Roland Sands Design Star VMAX Cafe Racer
When Star decided to re-launch its best-selling V-MAX muscle bike in 2008, it spared no expense in employing a dedicated staff of 50 engineers to recreate what was almost certainly the single best-selling and most profitable model in company history, having repaid its development and tooling costs several times over in more than two decades of production.
First launched exactly 30 years ago in 1985, and only removed from the Japanese company’s lineup in 2007 after an almost unparalleled 23-year production run in basically unchanged form as the ultimate Big Boy’s Toy, the 100,000-plus examples of the V-Max built down the years—40,000 of them sold in Europe, of which 12,550 were in France alone—engendered fantastic loyalty from Maxisti around the globe for a bike which cliché insists became the two-wheeled equivalent of the 428 Cobra, representing performance motorcycling par excellence.
For muscular looks matched by effortless straight-line squirt, the nowadays neo-vintage V-Max was surely The One, even if so few of the thousands built down the years remained in unmodified showroom condition that the term “stock V-Max” became an oxymoron. It was the street rod of choice for cosmetic improvement, creating a whole sub-cult of worshippers at the V-Max altar, all eager for the second coming of their two-wheeled deity.
Their prayers were answered with the 2008 debut of the VMax (gone was the hyphen, though Star prefers all-caps), a born-again bruiser of a bike whose performance figures and spec sheet (197 horsepower and 123 ft/lbs of torque) still make everything else in the marketplace look positively wimpish—well, anything without a supercharger, that is. And that’s even without its aggressive appearance, courtesy of the recently deceased GK Design guru Kenji Ekuan who, in between designing the Shinkansen bullet train and the red-topped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, sought to emulate the unjustly less-acclaimed creators of the original V-Max by linking old with new in designing the Generation 2 VMax to be king of the jungle—a two-wheeled Tarzan following in dad’s tire-tracks.
The Star VMax is by any standards a well conceived, well executed piece of power-packed hardware quite unlike anything else you could actually buy, in terms of the way it was engineered, because of the mind-altering engine performance available at the mere wrench of a wrist.
However, the fact is that the VMax has actually been a bit of a damp squib sales-wise, completely failing to catch the wave of goodwill engendered by its ancestor, in spite of its undeniably massive performance and many clever design features.
Unlike the V-Max, most VMax bikes sold have remained exactly as delivered, with painfully few attempts to use it as the basis for customization to anything like the extent of its predecessor. Hence the reason for Yamaha Motor Europe Product Manager Shun Miyazawa to approach Los Angeles-based Roland Sands, and ask the fusion chef of custom cool to work his skills on it.
“We wanted to inspire future VMax owners who hadn’t yet committed to buying the bike, by showing them what a good basis for customization and personalization it could be, just like the old model,” says Miyazawa. “Maybe it’s our fault because we made the design of the current VMax too dense, with too much design tension, but it didn’t create enthusiasm for even professional customizers to modify it, let alone private owners.
“So after meeting Roland at the 2010 Goodwood Festival of Speed, when he brought some of his fabulous creations to Lord March’s annual motoring garden party and made rolling burnouts up the hill on them, I approached him about creating something based on the new VMax, and he agreed to do so. We’re very glad he did, and even more pleased when we saw what he made.”
The fruits of Sands’ handiwork debuted at the November 2011 Milan EICMA Show in belated recognition of the original V-Max’s 25th birthday the previous year, then spent almost three years making a world tour before finally finding its way back home to papa, ready to be ridden rather than merely displayed on a show stand.
Creating it wasn’t easy, though. “I’ve always liked the V-Max, ever since I rode my first one when I was about 20 years old,” said Sands—who has since turned 40. He squinted critically at the Maxed-out product of his fertile imagination standing in front of his office desk (complete with ornamental Roberts V5 MotoGP engine) in Roland Sands Design/RSD’s Los Alamitos shop, north of Long Beach, Calif., in which it was concocted.
“The thing was just a ripper,” Sands said. “It was so fast, but this new one’s faster still; it’s got hair on its chest. It’s a pretty radical bike, but kind of lardy looking. So, when Shun asked me what I wanted to do with it, I figured to minimalize it as much as possible. Making a café racer out of it seemed the logical thing to do, though the thing’s rather complicated in terms of design. It’s a really integrated product, so since there wasn’t the time or budget to make a new frame for it, we had to leave a lot of the stock stuff on it.
