The Ugly Duckling: The 1982 Yamaha Virago 920 Custom

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1982 Yamaha Virago 920 Custom
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The gas tank began life atop a Benelli. Tarozzi clip-ons keep things low.
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Though it looks custom, the monoshock rear suspension is stock.
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A front view shows the thin profile Greg achieved.
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1982 Yamaha Virago 920 Custom
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1982 Yamaha Virago 920 Custom
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Greg’s build is radically different than the Yamaha Virago it was, and yet one could imagine the finished product as a factory Yamaha because the details are right.
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The bike has a Yamaha café racer stance and proportions; it’s elegant yet masculine at the same time.

1982 Yamaha Virago 920 Custom
Claimed power: 65hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 108mph (period test)
Engine: 920cc air-cooled OHC 75-degree V-twin
Weight (wet): 463lb (210kg)
Fuel capacity: 2.3gal (8.7ltr)

Here’s a fairy tale for the motorcycle set. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable The Ugly Duckling, a homely duck is born in a barnyard where the other animals tease him about his appearance. He wanders off, suffering hardship and ridicule until he matures, transforming into a beautiful swan.

In our revamped tale for gearheads, custom builder Greg Hageman of Doc’s Chops in Tampa, Fla., takes a humble shaft drive Yamaha Virago — the ugly duckling, if you will — and completely transforms the machine into something beautiful, a bike Yamaha never could have imagined.

Introduced in 1981 and built in the tens of thousands, the V-twin Virago — or XV, to use the bike’s official model designation — was the first cruiser-style street bike to feature a single shock rear suspension.

For many, the Virago performed its duty faultlessly, if not glamorously. The Virago was quite successful, selling well even though Yamaha’s XV lineup consisted of bikes blessed with really good mechanicals, yet cursed with what one might call banal aesthetics.

Why the Yamaha Virago

Born in Iowa and now living in Florida, Greg jokes that he was using and losing his dad’s tools when he was four, and stick welding at 10. He became a Harley-Davidson technician, logging hundreds of training hours to perfect his skills. For 11 years he worked at Wiebler’s Harley-Davidson in Davenport, Iowa, where he made contacts with motorcycle racers who liked going fast around dirt tracks. The flat track influence followed him home, where he’d tinker with classic Japanese motorcycles, imbuing rather pedestrian Yamaha XS650s and Honda CX500s with a café racer/dirt tracker flair. Along the way, he built a reputation as a gifted, creative builder of unique specials, and he’s attracted the attention of more than a few people in motorcycling circles.

Greg’s always had an affinity for V-twins, a not especially surprising fact given his background with Harleys. But when asked to perform a build for the second season of Café Racer TV, Greg chose a Yamaha Virago instead of Milwaukee iron. “I’d really been wanting to build a Yamaha café racer out of any V-twin Japanese bike for quite some time,” Greg says. “But when the show contacted me to do a build, I said ‘now I’ve got to do one.'”

Greg first chased down a dual shock XV535 (Yamaha switched to a more traditional twin shock in 1984). Turns out the seller really had an XV250, which Greg didn’t want. So Greg found a 1983 XV750. “I’m really glad the first bike was wrongly listed on Craigslist,” Greg says today, “I ended up with a much better bike for the Café Racer TV build.”

Greg is one of those gifted people with the uncanny ability to look at a motorcycle and see only the good “bones.” In his mind’s eye, he sees how he can combine factory pieces with his own handcrafted components — and a few aftermarket items — to build a motorcycle that leaves most spectators somewhat gobsmacked.

Count Mike Martens among that crowd. When he saw Greg’s first Virago build on Café Racer TV, the 44-year-old family man from Leawood, Kan., gave Greg a call about building a bike for him. At first, Mike says, he wanted Greg to build a café racer based on the transverse 4-cylinder shaft drive Yamaha Seca platform. As their conversations progressed, the pair kept referencing Greg’s Yamaha Virago. “There were elements and details, such as the laced wheels, the seat pan — even the aftermarket fork gaiters on the factory forks — that I liked,” Mike says. “We finally figured out we’d do a Virago, but there were a couple of preconditions. Greg was hoping I wouldn’t sell it, and it couldn’t be finished in gold,” the color of Greg’s Café Racer TV build.

The Yamaha Virago build begins

Wisely, Mike agreed, and to help fund the project promptly sold his 1991 Mazda RX7, a car he’d owned for 17 years. Mike asked for more horsepower, so rather than build another 750 Virago, Greg began searching for a 920 model. But instead of combing the online classifieds, Greg placed a wanted ad on Craigslist that netted him a reply from a seller who, in 1996, had parked his 1982 Virago 920 — with a mere 22,000 miles on the clock. The bike had been correctly stored and was immaculate, something Greg says made the customization process that much easier.

Yamaha took a page from the Vincent playbook with the Virago, employing very little frame and lots of engine. Like a Vincent, the Virago uses a central spine carrying the engine as a stressed member, with a minimalist subframe for the seat and associated hardware, and a triangulated rear suspension. Greg is aware of the similarity, and says when he built his own 750 his intention was to play off the Vincent, yet make the bike completely different. He has succeeded.

