Buying A Virago

I get a lot of e-mail from guys who are thinking about buying a Virago.  The ask me about “any things I should look for”, etc. There are, in fact, a few things to consider here, and I’ll try to lay some of this out so that I can refer future questions to this article.

When considering a Virago, you ought first to run yourself through a little self evaluation.

–Are you mechanical enough to maintain a bike and solve problems?
–Is this your first bike?
–Are you interested in this bike mainly because it is cheap and you can afford it?
–Will this be your only bike?
–Are you mainly looking for a trouble free bike that you can just ride?
–Are you looking for a “project”?  Something to work on and get running?
–Do you plan to commute on this bike?
–Are you a persistant type and ready to tackle and overcme problems if they arrise?

The answers to these questions and questions like them may determine whether you should buy a Virago at all, and also may influence the years that you should consider.

I’d say the most common mistake made by people buying a first bike is put this way; ” I didn’t want to spend too much on it, since it is my first bike, asnd now it won’t do this, and it won’t do that, etc.”.  My view would be just the opposite.  Instead of buying a cheap bike with problems, the new rider ought to spend enough to get a good running, well maintained bike that is well supported in terms of parts and service.  That way they’ll ride instead of struggling with problems–and get off to a good start in world of motorycycling.

Let me try to describe the situation with the various Virago models.

1981 to 1983

From 1981 to 1983 Yamaha built Viragos that can be described as “Standard” type motorcycyles.  The seating position was pretty much straight up.  In 1981 and 1982 Yamaha offered a chain drive version of this bike call the RH and RJ.  In my opinion these come as close to being a collector’s item as you are going to get.  The 1983 750 and 920 Midnight models are also considered more desireable by some.  But, in general, the Virago never achieved the collector or cult status of say, early Triumphs, Nortons, and the like, and guys who think they have a gold mine in one of these models maybe disappointed when they look for a small fortune at the time of sale.

These early bikes were good bikes and many are still running well.  With good care and maintenance they are capable of high mileage.  But these bikes did need good maintenance and care, and if they did not receive it, they had a habit of turning on you.

For those considering buying one of these bikes today, here are some considerations:

1.   These early Viragos had problematic starter systems. Today, these systems can still be repaired and brought to a reasonable state of performance.  But any potential buyer should assure that the starter is working O.K. on the bike he is looking at, and be ready to deal with the  repairs one way or another should the the need come up.

2.   These bikes are equipped with Hitachi carbs, which will run the bike well if they are in good condition.  But these carbs are getting old, and certain critical parts, such as slide/diaphragms, are no longer available, or are very expensive.  Some parts are available in the aftermarket, and there are at least a couple of rebuilders around at this point.  Also Mikuni carbs fitted to later Viragos can be adapted.  So with some effort and money, Hitachi carb problems can be overcome as of now.

3.    All bikes this old with some miles on them are likely to have some normal wear-and-tear and component failure issues which may require your attention.  Most of these issues can currently be resolved O.K.  Front forks are a potential weak point, in that if they have not been well maintained, they can wear and get sticky, making for a rough ride.  I strongly urge you to compression test any older bike that you are thinking about buying (hold throttle open).  If these tests show any signs of problems, I’d pass.  Pistons and rings maybe a big hassle for some of these older bikes.  If you still want the bike, line up you potential sources/suppliers before you buy.

4.    More and more Yamaha dealers are refusing to work on bikes over 10 years old.  They may be willing to mount a new tire, and change your oil and filter, but when it comes to running problems (carbs, electrics, etc.) they probably won’t touch these bikes a) because of parts issues, and b) because they really don’t know how to deal with some of the problems and have really no interest in trying.

5.     Yamaha service manuals are no longer available from Yamaha.  sometimes you can find them on E-bay or similar.  Clymer and Haynes do offer manuals which are your next best resource.

Would I recommend that you buy one of these bikes?  Maybe, maybe not.