“The idea was to strip it down and lighten it, and take what I call the wonkiness out of it. There’s a lot of geometry going on with the design, which is something that was popular ten years ago, but all those straight lines need to be more flowing nowadays, and not so wonky-looking. So my goal was to simplify it as much as possible, and that was a little difficult since the motor’s so tall. It was a tough challenge, especially to get the tail section cut back and cute-looking in a café racer kind of way.”
The result is a bike that according to Roland has shed at least 80 pounds compared to the stocker, and in doing so has acquired a significantly sharper appearance. If not for the visual link provided by that mighty V4 motor in plain view, it’s hard to think it is a VMax with the standard chassis and a lot of the same hardware.
Not only has the VMax gone on a diet here, it also had RSD’s cosmetic surgeons perform a nip-and-tuck, with the steel fuel tank replaced by an aluminum one mounted beneath the stock swingarm, with chamfered sides to deliver additional cornering clearance in turns.
The aesthetically overbearing bulbous stock intake scoops have been eliminated, and the rear end visually reduced. “If we’d had more time and budget, I’d have shortened the swingarm and squeezed the whole thing up super tight,” says Sands. “But, I like the bobtail look we came up with on the stock rolling chassis, in getting rid of the Sportster-style rear fender. Building a new 4-2- 1-2 stainless exhaust with underseat silencers was the clincher. It’s a crazy system that sounds bitchen and looks great, especially when it blows some fire as you back off the gas!”
Retaining the long stock cast aluminum swingarm helps provide added traction to harness that meaty motor’s grunt, all the more vital since I remember VMax project leader Hajime Nakaaki telling me his engineers did think about fitting traction control, before nixing it after concluding this would detract from the thrill factor and rider satisfaction!
The RSD VMax now carries CNC-machined forged aluminum Judge wheels made by Performance Machine in a new Black Ops finish, with the stock front 18-incher replaced by a 19-inch rim shod with a 120/70 Dunlop D208, matched to a 200/50-18 Dun- lop Elite ER3 rear. The wheels carry massive floating twin 330mm RSD front discs, also made by PM, gripped via the stock six-pis- ton Sumitomo radial calipers and a Brembo radial master cylinder.
A huge fixed 292mm PM rear disc that looks way too big for a café racer, is operated by a four-piston PM radial caliper. RSD’s own brake and clutch master cylinders are fitted. The brakes need to be effective to stop a bike that, in spite of signing up for Weight Watchers Anonymous courtesy of RSD, still weighs in at a hefty 560 pounds dry.
Renthal clip-ons replace the tall one-piece original handlebar to complement the aggressive new visual nature of the bike, with the neat café racer single seat supplied by the Bitchin Seat Company in Menifee, part of Southern California’s Inland Empire.
Finally, to complete the job, came the paint. “We figured that with the bike going to the fashion capital of the world—Milan, Italy—to make its debut in public, it had to be dressed in a fine black pinstriped suit,” said Sands with a smile and his tongue parked firmly in cheek. “So we commissioned our professional tailor, Chris Wood from Airtrix, for the fitting of the paint. I figure Versace had its spies all ogling the bike for inspiration for next year’s line—good thing the VMax had enough self-esteem to withstand even the toughest of runway critiques, and still make the audience blush with excitement!”
We headed for the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles to see if Star missed a trick in not delivering a version of the VMax that would be more at home jukebox racing out of the Ace Cafe on London’s North Circular Road, than out- dragging funny cars from the stop lights along Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard.
Actually, one half of a Boss V8 Mustang is just what the VMax Café Racer sounds like with that awesome — not too strong a term—RSD exhaust of Sands’, although I think he should have maybe fitted some flameproof afterburner shields to stop any bystanders getting their eyebrows singed when you back off the throttle for a stoplight.
No getting away from it, this is an ultra-substantial piece of two-wheeled hardware with real physical, as well as visual presence, that seems all the more meaty and downright mighty when you drape yourself over it in café racer mode; it’s a L-O-N- G reach across that finely tailored ‘tank’ shroud to the steeply dropped Renthal clip-ons.