After stripping the 920, Greg set to work constructing a new rear subframe. To get the look he saw in his head, he bent and welded the subframe tubes together at the top, fixing them to the spine high and just aft of the gas tank. His lower subframe mounts are actually where the top of the old subframe attached. This approach has inspired more than a little Internet chatter, and Greg is currently at work figuring out a way to manufacture and market a rear subframe kit for Yamaha Virago owners. A MotoLanna seat and pan originally intended for a Yamaha SR500 sit on top of the subframe, with a box holding a high-output lithium-ion battery tucked up underneath.

A new-old-stock 2.3-gallon Wards Riverside (Benelli) Mojave 360 gas tank was encouraged to fit over the Yamaha’s backbone by flaring the existing tunnel; it was not cut out and replaced. “The tank is so skinny, and matches the slim frame and the slim motor,” Greg says. Stock front forks maintain their air-assist damping, but are lowered 2 inches and fitted with Progressive springs. Reinforcing the fork tubes is a brace meant for a Kawasaki KZ900. The rubber gaiters are thick, high-quality, Italian-made pieces, and Greg won’t divulge the name of his supplier. “I don’t want to call them to order more and find out they’ve sold out!” he says.

Rear-set footpegs are by Tarozzi of Italy with Greg’s own linkages. Clip-on bars are also Tarozzi, fitted with reproduction 1974-1976 Yamaha XS650 hand controls. Between the clip-ons, miles and revs are monitored by an Acewell digital speedometer and tachometer. A 7-inch Emgo headlight features a row of LEDs on the left and right side of the main beam that function as indicator lights. Holding the lamp in situ are universal Emgo cast aluminum mounts. The LED taillight was an eBay purchase, and incorporates both brake and signal lights.

To give Mike the laced wheels he liked, Greg modified an XV700 rear hub from a twin-shock model and fitted an XS650 front hub. Both are laced to powder-coated black DID rims with stainless steel spokes, 2.75-by-18-inch up front and 3.5-by-16-inch at the rear, each wrapped in a Bridgestone Spitfire tire. The rear drum brake is stock, while the front disc uses an EBC floating rotor and stock XV920 caliper.

Greg basically left the engine alone, as it was running fine and showed good compression on both cylinders. He did replace all the critical seals and swapped stock fasteners for stainless bits to freshen the power plant. The stock Hitachi piston-valve carburetors were cleaned and kitted out with Dynojet components, which draw air through a modified K&N filter. Of all the details Mike was obsessive about, Greg says it was the exhaust.

“Mike was a fanatic about the exhaust, and he was real serious about what he wanted to use,” Greg says, adding, “I’ve built a lot of exhaust systems on my own and have never been really happy with the results in terms of performance. I think it takes a lot of engineering to build a decent exhaust.”

Mike found a two-into-two JAMA system by Laser Exhaust that both looked good and was universal enough to afford some flexibility when choosing mufflers to finish it off, and he was partial to SuperTrapps. Greg was still trying to come up with something based off of the original Yamaha system when Mike pointed him towards the JAMA pipes. “I just wasn’t sure about the kind of results I might get on my own, and I read good things about the JAMA, so we put them on,” Greg says. “There’s no use making a bike look good if it doesn’t want to run cleanly.” In fact, after installing the tuned JAMA pipes and SuperTrapp mufflers on the 920, Greg ordered a set to replace the staggered-dual system he first fitted to his own Yamaha Virago 750.

On Mike’s bike, anything black is finished in powder coat, and Greg spent hours ensuring reused parts from the Virago were cleaned and detailed to the point that everything looks brand new. The white-and-red gas tank was Mike’s idea, and the paint scheme harkens back to the Yamaha RD400 Daytona of the late 1970s. Greg wasn’t sure about the finish at first, but after taking delivery of the painted tank and setting it aside the colors soon found favor.

Taking delivery

Just four days before Christmas 2011, a truck pulled up to Mike’s garage and unloaded the Yamaha Virago. “Custom bikes are often over-the-top or pushed too far, and they don’t appear to be in balance,” Mike says.

“Greg’s build is radically different than the Virago it was, and yet one could imagine the finished product as a factory Yamaha because the details are right. The bike now has a Yamaha café racer stance and proportions; it’s elegant yet masculine at the same time.”

For now, Mike has been happy riding the Virago in the mild Midwest winter, adding enough miles to warrant changing oil and plugs. He intends to use the motorcycle as much as possible, saying, “I love finding a sweeping corner and rolling on the throttle past the apex. The balance is really there, as is the grunt. From apex to track-out she just puts the power down, and makes the most wonderful transition back to straight and level. I could do that all day long.”

Unlike Andersen’s ugly duckling, this Yamaha Virago is no fairy tale. From a motorcycle that had no glitz or glam — but really good bones — it’s been transformed, now beautiful. Now, where have we heard that story before? MC

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