Review the questions at the beginning of this article again. If you are just getting into motorcycyling and are attracted to the bike simply because it is cheap, or if you are not at all mechanical (or ready to dig in and learn to be) and your aim is to do some riding, I’d recommend that you consider passing and going for a bike that is newer and better supported.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind a bit of a project, enjoy wrenching and working through a problem now and then, then an early Virago might be a fun deal for you.  Particularly if you have another reliable bike to commute and/or ride when you need to.

If I were going to buy one, I would look for a bike that showed signs of care and maintenance, that started readily, that accelerated smooth and strong, that ran nicely at freeway speeds, and handled well by the standards of those days.  If  If you can find such a bike, you may get many trouble-free miles out of it.

When buying I personally have a strong bias in favor of stock bikes.  With modified bikes you can’t be as sure what you are getting, and don’t know the quality of work that went into the mods. Based on what I’ve seen there are some real butchers out there.  I’m not against mods, but I’d prefer to do them myself than inherit someone else’s. 

Although a lot of guys “watch bikes on E-Bay” I would personally not buy a bike that way.  I’d strongly urge you to test ride any bike you are considerng.  That way, you won’t be saying “Oh Lord, this isn’t what I wanted!” when you finally ride it.

NOTE ON 1982 920 Virago (J) These bikes were technically more complex than other early models and were fitted with a CYCOM computerized monitoring system and an LCD (liquid crystal display) tach and speedo.  These units are no longer available, and cannot be repaired by anyone that I know about. If they should fail your options maybe a little daunting, as in, rewire the bike. If you are interested in a 920 I’d recommend you search for one of the chain drives, or the 1983 K model.

1984 on up

In 1984 Yamaha reinvented the Virago as more of a chopper type cruiser.  This style lasted until the end of the run (for 700’s, 750’s, 1000’s and 1100’s). The frame and many of the components did not change over the years, so many parts (perhaps all parts for later years) are availble for these models.


—All these models continued to use Hitachi carbs through 1987, and the comments on Hitachis noted above apply to these bikes.
— The old style starter system was used on the 700 through 1986.  (All 1000’s and 1100’s (form’84 on), and 700/750’s starting in 1987 were fitted with a much improved starter system featuring a solenoid type engagement mechanism which replaced the springs and clips of the older system.  Look for a solenoid unit on top of the starter motor.

In 1988 Mikunis carbs were fitted to all models and were retained virtually unchanged until the end of the run, so parts are available for these carbs.

So I think we can say that Viragos built from 1988 on repesent a more modern, more reliable, and better supported choice than the earlier ones, and a better bet for non-mechanical people, and riders who are new to the game.  By 1995 virtually all of the detailed changes and refinements had be made to these bikes, and bikes from that year on can be considered mechanically the same as the last ones built.  If they have been well maintained, these bikes represent a refined and reliable motorycle capable serious high mileage.  Yamaha Service manuals are available at, and dealers will work on most of these models, certainly the ones less than 10 years old.  These bikes do ocassionally experience component failures, but probably no more than any other bike of similar vintage, and mechanics generally know how to fix these.

But a test ride is very important here as well and I would suggest you look for a couple possible problems that you will only be able to experience on such a test ride.

The first is excessive vibration. With Viragos you know you have an engine working down there, but if things are right the vibration will not be excessive or in any way annoying.  But a few examples of later Viragos have been known to vibrate excessively–and may not be easy to correct..

Second is whine on deceleration. All Viragos whine a little on deceleration, but a few whine really loud, to the point where it is annoying.  They’ll probably run a long way this way, but correcting this is also not easy.

You also might listen to the level of mechanical noise coming from the engine.  All Virago engines have some mechanical noise, but if things are right it has a pleasant sound to it with no loud knocks or other ominous sounds.

Well that’s about it.  Remember that I deal with the darker side of Viragos a lot to where I am probably 10% too conservative and pessimistic in my evaluations.  Also note that there are articles on this website that go into some of the areas covered here in much more detail.  You’ll further note that I don’t specifically talk about XV 250’s, 500’s, and 535’s.  I’m not familiar enough with these bikes to comment on problems/changes, except to say that the XV500 was offered only one year (1983).  It’s a great little bike when running well, but parts and support problems are pretty severe.
General comments about what to look for and test riding would of course apply.

Posted 6/4/04

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