The result is a stretched-out riding stance that, because of the bike’s sheer mass and reserves of performance, was already intimidating, and that even before I started hustling the VMax through the switchback turns of Glendora Mountain Road. I discovered almost to my cost that this is one of the single most daunting motorcycles to ride that I can ever remember encountering! Apparently, I was the first person to ride the bike in something approaching anger after its three-year world tour of showrooms and salons.
For as I speeded up after a few exploratory miles — not hard to do, with this much power and torque on tap—I began to try to carve some curves in the canyons. I soon encountered the RSD VMax’s persistent attempts to fold the front wheel on me as I leaned it into a turn.
I narrowly escaped decking this two-wheeled work of art the first time I laid it into a bend on the angle when I just managed to stop the steering from collapsing on me, and the wheel involuntarily snapping to full lock. After that, I gingerly approached every bend ready to counter-countersteer — how’s that for an arcane concept? — to keep the VMax upright. Phew!!
The reason for this misbehavior wasn’t hard to discern. In swapping the original upright handlebar for the pair of clip-ons the VMax now wears, RSD eliminated the leverage you need in order to counter the massive amount of trail—nearly six inches—that the Star’s steering geometry sports. Add in the hefty 31-degree fork rake, and that’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t have the leverage needed to answer that via the handlebars.
Sorry, but for the first time in all the years I’ve been riding his two-wheeled works of custom art, I finally encountered a Sands motorcycle that handles worse than the original it’s derived from. Who’d have thought it? One of his bikes turns out after all to be a triumph of style over substance.
However, that wasn’t what ended my ride on the RSD VMax early. The stretched out riding stance dictated by the clip-ons means that you can’t easily see the dash mounted on top of the airbox, where the fuel tank would normally be on a conventional bike. That being the case, I had no warning of the fact that my enthusiastic riding of a bike designed for straight line performance cruising rather than carving canyons had caused the VMax to overheat. The first sign I had of that was when a spray of coolant spurted out over the back tire.
Yes, I did save the ensuing near-terminal moment, but playtime was over for the day. Last time I rode a V-Max in California was in 1985, when I will admit to lunching the clutch of the brand-new, barely launched bike while performing burnouts for Yamaha’s cameraman at the top of this very same road, and having to freewheel down to the Yamaha van waiting for me at the bottom of the mountain. Funny how history can repeat itself!
“If this was my daily rider, I’d put the high bars back on it, because that’s what it was designed for,” said Sands next time I saw him, by which time he had finally ridden the bike himself. “It was an aesthetic play, what we did. Shun wanted something that looked tight and racy, so that’s why we fitted the clip-ons. But, ignoring the geometry is never a good idea! Still, hey, he wanted to demonstrate the Dark Side of Japan, and you’ve now showed him that’s what he has! The day we finished this bike, it left here to go to Milan with the paint almost wet, so nobody really rode it properly till you did. And now I have myself, I know it needs those high bars bad!”
Sands knows what the company ought to have done back in 2008. “Yamaha made it way too complicated,” he Sands. “If they would just have taken the old V-Max, kept the same steel frame and updated it with upside down forks, radial brakes, some bitchen wheels, an exhaust stem that still looked good but let them hit the homologation numbers for noise and emissions, then cleaned up the styling a touch, fitted LED lights and then thrown that [expletive] motor in there, they would have given people what they really wanted. But, the new one is way over- designed and much too hard for a customer to personalize, even with bolt-on parts. When even pro shops like us have trouble working on it, that kinda defeats the purpose of a bike like this, doesn’t it?”
I can’t argue with that, but let’s leave the last word to Miyazawa, who proclaims himself really satisfied with Roland Sands Design’s café racer restyling exercise on the Star VMax on three different levels.
“First, I think it’s a cool bike which looks great and lives up to the spirit of the model, Miyazawa says. “I also like the fact that it’s got people thinking again about the VMax. But best of all, it’s shown other people that it’s not so difficult to trans- form the stock model into something very different from how we deliver it.”
To the extent that Star may perhaps consider building some- thing comparable itself, only with re-engineered chassis geometry to resolve the RSD one-off’s inner handling defects? “Watch this space—and start saving!” came Miyazawa’s reply. So now you know as much as I do!
Photography by Kevin Wing