Retrospective: Yamaha VMX12 V-Max 1200: 1985-1986 (also 1988-2007)

1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max
1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max. (Photos by Clement Salvadori)

Too modern for Retrospective? Perhaps not. The V-Max appeared back in 1985, was on the books for ’86 then skipped ’87, only to reappear with new wheels in 1988, then lasted with minor changes for the next 20 years. This ’85 gem is the original.

The V-Max was a genuine butt-kicker, the likes of which had never been seen before. Yamaha called it a “muscle” bike, but if it were compared to Arnold pumping iron in ’85, he would have been stricken from the competition due to overuse of steroids.

1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max
1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max

The V-Max was all about muscle, little to do with practicality, even handling. The Japanese felt that the way to serious muscle was with a V-4, and the Max’s rear wheel showed 120 horsepower, with a 10-second (barely) quarter-mile. Its closest competition was the Honda Magna 1100 with 100 horses, and a half-second slower in the quarter. Third was Suzuki’s Madura 1200, with a mere 90 ponies and a quarter in the high 11s. Kawasaki, sensibly, decided to stay away from the internecine V-4 struggle.

The project was probably defined as building the most powerful cruiser yet, as cheaply as possible. At the Hamamatsu end, when the OK to go ahead was given, engine guru Mr. Ashihara was told to get some real horsepower out of the rather benign Venture touring motor, which was rated at about 90 horses. And Mr. Kurachi, the body designer, was detailed to create a look that would not be forgotten.

1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max
1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max

The 1,198cc Venture engine was a big-bore, liquid-cooled 70-degree V-4, with a 76mm bore and 66mm stroke, dual chain-driven overhead camshafts, four (shimmed) valves per cylinder and counterbalancers to limit the vibes. To give it more

performance, the cams were reground to provide increased low-end power, but it was the top end that achieved startling results. Basically, the more combustibles one can jam into the cylinder, the bigger the explosion and the more power. The valves were increased in size, and the Venture’s 34mm Mikunis were upped to 35mm, with each cylinder fueled by its own carb. And then something new was added: V-Boost. To over-simplify Ashihara’s V-Boost concept, at 6,000 rpm a little servo-motor kicked in and began opening a butterfly valve that separated the intakes of the two carbs on each bank of the V-four. And since the pistons were on different strokes, one side was not stealing from another. The boost was complete at 8,000 rpm, with the power maxing at 9,000 rpm. Cram that fuel in, spark the plug, and the factory was claiming 145 crankshaft horses.

1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max
1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max

There was one minor drawback to all this complication with the air-induction system, which included a large airbox under the cover that looked like a gas tank, and that was that the fuel tank had to be placed under the seat and held a mere four gallons. With “average” fuel consumption in the low 30s, this meant the bike had about a 100-mile range before the rider began to worry. But in truth, the V-Max was not intended to be ridden more than a century at a stretch, one reason being the rather uncomfortable saddle. The neophyte needed to learn that when the low-fuel warning light came on, the switch for the reserve was a button by the right thumb.

Power passed through a 5-speed gearbox, vaguely similar to the one on the Venture. Gear ratios had been altered, with the gears reinforced and a new diaphragm clutch to help control all those horses. Final drive was by shaft, surprisingly, but obviously the engineers felt the engine was so strong they could waste a few horses.

1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max
1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max

The frame was a workmanlike tubular-steel cradle. The air-adjustable 40mm Kayaba fork was connected, fortunately, so only a single valve was needed; rake was a stable 29 degrees, trail, 4.7 inches. The twin shocks, also Kayaba, had preload and rebound damping adjustability. Reviewers generally liked its road-holding characteristics, but apparently did not want to try it out on road-racing tracks, so the lean-angle limits never seemed to be mentioned. It was certainly no competition for the FZ750.

The front wheel was an 18-incher, with a 100/90 tire and a pair of 282mm discs with two-piston calipers. The rear mag was a whopping great (for the time) 3.50 x 15, sporting a ginormous 150/90 piece of rubber. With a tire that big, the bike did like to stand up in the corners. And if the rider chose to ride in straight lines and flatten the middle portion of the tire, the tendency to stand up was increased. A two-piston caliper squeezed a single disc at the back.
Dimensions were weighty, almost 620 pounds with fuel in the canister. And lengthy—more than 62 inches between axles—much due to the drive shaft that was built long in an effort to reduce the infamous jacking aspect.

