Virago Aftermarket Pipes

One of the most common questions I get concerns Virago aftermarket pipes.  What brand should I get?  Which kind should I get, slip-ons or a “complete system”?  Will I need to rejet?The purpose of this article is not to recommend certain pipes, or procedures.  While I have installed a few pipes in my day, I can’t keep up with all the latest offerings, and have not had personal experience with many of the pipes on the market that are currently available for Viragos.  What I’ll try to do is give you some food for thought, point out the areas of interest/concern, and offer some general guidance on how to proceed if you are determined to take the plunge.

Before we get going I’d like to ask you, “Why are you doing this?”  If your bike is running well and you enjoy it, why not leave well enough alone?  The sound of a stock Virago exhaust is pleasant, your neighbours speak to you, and your bike has reasonable power for cruising-type riding.  Also a well-maintained stock Virago will probably run trouble free longer than one that is modified, and a stock bike will probably retain it’s trade-in and re-sale value better.  So why not just relax and enjoy your Virago as it is.

Some of the reasons given for installing pipes are:

“Loud pipes save lives”.  Drive sanely and you won’t need ’em for this reason.

“I want that “rumble”.  “I want it to sound like a Harley”. Hard to argue with these reasons, except to say that (in my opinion) the smaller your engine, the less “rumble” you are going to get.  You can get some good sounds out of 1000’s and 1100’s.  When you get down to 750’s my personal view is that things get borderline.  You’ll get louder for sure, but whether it will be “cool sounding” louder is another question.   Since the mounting dimensions for 750’s and 1100’s are exactly the same, I suspect that most companies design for the 1100 in terms of sound, back pressure, etc. and then sell the same pipe for the 750.   For my money, putting pipes on a 535 or 250 won’t start to get you that cool sound.

“I want more power”. Simply installing pipes won’t necessarily get you more power, although all that noise, “rumble”, whatever, may make you think you are getting more.  If you get into some serious re-jetting and tuning activity to take advantage of the (most likely) freer flowing system you’ve installed, then maybe you can get a bit more usable power, say 5%.  But I’ll wager you are not going to be able to transform your bike into a total screamer through pipes and jetting alone.

“I like the looks”. I have to agree that the stock Virago pipes (certainly from ’84 on) are kind of an ugly lump.  As an interesting note, in the stock system (for all Viragos) both headers dump their exhaust into a common box where it gets mixed together before finding its way out of– which exhaust pipe?  Who knows.  The system is designed to give the best performance/back pressure with the stock carb jetting.  There maybe also some EPA type factors in there that I’m not privy to.

“I want to customize my bike.” No argument here.

Well now that I have failed to convince you to leave your bike alone, let’s talk about some approaches on deciding about which pipes, whether and how to re-jet, etc.

If were going to pick a set of pipes, I’d:

* Look for people with a bike just like mine who had Virago aftermarket pipes, and see if I liked the sound and the look.  Also talk to the owner/installer about installation, any problems, re-jetting, how the bike runs, etc.  If everything checks out, go do what he did and enjoy your bike.

* Do the same through Virago chat rooms, i.e “The List”  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, the more specific, the better..

* Check bike magazines for pipe ads.  Send for catalogues.

* Check your dealer/local shops for recommendations.  See what they’ve installed successfully.  Evaluate them as to whether you think they really know how to do this job and tune your bike.  And whether they will stick with you if any problems develop.

* Call the companies that make the pipes your are interested in.  Find out how long they’ve been making them, what their installation and tuning recommendations are, etc.  Also, all chrome is not created equal, and it is worth while paying for some that will stand up for a while with reasonable care. Their techs will generally be happy to talk to you. See if they know any shops in your area that do good work.

* If you own an earlier Virago (’81-’83) and want to new set of pipes, get in touch with Mac.  As far as I know they are the only game in town.

A couple of things to look for:

* Will the pipes you want mount up properly? That is, the brackets will align with the mounting points.  The slip ons will align straight, etc.  If you run into trouble, but you are basically satisfied with the pipes, consider having the brackets modified yourself.  Welding a little piece on and drilling a new hole can often solve a mounting problem.

* Do the pipes have a robust center stand bracket?  You are going to loose the one you have on your stock muffler system when you remove it, and you don’t want a whimpy one that is going to bend after the first few hits.  If you do wind up with one that is not doing the job, your local welder/fabricator can probably help you out of this situation.

