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Video: A custom build and why the donor bike is significant

May 11, 2023

Quite a few Common Tread readers have said they enjoy the calming and relaxing experience of watching videos of Ari rebuilding the motorcycles he and Zack have flogged in various CTXP videos. Here's another video along the same lines, except the build took two years (don't worry, the video is a time lapse of highlights) — and I admit some personal bias factored into my decision to mention it here.

It's a café racer build by Cafe&Bikes, starting with a partially disassembled and not really complete 1982 Yamaha Virago. The old Viragos have become a popular platform for custom builds in recent years, and if you're not familiar with the original, first-generation Virago, I think it's worth a quick, two-minute history lesson.

You know the old advice of never buying a motorcycle or car in its first model year of production? You know, wait until they work out the bugs? I obviously never learned that because I've owned six first-model-year motorcycles, and a 1981 Yamaha Virago 750 was one of them. It was definitely not the best of the bunch, but it was in the running for the title of most significant.

Go back to 1982. The Japanese had conquered the other segments of the U.S. motorcycle market but had not yet figured out the cruiser segment. In the 1970s, they tried to compete with Harley-Davidson the easy way. They took existing four-cylinder and parallel-twin models, slapped on a stepped seat and a buckhorn handlebar, chromed some formerly painted pieces, and called it a cruiser by adding a suffix. So a Suzuki GS750 got the cruiser treatment and became a GS750L. Honda added "Custom" as a suffix, Yamaha had "Specials."

studio photo of a Suzuki GS750L
The Japanese manufacturers' first attempts at building cruisers for the U.S. market consisted of putting stepped seats, pull-back handlebars, and extra chrome on their existing two-cylinder and four-cylinder models, like this Suzuki GS750L. Suzuki photo.

Form your own opinions on the styling, but it didn't demonstrate real commitment to conquering the cruiser market.

With the Virago in 1981, Yamaha fired a shot much closer to Harley-Davidson's bow. They produced a bike with an air-cooled V-twin engine and shaft drive (foreshadowing Harley-Davidson's later move to belt final drive), to eliminate the noise and maintenance of a chain. (Cruiser riders want to hear the engine rumble, not the chain rattle, right?)

Of course the Virago didn't take over the cruiser segment either, because it was still Japanese, not American.

Most people today hear the Virago name and think of the second generation, which came later in the 1980s, and had more exaggerated cruiser styling. The first-generation, 1981 Virago I bought used in 1990 had fairly standard ergonomics, except for the absurd buckhorn handlebar. It was not a great bike, but a 750 cc V-twin with shaft drive made for a pretty versatile package and I lived in Central Florida at the time, so how would I ever know how it handled curves?

Eventually, the other Japanese manufacturers followed Yamaha's example and started building V-twin cruisers. The Virago 750 was first. Today, for better or worse, many of those first-gen models have been chopped into café racers. Like this one.

The Cafe&Bikes custom isn't exactly my taste. I don't think I'd want twin ear-splitting pipes tucked under that very thin-looking seat while it cradled my butt. But it is a nice piece of work. And it sent me on a fun little trip into memories of one of my former rides that was also a significant milepost in the U.S. motorcycle market.