"A Work in Progress"

Words Larry Tate
Pics Larry Tate
Posted 11th January 2000


Anyone who’s ever had an independent dog for a pet, one that’s big and likes to play but occasionally decides to ignore you and do its own thing to the furniture, will probably have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live with a Buell X1 Lightning.

Bad Buell! The seat is nasty. The vibration is a killer. Servicing the thing is a serious pain in the tush. The suspension is way too stiff, and the rear shock failed on our test unit.

Good Buell! Hell for strong brakes, a compact, mass-centering design, good acceleration, and lightning-quick direction changing make it an absolute hoot to ride at a track day or on a quick run down your favourite road.

Good bike? Bad bike? Like anything else, it all comes down to what you’re looking for, doesn’t it?

Quick primer: Eric Buell is an extremely clever engineer and a former racer (good one, too) of scary things like Yamaha TZ750s. He figured he could build a better race bike, and created one from scratch, engine and all - hampered by a lack of cash, however, it never really went anywhere from there.

Trick front engine mount keeps vibes at bay

That pesky cash thing has always hamstrung the guy. He worked with Harley-Davidson’s engineering department for several years, so when he decided to build his own "American motorcycle" sport bikes it was only natural that he’d go to The Motor Company for his engine components. He chose the 1200 Sportster engine, presumably because it was available and relatively light with some go-power hidden inside the cases, and designed an extremely trick frame featuring bizarre engine mounts intended to isolate the engine’s vibration from the rider.

But Buell has had to spend a lot of time searching for money to keep the company going - time that he’d much prefer to have spent on engineering - and it’s always shown. From day one, the bikes have been interesting but quirky, with a reliability history that’s spotty at best.

Over the years, Harley-Davidson has bought more and more of the company, to the point now that H-D is the majority owner and the Buell Motorcycle Company is, in effect, the sport-bike arm of the Milwaukee firm. There’s now money available to be invested - the first sign of that was a massive recall earlier this year, wherein every Buell ever built was brought back in to fix niggling (and occasionally major) faults - and Eric Buell can now spend his time doing what he does best, engineering neat bikes.

Our late fall test of the X1 Lightning, the hotrod of the small Buell family, started with a half-day at Shannonville Motorsport Park, followed by several days of normal road use in East-Central Ontario - meaning mostly okay-to-rough secondary roads.

The fuel-injected Sportser-based engine fires quickly (there’s no choke), but needs a bit of running before it’ll respond to the throttle. To start it, you turn on the key and wait four or five seconds until an engine check light goes out; this lets the computer run a diagnostic routine and also lets the pressure get up to snuff in the fuel rails. A push of the button and it’s running, but it needs a bit of gentle throttle to avoid stalling; a moment or two and it’s okay, but it is noticeably rough until thoroughly warmed up.

The key is odd; it’s a barrel-shaped device that never really feels like it’s secure in the ignition lock (and apparently easily opened several bicycle locks, according to one test rider). Still, it works, and also operates the seat lock, gas tank lock (you can leave the cap unlocked, if you like), and steering head lock.

Once it’s running, the uninitiated are astounded - appalled, even - by the vibration. It doesn’t exactly bounce the front wheel off the ground at idle, but it comes close (one rider, after a couple of days on the X1, said he was worried about ever having children). Everything on the bike is shaking (including the rider), as the engine dances around in the frame, secured by Mr. Buell’s trick isolation mounts.

Sharp front brake makes for excessively high stoppies.

Once you’re rolling, however, and get some revs up, it smooths out remarkably. You’ll certainly never forget that you’re straddling a big V-twin, but over 3,500 or so the vibration disappears. Well, it doesn’t, really - I mean, it has to go somewhere, right? - which has no doubt been the source of many of Buell’s reliability problems in the past, but it’s nicely isolated from the rider and really isn’t a factor in normal riding.

