There’s a bit of motorcycling where it’s all about giving the convention the middle finger, doing it your way and having fun. That’s exactly what the Buells do. They are weird, they are lazy, and despite some problems and some surprising paradoxes, they are ahead of the pack in some areas.
This Lowdown focuses on the XB Buells: the XB9S and XB12S Lightning factory street fighters, the XB9R and XB12R Firebolt sports bikes, and the XB12X Ulysses touring adventure. To many, they are the perfect examples of the breed, dynamically superior to the early tubular frame machines and more appealing than the latest water-cooled offerings with their “controversial” appearance.
The XBs perform different roles, but share many parts. The engine and frame are almost all identical and both contribute to making these bikes unique and enjoyable. The frame, like much of the chassis, is high-tech and packed with innovation. Buell pioneered mass centralization by installing hanging exhausts and using the frame as a fuel tank. The unique rim-mounted discs match the stopping power of conventional twin-rotor setups, and the resulting reduction in unsprung weight improves suspension performance. This, along with a laser-sharp geometry, means riding with exceptionally responsive handling.
Combined with this cutting-edge, innovative chassis, we’ve got vintage air-cooled Harley-Davidson V-twins that don’t quite match their rivals in sheer power, but exude more character and torque in the low and mid range.
They are kinky, sassy and great to ride. But rumors of poor workmanship and poor reliability haunt the brand and deter some buyers. Luckily, a whopping 102 XB owners filled out our online survey and told us what it’s really like to live with these bikes. They’ve put almost a million miles between them in their Buells, so believe what you read here.
Buell XB Range Specifications
2002 Buell XB12R Firebolt
Engine a/c, injected, 4v, V-twin, 1,203 cc (984 cc) Power 103 hp (92) Torque 84 ftlb (71) Weight 179 kg (175) Seat height 775 mm Fuel tank 14 liters Top speed 155 mph (150) ( XB9R digits in supports)
2003 Buell XB12S Lightning
Engine a/c, injected, 4v, v-twin, 1,203cc (984cc) Power 103bhp (92) Torque 84ftlb (71) Weight 197kg (175) Seat height 755mm Fuel tank 14 liters Top speed 140mph (xb9s numbers in brackets)
2006 Buell XB12X Ulysses
Engine a/c, injected, 4v, V-twin, 1,203 cc Power 103 hp Torque 84 ftlb Weight 193 kg Seat height 840 mm Fuel tank 17 liters Top speed 135 mph
The nuts and bolts
Forty-five percent of the cyclists indicated that they had no problems with their bicycle. 24% had one, 29% had one and an unlucky 2% had many. That’s not brilliant. The Ducati 749 and 999 we recently examined fared better, as did the Aprilia Tuonos. Even the recently reviewed Triumph T595s and 955i Daytonas had fewer problems and are much older bikes. So Buells has problems, but some more than others.
What are the problems with Buell XB Range?
Well, there are many different ones reported in our survey. The most common is wheel bearing failure with 13 people complaining about it in just 2,300 miles. More worryingly, several owners had major engine problems, including a broken connecting rod, broken piston and two cases of crankshaft bearing failure. Many owners suffered from minor electrical faults, two of which were caused by wires rubbing under the seat. Two owners reported issues with: engine mounts, broken exhaust bolts, governor rectifier failure, warped brake discs and loose sidestands.
A rear subframe from a 2005 Ulysses was completely broken, although the bike was rarely used with a passenger or luggage. Buell replaced it, even though the bike wasn’t under warranty. Another Ulysses (a 2008 bike) needed a new engine after just 1,000 miles, and the replacement also presented problems – these problems were traced to a batch of unreliable oil pumps. Some bikes don’t perform well in the rain or after a wash, but the new HT cables seem to be helping.
Some drive belts also broke but can be considered consumables – a Free Spirit belt tensioner seems to help the belt and more importantly the gearbox output bearing. A total of 52 malfunctions were reported, not counting defective wheel bearings and broken drive belts. It sounds a bit bleak, but XB9X City X owner Simon Mapp sums up the feelings of most Buell owners. He says, “Normal wear on a Buell isn’t exactly the same as other bikes.”
Many of the XB’s problems can be solved quite easily. It helps to be a member of a good owners forum such as the excellent www.ukbeg.com.
The finish is generally quite good with one exception: the exhaust. Mild steel and where it sticks to the front tire it can rust in 500 miles. Thirty-six percent of owners said they were disappointed with this. Some also said fasteners were corroded, paint peeling in some areas, including plastic on the back and wheels. A handful noted that the switchgear was quite dated, but otherwise there were no real problem areas. Overall that’s pretty good and many owners said their Buells had better finish than the Japanese bikes they owned.
Alastair Clegg has owned four of these crazy devices and has nothing bad to say about them.
“They are an obsession for me. I like his quirkiness. Every time I fill up, someone approaches me to talk to me about the bike. I like that they were designed by one man, not a team of accountants.
“I’ve had four: a Lightning Long, a Super TT and two Ulysses and I’ve never had a problem with them. I drove my Lightning Long all the way to the south of France and almost let it run dry. I finally filled it up with diesel car oil and it still ran like clockwork.
“I rode one of the Ulysses about 25,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to the Arctic Circle, then across the Americas to Buenos Aires. At one point he was riding with an Irishman on an R1200GS, but his immobilizer failed, leaving him stranded. The Buell could handle it all: crash, hurricane, gravel banks, bad fuel and never missed a beat.
“I’ve had an Aprilia RSV Factory before and I think I’m faster on a twisty track or on tight country roads with a Buell. I have full confidence in the Buells: you can throw them around any corner and they will move. The Super TT was the best for blasting away, but the Ulysses is more versatile.”
Steve Loxton is a dealer manager at Black Bear Harley Davidson and Buell in Newmarket. “I like Buells. I have a S1W White Lightning and an XB12X Ulysses. They have a lot of character and the Ulysses is a very practical bike, it can do everything. It’s the most versatile bike you can buy. It skims by like a superbike after work, then charges up and heads abroad for the weekend, riding on bumpy roads to get to those somewhat remote places. “Some owners are not interested in some official dealers. They’re all HD dealers and they like Harleys, not what they see as sports bikes. We love Buells at Black Bear and employ five of them. “My experience with reliability is very good, but you can’t buy one and expect it to be like a Japanese bike. When you buy a Honda, you can expect 99% reliability. With a Buell it will be over 90%. “They are never the kind of bikes that are sold in bulk because they appeal to a certain type of rider, people who want something different. They are usually the type who also like Moto Guzzi.