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Buell’s Brutes


With innovative design at the forefront, Erik Buell’s often quirky air-cooled V-twin wonders could never be accused of being dull



If you were planning to write a long soap opera – maybe running several seasons – based on a motorcycle theme, you could do worse than base it on the life and times of Buell Motorcycles. Engineer and founder Erik Buell started so many times with high hopes for the future, only to slam into a wall, that it defied logic.

Along the way, he produced some thoroughly entertaining motorcycles that would fit in well with many motorcycle collections. We covered the Rotax-powered 1125 final production series in a separate story and this time we’re having a squiz at the pick of the air-cooled Harley-powered V-twins.

Buell battletwin

Now there are some early Buells that are guaranteed collectibles – I’m thinking the early Battletwins, aka RR1000 (of which there were just 50 – above) and RR1200 (65 made). These very early fully-clad sports machines are rare and thin on the ground. Also rare is the RS1200 (aka the Westwind – below), with the very distinctive pillion seat cover that unfolded to create a backrest. Less desirable than an RR, this model is also very much a collectible.


Instead, what we’re looking for is the pick of the dizzying array of models built from around the mid-1990s, because they’re generally very affordable and have a lot of potential as a future collectible. Since it’s now a defunct and relatively low-volume premium brand, you could argue any Buell will be collectible one day. And it probably will.

For me, the top four picks are the M2 Cyclone and X1 Lightning, plus the XB12R and XB12Ss Lightning Long. I’ve paired them deliberately. The first is from the tube-steel frame series, while the second is from the beam frame era. In both generations, the machines are variants of each other.

Something to establish quickly is that Buell, apart from his headstrong and incredibly enthusiastic ways, was famous for setting up motorcycles with incredibly short wheelbases and steep steering geometry concentrating on mass centralisation years before most others. Really, the numbers for some of his full-sized motorcycles looked more like the stats for an RGV250 Suzuki pocket-racer.

That meant you were dealing with a new world when it came to handling. The powerplant might have been from Harley-Davidson cruiser, but the ability to turn was off another planet.

For the Cyclone and Lightning (yes, the company did seem to have a ‘thing’ with weather events for a while there), the heart of the design was a 1200 Sportster powerplant, loaded into a steel frame that owed nothing visually to anything else out there. This platform was effectively the second-generation mass-market Buell series, with some important changes.

Among those was the addition of Buell-specific Thunderstorm heads, with bigger valves, that contributed to a significant power boost over the conventional Sportster 1200 engine. Visually, the motorcycles were less ‘challenged’ (or fugly), with the size of the once giant side-mounted airbox reduced and the lines smoothed with the addition of a bellypan for the X1.

buell x1 lightning

As the sporty variant, the X1 (above) also scored a very distinctive short rear brushed aluminium subframe that added considerable drama to its looks, along with fuel injection.

              m2 cyclone

Meanwhile the M2 Cyclone (above) managed with a longer steel rear subframe to support a more substantial pillion seat, ‘softer’ styling and a carburetor in place of the injection.

In the saddle, the X1 Lightning was the head-down sports bike, while the M2 was a more comfortable day-to-day proposition. The difference in power was only a few horses and, ironically, the M2 had the smoother throttle response.

You were looking at around 200 kilos dry (keep in mind that’s a full-size Sportster engine in there) and a power claim in the high eighties. Though not spectacular figures, it was enough to make them feel fast, particularly given the ability of the V-twin to pull convincingly out of a turn with resorting to lunatic revs.

Meanwhile, they certainly steered and gripped. One of these things on a tight and twisty bit of tar could be real surprise packet once you got your head around the comparatively ‘lazy’ engine. The one Achilles heel was they weren’t overly fond of rough surfaces.

Okay, let’s move up a generation to the mid-2000s. The humble 1200 Sportster powerplant had been further developed specifically for Buell, to the point where it was injected across the range, had fan cooling primarily for the rear cylinder and was producing somewhere around 100 horses – so a significant power jump. That was matched with a circa 20kg overall weight loss.

Buell XB12S

It’s not just the powerplant that came in for revision. The chassis had gone full radical, with a distinctive beam main frame that also carried fuel and a swingarm that acted as an oil tank. In case you missed those cues, there was also a rim or perimeter style ZTL front disc brake. That is, the huge disc was rim rather than hub-mounted.

The brake alone was hugely controversial with Buell company engineers arguing its virtues against outside engineers who weren’t necessarily convinced. Did it work? Yes. Was it far better than conventional designs? Not so any normal rider would notice, though it had its converts.

