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Used bike guide: Japanese Middleweight Cruisers

Published: 30 August 2013

To many riders cruisers are the domain of one brand – Harley-Davidson. The American icon has cornered the market to such an extent that like a vacuum cleaner is no longer called a vacuum, it’s a Hoover, a cruiser is simply a Harley. However this kind of notoriety comes at a cost.

If you are looking at getting a second hand middleweight Harley such as the 883 you are unlikely to see much change from £4,000 for quite an old bike as resale values are strong. While this is good news for owners not wishing to lose out in depreciation, it can be a stumbling block for potential buyers who are tempted towards the laidback lifestyle but are not 100% sure if it is for them. Riders who may be returning to two-wheels after a break, are younger or even just fancy a cool looking second bike in their garage. Which is where the Japanese cruisers come in.

With prices starting as low at £2,000, Japanese middleweight cruisers offer all the show of a Harley but with a vastly reduced price tag. They have the same V-twin style of engine, yet unlike Harley aren’t constrained by years of heritage and so can experiment with valve arrangements, cam shafts and even, perish the thought, water-cooling…

So are they the poor man’s Harley? Not at all, bikes such as the Yamaha Drag Star have an every bit as loyal fan base as HOG, it’s just a smaller section of the motorcycle community. And the same story is true for the customisation side.

Where Harley have a telephone book sized custom catalogue, the Japanese cruisers are as equally well catered for when it comes to accessories. There are countless aftermarket firms who make chrome, leather and even steel items that are designed to either enhance the noise, practicality or look of a Japanese cruiser.

Although they lack the correct name on the tank (it is very noticeable that no Japanese cruiser displays the same company logo as their sportsbikes) there are many plus sides to thinking outside the ‘normal’ cruiser route. The build quality, performance and styling are every bit as good on a Japanese cruiser as on a Harley (some would argue they are better) while the price is considerably lower. And anyway, most people are dazzled by the chrome and just assume that any bike of this style is a Harley – why bother correcting them?

1997- Current Honda VT750 Shadow

The facts:
Price for a good one: £3,000 to £7,599
Engine: 6v sohc, 745cc liquid-cooled V-twin
Power: 46bhp @ 5,500rpm
Torque: 48ftlb @ 3,500rpm
Weight: 229kg
Seat Height: 652mm
Wheelbase: 1639mm
Top speed: 100mph
MPG: 46

What was it like then?
Launched in 1997, Honda’s VT750 Shadow was a larger version of the firm’s surprisingly charming VT600 V-twin cruiser, which had been winning friends since 1992. About as soft and unthreatening as you could possibly get, the 600 was lacking a bit of grunt and so Honda increased its capacity to 745cc, creating the Harley 883 rival VT750 Shadow.

In keeping with cruiser tradition the VT750 has a V-twin engine, however Honda chose a different path to most by not only water-cooling their lump, they also gave it a very quirky head design. With three valves per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust) the Shadow’s motor is not only remarkably soft, but also fairly torque laden with a pleasant exhaust note and a slick five-speed gearbox. Another of the Honda’s selling points was that unlike some other cruisers the 2004-onwards Shadow also came with a maintenance-free shaft drive rather than the chain and sprockets of the previous model, appealing to the less mechanically enthusiastic. In 2007 Honda boosted the range by introducing the C2 Shadow Spirit, which had a larger 21-inch front wheel and more bobber styling.

Although the Shadow remained virtually unchanged between updates bar colours, Honda did introduce optional ABS in 2009 while the 2011 Shadow Black Spirit was a more aggressive bobber style C2 Spirit with a black engine and no chrome detailing.

What is it like now?
After 16 years the Shadow remains in Honda’s current line up, which shows how popular this model of bike is. There is no denying the Shadow is a good looking, and practical, cruiser. Shorter riders will find its low seat height and light weight very appealing while the addition of a shaft drive was something of a stroke of genius by Honda.

For pottering around and looking good the Shadow is a very pleasant machine. Honda have been careful to subtly hide the company’s logos as well as the fact the Shadow is liquid cooled, which makes a big difference for car park credibility.