1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max
1985 Yamaha VMX12N V-Max

And the look was good. The angular cruisers that the Japanese had introduced in the early 1980s were more interesting than appealing, but the flair that Kurachi created was to become almost legendary. Namely with the fake scoops that looked as though they rammed air into the carbs. The big speedo up above the headlight had rather a Vincent Black Shadow look. Our 1985 photo model has the dealer-installed pinstripe kit, a factory option.

The V-Max immediately muscled its way to the lead in its category. The competition dropped out after 1986, Suzuki discontinuing the Madura, Honda the big Magna. Granted, this was a troubling time in the U.S. economy, as a middling recession had begun in the early 1980s. Unsold bikes, “non-currents” being the operative word, were everywhere, and even Yamaha did not produce a 1987 V-Max, having too many ’86 models left in showrooms and warehouses.

While the naysayers began to write obituaries, the V-Max came back in 1988, with new wheels. Future changes were minor: In 1990 the ignition was upgraded to digital electronic, and in ’93 some chassis changes were made, with 43mm fork tubes bolted on to do away with any flex. It received a few additional mods, but the V-Max stayed pretty much the same old, same old. Because it still garnered new customers. Impressive.



  1. As an owner of a 2003 Max, (named Woona) and a life long fan of these incredible machines, I thought I would give my impressions on the bike.

    Ok, it was mention about barely being a 10 second bike. While the brony in me would dream of running ten seconds flat, (Kudos to the first staff member who researches the reference) I find that the machine stock would only have a possibility of breaking into the 10’s if Valentino Rossi lost 50 lbs (from his 130 lbs) before launching. This is not a Busa, people.

    Ok. I must be the strangest person in the world, because I actually find the seat quite comfortable. I especially love the rounded profile which is nice when at a light. I do admit, just about every other V-max owner I have talked to says the seat could be way better.

    You mentioned flex. That is something that amazes me, that Yamaha would build such a powerful engine, and place it in a frame and suspension combo that was pretty much an advertisement for Slinky. Granted, he situation did improve when they moved to the 43mm forks, but not enough, in my opinion. (And other riders’ opinions as well, I would guess, considering how many V-Max’s I see on the V-Max Forums with frame braces attached.)

    You said that the reason for the length of the swingarm was Yamaha’s attempt at reducing the jacking effect. Well, that arm must not be long enough, after watching the bike do a pull on the chassis dyno. Woona’s butt lifted what looked like three inches when Randy cranked the throttle! In the battle against jacking: Horsepower -1, Yamaha engineers – 0.

    One detail I am curious if anyone has noticed. I see that the bike pictured in this article is an 85 model. but if you look closely at the forks, you can see that the later model shields have been added. I would guess either aftermarket, or the owner swapped out the 40mm front end for a newer 43mm set of forks and clamps.

    Overall, I love my Woona. I do have a lot of plans for her, and he is the one bike I will keep forever.

    Excellent article! I would love to see some modded V-max’s featured sometime.

    • Biker Dash:

      My understanding is the stock ’85 Vmax did indeed break into the 10-second range and was all in the news about it at the time. Here’s an excerpt from a Yamaha blog site (

      “It took a mere 10.30 seconds for the 1985 V-Max* to roar into the record books and the hearts of motorcycle adrenalin junkies around the world. A 130 lb drag racer by the name of Jay Gleason a.k.a. “Pee Wee” set the motorcycle world on its ear with his incredible ¼ mile run aboard a pre-production V-Max. Some cried foul because they felt the “pre-pro” machine was a “ringer”. In a blink of an eye, the V-Max legend had been established, much to the dismay of other manufacturers around the world.

      In May of ‘85 the cries of foul were silenced when Cycle World magazine brought a production V-Max to the Bayland Raceway in Fremont, California and after a few shake down runs Mr. Max ripped through the ¼ mile at amazing 10.62 seconds with a trap speed of 129.87 miles an hour … with the mirrors still in place! On this occasion, the rider was 4-time US national drag racing champion Dale Walker who weighed in at “portly” 170lbs. …”

    • Easily with a bit of practice and some mild tuning mid-10 second bike. My 85 was and my 95 actually feels a bit quicker but haven’t made it to the track for test and tune day, yet. At 45K on the odo, though I don’t know how much or frequently I want to push it as engines are hard to find and expensive and rough looking when you do find them and not many mechanics to do an experienced rebuild job on one any more…

  2. My motor in my 1988 vmax is shot. Can I replace it straight over to a 2000 vmax motor I found for sale? Is there a difference mechanically or electrically? Mine is a vboost and I need the entire top end and carbs. Thanks.

