By Tom Fortune, Mar. 15, 1995
In late 1994 Buell Motorcycles unveiled their highly-anticipated S2 Thunderbolt to the world with a promise that it could become the most exciting, attention-grabbing, best-handling and possibly the most livable sportbike ever produced in the U.S. A pretty dramatic claim from a company that had never produced more than 120 expensive, and somewhat outlandish-appearing sportbikes in any given year since Erik Buell founded the company in the mid-eighties. It was the much-needed influx of capital that Harley-Davidson provided when they acquired a 49 percent share of Buell in 1993 that gave Buell the confidence to make such claims. Indeed, H-D president Jeff Bleustein was quoted as saying: “We’re not interested in selling a few hundred Buells a year — we want to sell thousands.
Needless to say, the S2 was an instant sales success. It was also one of the first ever test bikes to reside in the Motorcycle Online garage. We raved over the bike in our feature test of the Thunderbolt back in 1995: “This bike grunts out of corners with authority, its burly V-twin music straightening out the kinks in your favorite back road… Packed with tire-shredding torque and a well-sorted chassis, this bike screams. It’s a good attempt at fusing together opposite ends of the motorcycling spectrum.” And we declared we would never give it back. Riding the S2 is a grin-inducing experience that grows on you. It has an in-your-face persona that demands the rider’s attention. But we quickly found out horsepower isn’t a strong point with the S2’s Sportster-based engine
So we immediately set out to modify our Thunderbolt (as detailed in our original review) with several performance upgrades, including a set of Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle mild cams that retain the stock valvetrain gear, a Screamin’ Eagle black box, and a Graves Motorsports prototype slip-on muffler to replace the huge stock reverse-flow canister. Boy, could this thing ever pull back and fold the pavement now! And, true to our word, we never did give it back. Two years and 20,000 miles later, that midnight-blue, tweaked-and-tuned Thunderbolt is still sitting in our garage. How well has it held up, you ask? Quite well, thank you. In fact, the thing is a Sherman tank.
We still have the original battery and H-D Kevlar drive belt that, we must admit, we’ve never adjusted — but then we’ve never had to. It just doesn’t wear out. The original clutch has a few hundred drag strip runs under its belt, and still works just fine with very linear engagement. Not to say, of course, that over the miles we haven’t had a few minor problems with our Buell beast. Have you noted how we constantly expound upon the fact this bike has “tire-shredding torque,” especially so after the aforementioned engine mods? Well, it does. We have a hard time keeping the S2 in tires.
The negative ground lead fractured from vibration at the battery post once, leaving us stranded on the freeway after dark, and the starter relay quit around the 3000-mile mark. Repairs to both items cost us a grand total of about 17 bucks, and we’ve not experienced an electrical failure of any kind since. Our ignition key broke on us once because you need to oil them, and we never did. This was remedied by a new H-D barrel key mechanism, available from dealers for $86.95 plus tax. Indeed, our Thunderbolt has proven itself to be quite the low-maintenance stud — except for the rear tire wear problem, which is mostly a problem of lead-footed testers trying to lay black stripes down on corner exists. Of course we ride most sportbikes that way, but none seem to chew up tires as fast as the S2.
The oil filter is a spin-off unit that is quick to replace, and its dry-sump engine lubrication system requires only two-and-a-half quarts of H-D oil. Engine oil is located in a hand-made aluminum tank on the left side of the bike, and draining it requires removing one bolt on the side of the tank. Newer Buells have a built in drain hose that allows oil to be drained without any tools or a funnel. An oil filter will set you back eight dollars and Genuine H-D oil is nine dollars for the requisite three quarts. After break-in was completed, we mostly used Mobil 1 5W-30 synthetic in the engine and Red Line gear oil in the separate transmission case, which takes a minimal 24 ounces to fill. Paint and bodywork has held up well, except around the ignition key area where our big key ring vibrated while riding and scratched the frame’s white paint. The S2’s white Marchesini wheels look really cool, but are a big pain in the ass to keep clean. We prefer them over the optional Performance Machine spun aluminum wheels, however, as the PM wheels oxidize fairly quickly.
The 1200 Sportster engine has been very reliable, not missing a beat in our 20,000 miles of abuse. It did develop an oil leak from the rear rocker box cover recently, although that’s something easily fixed by routinely tightening the cover bolts. We just keep forgetting to do it. The WP inverted forks on the Thunderbolt come with provisions to bolt on a left-side six-piston brake caliper and disc. Although in stock form the S2’s single rotor and caliper will stand the bike on its nose, we thought, what the hell — we’re crazy, and stupid, so let’s try it. We coaxed Buell into sending us an extra 340mm cast-iron rotor and PM six-piston caliper, and whoa! You’ve never experienced braking force like this. We’re talking one-finger, totally vertical stoppies here. At any speed. Scary. In reality, though, they were overkill. It turned out to be too much of a good thing. Too much mass, that is. It slowed steering and increased the front end’s already vague feeling. So we took off the extra disc and caliper and raised rear ride height 1.0 inches with a riser plate on the rear shock’s front linkage. Now our S2 turns a lot quicker, and feels more planted when exiting corners.
We did experience a serious problem with our Buell’s brakes in the form of a cracked rotor. A few of the original PM calipers were packed incorrectly, resulting in dirt finding its way into the caliper’s inside three pistons. Thus, they seized, and without them pushing at all, the rotor was bent “inward” towards the center of the wheel because the outer three pistons worked fine. So the rotor didn’t crack from brake load or stress, it cracked because it was bowed in. Pretty nasty. Buell warrantied the rotor and brake immediately, and we’ve had no problems, or heard of any, since.
The bike has always started fine in the morning with choke, and warmed up quickly. Although fuel economy did drop a bit after we fitted the Screamin’ Eagle cams to 50 mpg on the highway, and 40 or less in the city, it’s turned out to be a very reliable everyday ride. After 20,000 miles, we’re every bit as intoxicated by the big, blue Thunderbolt as we were the day we first picked it up. That heavy-flywheeled Harley engine searching out every bit of available traction exiting corners still floats our boat. We’ll never give it back.