The Yamaha Virago was the company’s first series of V-twin cruisers, featuring 75° air-cooled engines with shaft drive and mono-shock chassis. From 1981-1983, the Virago XV920 was the top of the line, offering a 920cc, 65-hp engine as well as adjustable handlebars and forks, front dual-disc brakes, and the company’s CYCOM (Cycle Computer) system. Surely Yamaha’s engineers had no idea that nearly 40 years after the debut of the first Virago, the machine would be reborn in the hands of custom builders across the world.
Enter Andy Steward, a former Jaguar Land Rover designer and project manager who’s competed in some of the world’s toughest hard enduro events, like Red Bull Romaniacs and New Zealand’s Nut Buster Hard Enduro. After more than a decade working for JLR, Andy decided to branch out on his own, opening up ASE Custom Motorcycles in the West Midlands, UK.
For his first build, he chose a 1981 Virago XV920 as his donor, attracted as he was to the simplicity of the design:
“I came across the Virago and loved the simplicity of the air-cooled V-twin engine, simple mono-shock chassis with shaft drive, and even the fact it used the frame as the airbox.”
He set out to build a truly unique bike, with a high level of execution, attention to detail, and proportions that were just right.
“With this build I wanted to provide inspiration to people thinking of their own builds or commissions and show the ‘art of the possible’ by turning an unloved cruiser styled bike into something sleek and stylish with a powerful presence.”
Andy has accomplished that and more, creating one of our favorite Virago cafe racers / fighters we’ve ever seen. The bike — nicknamed “Alpha” — made its debut at Bike Shed London 2019, and we’re thrilled to feature it today. Below, we get the full details on the build from the man himself.
Yamaha XV920 Cafe Racer: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
My name is Andy Steward. I have always had a passion for anything with wheels. I was brought up playing with cars and bikes, taking any opportunity to tinker, maintain and improve them.
With a degree in Motorsport Engineering & Design, I performed several design and project management roles over an 11 year period for Jaguar Landrover based in the West Midlands, UK. Alongside working on bikes, I love to ride and have been fortunate enough to compete in some of the world’s toughest extreme enduro motorcycle events such as Redbull Romaniacs and The Nutbuster Hard Enduro in New Zealand. Keen for adventure, I continue to travel extensively on two wheels both on and off road.
After a little break from the day job to travel and work overseas, I decided to take a leap of faith and be self-employed, setting up my own bike building and customising business based in the West Midlands, UK– ASE Custom motorcycles. Thanks to my design experience, extensive automotive knowledge, and practical approach, I felt this put me in a strong position to provide a start to finish service to my customers. I have set up my workshop to capitalise on this; providing design, building, fabrication and restoration services in-house.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?
The bike originated as a 1981 Yamaha Virago XV920. Most of the other key donor parts such as the front suspension assembly and tank all came from a Yamaha parts bin with all other key components being hand crafted for this bike.
• Why was this bike built?
The initial concept for the bike derived from my desire to build a café racer style motorcycle for myself. Drawing inspiration from some other great builds, I wanted to make a truly unique bike where the attention to detail was obvious and the lines and proportions of the bike looked just right. As the project progressed, opportunities to showcase a variety of skillsets materialised and a means of promoting my workshop as a “one-stop-shop” to create custom bikes resulted.
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
When I searched for a suitable donor bike, I came across the Virago and loved the simplicity of the air-cooled V-twin engine, simple mono-shock chassis with shaft drive, and even the fact it used the frame as the airbox. I wanted to create something truly unique and felt this setup gave a great start point to go for a radical transformation. With this build I wanted to provide inspiration to people thinking of their own builds or commissions and show the “art of the possible” by turning an unloved cruiser styled bike into something sleek and stylish with a powerful presence.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
After shedding a whole lot of weight from the bike, the first step was to integrate a complete 2008 Yamaha R1 front end, setting the stance of the bike and creating a key feature of the upside down front forks. From that point, the big decision was the fuel tank. I discovered the XJ600 Diversion petrol tank and felt it nicely dressed the top of the V-twin engine, neatly setting up the lines for the rear end. I then constructed a unique bolt-on rear subframe spending many hours sculpting the shape for the seat unit and tailpiece integrating the key lines and features of the fuel tank. From this “buck” I created a fiberglass mold and a fresh one-off part.
The rear subframe provided ample space to position a motogadget m-unit and facilitate a full re-wire of the bike by eliminating a mass of relays, fuses and dated wiring. The battery was relocated from the side of the bike to underneath, utilising the strong mounting points of the center stand and rear (now front) foot peg supports. Freeing up the side of the bike by moving the battery allowed a new route for the exhaust and I designed and built a custom stainless steel exhaust system. Radically changing the seating position on the bike meant rear sets were used to move the foot controls of the bike.
Once the bike was fully built and running in its new form it underwent a full strip down. The engine was vapour-blasted, the frame, driveline and mounting brackets were powdercoated and a unique paintjob highlighted the key curves of the bike and features a brushed effect within the bronze/gold swoosh.
• Does the bike have a nickname?
We named the bike “Alpha” ahead of its debut at this year’s Bike Shed Show in London’s Tobacco dock (May 2019). In English, the noun “alpha” is used as a synonym for “beginning” and used to refer to or describe the first or most significant occurrence of something. As the debut build for ASE Custom motorcycles we felt it was appropriate to set a strong brand image to move forward with.
• How would you classify this bike?
I most commonly refer to this build as a café racer although I feel it combines a few genres and heard comments suggesting it could be more along the lines of a street fighter café racer due to its stance – I will let you make your own judgement.
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
I am really pleased with the overall lines of the bike. I spent a lot of time ensuring a compatible design; integrating the “standard” parts of the donor bike, replacement parts and the bespoke fabrications.