Yamaha VMAX: the models, the rivals and the verdict

Doing a burnout on the Yamaha VMAX

The Yamaha V-Max was first unleashed in 1985, released solely to Yamaha’s US market as an exercise in excessive power, aggressive looks and neck-jarring performance. For many, it was, and remains, the epitome of the muscle bike, with Yamaha producing two generations, before ceasing its production for UK markets in 2016.

Powered by an 1197cc shaft-drive V4 engine producing 145bhp, the first V-Maxs to arrive in the UK were unofficial imports. This then changed in 1991, when Yamaha officially imported the bike in a 90bhp, restricted format. It wasn't until 1996 that the UK could enjoy an official full-power version.

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Interestingly, the V-Max project happened by complete accident, after Yamaha Venture Royale full-dresser project leader, Akira Akari, stumbled across a motorbike drag race over the span of a bridge, when visiting the New Orleans, in the US.

So inspired by the spectacle, he then shut himself away in Yamaha’s Santa Monica design offices for a month to begin creating the beast we know today. Styling cues were also taken from California-based British customiser John 'Uncle Bunt' Reed.

Original Yamaha V-Max with an early rival

Production of the original 'Max ended in 2003, with Yamaha’s line-up remaining devoid of the power cruiser until 2009, after a prototype version appeared at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show. Following the original’s max-power ethos, the 2009 machine hiked the capacity to 1679cc and claimed power to a monstrous 197bhp. 

Retaining the original bad-boy, muscle bike style for the 21st century, the name was also changed from V-Max to VMAX and came complete with an eye-watering £20,000 price tag. Ultimately, it was this that limited the second generation machine’s appeal, with many unable to justify the price tag for such a one-dimensional machine.

Yamaha V-Max (1991-2003) 

A burnout on the early Yamaha V-Max

Despite being available as a grey import from 1985, the Yamaha V-Max (or VMX1200 to give it its proper name) didn’t officially arrive in the UK until 1991. Furthermore, it wasn’t available in the full 143bhp de-restricted format until 1996, which can be spotted by looking for frame numbers starting with 2EN 042101 onwards.

These later machines came equipped with a V-Boost system, which uses an internal servo motor to open all of the valves at once to deliver an additional burst of power from around 4000rpm onwards. 

This version then remained until 2003, at which point Yamaha ceased importing them, thanks to tightening emissions regulations. This was, arguably, for the best though, with the bike’s '80s chassis technology showing its age.

Equipped with non-adjustable forks and lacking ground clearance, handling was questionable at its inception and, nearly 20 years on, didn’t improve with age. The frame appears to flex, with the back end squirming under the engine's power. Alongside this, the front end loads up under braking whilst attempting to haul up the bike’s 280kg wet weight.

What’s more, the 18in front and 15in rear wheels limit tyre choice and the lack of screen and high bars mean you need to hold on tight at speed. That said, with such a long life-span, aftermarket extras are quite common place, with upside down fork kits and 17in wheel conversions not uncommon. 

Yamaha V-Max rivals

A Yamaha V-Max pulls a burnout with the Buell S1 White Lightning

The V-Max was something of a game-changer in the budding hot rod class of the ‘80s, meaning many rivals came later down the line, including the short-lived Harley-Davidson-derived Buell S1 White Lightning, which appeared in 1997. 

Also to be considered was Honda’s monstrous 1284cc inline-four X4, which took the fight directly to the V-Max, despite never officially being imported to the UK. Appearing towards the end of the 1990s, it was criticised for lacking the headbanging appeal of the 'Max, despite actually out-performing it in a number of areas.

Yamaha VMAX (2009-2016)

Riding the Yamaha VMAX at night

A combination of laid-back cruiser styling and enough straightline performance to outgun a superbike, the final inception of the VMAX is an all-out brawler of a motorbike reserved for only the most experienced pilots.

With 123ftlb of torque and 197bhp on tap, open the throttle in any gear and the bike will deliver a savage drive from its 1679cc V4 power plant, capable of a top speed south of 140mph and a quarter-mile time of just 10.86 seconds. To put that performance into perspective, there's the same amount of power on tap as Ducati’s über-exotic Desmosedici RR MotoGP replica, but at 4000rpm less.

