1998 Buells S1 Lightning Test

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Words:  Piero Zambotti/Rob Harris

First View
Piero Zambotti

On first glance, this thing looks like the kind of bike the Power Rangers would ride, or maybe some land based contraption in a weird ’50s sci-fi movie that’s capable of sprouting its hidden solid fuel boosters and blasting off into space. Undoubtedly the Buell S1 White Lightning is the most visually striking motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. But does it work? Read on …

As soon as you straddle the Buell, you notice the enormously wide bars and the thin, narrow motocross-like seat. It’s narrow and compact at the gas tank level, but unlike any other sportbike I can think of, it’s quite wide at the footpeg level, probably because of the bike’s unconventional frame design. The latter point makes the bike feel strange at first, because nearly any sporting motorcycle in the last fifteen years tucks your feet as closely as possible to the centre of the bike. The pegs themselves are those nasty OEM Harley squidgy rubber blobs that have no place as a sportbike rearset. Ergonomics strike me as being designed for the average to smaller

Wedgie seat

rider – taller people will have problems with bashing their right knee on the header and the mailbox, err, airbox. The posture is mostly upright, and just moderately leaning forward, reaching out to the superbike style handlebars.

With the engine mounted choke pulled out, the big twin fires easily and settles into a fast idle, vibration blurring the bars, levers, and mirrors. But as soon as you click the Lightning into gear and thunder off, the massive vibration (so present at idle) completely disappears and the bike becomes disconcertingly smooth. Erik Buell’s patented Uniplanar engine suspension system works really well at isolating the Harley motor’s vibes.

Unsurprisingly, the White Lightning is an absolute gruntmeister. Properly geared, I bet this motor could yank mothering tree stumps out of the ground, for the Buell has not lost the only one positive quality that the original Sportster 1200 motor had: Massive low end torque. Riding away from stoplights in second gear feels normal, and needs no more clutch slip than starting off in first gear. The Buell handles idling around town in top (fifth) gear at 1000rpm in the same manner as the Sportster 12, until the vibration gets to a frequency that Buell’s clever elastomer damped engine suspension system can’t filter out, and the shaking returns with a vengeance.

After several highway rides, I got the impression that the bike felt under geared for a bike with such torque, first gear particularly so. The Lightning pulls 4000rpm at 120km/h, and it feels like taller gearing wouldn’t really hurt performance all that much. Also, just like the Sportster 12, rolling the throttle open provokes instant response, but until 1500+ rpm, the MOTHER of all rattles emanates from the bowels of the engine. Does anyone who owns a Buell or a Sportster know what the hell that noise is?! It sounds like the motor ingesting a valve, but since both bikes I rode were running fine, I’ve concluded it might be a device Harley Davidson mounts on all Sportster motors to enhance the crudeness effect.

Surprisingly, the Buell has real, genuine top end power, something which feels pretty strange on what’s basically the ultra long stroke Sportster motor. Under full throttle the motor really comes on the cam at around 5000rpm, and the solid surge towards redline proves there’s some genuine airflow happening in this motor. At this point the motor has a really cool sound to it too, and anyone who’s heard a well built high performance Harley thundering through the gearbox, will have a good idea how this thing sounds. Beginning from 5000rpm, the Buell’s muffled, sturdy, low pitched bark provides awesome music until it bumps into the rev limiter … which brings me to the next of the White Lightning’s eccentricities. The rev range feels like it should extend past the 7500rpm limiter, and whenever pinning the throttle through the gears, bouncing the motor off the rev limiter is a bit too easy. Admittedly the engine feels like it peaks at the 6500rpm redline, but the power curve remains useful until the limiter cuts the ignition advance all too early. I suppose the upper value is pretty high and rather stressful for an old tech long stroke motor, so perhaps a limiter set at 7500 is in the interest of long-term reliability.

