And in that happy time Erik and factory had everything they needed in the Garden of East Troy, and were content to spend their days plucking brake levers and skinny grips from the Ducati trees, and herds of horses roamed free among the unicorns to provide more power. And in 1996 the factory gave birth to the S1 Lightning. If there were also serpents in the trees, they weren’t a problem yet.
So we immediately decided to subject a Motorcycle Online staffer to the rack. Four hundred miles on the Lightning, stopping only for gas and vital fluids (coffee for the staffer, oil for the Buell). All your sensible instincts tell you it’s going to be hell. Yet that 400 mile ride was survivable, enjoyable even. The tiny gas tank actually holds four gallons, giving a range of over 150 miles between fillups. With an extremely steady right hand, you could even get close to the 200 mile mark on one tank. The handlebars are 7/8 inch diameter, instead of the 1.0 inch bars used on the Thunderbolt, and that new dimension translates to an easier, more familiar grip on the smaller handgrips.
The chunky Harley-sourced switchgear has been replaced with neater, easier-to-use Italian units which appear to be identical to Ducati parts.
Hand levers, too, are Italian, and much easier to use than the Thunderbolt’s wide, thick levers. The wide bars give a comfortable, upright seating position which levers the rider just enough into the wind to make long journeys at highway speeds possible without neck and shoulder aches.
Longer legged riders, however, complained about interference with the huge, right side mounted air box (air tunnel might be a more appropriate description). Otherwise known as the Helmholtz Volume Power system, the plenum chamber is one reason why the Buell’s 1200cc engine performs so much better than a stock Sportster — our testbike churned out over 80 rear-wheel horsepower.
Other reasons include specially produced, higher compression cylinder heads, lightened flywheels and different camshafts. The end result is a motor with a serious power advantage over a stock Sporty.
“If bragging is important you can try to impress pavement critics this way: The S1 is the quickest and fastest Harley-engined machine available. Period.”
While the frame is different than the Thunderbolt’s, the vibration-reducing mounting system is retained. The engine hangs from the frame (the front engine mount is on the front cylinder head) and vibration is kept in one plane by the heim-jointed frame struts. It adds up to an engine that shakes at idle, but smooths out much better at speed than the rigid-mounted stock Harley-Davidson Sportster.
And the styling betters a Sportster’s. You may or may not like the Lightning’s abbreviated look, but it surely will persuade fans of Harley’s flattrack racer XR750 to sign on the dotted line. The Lightning, however, performs much better than any styling exercise. Up front, a 40mm White Power inverted fork does a splendid job of keeping the 17-inch Marchesini three-spoke in line. The rear suspension is handled by a White Power single shock, in extension mode. Buell has long favored this unorthodox lay-down, work-in-reverse style of suspension, and it soaks up the bumps well enough. Plus, it has a range of damping adjustment to appeal to the hardest core gearhead.
The basic chassis dimensions are identical to the Thunderbolt — wheelbase, rake and trail are the same — but the new frame and more leverage at the handlebar produce handling which feels both quicker and more predictable.
Braking is always an area where the Buell has excelled, and the Lightning is no different. The single, six-piston caliper pulls the lightweight 1200 down from speed easily, powerfully, with oodles of feel. The left fork leg sports an empty caliper mount, so adding another stopper, for totally over-the-top braking, is just a matter of buying more parts. Long rides on a big air-cooled engine make for anxiousness about oil level, and after a few minutes head scratching, this rider worked out that you just need to remove two nuts under the rear fender to remove the seat and get access to the oil tank filler. Oil level is shown by the familiar Sportster dipstick, and about the only problem is that there’s nowhere to store the rest of the quart if you do need to top it up. Don’t be tempted to overfill, because the excess oil will just end up splattered all over the rear of the bike (ask how we know?). The oil tank is a molded plastic affair clinging to the underside of the rear fender, and an oil line that connects with a frame tube will have onlookers guessing that the frame is the oiltank. Wrong, the line is an oil drain, and it terminates at the frame (it could also terminate the oil supply if someone pulled it off, but we digress).
Parked next to a Ducati Monster, the Buell Lightning amazes. It is shorter, weighs not an awful lot more, and is fitted with the same headlight, taillight, turn signals and handlebar controls. About the only difference is the seat, and that’s even more of a torture rack than the Ducati’s modest perch. Yet the Buell’s personality is formed by the thumping, lusty, shaking Sportster, while the Monster, though still a torquer, is more of a smooth, high revver. For all of its European equipment, the Lightning is still an American original.
Andy Saunders, Editor
My personal list of horror trips grows every year (how not to impress potential pillion passengers, volume one) but 400 miles in an evening on a Lightning has to be well up there. Here’s a bike that’s plainly much more suited to an evening spent blatting up and down the boulevard, with plenty of breaks for diet coke and fries in the diner. Yet the Lightning was quite capable of the long distance ride, with excellent range and amazing comfort (it helped that it fit my body dimensions just right).
And when I did get to the end of the road, it was just fun to drive a couple of miles, park the bike, and watch the attention it got from a comfortable seat in the diner.
Eric Murray, Technical Editor
With the S1, Buell’s made a big leap from the S2. Gone are a number of previous Buell quirks like funky handlebars and bar switches. The engine’s been hotted up too, now it revs out and no longer vibrates or detonates around town when hot. It handles even better than the S2 and feels incredibly light for a 1200cc bike. Unfortunately it doesn’t look as good as the S2 and it’s not as comfortable. The tiny Marquis DeSeat locks the rider into one position and one position only. While it happens to be a good position for twisty-road riding, most non-masochists prefer the option of being able to move around a little on the bike. The passenger pegs are a joke because the seat’s so small.
My usual passenger refused to even get on the back seat let alone ride on it. If all your riding consists of killer twisties the bike will keep you so entertained that you’ll never notice how bad you’re hurting until you stop, but for people who have to ride boring roads a stock Buell S1 isn’t an option. But if the aftermarket comes out comes out with a better tailsection and seat, look out!
Todd Canavan, Associate Editor
The Buell S1 is a vastly different and incredibly unique motorcycle. I applaud Buell’s efforts at breaking away from traditional styling, and I like the result. I have seen a Lightning or two where creative owners have adapted various fiberglass racing seat sections to good effect. Gone is the feel of the S2, this bike has a completely different soul, and although the heart is similar, if your eyes were closed you might not now that this motor is from Milwaukee, it revs like no Harley I’ve ridden. This ain’t your Daddy’s Hog either, it turns lighter, stops quicker and goes faster than any Bar-and-Shield sporting machine, including the S1. This bike makes no sense, which is why it is neat, but there is one question that will dog me until the end of time: Why did they bother putting on passenger pegs?
Manufacturer: Buell Motorcycle Company
Model: S1 Lightning
Engine: Air-cooled OHV pushrod V-twin
Bore x Stroke: 88.8mm x 96.8
Carburetion: 40mm CV Carburetor
Transmission: 5-speed, belt final drive
Wheelbase: 55.0 in.
Seat height: 31.2 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.0 gallons
Claimed dry weight: 425 lbs.