Bikes You Should Know: Yamaha V-Max


“One Must Be of One’s Time” — Honoré Daumier

Certain motorcycles resonate with the market and take on a significance beyond their function. Today, the original Yamaha V-Max is remembered much differently than the contemporary models it competed against in dealers’ showrooms. They’re just old, outdated bikes; the V-Max still inspires awe and respect. It was exactly the right bike at the right time. Now, don’t get me wrong, at its introduction in 1985 the V-Max certainly was the most powerful production motorcycle ever sold, but the reasons it became legendary have more to do with image, marketing, and emotion than outright performance.


In 1983, Yamaha had a problem. They had no flagship. Their heavyweight cruiser, the XJ1100 Maxim, was based on a fairly obsolete, air-cooled, 5-year old UJM motor and was selling in dismal numbers. Their top-of-the-line sport bike, the Seca 900, was smaller, slower, and softer than the competition. While a pleasant enough bike, it was not grabbing headlines. What was grabbing headlines was Honda’s new V65 Magna, an 1100 cc V-four that could rip through the quarter mile in about 11½ seconds. Since Honda’s introduction of the Magna, Sabre, and Interceptor lines, liquid-cooled V-fours were being touted as the next big thing in motorcycle design. Yamaha had just introduced a V-four of their own, the Venture, but it was a torquey, friendly, mild-mannered motor wrapped in a full-dresser touring chassis. Yamaha needed to give the Venture a makeover, from suburban dad to badass, and do it quick. A team of Yamaha designers and engineers were sent from Japan to California, in order to study the stateside bike scene and understand the allure of American bikers. Not only was North America a huge market for big bikes, but thousands of bikers around the world were eager to emulate whatever was cool in the USA. The design team was immersed in SoCal car culture and started studying hot rod car designs. They realized what they needed to do was hotrod the Venture using the classic formula: start with a big motor, crank up the performance to eleven, and strip off all the stuff that made the chassis big and heavy. To help the Venture motor breath deeper, the intake and exhaust valves were enlarged, along with a nifty little gimmick called “V-Boost.” This was a clever, servo-controlled butterfly valve in the intake that opened up above 6000 RPM to allow each cylinder to draw through two carbs. This configuration was able to work with the Venture motor’s architecture by happy chance. Yamaha wanted to avoid the V65 Magna’s ungainly, top-heavy look and feel. But if the new bike was to feel compact and svelte, the V-four’s airbox made traditional bike styling impossible. This was what they call a “fortunate obstacle,” forcing the design team to think totally out of the box. They looked not to existing motorcycles, but to T-buckets and highboy roadsters as their inspiration. Everything was rethought, from putting the gas cap under a pop-open seat bustle to huge (and fake) air scoops by the rider’s knees. Graphic elements acted like a flow diagram, visually describing the path of air through the intake, to the carbs, through the cylinders and out the exhaust.


The original 1985 V-Max left the motorcycle world gob-stopped. It looked like nothing else, and it was clearly (if incrementally) faster than any other production motorcycle, past or present. The big difference was the V-Boost, which provided a very detectable and visceral kick in the pants half-way through the rev band, making the V-Max feel even faster than it was. Handling — due to the shaft drive, lousy rear shocks, and a flexy frame — was pretty sucky, which upped the scare/excitement factor. But a ’32 Ford with a rat motor under the hood doesn’t go around corners very well either, so the clumsy handling was forgivable, perhaps even cool. As one pundit stated, “You don’t steer a V-Max, you aim it.” That sort of swaggering bravado gave the V-Max a higher badassity quotient than any lap times or marketing copy about race-bred handling ever could.


The original V-Max stayed in production for 22 years with mainly cosmetic changes, long after other bikes were making more power and posting lower dragstrip times. The V-Max was like an aging Neil Young, managing to somehow remain cool, while contemporaries got stale and sappy.  Sales finally dwindled to the point where Yamaha created a replacement “VMax” (no hyphen) for 2008 that was more powerful, better handling, and even more ugly outrageously styled. They even tried to create a V-Boost-ish fuel injection map, without much success. Like most sequels, it was a carefully calculated attempt to duplicate a serendipitous success that ended up being nowhere near as interesting or impressive as the original. The V-Max struck a nerve at the exact right time. Like neon-colored clothes and big hair, it is a time capsule of ’80s tastes. Only it tasted so good that it lasted another two decades.

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