    • Contact Jon Cornell at UFO Cycles. He should have work for Yamaha in helping to develop The VMax. He also have refurbish engines for sale and pick up.

    • I know I am 11 years late but for future ref or late comers, yes, the newer engines will work. There are some revisions to the crankcase in 96 allowing use of a spin on oil filter so the front frame brace will have to be modified or one from a 96 up bike will have to be put on but other than some carb size changes and ignition changes to electronic and then to digital , all should work with minimal or no issue. Good luck finding much worth using nowadays circa 2021. Most any used engines I have seen look like they have been siting outside in the weather since the 50’s and mileage is horrendus for the prices they ask.

  3. Interesting. One of my favorite bikes of all time. And despite the
    commentary above, I Have gone around the road-race track at
    P.I.R. (Portland International Raceway) on an ’85 Vmax. Mind you-it’s not a nimble track bike (and was probably never intended to be.), but with a little skill could do well enough to outrun other amateurs on more capable models.

  4. I’ve owned an ’85 Vmax since new, used it as a daily driver for the last four years and never really rode anything else. Since I now use a bike to get around instead of a car, and the Vmax was giving me some reliability issues (mostly poor charging) I recently bought a 2013 Honda CB1100.

    Now I know what it’s like to ride a fine machine. Nothing against the Vmax, but the only thing I miss about riding that now is the brawny engine which feels and sounds like a big-block dragster and delivers mind-boggling acceleration in the V-Boost range. Honestly, thought, the wobbly front end and weak brakes are downright dangerous. So is the shaft-jacking swingarm, which causes loss of rear-wheel traction when decelerating under engine compression.

    I guess I was a pro at handling the thing because I rode it 50,000 miles in a few years, but it really requires experience and skill to manage it without crashing.

    The new Honda, though a retro bike with old-school frame and suspension, is so much better all around I can hardly describe it. The engine feels and sounds like a sewing machine compared to the Vmax, but it moves as fast as anyone should want. The brakes are so much stronger and the handling is so much safer. I even enjoy keeping the chain in spec and plan to maintain everything myself – a little bit of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 🙂 .

    I’m gonna keep the Vmax running, but mostly in the garage to take my time fixing it up, rebuilding carbs and finally solving the charging problems. After all it’s been mine since new and is an interesting part of motorcycle history as it ended the “fastest thing on the road” argument for years to come. And that engine… It’s something I really want to be able to experience once in a while.

  5. I have an ’86 V-Max, and love it for all it’s faults. For me, it is a the equivalent of a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air with a lumpy motor and fuzzy dice. The best part is being able to keep up with (or walk away from) the 600-750cc buzzy boys leaving a light riding 2-up. Lots of fun for under $3000.

    • Don’t know about a recall but I bought my 85 in 91 and developed the slipping under acceleration roughly around 95 and I sold it in 96…wish I had just kept it and put money back to repair it and maybe do some engine upgrades but I didn’t so now I just bought my bucket lister 95 customized max. As I am now over 60, even though I find myself riding it much more than I thought I’d feel like (can’t avoid that kerker 4-1 sound and power), It will probably make someone a lucky barn find in a few years after I put it away and am gone myself.

    • Yes, Mine sat in the shop for 100 days 2 months after buying it. Took a big girl for a ride and blew 2nd out of it.
      Yamaha designed a tranny fix while mone sat in the shop. It ran 10:30 @ 129 for years woth mufflers in the garbage, intake bored out, slotted cam gears to increase overlap and a Mickey Thompson slick.

  6. Dean contact Star Rider Performance and Mike Lee. Their is a issue with the 2nd gear on the 85 Vmax but it could be a easy fix without overhauling the transmission. No recalls related to second gear issues. Get in touch before the Spring when shops tend to to be at their busiest. Hands down the most knowledgeable people on the generation 1 Vmax including Yamaha. Very knowledgeable on the gen2’s as well!

    • Hey Lance, the first 2,000 1985 V-max were special in many ways. If you didn’t get a recall notice, it might be because you didn’t have one of the first 2,000. I still have the receipt. $0.00 due.

  7. i want to export a 1988 vmax i need to know the factory price ie the price the dealers pay …no tax or transport costs etc…the bare price…anyone?