In the second hand market Shadows tend to have mileages of under 10,000 however very few have been used and are showing over 20,000 miles. Price isn’t really dictated by year, more condition and mileage and with a budget of £3,500 to £4,000 you can secure a very smart example with under 10,000 miles on the clock.
For riders wanting their first taste of cruiser life, or even new riders who are drawn to the looks and image of a cruiser, the Shadow is a good option. It is reliable, well built and tends to hold its value well. You can easily buy a Shadow, ride it for a few years and then pass it on again with minimal loss. Just keep it clean, once those twin pipes start to look tatty they can be a nightmare to return to their former glory.

Check points:
The VT750C Shadow (1997-2004) came with a 17-inch front wheel and 15-inch rear, the front grew to a 19-inch item on the VT750DC Shadow (2001 – 2004), both bikes have a chain drive. In 2004 the VT750C Shadow (2004-current) gained shaft drive while the VT750C2 Shadow Spirit (2007-current) has a 21-inch front and shaft drive. The C2B Shadow Black Spirit was launched in 2011, which is a black version of the C2.

The single front brake caliper isn’t the strongest brake in the world and the drum rear is also a fairly weak backup. Owners who are unsure on how the drum works avoid checking the pad wear, check to see when it was last looked at.

Overall the Honda’s finish is excellent, however the paint on the forks can cause some issues if not well looked after.

Shadows tend not to attract too many after market extras however a sissy bar, leather panniers and a screen are quite popular additions. They don’t really add anything to the bike’s value, so don’t pay over the top for them.

The Shadow’s radiator is located between the front frame rails and can be a target for stones. Have a good look at the fins and ensure there are no puncture holes or flattened fins.

Owners recommend swapping the final sprocket for a 39 or 38 tooth item on the chain drive versions to give them some grunt.

1997 - 2007 Yamaha XVS650 Drag Star

The facts:
Price for a good one: £2,400 to £6,500
Engine: 4v sohc, 649cc air-cooled V-twin
Power: 40bhp @ 6,500rpm
Torque: 37ftlb @ 3,000rpm
Weight: 229kg
Seat Height: 710mm
Wheelbase: 1610mm
Top speed: 95mph
MPG: 47

What was it like then?
Where Honda decided to push the boundaries with its liquid-cooled cruiser, Yamaha took an all together more conventional path when they developed their XVS650 Drag Star. Despite both bikes being launched in the same year, Yamaha’s replacement to its popular Virago was a budget air-cooled cruiser that relied on its charming ways and heritage rather than any technical wizardry.

Using a larger capacity version of the 535cc SOHC 4v Virago V-twin, which Yamaha took up to 649cc thanks to a larger bore and stroke, the Drag Star’s motor was never likely to set the world on fire. Producing just 40bhp the bike plods along merrily with a pleasant ‘duff, duff’ exhaust note that is a decent replication of a Harley’s classic sound. Unlike the Honda Shadow, Yamaha gave the Virago a shaft drive from the very start of its life, another factor in its popularity alongside its surprisingly competent handling.

Despite having the same 15-inch rear and 19-inch front wheel combination as other cruisers, the Drag Star corners better than most due to clever weight distribution. It’s certainly no sportsbike, however you can get away with quite spirited riding on the Yamaha with ground clearance being the only limiting factor. Unfortunately the brakes are pretty weak, however you soon start to use the rear drum in conjunction with the single front caliper to compensate.

What is it like now?
Although the Drag Star failed to set the world on fire, it certainly won friends with its easy going attitude and budget price tag and a lot of owners can’t praise them highly enough. Second hand prices tend to be lower than the Honda with an early 1999 model costing as little as £2,400 while a late 2006 version can still be had for less than £4,000. Like most cruisers the variation in mileages is remarkable with bikes having anything from a few thousand to over 20,000 on their clocks.

When it comes to modifications the usual panniers and sissy bars are common, however there is a greater number of  after market suppliers for the Yamaha than other cruisers (aside from Harley) making this the better model should you fancy a stab at customisation. Extra chrome, taller screens and additional lights are very easy to locate should you wish.

The Drag Star is a solid, if a little uninspiring, performer with unquestionable reliability and fairly decent build quality. While the motor can feel a little underpowered, especially if you are looking at two-up riding, it is easy to work on and cheap to maintain compared to some other cruisers. Overall there is little to fear when buying a second hand Drag Star and although they don’t hold their value as well as some cruisers, they are still a decent buy.

Check points:
Drag Star Classic
The Classic was launched in 1998 and features longer mudguards, a wider front wheel, styling modifications and a split rider/pillion seat unit. Designed for long distance riding, it is more relaxed than the standard bike.

