The origins of Yamaha's "American" model tradition
The XS650 Special

Today, the category of Yamaha sport bikes boasting the fullest lineup of models is the American-style cruiser category, represented by models like the Road Star and Drag Star. The lineup sold in Japan consists of five model variations in three displacement classes, 1100 cc, 400 cc and 250 cc. To these are added the large number of variations of export models like the Road Star series models at 1700 cc, 650 cc and 125 cc.

When we go back to look for the roots of these models we come to the first Yamaha American-style model, the "XS650 Special" which caused such a sensation when it was unveiled at the 1977 Tokyo Motor Show. Taking as its base the vertical twin on-road sports model TX650, this XS650 Special was marketed along with the 3-cylinder GX750-based model "XS750 Special" released in the following year, 1978. As expected, these immediately became big hit models and their popularity spread from Japan to the cruiser homeland of America and on to Europe as well.

This success sparked a rapid growth in popularity of American style cruisers from Yamaha and the other Japanese makers. Models were introduced one after another not only in the large-displacement class but also in the mid-size and smaller classes.

Yamaha continued to expand its line after 1980 to include the in-line 4-cylinder "XJ650 Special" and the GX400/250-based 2-cylinder models "XS400 Special" and "XS250 Special" and the mini-sized single-cylinder "RX50" and "RX80." With this expanding line of models, Yamaha firmly established its position in the made-in-Japan American cruisers it had pioneered.

In reality, however, these models were mostly rearrangements of existing Yamaha sports bikes with an undeniable lack of uniqueness. In order to make sure that the popularity of Japanese-made "American" cruisers would not end up as a short-lived boom, and to keep Yamaha in the lead in this category, there was a need to build the kind of true cruiser model that could win the hearts of bikers in America. This is the kind of model set to work building as the next generation American-style model after the success of the XS650 Special.

The answer that came out of this quest was the "XV750 Special" released in March of 1981.

Birth of Yamaha's first true "American" cruiser
A design sketch of the "XV750 Special"
A design prototype of the "XV750 Special"
XV750 Special

Mounting a specially developed 75-degree V-twin engine on a pressed backbone type frame with Monocross rear suspension, the "XV750 Special" (named the "XV750 Virago" in its export version) was a pure "American" style cruiser in every aspect. From the planning stage of the development project, user surveys were conducted in the U.S. And, when those surveys reveled that users considered the "V" engine to be the power unit of choice for cruisers, the project would remain true to that preference. The fact that Yamaha's engineers made the development of the company's first side-positioned V-twin power unit the centerpiece of this project is further proof of their desire to make this model the real thing.

At the same time they were fully aware that there would be no meaning in building a bike that was merely duplication of the image of representative cruisers by American makers like Harley Davidson. The aim was to fully grasp the tastes of the American riders and then create a bike with a distinctively Yamaha character and attention to detail. Only that kind of attitude could produce an American-style cruiser that was the real thing.

The appeal of the V-twin engines of American-style cruisers was the kind of hard-biting torque that bites into the road and an exhaust sound with powerful pulse. On the other hand, Yamaha's strengths lay in high level of its race-bred engine performance, an obsession with form and the beauty of the lines of the cooling fins. So the development objective became a well-balanced marriage of these two contrasting engine characters. The most difficult decision was the "V" angle. After analyzing the full range of different angled "V" engines on representative machines from makers like Harley, Ducatti, Vincent, Moto Morini from the standpoint of pulse strength, quality of performance, effect on chassis design and the beauty of the "V" itself, the Yamaha team decided on the 75-degree V.

Then, in order to build a chassis with the impressive low and long styling of the traditional American-style cruiser with a typically Yamaha light weight and slim lines, a new monocoque structure steel pressed backbone type frame was developed. This frame, which used the engine as a stressed member, was design to embrace the engine with all its front-rear, top-bottom protrusions of the head assembly in a way that showed off the beauty of the air-cooled 75-degree V-twin engine as much as possible. At the same time, numerous innovative measures were taken to make optimum use of the limited space around the engine, such as using the space inside the frame as an air passage to supply air to the carburetors positioned in the V bank so that the air cleaner box could be positioned under the seat. All this enabled a design with a low seat height of just 750 mm and slim body lines.

Futhermore, taking into consideration the preference of American riders for sturdy, durable design and the convenience of maintenance-free components, a Yamaha-exclusive shaft drive system was adopted. And, to ensure comfortable, enjoyable riding, Yamaha's latest Monocross rear suspension was adopted and equipped with a remote-control 6-level adjustable air cushion set.

The resulting model was a truly worth flagship for Yamaha as a maker aggressively pioneering new possibilities in the "American" cruiser category. Naturally, its release was greeted with high acclaim. In the May 1981 issue of Japan's Riders Club magazine, motorcycle journalist Ken Nemoto wrote: "This model is a fusion of state-of-the-art Japanese motorcycle technologies that cannot be matched and the kind of traditional appeal which has long been associated with the motorcycle as a vehicle ... (delete) ... and also it is the beginning of specific expression of a new movement to realize the important but easily forgotten "interactive responsiveness" that can exist between rider and machine by approaching it from a different dimension with the latest technologies available."

An alternative road sports machine
The XV1000TR1
The Drag Star Classic 1100

Here we have described the "XV750 Special" as a model conceived and developed to be a true American-style cruiser, but there is also another V-twin road sports model that was developed at the same time for the European market. Named the "XV1000TR1," this model was also released in Japan in 1979 as the "XV750E" and in the U.S. as the "XV920R"

All three of these models featured the same pressed backbone type frame and 75-degree V-twin engine (with displacement expanded from 748 cc to 920 cc and 981 cc) and air cushion equipped Monocross rear suspension as the XV750 Special. The main differences were the adoption of a Yamaha-exclusive drive system with enclosed grease chain case, a revised riding position and exterior styling. If the XV750 Special was an American-style model that boasted exceptionally sporty performance, it was probably because it was developed in conjunction with the "TR1."

However, all this was happening at a time when the motorcycle world as a whole was absorbed in the high-power sports model trend based on 4-cylinder engines. What's more, Yamaha's RZ250 had sparked another boom in racer replica models. These trends would eventually lead to a short career for the XV1000TR1 line of road sports machines. On the other hand, the air-cooled 75-degree V-twin tradition that started with the XV750 Special 20 years ago continues to live on, evolving through models like the even more beautiful "American" model "XV750 Virago and on to today's "Drag Star 1100."