  8. I had motorcycles since ever, starting with a Honda 50cc, YAMAHA yl1 Twin jet, Kawa 250, and others even competed on a Honda mxvf…But since the appearence of the VMAX I flet in love, I think that in Costa Ricas there are no more than 10. Now I’m retired and as a dream come true I bought one 2 years ago, here we have rain for about 8 months a year and can tell VMAX it’s dificult to drive on wet surfaces mainly because of it’s weight. But while on dry it is my lover I like cornering, turning the thotle in the straights, going to places and finding groups of high bore bikes and just saying good bye its a pleasure that only a VMAX can share with you. Now as a matter of age maybe I’m working on several (many) changes and make out of it an outstanding Cafe Racer, who knows …

  9. I don’t care. I want one.
    I’ve ridden bikes for 45 years and I’ve had nearly all of them
    except for a Vmax and I want one.

  10. I own a 1985 vmax. I am the second owner since 2010 when I bought it (with 24,000km) from my uncle who was the original owner. Now it has 39,500km and is up for sale. It has a Corbin seat and otherwise is the same as the original pic in this article, burgundy but no pinstripe. It has never failed me. It’s still a gas to rip up the roads!

  11. I have a 1985 vmax with 14,400 miles all original
    New tires and brakes, carbs rebuilt new tires and battery runs and looks great. I’ll take $4000
    Located south of San Antonio. I’m second owner

  12. I have a 1992 vmax. I didnt get until I was 52 years old but since it came out my dream has been to own one. Now that I have one i will keep it until I’m not able to ride it anymore. It’s like being a fan. You either a fan or not. Yes it has the handling issues but that’s ok its mine and I’ll keep it.

  13. I’m considering buying a 94 with 30,0000 miles on it, and I was wondering how many miles can be put on a 1994 vmax?

  14. I owned an ’06 V-max for a while. Loved the acceleration and hushed whispers of other riders when I cruised past and I could hear, “There’s a V-max!” For me, it’s biggest flaw was in running out of gears. It desperately needed a sixth, higher one. That would have made the bike much more sufferable; it wasn’t always being raced against a quarter-mile time clock and those high-RPM freeway miles were exhausting. If you don’t mind going older and having the occasional parts struggle, the 1200 Madura was way more civilized and enjoyable.

  15. I have a 1988 V-Max. With a Stage 7 jet kit, and a kerker off road exhaust. I have owned for about 20 years. I let it sit for about six years and the carburetors got gummed up. I just recently got the itch to ride it again and tried to fire it up, and ran it on a little starting fluid. It is amazing how there is nothing on the planet that sounds like a Vmax when it’s fired up !! Now just have to get the carburetors sorted out and I’ll be good to go….

    • The 86’s were detuned 10 hp. I had a 85 model that I sold in 91 due to a growing family. I just bought it back from the guy I originaly sold it to. My baby is back home after 30 yrs!!

    • Myth. I had an 85 back in the early 90’s. Now in my 60’s I just bought a high mileage customized 95 and I can tell it has all that and more of my 85 plus no second gear issues. The factory boys dyno’d the 85 back in the day and ran somewhere between 100 and 115 at the rear wheel new and sotck original. Mine was dynoed by the last owner at 117hp at the rear wheels stock.

  16. Myth about the VMax being detuned after 1985. I had an 85 I bought in 1990 and sold in 1996 after one too many full throttle first to second shifts and second gear started jumping out under moderate to hard acceleration. Now that I have entered in to the 6th decade of life I am revisiting probably the best all around bike and definately the one with the most raw muscle that I’ve owned. I am buying a 1995 and plan to have it until I can’t ride and maybe even after that…may make someone a good barn find some day 🙂

  17. I owned a brand new ‘85. I had started with a Kawasaki turbo 750, then Ninga 900, and then the v-max. A year later, I bought a Yamaha 1100. Today, I own a 2021 Harley soft tail standard. Multiple types of other bikes on road and dirt, I’ve ridden but not owned. Out of all- my wildest memories, are of the V friggen Max! Had front end wobble issues at first, but got that fixed. There wasn’t a bike on the road that could give me any competition. That V-max was simply a super bike and I enjoyed riding it better than any I’ve ever owned. I’m seriously considering buying another. However, for some damnest reason, my aged intuition is telling me not to. The wife says to listen to my intuition. Geeze!

  18. It has been great reading everyone’s Vmax story. I just bought my first one at 51. I remember to this day the picture of the Vmax on the front of Motorcyclist magazine when it first came out. I fell in love instantly and wanted one. After 36 years, I bought a 2005 anniversary addition. Came with the 4 into 1 Jerker, absolutely love the sound. Nothing else out there comes close to that sound besides the Honda CBX 6 cylinder. I still got giddy like a little boy everytime I ride it. I’m will be hanging onto this one until I can’t ride anymore!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here