Motorcycle Classics

1981-1987 Yamaha XV750/XV700 Virago

We take a look at the Yamaha Virago, the Suzuki Intruder and Honda Shadow.

  • Years produced: 1981-1987
  • Claimed power: 60hp @ 7,000rpm
  • Top speed: 105mph (period test)
  • Engine/transmission: 749cc (83mm x 69.2mm) 2-valve air-cooled SOHC V-twin/5-speed, shaft final drive
  • Weight: 498lb (curb, 1/2 tank gas)
  • Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.2gal/53mpg
  • Price then/now: $2,998 (1981)/$1,500-$4,000

Pivoting is a favorite buzzword in modern business-speak, meaning to radically change strategic direction when current products or services are not meeting market needs. Yamaha did just that with the 1981 XV750 Virago.

Through the 1970s, the yardstick for progress was performance. Though “custom” and “special” versions of ’70s UJMs conceded the trend toward cruiser aesthetics, they were clearly just street standards with a stepped seat and pulled-back bars. Yamaha pivoted with a radical new V-twin aimed at the American buyer. Style and comfort replaced speed and strip times as the new benchmarks. And that also opened a potential new market.

Yamaha started with a blank CAD screen. First, for a serious stab at the U.S. cruiser market, it had to be a V-twin. The included cylinder angle settled at 75 degrees, a compromise between engine length and narrow-angle-V vibration. Next, Yamaha chose vertically split engine cases and wet sump lubrication — a bold decision given that formula’s historic tendency for leakage. The drivetrain could hardly have been more trick: the crankshaft connected via a jackshaft to the 5-speed transmission; the output then turned 90 degrees to spin the final drive shaft, with another right-angle drive turning the rear wheel. These convolutions required the one-piece crank to rotate backwards, which, it was claimed, also reduced vibration by feeding pulses toward the frame’s substantial backbone. A pair of Hitachi CV carbs fed the cylinders using the hollow pressed steel spine frame as an airbox.

The engine was a stressed member of the frame with the front cylinder effectively a downtube. Connecting rods worked side-by-side on a single plain bearing crankpin, so the cylinders could be offset for better cooling, and the one-piece crank was supported by roller bearings. This required two oil pumps: high-pressure for the big ends and low-pressure for the mains. Each cylinder’s overhead camshaft was driven by its own chain with non-snatch drive gears, slipper and tensioner. Though the overall width of the engine was a commendably narrow 15 inches, engineering simplicity the Virago was not!

A couple of features also seemed out of whack for an Ameri-cruiser: the swirly ten-spoke alloy wheels from the Seca; and the defiantly non-traditional monoshock rear suspension — even though it boasted six damping settings and air/coil springing. These features lasted until 1984 when a revamp saw a conventional rear swingarm controlled by a pair of shocks, new alloy wheels with dual front discs (wire-spoked wheels were an option), and the air filter housing moved, Harley-wise, to the side of the engine. This more-or-less coincided with the adoption of 700cc swept volume to avoid the temporary U.S. import tariff.

A Virago is variously described as a female warrior, or a woman of great stature, strength, and courage: whether Yamaha chose the name to resonate with women riders, the low seat height and narrow engine certainly did, allowing shorter riders to flat-foot at a stop. “Anyone with a short inseam will find this a good feature,” wrote 1986 Virago 700 owner Eloise Sorensen for

Sorensen also noted her Virago’s reluctance to spin on the starter — a feature that bugged the model throughout its life. Yamaha redesigned the starter drive for 1984, but this proved only a partial solution and the grinding of a recalcitrant starter became part of the Virago experience.

Period reports also imply that the cruiser concept was misunderstood. On the strip and in the twisties, the Virago came up short — but that wasn’t the point. “The true picture of the Virago’s performance only comes into focus when you … let the road unroll toward the horizon,” said Cycle Guide. “It relishes relaxed cruising over terrain that features gentle curves and broad vistas.” Their tester noted some harshness in the front fork and limited suspension travel. Carburetion could be uneven, and the (single disc version) brakes were somewhat vague. Fuel range was around 150 miles — as long as you remembered to turn on both petcocks!

