John Reed's Show-Stopping Custom Engraved Yamaha Virago

As custom as they come

John Reed's Custom Engraved Yamaha Virago
Reed's bike would travel the country in this hermetically sealed Plexiglas case.Cruiser

The year 1982 was good for Yamaha cruiser fans. The Virago series had just been launched, and Englishman John Reed shocked the American public at the prestigious Oakland Roadster Show by entering this extremely trick Virago against traditional Harley-Davidson customs. And it won. Reed's victory marked the first and only time a Japanese motorcycle has beaten the custom Harleys at that show.

Reed, a respected custom-bike builder in England, was commissioned by Yamaha NV Amsterdam to build this 920-powered show bike because Yamaha’s top brass wanted a machine to show off as the then-new Viragos entered the market. Judging by the work Reed did on this special, the company got its money’s worth and then some. The only parts not handmade are the engine, Avon tires, final drive belt and rims. Everything else was either carved, machined, molded or hammered out by Reed in his workshop.

John Reed's Custom Engraved Yamaha Virago
Since the motor was a structural part of the frame, Reed designed a bracket to run from the front cylinder head to support the steering neck.Cruiser

A close look reveals the depth of Reed’s creativity. The springer-type fork was hand-carved out of stainless steel, and the lower triple clamp incorporates the headlamp. The front brake disc is built into the wheel, in line with the tire’s contact patch, and the fender is mounted a scant half inch above the tire.

You find clever pieces in every component. The front brake lever slides into a recess in the handlebar when pulled, and since a conventional twist-grip throttle would not work with this arrangement, Reed created a trigger-type throttle control piggybacked on the brake lever. Then to make the look a little sleeker up front, Reed hid the brake master cylinder inside the bar assembly.

John Reed's Custom Engraved Yamaha Virago
The left side of Reed’s creation lacks pipes but not detail! How would you like to polish all these engraved parts?Cruiser

More genius is apparent at the center of the bike. The engine detail is almost overwhelming. The engine itself is a stressed member, using the front cylinder head to support the steering head while a reworked rear cylinder head integrates the seat pan into it. Reed even hand-carved the air cleaners.

Reed put 32 bends into the exquisite exhaust pipes; then, after fitting them one final time, he took them apart and sent them to the chrome-plating shop. When the pipes came back, Reed couldn’t remember how to reassemble them without adding one additional cut. Ah, the joy of custom building!

John Reed's Custom Engraved Yamaha Virago
If the bike has no frame, where do you put a seat? Of course, mount the seat off the motor. Reed is either a genius or very brave.Cruiser

When your eyes land on the rear of the Yamaha, the single-sided swingarm grabs your attention. That big aluminum rear wheel and hand-formed fender could be museum pieces. Reed designed a BMW-like swingarm with a fully adjustable Koni shock. The swingarm incorporates the taillamp assembly and drive-belt tensioner. The drive-belt-pulley backing plate doubles as the rear brake rotor.

But can you ride it? Reed has ridden his creation and, in fact, had one particularly exciting ride on it the night of the Oakland Roadster Show. The Yamaha was scheduled to fly to Europe the next morning to participate in another event, and Reed drained all the hydraulic fluid in preparation for the flight. After winning the show, Reed was more than a little excited and exited the building in a flash of noise and horsepower, doing a gigantic second-gear burnout. As the end of the parking lot loomed, he suddenly remembered there was no brake fluid and, therefore, no brakes.

John Reed's Custom Engraved Yamaha Virago
Just below the seat, the BMW-influenced suspension gives the back wheel a place to be.Cruiser

In a move he claims would have made Kenny Roberts proud, Reed pitched the bike sideways and did a feet-up power slide through the turn. That was the last time Reed rode the Yamaha. But the answer is yes, this custom can be ridden!