Buell XB12S Lightning: A flawed genius

It starts shakily and the gearbox clunks, but this bike - as agile as a gymnast - is a winner, reports Tim Luckhurst

Erik Buell is a flawed genius. This motorcycle proves it. The XB12S Lightning is as practical as chocolate lingerie, and about as entertaining. On first encountering it, I thought the delivery van had dropped off the wrong bike. It does not look big enough to have a 1,203cc engine. Parked beside my beloved Triumph Sprint, it seemed more like a 250cc street bike than a 100 horsepower monster.


Engine: 1,203cc air/fan/oil-cooled V-twin.

Maximum power: 100bhp @ 6,600rpm

Maximum torque: 110Nm @ 6,000rpm

Brakes: front 375mm rotor, rear 240mm rotor

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, belt final drive

Dry weight: 179kgs

Seat height: 765mm

Fuel capacity: 14 litres

Price: £7,795

Then I switched it on and, after a whine from the fuel pump, the huge 45-degree V-twin throbbed into action and neighbours' dogs barked. At standstill, the noise is sumptuous, but the bike vibrates like a pneumatic drill. Adjusting the mirrors prior to take off, I nearly gave up. They were shaking so violently I could not tell whether they were correctly positioned.

But this vibration at tick-over is more of an eccentricity than a problem. It stops as soon as you start to move. Above 2,000rpm, the big, brutal torque-mountain of an engine pulls smoothly and the pulsating world in the rear view mirrors comes sharply into focus. Then you notice just how hard that engine is pulling. Treated roughly, this motorcycle lifts its front wheel off the Tarmac.

It stops almost as fast. The big rim-mounted front brake rotor is powerful enough to lift the rear wheel. In expert hands, the Lightning can do a fair impression of a powered unicycle. But I do not recommend trying it on British roads. Our police can be inflexible about such things. Antics that Italian Carabinieri applaud are likely to result in prosecution. This is a shame when playing with something as fundamentally frolicsome as the Buell Lightning.

This is the motorcycling equivalent of a mustang, those wild horses of Mexico and California which the first cowboys took as their mounts. Getting used to a Lightning is not a million miles from breaking a bucking bronco. Until you have got the hang of it, the bike feels raw, uncivilised and, frankly, a bit intimidating. Ten miles later, it has you giggling inside your helmet and wondering just how much fun urban riding can be.

I say urban because this is not a motorway motorcycle. It is more than quick enough. It surges through 130mph with power to spare. But the rider is totally exposed and the wide, flat handlebars, which feel so good in tight bends, start to jerk and pull like a pike impaled on a hook. That tiny little screen in front of the instruments protects the instruments, not you.

But this motorcycle was not built to travel in straight lines. It is a curve-king with an exceptionally short wheelbase, a steep 21-degree fork angle and a big, strong aluminium frame. All this is augmented by Buell's obsession: mass-centralisation. Fuel is carried in the frame, not the translucent tank-shaped thing between the rider and the handlebars. The swingarm doubles as oil reservoir. The exhaust is below the engine.

The end product is a motorcycle that, though heavy, has the agility of a gymnast and tracks through bends as if on rails. Jousting with buses, taxis and white-van men has rarely been as rewarding. Blasting and leaning through tight, undulating bends between Glasgow and Balfron was a joy. This big twin has the handling to outpace anything on four wheels and many things on two.

It is, of course, Harley-Davidson derived, pushrod technology pushed to the maximum. But the torque band is immensely broad and a clever exhaust system maximises performance. Granted, Japanese four-cylinder engines and British triples achieve more power from smaller capacity. But Buell's power unit seethes with the grunt required for short-range fun.

The worst thing is the five-speed gearbox. It works noisily, clunkily and occasionally imprecisely. The solution is to treat it firmly. You do not soothe the Lightning into first or cajole it into second. A good firm kick works better. Get used to that, and the noises that accompany the shift out of neutral cease to cause concern.

As a sole motorcycle, I could not afford to own a Lightning. As a luxury for high-speed acrobatics, it is tempting. Potential purchasers should compare it with naked steeds, such as the Triumph Speed Triple, Ducati Monster S4R, Moto Guzzi Griso and BMW K1200R.

Finally, the look: you love or hate Buells. I am a fan. The exposed frame, swingarm and colour coordinated aluminium wheels are charismatic. So is the ventilated silver tailplate. If you want to be daringly different, the Lightning invites inspection - particularly in translucent Cherry red.

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