It’s a torquey little bugger, as you’d expect, but has a pretty narrow effective powerband. At 6,000 to 6,500 the tach has an orange indicator before the redline, but ours must have read slow, because at six grand the ignition just quit, giving the rider quite a jolt. So keeping the engine between 3,500 and about 5,500 is the way to ride it.

And riding it is good old hooligan fun, in the same way that a V-Max or Bandit 1200 brings out one’s baser instincts. This may be the easiest bike in creation for doing wheelies and stoppies, and the exhaust sounds terrific. It’s loud and distinctive, but not so loud as to be anti-social like so many Harley exhausts can be.

It’s not a top-speed machine (we saw about 200 indicated, and it was wheezing a bit there), but that doesn’t matter. Getting up to speed is fun, and stopping is astounding. Buell very definitely goes against conventional thinking by fitting one front brake rotor, but aided by the excellent Dunlop 207s fitted to our X1, the bike will stop hard enough to make your eyeballs bleed, time after time after time.

The only down side to the brake is that it’s extremely sensitive. Experienced racers or go-fasters will probably like it, but newer riders found it abrupt and hard to modulate. For me, however, or for anyone likely to buy a Buell, I think it’s a treat. There is a rear brake, by the way, but everyone who rode the bike pretty much ignored it.

The suspension contributes to the hooliganish feel of the bike; multi-adjustable excellent Showa forks and rear shock are fitted, and the owner’s manual even goes so far as to show you how to properly set up sag and rear preload. It works well on the track, but is way too stiff for any public roads I’ve been on lately, whether riding through town, down a multi-lane highway, or over a winding back road. Every little bump is slammed into the base of the rider’s spine, and while the bike certainly tracks and turns well, other machines out there have proved that it just isn’t necessary to require anything that stiff in order to handle properly.

The seat doesn’t help much. It looks not bad, but the general feeling was that it must have been carved out of a block of 2 by 6, good for maybe an hour, tops. And we couldn’t even pay anyone to get on the back.

Normal maintenance is a hassle. There’s no centrestand, but procedures like checking the oil or changing the transmission fluid require the bike to be vertical. To change the tranny fluid, you have to remove the chin spoiler and muffler. Two people and a special tool (not supplied) are required to check drive belt tension. Etc.

And as far as reliability goes, we think it’s still a little suspect. The front seal of the rear shock on our tester blew, letting the damping oil escape all over the drive belt and the rear wheel. We have to wonder how the heat it lives in (tucked in with the header pipe and muffler) affected it, but still, there were less than 2,600 km on the bike when it happened.

Rear shock puked it's guts during test.

We’d like to like the X1; the engineering is neat, the looks are funky, and it goes and (especially) stops quite well, thank you very much. But right now we think it’s kind of a neat chassis in search of an engine - a nicely detuned and counterbalanced Harley VR1000 race motor would be just the ticket. Anyone listening in Milwaukee?

So if your idea of a ‘real’ dog is one that needs a short leash, has a bit of a bad temper, and takes a lot of attention to train, you’ll probably love a Buell X1. But if you prefer one that never messes in the house, does exactly what it’s told, and would rather play with the kids than chase cars, perhaps you should look elsewhere for your sport bike.


Thanks to Inside Motorcycles for letting us republish this article that originally appeared in volume 2, issue 9. If you want to know more about Inside Motorcycles or would like to get a subscription you can contact them at 416-962-7223 or email to greggo@inforamp.net.




Buell X1 Lightning




1,203 cc

Engine type

Air-cooled OHV four-stroke 45 degree V-twin


Electronic fuel injection

Final drive

Five-speed, belt final drive

Tires, front


Tires, rear


Brakes, front

single 340 mm disc with six-piston caliper

Brakes, rear

single 230 mm disc with single-piston caliper

Seat height

749.3 mm


1,397 mm

Dry weight

200 kg (claimed)

Canadian colours




© 2000 OMG Publishing