Motoring: Raging Buell

Packing an 86 horsepower punch, the Lightning is a weapon on wheels, writes Roland Brown
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The Independent Online
Erik Buell's life reads like a bike enthusiast's dream. Buell was an engineer at Harley-Davidson's Milwaukee base before leaving in 1984 to set up his own business nearby. Working out of a barn alongside his house, he hand-built sports bikes powered by his former employer's V-twin engines.

Buell's production numbers were low, prices were high and times were initially hard. But, backed by racing success (Erik himself was a rider of some note), the company and its reputation grew. Then, four years ago, came Buell's big break: Harley-Davidson, looking to move into the sports bike market, bought a 49 per cent stake in his firm. Boosted by the Milwaukee giant's resources and marketing expertise, the renamed Buell Motorcycle Company continued to expand - and now its bikes are being exported to Britain for the first time.

The most striking of the four-bike range (all are closely related, differing only in bodywork and some chassis parts) is the Sl Lightning, a lean, mean, aggressively styled roadster. With its big Harley V-twin engine and tiny seat and tail section, the barrel-chested Buell makes rivals such as Ducati's Monster look positively tame.

Like all Buell's previous models, the Lightning holds an aircooled, 45- degree Harley V-twin engine in a tubular steel frame that incorporates Buell's unique system of rubber mounts and rods to control vibration. In another traditionally quirky piece of Buell design, the rear shock absorber sits horizontally below the engine. It works by being pulled, rather than squeezed in conventional fashion, by a linkage system connected to the rear wheel.

Alongside the shock sits a huge and ugly exhaust silencer that looks like something from a tractor. The black plastic airbox, jutting out near the rider's right knee, is equally large and unattractive. But their size is necessary to allow the 1,203cc V-twin engine, borrowed from Harley's Sportster cruiser, to breathe more freely. Along with some mild tuning, the result is an output of 86bhp - an increase of 50 per cent.

This gives the Lightning straight-line performance in a different league to that of the Sportster or any other Harley. First impressions are not promising; the Buell shakes at low revs while making a disappointing chugging sound through that efficient exhaust system. But once the V-twin reaches 4,000rpm it magically smooths almost completely - and a flick of throttle sends the bike hurtling forward with a thrilling burst of acceleration.

Anyone used to riding a standard Sportster would find it difficult to believe that the Lightning is powered by essentially the same engine, so smoothly and enthusiastically does the Buell surge towards its top speed of about 130mph. With a fairly upright riding position and only a tiny flyscreen to keep off the wind, the Buell is not ideally suited to long-distance cruising at speed. But the bike's broad spread of power means it is very easy to ride. Just flick the throttle and it responds, requiring minimal use of Harley's rather crude five-speed gearbox.

Handling is excellent, combining high-speed stability with light, easy steering and a firm, well-controlled ride from the sophisticated suspension. At 193kg the Lightning is fairly light. Its upside-down front forks and fat sticky sports tyres combine to give plenty of control in the bends, and the front brake, a huge single 340mm disc gripped by an American-made six-piston caliper, is very powerful.

As a quick, fine-handling bike with traffic-stopping looks, the Lightning has plenty of appeal, but it is not without the odd fault. That big airbox gets in the way of a tall rider's knee, the whole bike can feel cramped, and its tiny seat very soon becomes uncomfortable. But Harley-Davidson's involvement has allowed more freedom to specify parts such as handlebar grips and controls, which are conventional sports bike items instead of the unsuitable cruiser parts that Buell used previously.

More to the point, Harley's investment and marketing clout has this year led to the Buell range going on sale outside America for the first time. In this country, bikes are available from 10 leading Harley dealers, with the Lightning costing pounds 8,995 and the top-of-the-range S3T Thunderbolt Touring - which combines this bike's engine and chassis with a full fairing and luggage panniers - selling for pounds 10,495.

For motorcyclists looking for a distinctive and exciting roadster, the Buell Sl Lightning is well worth considering. For Erik Buell, now head of a well-financed firm, building bikes with his name on the tank for a fast-expanding market, the Harley tinkerer's fantasy-made-real shows no sign of ending.

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