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Requiem for a Cruiser : Yamaha VMax, Goodbye to a Legend

black max doing a big burnout

the max's famous, if originally faux, scoops

Max’d Out

The sad day a company announced the demise of a rare, perhaps even solitary, breed of motorcycle – the infamous and legendary Yamaha VMax.

It has been a long and almost uninterrupted run for this singular motorcycle with a passionate following of customization and acceleration enthusiasts. The original nomenclature for Yamaha’s most extreme hooligan was the V-Max, which we will use in respect for a bike that was conceived and introduced in the mid 1980s, the last great burst of “anything goes” motorcycle euphoria and a period that instigated trends that would last for 30 years. 

Without being too maudlin, it is a sad day for motorcycling in general and for the spirit of motorcycling in particular. The V-Max was a very special bike.

The original V-Max was a halo product with little purpose beyond accelerating quickly and leaving patches of pungent rubber in its wake – a purpose it would remain stubbornly true to for 35 years. Turning corners on the spindly front end wasn’t the bike’s forte and neither was riding further than the third closest Tim Hortons. But in a straight line, the V-Max was an uncontested winner— and a hairy-chested, bombastic response to much that was civil about motorcycles. It was Yamaha’s answer to outlaw machines that fed off suppressed “Mad Max” mentalities. 

Love it or hate it, the V-Max defied classification. It was vaguely a “power cruiser” but the ergonomics didn’t fit the definition – a definition that didn’t exist at the time. The motor most certainly did not fit the expected cruiser mold —a 1198cc, liquid cooled V-4 with four (large) valves per cylinder sourced from the Yamaha Venture but given a vigorous once-over to induce additional power. 

There were other V4 motorcycles peripheral to the V-Max’s lonely existence when the V-Max debuted but they came to the party lacking. The Honda Magna 1100 was one and the Suzuki Madura was another. But neither was hopped up specifically to break the rear end loose and both were very conventionally styled Japanese cruisers. Competition? Not particularily.

the new max looking speedy through the cornerThe V-Max’s prodigous power came about through multiple tweaks but the big one was the V-Boost system that kicked in at 6,000 rpm when a small servo motor opened butterfly valves connecting two of the four individual carbs. The result was each cylinder being force-fed the fuel for two cylinders and a factory spec 145 horsepower at full boost—likely a little optimistic but more than adequate for the defined task at hand. 

So the Yamaha VMax was fast and loud and … unattractive? No, that is too harsh a term because judging a design penned in the early 1980s becomes a moving target when the years pass … and pass. But who cared what it looked like when the bike was blowing the doors and battery covers off just about everything else on the road regardless of the number of wheels, doors or seats. With that giant motor and thin forks, there  was something odd about the proportions. The “tank” wasn’t a fuel tank but rather an airbox (the fuel tank actually sat below the seat) and the infamous protruding air scoops were in fact, faux. But faux or not, the scoops became the bike’s signature visual cue, a remanent of the big hair, cosmetically enhanced styling of the early eighties.

While the V-Max was not a huge seller for Yamaha, it was consistent and attained an ardent multigenerational following by remaining relatively unchanged while other horsepower-centric bikes moved on in power, speed and technology. Lasting so long, the original V-Max became one of the most iconic motorcycles in the Yamaha stable. What other bike could lay claim to that title? Possibly from 1980 forward, only the RZ500 which had its short burst of glory at the same time as the V-Max’s initial launch. The still going TW200 has the longevity but not the style, panache or power for the role. 

The New Yamaha VMAX

Somewhere along the way, Yamaha had to acknowledge it could do better. Twenty years of engineering progress had been made (but not applied). We were somewhat surprised when the Yamaha VMAX arrived as an entirely new bike in 2009. It may have well been a casualty of the 2008 recession although it slid in just under the wire. 

Not much changed between the 2001 model (above) and the 1986 model (adjacent).

1986 yamaha vmax stdio shot gray

The new Yamaha VMAX was a far more advanced bike than its predecessor but, to Yamaha’s credit, remained true to the original and instantly identifiable. Displacement jumped to 1679cc while keeping the essential V4 format. It gained fuel injection, an aluminum frame, ride-by-wire technology and something in the order of an additional 54 horsepower as the factory now claimed 197 hp for the bike. It did retain shaft drive and a five-speed transmission and conventional, although larger, 52mm front forks so not everything was different. And it had a new system, the  Yamaha Chip Controlled Intake, that replaced V-Boost. The new system changed the length of the intake funnels depending on the rpm. At 6,650 rpm  a servo motor would reroute air flow from a 150mm funnel for low end torque to a 54mm funnels for high rpm power. The change in funnels would only take three-tenths of a second.

2009 yamaha max studio side shot black
The new VMax kept the spirit and visual cues but brought all the subsequent tech advantages.

So why the sad day? All motorcycles eventually pass into history. Perhaps it is the sanding off of the “rough” edges. 197 hp is a lot of power but there are plenty of current motorcycles that make more than 200. But in 1986, 145 was a mindblowing number and years before a  supposed “gentleman’s agreement” temporarily capped hp at the 199 hp level. But those days are gone along with the brute, irrepressible force of the V-Max.  

Bikes including the new Panigale V4 and Kawasaki’s H2R eclipse the second generation Yamaha VMAX in power but those expensive bikes exist in a rarified niche: often bike-as-collector-item rather than bike-to-ride. The V-Max was a hard ridden link back to both the 1980s and a thread that lead through power mongers such as the MT-01, V-Rod, VTX1800, Rune, ZX12 and the Victory Hammer. Yes, bikes today handle better and are more powerful but they are less raw, more computer restrained. The 2020 VMAX is $25,995 but somehow it is, like the original bike, an everyman bike with attitude—a black-and-gold 1980 Turbo Trans Am among motorcycles. 

On blogs and forums riders will readly acknowledge the V-Max’s shortcomings but the devotion is apparent. It is a bike they either bought long ago or a bike they pined for before finally getting their hands on one. Without doubt the bike will be a collector item. 

What hope does a rider have for something like the Yamaha VMax arriving again? There is one possible light at the end of the tunnel for another 200-hp, V4 monster of a bike but it doesn’t exist … yet. 

The current Ducati Diavel has a V-Twin producing 157hp but Ducati is very excited about their new V4 which is now in both the Multistrada and Panigale. We would almost bet that the V4 will eventually make it into the Diavel along with a power that could range between 170 and 220 hp. 

Can you smell the burning rubber?

a red max doing a burnout

• John Molony Canadian Biker #351


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