To some extent, this massive revision greatly reduced the ‘Harley in a sports chassis’ perception that acted as a drag on the marque’s reputation. And it gave owners plenty of talking points when they were showing off their new toys!

buell xb12r

The premium picks of the range were the XB12S and R – the former a naked successor to the X1 and the latter a new look with a droop-snoot mini fairing (above). The differences in performance were nil, really, and the choice came down to taste.

Both were wickedly quick pieces of machinery on a tight road. Suspension was decent-quality Showa gear and the handling had improved noticeably, being a little more tolerant with ropey surfaces.

Buell Lightning Long

Another variant to look out for was the XB12Ss, otherwise known as the Lightning Long (above). This was the naked bike with a slightly longer wheelbase and a little more room in the ride position, which made it perfect for taller folk with no major performance penalty. It proved surprisingly popular and there seem to be quite a few in the used market.

Right, so what’s the bad news? Buell suffered numerous recalls over the years – some of them serious. To H-D’s credit, it tackled a lot of the problems. I wouldn’t be too concerned about recalls, but would advise checking over any purchase fairly carefully. That’s because assembly was sometimes patchy, particularly on the earlier machines, and owners aren’t always perfect.

Really, the issues were largely solved by the time we get to the XB series.

Maintenance is generally very straight-forward. In any case, there is a lot of repair and tuning knowledge out there for these things. Really, this is one of those situations where you look carefully at each bike on its merits.

While they tended to be pricey when new, air-cooled Buells are looking like good value at the moment. Around $8000 to $15,000 in your pocket is enough to give a surprising choice. For that you’ll get a true American sports bike (itself a rare thing!) that has some serious ability and should be hugely entertaining to own.



Buell ulysses 

Adventure what?

Given Buell spent most of his career building ultra-sharp sports bikes, it came as a bit of a shock when the company one day (in 2005) released the Ulysses, which was allegedly an adventure tourer. It wasn’t.

Now to me this is a little like teaching your Doberman to tap-dance. It can probably do it, just, but it will never win any prizes – or none that you want…

This was one of those bikes that compared poorly with its peers (like the formidable BMW R1200GS, for heaven’s sake!) but was enjoyable enough in isolation. Think of it as a road bike with long-travel suspension and you’ll have a great time on it.

erik buell ebr


Buell’s Rollercoaster

Erik Buell’s first attempt at building a motorcycle fell over when the race class it was intended for was cancelled. That was 1983-84.

He went on to build Harley-powered street bikes and, over time, the brand became bigger and was absorbed into the H-D ‘mothership’. That was a relationship with which he never seemed to be entirely comfortable, and at times would have had its drawbacks.

In 2009 H-D announced Buell Motorcycles was no more, as it saw the brand as a distraction from its core business. To that point, just shy of 137,000 motorcycles had been produced.

Buell subsequently tried to resurrect the company – twice – as Erik Buell Racing or EBR Motorcycles, but those efforts finally keeled over in 2013.



Though the volumes weren’t huge, the variety was. Buells over the years ran several variants on H-D powerplants, including a 984cc unit that powered the XB9 series.

It’s worth doing your research before buying into this marque.



Further Research

25 Years of Buell (2008)

Book by Canfield & Gess, published by Whitehorse Press

Covers the history up to the launch of the 1125 Rotax series.


The rise and fall of Buell

Online profile


Erik Uncut


A series of unedited interview videos with Erik Buell, at the time of the local launch of the 1125 series.

See our feature on the 1125 series





Buell XB12S


Very individual




Not so good

Patchy assembly



TYPE: air-cooled, two-valves-per-cylinder, 45-degree V-twin, hydraulic valve lash adjustment

CAPACITY: 1203cc

BORE & STROKE: 88.9 x 96.8mm


FUEL SYSTEM:  49mm DDFI II fuel injection


TYPE: Five-speed, constant-mesh,



FRAME TYPE: Aluminium beam

FRONT SUSPENSION: Showa USD fork, 120mm travel, full adjustment

REAR SUSPENSION: Showa Monoshock, 127mm travel, full adjustment

FRONT BRAKE: ZTL rim disc with six-piston caliper

REAR BRAKE: 240mm disc with single-piston caliper








FRONT: 5-spoke alloy 120/70-17

REAR: 5-spoke alloy 180/55-17



POWER: 86kW @ 6600rpm

TORQUE: 110Nm @6000rpm



PRICE WHEN NEW: $17,500 plus ORC


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