincent built for Billy Joel.

Vinago

Combine Vincent and Virago and you get Vinago. It's a marriage of old and new.

Photo By Erick Runyon

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The Vinago
Claimed power:
62hp @ 6,000rpm, 62.7 ft/lb torque @ 3,000rpm (1998 Virago)
Top speed: 112mph
Engine: 1,063cc air-cooled OHC 75-degree V-twin, 95mm x 75mm bore and stroke
Weight (dry, stock 1982 Virago): 467lb (212kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.2 gal (12ltr)

Combine Vincent and Virago and you get Vinago. It’s a marriage of old and new — homage to one of the most sought after classic machines of all time built on the humble bones of a much more modern cruiser.

From his Florida-based shop Doc’s Chops, custom bike builder Greg Hageman has turned the clock back some 60 years on the venerable Yamaha Virago. Greg’s been making a name for himself building café racers based on a variety of Japanese machines, but he’s taken a particular liking to the Yamaha XV Virago, and custom builds based on the V-twin model have become something of his hallmark.

Greg’s long been aware of the Virago’s similarities to the English-built Vincent motorcycle — most notably the big V-twin engine hanging down below the gas tank and, in the case of the early Viragos (1981 to 1983), an under-the-seat rear suspension system. In 2012, Greg built a Virago custom for a customer in Tallahassee. While Greg wanted to go in a full-on Vincent direction for that build, the client had other plans. “That one doesn’t have as much of the Vincent’s lines,” Greg explains. “For that build, I drew from a bunch of different British bikes, including both Vincent and Norton.” But that nod to British design is all it took for Greg to come to the attention of Billy Joel — yes, that Billy Joel, the Piano Man — and Alex Puls of 20th Century Cycles, the company Billy founded to build, store and service his growing collection of vintage and specialty motorcycles.

Billy Joel’s Vinago 

“I’d recently bought a Yamaha 750 Virago, but I didn’t like the mag wheels on it,” Billy says. “I thought it would look much nicer with wire wheels. So my mechanic, Alex, started to do some research and he found Greg. At the same time, I was looking closely at the Virago and noticed similarities to the Vincent — and I thought it would be cool to do an homage to Vincent with a Virago.”

Alex is head mechanic and curator of Billy’s collection of more than 90 motorcycles. While they have a 1952 Vincent Rapide among the machines, Greg was asked to interpret the classic Vincent with modern running gear.

“My Rapide is a beautiful bike,” Billy says. “But it’s old, and it’s valuable, and I’m a little bit worried about anything happening to it. What I like to do is take newer bikes with modern technology and make them look old; they’re safer and generally more reliable.”

Greg picks up the story. “I was interested in doing this build but didn’t want to do something like buying Vincent parts and bolting them on a Virago,” he says. “I wanted to keep the best of the Virago pieces, and make the rest of it look like a Vincent.”

To start, Alex bought a low-mileage 1982 Virago XV750 off eBay and shipped it to Greg, who had suggested they also search for a much newer machine with a larger and more reliable powerplant.

In a Daytona Beach pawnshop Greg found a 1998 Virago 1100, and the clock showed only 8,000 miles. This was the ideal donor, as the 1998 engine features many internal changes that helped improve the breed. There were not, however, any physical external alterations, so the 1998 engine bolts right up to the 1982 shaft drive rear end.

Getting the details right 

Greg readily admits he’s not seen many Vincents in the metal, so to speak, so to become more familiar with the classic motorcycle he bought Vincent books and studied them to learn details such as the hand air pump fitted under the gas tank and the small toolbox under the seat. He also noted, in particular, how Vincent fit the fenders and headlamp with a variety of tubular stays — but he got started with the wheels.

“For the front wheel, Alex sourced a new-old-stock Grimeca four-leading-shoe hub,” Greg says. The Grimeca and a Virago 700 rear hub were shipped to Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim in Azusa, Calif. There, both hubs were laced into Excel alloy-shouldered rims, a 19-inch front and 18-inch rear, using stainless steel spokes and nipples.