The later VMAX wasn’t all about straight line prowess though, with the bike handling well thanks to an all-new mainframe and extended rear subframe. This was aided further by chunky fully-adjustable 52mm upside down forks and mono shock, complete with a remote preload adjuster. Quite the opposite to the original beast!

Also included are powerful radially-mounted Brembo six-piston calipers and wavy discs, which are needed to stop the bike’s substantial 310kg mass. 

Other nice details (arguably putting the fellow Japanese and European rivals of the time to shame) included a neat information panel mounted on the petrol tank, which paid tribute to the original machine, leaving the centrally-mounted, minimalist clock displaying the key details like speed and revs and nothing more. 

In 2015, Yamaha celebrated 30 years of the VMAX with a new carbon special edition. Priced at £18,749 at the time, the special bike gained a carbon fibre fuel tank cover, front and rear mudguards and side covers, alongside upswept Akrapovic slip-on exhaust silencers.

Yamaha VMAX rivals

In a world of 200bhp+ superbikes and mammoth adventure bikes, the Yamaha VMAX has actually gone up against a surprisingly large number of muscle cruisers, ranging from the Ducati Diavel family, to the Harley-Davidson Street Rod and the Triumph Rocket 3, which makes a return to the class in 2020 with a monstrous 2.5-litre engine.

Performance stats: Yamaha VMAX vs. original Ducati Diavel

  Yamaha VMAX Ducati Diavel
Power 197.2bhp 162bhp
Weight 310kg 207kg
Price £19,999 £12,995
Power to weight 0.63bhp per kg 0.78bhp per kg

Despite almost 200bhp on tap, towards the end of its life-span, machines like the Ducati XDiavel began to knock the VMAX off of its muscle bike throne. Although still unable to match the Yamaha for straight line acceleration, the Ducati offers a more complete package, with superior handling and electronics, plus arguably more modern styling.

A side-on view of the Yamaha VMAX

Buying a used Yamaha VMAX 

Buy a Yamaha VMAX on the used market and you can pretty much bank on it not losing you money – in fact they can make a useful investment, because values are rising. It’s a depreciation-proof purchase.

The VMAX has always boasted a cult following (it’s almost the definition of a cult bike) but dealers say there is also the simple matter of supply and demand keeping prices high. And with production ceasing in 2016, that situation isn’t likely to change.

Incredibly, bikes first sold more than 20 years ago are still fetching over £5000. They are also often well maintained, meaning most used machines will be decent.

MCN’s Phil West was one of the first to ride the second generation bike in 2008 and said: "The VMAX is what happens when you mix 1679cc and nearly 200 horsepower in a motorcycle that’s one part cruiser, one part sportsbike – and all parts thrilling.

"It’s difficult to explain just how quickly the VMAX builds speed. Cruise along at 30mph in second gear, pick up the throttle and hold on tight!"

One of the biggest challenges is finding a bike to buy. Darren Hillyer is the Dealer Principal at Webbs of Peterborough and claims to have seen just one in the showroom in his time with the firm, in an interview first published in 2017.

"If anybody ever decided that they were going to part-exchange a VMAX with us, we’d be on the phone to a handful of people saying we’ve got one in. My guess is that it wouldn’t even make it to the showroom," he said.

"These bikes aren’t popular, as such, they’re just rare because it was such an expensive bit of kit. It’s such a specific bike that people have made up their minds to go and buy one."

Celebrating 30 years of the VMAX

The special Infrared Yamaha VMAX

In celebration of 30 years of the VMAX, German special builders JVB-moto created a special 'Infrared' version.

Sitting alongside Yamaha's own Carbon limited-edition, the rear of the bike was replaced by a handmade aluminium subframe, which supports a custom carbon-fibre tail piece. The brushed air intakes were also modified items from the original 1985 V-Max.

To give the bike a cafe racer feel JVB-moto replaced the standard bars with clip-on items for a more aggressive riding position.

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