“In the end, though,” said Cycle Guide, “the Virago has its priorities straight, for it comes through with the American rider’s preferences arranged in the right sequence: a comfortable ride, minimal maintenance hassles, the right look and the proper amount of mechanical soul — with a side order of contemporary technology to boot. It’s a motorcycle that finally completes the turn away from absolute speed toward more subtle measures of performance.”

Both Rider and Cycle World listed the Virago as one of the most significant motorcycles of the 1980s and 1990s.

Cruiser alternatives to the Yamaha Virago

1985-1988 Suzuki 700/750 Intruder

  • 63hp @ 7,000rpm/112mph (period test)
  • 748cc (80mm x 74.4mm) 4-valve liquid-cooled SOHC V-twin/5-speed, shaft final drive
  • 463lb (dry)
  • 2.8gal/43mpg (avg.)
  • $3,199 (1985)/$1,500-$4,000

Introduced in tariff-beater 700cc form in 1985, the Intruder was styled in the U.S. though built in Japan, and testers agreed it was the most stylish of its class. Like the Shadow, the Intruder used a 45-degree V-twin with offset cranks, this time at 45-degrees to give what Cycle World called ” … a perfect balance between engine character and smoothness.” Each cylinder had its own overhead camshaft operating four valves in Twin Swirl Combustion Chambers (TSCC). Transmission was by 5-speed gearbox and shaft final drive. The drivetrain fit into a compact, lightweight frame making the Intruder somewhat lighter than its classmates, an advantage that was also felt in performance.

Testers liked the broad, torquey powerband which gave the Intruder impressive roll-on performance. Where the Suzuki fell down was when it left the boulevard for the backroads. (“No other motorcycle we’ve ridden in recent years handles as badly,” said Cycle World). Another off-putting trait — a tendency for the front wheel to flop side-to-side at parking lot speeds — was later mitigated by adopting a 21-inch front wheel. And while the 1985 seat was adequate, later changes to reduce seat height (to below 27 inches) compromised comfort.

That said, the Intruder tied for first place in Cycle World’s five-bike shootout, based on its “looks and feel,” and in having “the most visceral and visual appeal.” The times really had changed!

1983-1987 Honda Shadow VT750/700C

  • 68hp @ 7,000rpm claimed/109mph (period test)
  • 749cc (79.5mm x 75.5mm) 3-valve liquid-cooled SOHC V-twin/6-speed, shaft final drive
  • 495lb (curb, 1/2 tank gas)
  • 3.3gal/47-51mpg
  • $2,998/$1,500-$3,500

Sporting even more tech-trickery, the Shadow arrived in the U.S. for the 1983 season. Honda’s liquid-cooled V-twin used a Milwaukee-esque 45-degree V angle, but tamed vibration with an offset dual-crankpin bottom end. This gave perfect primary balance at the cost of an extra 16mm cylinder offset and its accompanying “rocking couple” vibration.

Three-valve SOHC, dual-spark heads and shallow valve angles gave state-of-the-art combustion efficiency; self-adjusting hydraulic lifters eliminated valve maintenance; a slipper-type hydraulic diaphragm clutch defeated rear wheel hop on downshifting; six speeds and shaft final drive made up the transmission; and, perhaps anticipating the Virago’s 1984 changes, the Shadow had dual rear shocks and two front brake discs. A conventional dual-cradle frame carried the Shadow’s radiator between the front downtubes.

But the Shadow’s mechanical marvels were marred by questionable styling (“As derivative a package as we’ve ever seen,” said Cycle World) and an uncomfortable riding position. Said Cycle Guide: “If the Shadow’s rider considerations — ergonomics, comfort and suspension — matched the sophistication built into its engine, the Honda would be a great motorcycle. But they don’t.” Regardless, at time of writing, it was still possible to buy a new 750 Honda Shadow, 38 years on. MC

  • Published on Apr 1, 2021
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