Vincent used a very distinctive fork called the Girdraulic — essentially a girder-style fork with a hydraulic damper. Greg looked at various girder forks he thought he might modify to resemble the Girdraulic, but ultimately decided to run Yamaha XV920R telescopic forks lowered 2 inches, fitted with stanchion covers and Progressive springs. The covers were originally meant for a Suzuki Volusia, and were cut, split and shaped to fit. The four-leading-shoe hub installed between the legs with very little fuss.

“The Grimeca axle was the perfect length and diameter, I just made up a 9mm shim — it was like it was made for the bike,” Greg says. Brackets to hold the brake cable adjusters were hand-fabricated, as were the 5/16-inch solid bar fender stays that secure the plain section stainless steel blade. A replica Lucas 8-inch headlamp complete with ammeter and headlamp switch sits in four hollow tube stays that are secured to the triple tree using existing bolt holes. A drag-style handlebar came the closest to the one fitted to Billy’s 1952 Rapide, and Alex sourced the old stock Hella bar end signals. All switchgear is Yamaha XS650, while the clutch and brake perches and levers are from an early Suzuki GT750 — the brake lever is a twin-pull device so it works with the double-sided Grimeca front hub.

Out back Greg mounted a matching stainless steel fender using half-inch hollow tube stays attached to the swingarm/driveshaft so it moves with the swingarm. Alex provided the “Stop”-style tail lamp and Triumph tag bracket.

The original 750cc Virago had a bulky air shock, which Greg replaced with a custom-built shock from Works Suspension. Greg designed a subframe to support the saddle, which he built on a steel pan, and included a tiny under-seat toolbox. “I wanted the seat to look more like one from a Black Lightning,” Greg says, adding, “flatter, and not as puffy as the two-up touring seat on the Rapide.”

The 1982 XV750 gave up its gas tank, which was modified by cutting off the pressed seam that forms the bottom edge. “The tank looked too small without the seam, so then I had to extend the tank down,” Greg explains. “I also cut part of the back of the tank off, rounding it down and making it fit the saddle.” The top and tunnel were then TIG-welded back together and placed on the frame for fitment. He leveled the tank by modifying the rear mount to raise it up, and welded in new bungs so he could fit Harley-Davidson petcocks. The fuel cap is stock Yamaha.

Using the bottom tray of the stock Virago battery carrier, Greg made brackets to hold the replica vintage battery case, which hides a modern Antigravity lithium battery.

The 1,100cc Virago engine was checked for compression, and Greg adjusted the valves before cleaning and detailing the lump. He removed the chrome from the engine’s side covers and polished out any evidence of the original Yamaha logos.

Greg made the primary side look slightly more retro with a flat clutch cover machined from billet. The hardware was updated with all stainless steel fasteners. The single carburetor is a 40mm Keihin CV on a custom intake, and the exhaust is pieced together with Yamaha head pipes and JAMA mid pipes from Laser Exhausts, ending in reproduction Triumph mufflers.

After mocking up the Vinago, Greg knocked it apart for final finishing. The frame and related components were powder-coated black, and Craig Skivers of Tampa applied the black paint and the Vinago logo to the gas tank.

“There are probably going to be some angry Vincent purists out there,” Greg admits, but adds, “Billy’s got a fraction of the investment in the Vinago that he does in the original Rapide, and he could take the Vinago anywhere and in any elements.”

Compared to his “regular” custom builds, the Vinago was more of a challenge, Greg says. “It’s harder to replicate another bike than it is just straight out building a custom bike — way harder than just designing and making something out of your head.”

But Billy’s clearly pleased with the final result. “Greg did a great job,” he says. “The bike’s a real head-turner. I took it for a run last fall, and in order to be more comfortable I think we’ll have to change the bars and put a seat on it with a bit more padding. But it will be a daily rider. It’s easy to handle, it’s light and responsive, and it’s unique.” Exactly the qualities he was looking for. MC 

Read more about Billy Joel's 20th Century Cycles.