And now to the matter of re-jetting and carburettor tuning.  If you have some questions about how carbs work, please take a few minutes to read the first part of the Hitachi carbs article on this website.  That will explain pilot circuits and the function of needles and main jets.

I would guess that most aftermarket exhaust systems provide for a freer flowing exhaust, that is, less back pressure.  Under these circumstances more air (oxygen) gets pumped through the carbs and cylinders.  Without an increase in fuel to mix with this additional oxygen the engine tends to run lean.  So it is important to understand how much leaner the engine is going to run with the pipes you choose.  The manufacturer should be able to tell you this.  Don’t be afraid to call him and ask.  If the back pressure is roughly the same as stock, then you can install the pipes and not worry about re-jetting.  If the back pressure is reduced to any significant extent then you need to re-jet in order to avoid lean running and possible overheating problems.

* The first circuit that needs attention is the pilot circuit.  Go to the carb articles to learn what this is, where your pilot circuit adjustment screws are, how they are uncovered, etc.  The pilot circuits should be readjusted (usually richened up a little) to meet the new conditions.  I would recommend you at least check these circuits with any pipes you install.  Note that some pipes may have instructions like “set your pilot screws at three turns out”.  My articles give better ways to set them properly and “three turns out” may not be correct for your bike.  But if you want to take a quick try, back your screws out a little from where they are.  If the idle stays strong and you don’t backfire on deceleration, you are probably close.

* The run circuit is the other circuit that may need attention.  This may involve bigger main jets, and slightly higher needle positions.  Stock needles can be shimmed to elevate them.  You are using thin circular shims like little washers under the plastic pieces at the top of your needles.  Or jet kits, such as the one offered by Dynojet, may include needles with notches in them (plus shims for half steps.) which can be moved up and down by setting an e-clip in the different slots.  Bigger main jets are also provided.  Note that jets from different manufacturers have different flow characteristics and numbering systems.  Stock Hitachi jets (110-134 in 2 step increments) and Mikuni jets ( most in 2.5 steps from 110 to 150) are available from K&L Supply.  I don’t know the cost of these jets.  Dynojet will sell you jets for $2 each.

* Getting your bike in proper tune can sometimes be easy, with a pilot screw adjustment and no jetting, or just installing a jet kit according to the instructions which come with it.  If the bike idles well, accelerates well, and runs smooth, strong, and cool, then you’re good to go. But if you really want the best possible results, consider searching out an experienced tuner and a shop with a dyno machine.  This machine can tell you if you are running rich or lean at any given rpm range, and can suggest fine tuning moves to get things just right.  As you’ll note in the carb articles, it is somewhat of a hassle to be pulling carbs out of the bike, disassembling them, making changes, and then reinstalling them, but you can get the float bowls off Hitachis (Allen head screws help) with the carbs in the bike..  The ideal experience is to get close by road testing before you dyno, and then use the dyno run to validate your work to that point and suggest any final changes.

This maybe more than you really wanted to know about Virago aftermarket pipes and tuning.  “Just bolt ’em up, and let’s go riding” is what we really want, and it probably works that way a lot.  But we do see complaints about blued pipes due to lean running (even just being lean at idle can do it).  And now and then we have a case where the shop or dealer installed the pipes, the bike runs badly, and the shop can only say, “Hey it runs good for us” which means that they don’t really know how to tune it.  It is a good thing to find a shop that has installed the pipes you want on a bike just like yours, has achieved good results, and can actually explain to you the jets, pilot screw settings, and technique they use to get the success they achieved.  Or to locate some with a bike like yours who got good results, and then just do what they did.

Okay, Okay.  I think Jardine and Cobra pipes sound pretty good on 1000, and 1100 Viragos.  I think Vance & Hines sound good on 750’s.  I personally run a SuperTrapp on my Virago, but unfortunately these are no longer available. The system does use the universal muffler, so one could be built is you abosultely had to have one. This muffler doesn’t really “rumble”, but sounds fine to me, more of a “sporty” note.  It has adjustable noise level and back pressure by means of adding and removing disks—more disks, more noise, less backpressure, and vice versa. This is the muffler I have on the “single carb Virago” and you can read more about it as we get into the tuning phase in the Single Carb Chronicle article.

Revised 3/9/04

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