Cam Donald’s Buell XB12R Lightning
I still recall the first time a Buell caught my attention. It was an S1 Lightning and it must’ve been around 1997, not long after they were released. At the time I was a struggling racer without a street bike, but I knew I’d have one some day.
I’m still not sure why the Buell models grabbed my attention because it’s not like I have a soft spot for Harleys. One exception to that is the legendary XR-750 flat tracker, which is without doubt my favourite bike of all time. After seeing them in action when I watched On Any Sunday, I thought they were the dog’s bollocks. To me the XR-750 was a no-nonsense motorcycle. Nothing there that didn’t need to be: just a basic chassis, a big engine and not much else. Not even a front brake for dirt track racing! The S1 to me had a similar, barebones style and exposed chassis leaving nothing to obstruct your view of the V-twin powerplant.
I finally got a chance to ride the S1 when a mate bought one. At that time I hadn’t ridden many big-capacity twins and I fell in love with how the Sportster-based donk worked on the street. This particular bike had a loud exhaust system delivering a raspy bark. In an upright street-fighter chassis, this was the ultimate hoon machine and I wanted one even more so. My attention and money went back to racing but I always kept an eye out for those unusual Buells. When I say unusual, it was such a different bike to anything else I was paying attention to with features such as a chromo-tubed chassis, oversize rim-mounted front brake disc and an underslung exhaust system. It was nothing like the sportbikes of the time. In 2003 Buell became a wholly owned subsidiary of Harley-Davidson and the two-pronged XB range was released. This included the Firebolt, with its sports-oriented riding position and bikini nose fairing, and the Lightning, which was mechanically identical but with an upright street-fighter riding position.
I was now learning a bit more about Erik Buell and his unorthodox ideas that were first seen with the XB. The chassis was no longer a tube frame but a box-section alloy design doubling as the bike’s fuel cell, with the swingarm as the oil tank. This was all part of Erik’s theory of ‘mass centralisation’ in motorcycle design.
For me the XB Lightning was even more appealing than the S1 in styling and such a cool contradiction. Here was a bike with so many innovative ideas to centralise and save weight to improve handling yet it was powered by an agricultural engine. Harley’s 1200cc ‘Evo’ motor was essentially the same powerplant fitted to the Sportster model since 1988! I loved the notion: build a bike of the future with an engine from the past.
Buell also released the 1125 range in 2007 powered by a liquid-cooled Rotax engine offering far greater performance. I rode several of these bikes but they did nothing for me in terms of performance or styling.
THE HUNT IS ON
As far as Buell models went, I wanted an XB12 Lightning – the most basic, no-nonsense pick of the litter – and preferably in plain black, thanks. I’d already pictured one in my garage, stripped of mirrors and rear fender and with a racing exhaust to upset my neighbours.
In 2009 Harley-Davidson announced the discontinuation of the Buell brand and I grew concerned that I might miss the boat. Thankfully though, the remaining stock in Australia was offered at heavily discounted prices. Good for me, but by the time I got around to visiting a mate in H-D sales, stock of XB12 Lightning was gone.
I began searching the used market when I got a call to inform me that H-D was sourcing unsold stock from other parts of the world to meet Australia’s demand. Lucky for me that demand had never met supply in South America, of all places, and the bike I paid for came from Brazil.
When it arrived, it turned out it was a ‘pre-delivered’ example and had sat idle for so long that the dodgy petrol in the frame had contaminated the fuel system. The bike was running like a dog and the fuel system needed flushing and the pump needed replacing.
This gave me time to source a better-breathing muffler as the standard unit reduces the bike to a pitiful note. Buell had a full race system for the XB range, but I couldn’t track one down. After getting big-dollar quotes from local suppliers for an aftermarket system, I ended up going against what I would usually do and ordered one online. A Jardine carbon-fibre slip-on arrived from the US in three days for $280 – by far the cheapest exhaust I’ve ever bought.
Fitting a slip-on muffler is usually a 10-minute job, but not on the Buell. I’ve rebuilt two-stroke top ends with less trouble than a Buell muffler swap.