A good impression of just how much more performance Erik Buell extracted out the Sportster 12 motor is the fact that the Buell’s approximate 85 bhp at around 6500rpm is 30bhp and 2000rpm more than a stock Sporty 12! I also found out that with the rider tucked in, the Buell pulls a little over 220km/h easily, 50km/h faster than a stock Sportster 12! Now that’s called engine tuning … Despite the torque, low first gear, and short wheelbase, the Buell is not all that inclined to power wheelie violently. That forward sitting motor results in a heavy front end. Steering, however, with those CR250-ripoff bars, and shallow rake, is by no means heavy or slow. The Buell has the athletic feel of a true sportbike, and (with one exception) the chassis works just the way it should. It’s agile, very maneuverable, and a blast in slow, technical corners. The leverage from the wide handlebars along with the mostly upright riding posture make changing line mid corner an afterthought.

What really surprised me about the Buell’s high speed handling at first was the way it would weave in fast corners, even with a light corner load. This was not inspiring at all, but it was improved by adjusting the fork damping. Later I noticed that the simple act of hanging onto the bars against the considerable force of a 130km/h wind (or even a 110km/h blast), put a lot of unwanted input into the wide bars, and that this was the major cause of the bike’s instability. I found the solution was to tuck in behind the flyscreen and take some of the wind’s force through my back. Both of these actions released the bars of any unwanted major forces, and then the weave would mostly disappear.

Suspension at both ends is the Dutch WP stuff, and the rear suspension feels really good, even though is isn’t a rising rate system. It has firm damping, and a similarly firm spring which combine to yield a controlled, taut, yet rather harsh ride out back. The Buell should have thought up a neater preload adjustment system, though; the great pair of Imperial nuts adjusting the spring preload look like a pain to adjust compared to the usual notched rings or cam plate. Incidentally, at 500km on the odometer, the paint on two coils of the spring had already fallen off…

The front end doesn’t work as well as the rear suspension, and frankly it needs work. The WP inverted fork looks very pretty, but the spring rate seems all wrong to me; the forks dive excessively under the Buell’s awesome braking power, and on the stock settings there was an alarming lack of any compression or rebound damping effect. This last point, combined with slushy springs, does not make for a confidence inspiring front end at all, and although I firmed up the damping a bit more by dialling in 10 more clicks of compression and 8 more clicks of rebound, I still thought the spring rate was just wrong for fast street riding, even at my late autumn riding pace! Such a soft front end would be a liability on a racetrack. The preload is NOT adjustable too, which sucks.

C’mon Piero! Can’t do do better than that?

The same riding position that makes flicking through slow corners so easy on the Buell also encourages stoppies and stunts like these in general. I’ll say this once: the White Lightning is a really, really, really good bike for pulling giant stoppies. The single six pot caliper and giant 340mm disc felt equal to the YZF1000’s brakes tested two issues ago, and the forward weight distribution only assists the rear wheel in its quest to become airborne. Just one thing about stoppies on Buells though; don’t get careless, or, errr, carried away. ‘Nuff said.

The hooligan riding position is also perfect for city commuting. Effective mirrors, an upright posture, instant torque, strong brakes, and for once, a good horn make the Buell surprisingly practical. Fuel range is a very useful 270km too. The seat which so many people said would be a cinder block to sit on is actually quite comfortable for me. I rode 350km out in the country and was perfectly comfortable. The steering lock is a bit bad though, making for unpredicted dabs when you run out of road while doing a U-turn. Also, the frame itself restricts the steering lock, and small rubber cushions are glued onto the frame tubes to prevent grazing, which looks like a rather hurried fix. One of the cushions had already fallen off our test bike.

Build quality on the Buell is a mixture of good and bad. Bodywork and frame paint are beautiful and look durable, and the alloy QR gas cap is a work of art. Wheel finish, the shock spring paint, and the carbon fibre rear hugger are all abysmal though; on our 1998 model bike the paint on the wheels and shock were both showing wear. Also, the Buell still has some rather primitive “kitbike”, or home built problems: For example, the forks should not bump against the frame on full lock, and amazingly, I found the numb and weak back brake would actually stick on! I had to pry the pads loose with a key when I found the bike was feeling heavy and slow under acceleration. Not good.