The main grumble from owners involved the reg/rec packing in, which seems to be a common Drag Star fault. It’s fairly cheap to fix with a new reg/rec costing around £40.

Despite its budget nature the Drag Star has a high level of finish. Yamaha even coated the spokes with a special resin to help them retain their showroom appearance. Check the bike for any signs of rust, once it starts to set in you are fighting a losing battle.

Big brother
Should you wish for a slightly larger bike, the XVS1100 Drag Star was made from 1999 to 2006. Styled similarly to the 650, the 1100 makes 62bhp with of torque from its air-cooled motor. Prices start at £3,500.

1995 – 2004 – Kawasaki VN800 Classic

Price for a good one: £2,000 to £4,500
Engine: 8v sohc, 805cc air-cooled V-twin
Power: 54bhp @ 7,000rpm
Torque: 47ftlb @ 3,300rpm
Weight: 234kg
Seat Height: 705mm
Wheelbase: 1625mm
Top speed: 103mph
MPG: 42

What was it like then?
Replacing the VN750 Vulcan, which was launched in 1985 and was Kawasaki’s first cruiser-styled bike, the VN800 was introduced in 1995 as a traditional bobber styled cruiser with a 21-inch front wheel and 16-inch rear. Using a modified and larger capacity 805cc version of the Vulcan’s sohc V-twin engine, the VN800 delivered more drive while still replicating the look of its predecessor. A year later the VN800 was joined in the range by the VN800 Classic, a 1950s styled bike with larger mudguards, 16-inch wheels and altered gear ratios.

Always a physically larger bike than the competition, the VN800 developed a reputation as having the best engine out of all of the Japanese cruisers. Unlike the Honda and Yamaha the Kawasaki relied on a conventional four valve head with a single overhead cam, something that alongside its larger capacity gave it more grunt than its rivals. With the peak torque arriving at just over 3,000rpm riders soon discovered that there was no need to rush the VN and it happily thudded along with the motor hardly ticking over, making for a relaxed ride. Although it wasn’t without its faults. Strangely for this style of bike Kawasaki gave the VN a chain drive, going against the general view of making cruisers as maintenance free as possible.
With a large and roomy riding position the VN proved the choice for larger riders who viewed the Drag Star as possibly lacking in capacity. Spotting this trend Kawasaki launched a range of VN models which culminated in the spectacularly large VN2000 with its mighty 2053cc V-twin motor.

What is it like now?
There is a certain charm to the VN800 that you don’t get with the smaller capacity bikes. Cruising is all about taking it easy and the extra power delivered by the VN’s motor certainly helps make it the most relaxed ride out of the Japanese middleweight machines. The look is cool, the riding position very comfortable and the level of finish high, especially on the chrome areas. Even the brakes are reasonable, although certainly not spectacular…

In second hand showrooms VNs tend to be rarer than other Japanese cruisers, however this could be to do with its prices being so low. A good condition VN800 or VN800 Classic from the late 1990s or early 2000s can easily be had for less than £3,000 and if you don’t mind a few miles on its clock this figure can drop to less than £2,500. Average mileages tend to be under 10,000, but this hasn’t stopped a few owners topping 25,000 without any reported issues.

Riders who are looking at taking a pillion regularly or maybe are a little larger themselves the VN800 is a classically styled cruiser with impressive grunt and iconic looks. Kawasaki may not be the first brand you think of when it comes to cruisers, however the VN is one of the best of the bunch.

Check points:
The general finish is excellent on the VN800 however the fork legs are known to pit and some of the fasteners can look a bit rough if not well cared for.

Go big!
If you want more capacity the VN900 was launched in 2006 and prices start at £3,500. The 1988 VN1500 is around £3,000 while its replacement, the 2005 VN1600, is closer to £5,000. A 2010 VN1700 costs £8,000 while the big daddy 2004 VN2000 is £4,500.

Be wary of any electrical add ons such as extra lights etc as they tend to upset the bike’s wiring, leading to annoying electrical issues.

The VN800 needs its valve clearances checked at 7,500 mile (owners usually round this up to 8,000 miles), which can be a costly service and is worth factoring in when buying second hand.
If the carbs aren’t properly balanced the VN800 can become a poor starter and run very rough at low revs. Check to see the last time they were properly set-up.

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