The standard muffler bolts to the bellypan so that needed additional brackets. The engine oil lines from the tank in the swingarm were routed through the muffler mounts, so they needed to be disconnected as did the drive belt. As Buell runs the drive belt at such a high tension, the rear wheel needed to be removed to do this.
Once the new Jardine muffler was fitted and I fired it up, I soon forgot about my skinned knuckles and oil-stained floor. The sound from my Buell is spot on: sharp and loud when you give it a rev, but not so bad at low rpm and idle. It doesn’t sound anything like a Sportster and it’s much better than a straight-through system.
The Lightning’s stubby rear end finishes abruptly where the seat ends, just behind the back axle, which leaves the rear wheel very exposed. To comply with ADRs, this is sorted by a huge alloy and plastic registration plate holder and mudguard.
It matches the standard rear wheel/drive belt cover, but it’s poorly styled, oversized and it’s made from crappy American plastic.
These where filed straight in the bin to make way for a fender eliminator. I’ve also added mini indicators and a bar-end mirror to complete the basic, all-black look I wanted. My first ride saw the expensive bar-end mirror vibrate loose, never to be seen again, but I’m not bothered as it looks better without it anyway.
I started riding the Buell often and soon found some of its weak points, namely excessive fork dive under braking. So I began looking to upgrade the standard fork and shock.
As another mate builds some fast Harley engines, I also looked into what it would take to up the pony count from the 1203cc engine. His rational response was brilliant: “Spend a bunch of money and it will still be slow compared with what you’re used to. Just enjoy it standard or sell it and buy a GSX-R1000.”
So that’s exactly what I’ve done since: enjoyed it as it is. Apart from slightly firming up the standard suspension via the clickers I’ve just got used to its spongy ride. If this was my only bike and daily commuter I’d probably grow to hate it. It can be temperamental until it warms up and a bunch of minor components have failed.
The funniest was when a part inside the switchblock unit broke causing the very loud horn to remain stuck at a busy St Kilda intersection on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Onlookers from every direction were staring with a what-the-f-is-his-problem look plastered over their faces.
I can laugh now, but I certainly wasn’t laughing that day and having to ride back through Melbourne cursing that I didn’t have any tools to disconnect the horn or even cut a wire. Niggles aside, I simply love my Buell whether it’s to putt around town or for the odd spin to a pub in the hills.
The riding position is upright and comfy, and the razor-sharp steering makes it nimble and easy to weave through traffic.
It’s the only bike I own that I can never imagine selling, and besides, it’s sure to be a sought-after collectable in a few years, hey Guido?
I’ve enjoyed a few overnight trips on it without major mechanical issues to stick me up.
In saying that, it’s only done around 10,000km since I bought it back in late 2010. The bike’s stripped rear looks just the way I want it and I’m willing to pay the price of copping a hosing in the back when I ride it in the rain. As long as it looks cool, hey?
My fiancé, Kaz, has also fallen for the Buell’s charms and she’s been known to sneak out on it more times than she knows I approve of.
I used to be a little over-protective of the XB but I’ve relaxed a little since its first taste of bitumen.
I once had a set of left-over race tyres fitted to it which were super grippy once warm but like riding on ice when cold. People often say not to use race tyres on the street – even the treaded ones – and it’s for a very good reason.
On a cold day Kaz grabbed the XB to beat the traffic to an appointment in the city. As she throttled out of the driveway the rear came around to overtake the front and Kaz was pointing back up the driveway and on her bum.No big deal, but I learned my lesson and have since fitted a set of Pirelli Angel GTs which have been brilliant. They offer good grip on wet and dry roads and need next to no warm-up time. I should’ve had them on all along.
When I found an XB Firebolt for sale close by I grabbed it to complete the matching set. The only problem was Kaz looked upon this as us now having ‘his and hers’ Buells and took the red Firebolt (left) to be her own.
As soon as I discovered she’d named it Penelope, I knew it was time to sell it while I could!
So now it’s just the XB Lightning in the shed as far as Buells go. It’s the most unusual bike of our collection and I have a big soft spot for it because there’s never been an occasion where it hasn’t made me smile.