Caution on my part of the cold late October roads, and resulting tire temperatures, meant that the Buell was the first long term personal test sportbike that I didn’t ground out or ride to the limits of the tires. Unlike my tests of the Bandit 1200 and the YZF1000 (CBR900RR? – Ed), I must admit I did not explore the absolute limit that this vehicle imposed on corner speed. Damn! (Phew – Ed).

Despite all the quirks and defects, the Buell remains one of the most characterful, fun motorcycles I’ve ridden. Marvelously eccentric and weird in concept, design, and in motion, I really like its combo of driveable power, killer brakes, motocross ergonomics, and sharp steering. It’s fun to ride almost anywhere and at any speed, and just a bit of fork modification should pull out the wicked handling potential, all with gen-u-wine high performance Harley power. For most Buell customers, I bet that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

Second View
By Rob Harris

I must admit, when I got the call from Buell to test ride their latest and greatest, the S1 White Lightning, I could feel trouble coming. The idea of a pushrod engined sports bike did not quite add up in my mind. People that I’d talked to and articles that I’d read varied in judgement from great to abysmal. What the hell, no excuses, no leeway, if it’s being pushed as a sports bike then we’ll test it as such – that’s why we have Piero!

First impressions were not good. As Zambo mentioned, this is not a bike designed for the over six footer. My position felt un-natural, the seat was so narrow it gave me a wedgie, my left knee hit the air box and my inner thighs got bruised by the edge of the tank sticking out from the frame. The front brake was either fully on or off, and the whole thing shook violently under me at idle… But then this is why we ask for a bike for the minimum of a week. First impressions are vague at best. It’s like listening to a new song – personally I gotta hear it at least five times before I know whether I like it or not. Using the same comparison, the S1 was a bad Country & Western song.

By the second day my arse had formed the shape of a vee, my inner thighs had developed calluses and the air box had mysteriously moved over. Either that or I was starting to adapt to the Buells anomalies. Shit, even the rabid shaking had a certain coolness to it now.

Okay, Dwight Yokum wasn’t whining anymore, but he was still singing C & W.

Just before I gave it over to Piero to test I took it on the OMG ride to J & R Cycle in Wasaga Beach for the Fall Colour Run. I must confess, I never got completely comfortable with the Buells quirks, but after a couple of runs against J & R’s proprietor John, on his Honda Valkyrie, the grunt of the Buell won two out of three. On the ride home down Airport Road, the Buell became more and more fun, dare I say illegally so. By the time it came to handing over the keys to Piero, I had a certain fondness for it.

CMG rear brake wire “fix”

By the end of my time, the Buell never did sing smooth like Sarah McLaughlin (okay, I have the musical tastes of a big gurl), but it had a charm and character that could work. There were some over riding problems with quality control though. The rear brake wire had come unglued (yes, it had been glued) from the carbon fibre fender, which itself had the finish of a piece of work of a 4th grade workshop student.

Ultimately the S1 is down to personal taste, but unfortunately for Buell I don’t think that it’s one of the masses. I do think that there’s a market out there. They just have to sort out the quality control and/or drop the price. If you get a chance for a quick ride on one, try not to judge on the immediate anomalies alone – it might be more suitable than at first it appears.

Specifications – 1998 S1 White Lightning

Price $14,999
Engine Type Air Cooled 4 stroke, 45 degree V-Twin
Displacement 1203cc
Transmission
5 speed
Wheelbase
1397 mm
Seat Height
749 mm
Fuel Capacity
20.82L (2.27L Reserve)
Claimed Dry Weight
425 lbs (184 kg)
Claimed Horsepower 101hp @ 6000rpm
Claimed Torque
90ftlbs @ 5500rpm

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