Buelligan (‘bu:ligun) n A person
who rides large engined, slightly eccentric American motorbikes
while grinning wildly and playing fast and loose with the Road
is widely believed that everyone has a dark side. A Mr
Hyde, if you like. And if this is the case, everyone has their
equivalent of the potion nice Dr Jekyll produced to unleash his
less urbane second persona. Eric Buell is clearly an alchemist
of no mean skill, because he appears to have found the magic combination
of ingredients that have this effect on everybody.
There are some bikes where you can feel Mr Hyde on the pillion
seat, muttering and swearing and generally egging you on, regardless
of your good intentions. The Buell Lightning XB12-S is not one of those bikes. Oh no. Mr Hyde doesn’t ride pillion
on a Lightning. Nice Dr Jekyll is left standing by the side of
the road, shaking his head sadly, as Mr Hyde wheelies off into
This bike would make a Buelligan out of an IAM examiner.
But before we go into the nitty gritty of what it is that makes
the Lightning so, um, special, let’s clear up a few basic
The Lightning isn’t very big. Most people who noticed the XB12 S badge on the screen misread
it and thought it was a noisy 125. I parked next to an RS125 at
one stage. Not exactly renowned for being a giant among motorbikes,
the little learner legal Aprilia dwarfed the 1200cc Buell.
It isn’t what you’d call relaxing at high speeds.
The little flyscreen does just as much as it looks as though it
will, and as a result you end up either with a bit of a weave
from the death grip you are exerting on the bars trying to stay
upright or you give yourself an excellent abs workout as you take
the strain and try to sit into the howling gale.
This Buell isn’t a bike for shrinking violets. People will
look and point, and it will draw a crowd when you park up.
And it isn’t even a little
bit boring. Or conventional. Or characterless. Or uncomfortable.
is, however, great fun, as practical as it can be, stuffed full
of character, great in traffic and it sounds like two flatulent
skeletons in a dustbin. At least at low revs. But no matter –
there is a lovely performance exhaust kit to cure that.
The 1200 Lightning is, it will come as no surprise to learn,
the bigger brother of the 900 Lightning released last year. As
such, it shares the same bleeding edge technology chassis with
fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm, toothed kevlar belt drive
and a single, massive brake disc bolted to the front wheel rim.
It also has a similar wheezy old pushrod engine with the obligatory
box of spanners masquerading as a gearbox. There’s nothing
on Earth that mixes the new and the prehistoric in quite the same
way as a Buell. And yet, in spite of all that, it works fantastically
well. The gearbox, which is frankly horrible, manages to transmit
the enormous torque without a grumble and, in fairness, works
well enough provided shifts are approached in a deliberate and
steady way. Please don’t try to a clutchless shift. You
can do it but at the expense of painful noises and crushed toes.
And even when it works it will be so violent that you won’t
gain anything from the experience and you will just sound like
The not particularly impressive looking front brake will lift
the rear wheel on demand, at any speed you like, while the purposeful
looking frame and suspension make short work of the bends. The
engine may well redline at 2rpm, but it generates huge amounts
of torque from nowhere and doesn’t need to be revved out
to give its best. Mind you, it sounds great when given its head
and is certainly capable of hustling the bike up to respectable
(or totally unrespectable, depending on your viewpoint) speeds
in very little time.
And that’s one of the little quirks.
bike has a very short wheelbase. Very short indeed. And it has
an awful lot of grunt. From tickover. Come off the line fast and
you’ll be monowheeling, like it or not. Be too heavy handed
about it and you’ll be on your bum. If you want to do wheelies,
get one of these. Because you could perfectly easily ride all
the way across town alternating from front wheel to rear and never
putting both down unless you’ve stopped. You see, that front
brake may look a little odd, and may not even be that impressive
at first glance, but it has the sort of stopping power normally
reserved for unlit skips on quiet back roads. And there’s
still that short wheelbase, but this time working in cahoots with
a very steep steering head angle as well…
Of course, there may be times when Mr Hyde is indisposed and
you actually get to ride the bike yourself. Expect this once or
twice a week. But it’s only fair to let you know what to
The first thing you will notice about the Lightning is that it
is physically tiny. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but
it bears repeating. This is not a big bike. And it feels small
when you’re on board, although the engine is tall enough to
prevent any risk of getting cramped. It feels very well screwed
together, and though the clocks may not be the clearest in the
world the rest of the controls fall comfortably and easily to
hand. Take a glance in the neat and very well positioned mirrors,
turn the ignition on, wait for the fuel pump to finish and the
check engine light to go out, thumb the starter and feel what
1200cc of off balance vee twin does to a very light frame. And
to the rider. Marvel as the clear view of the world in those mirrors
vanishes into a haze of vibration. And grin the first of many
grins you enjoy as the bike reaches up inside you, goes straight
to the dial marked ‘Feelgood’ and cranks it up a few
The clutch is surprisingly light for something that has to handle
so much potential abuse, although it still has a pleasingly agricultural
feel to it. Engaging first is rewarded, if such a term is appropriate,
by a loud clunk and a slight lurch forward. Nothing too alarming
but enough to make you aware that something is stirring. Accelerate
away and, as if by magic, the world behind stops shaking and blurring
and all becomes clear in those mirrors. Nice. The transmission
is very direct, the throttle response is crisp enough although
not exactly razor sharp and the whole thing generally gels together
in a very satisfying way. Changing into second, best done very
deliberately, remember, sees little change. The
bike still bunny hops over speed bumps given half a chance and
the front wheel, while far more manageable, is still a little
keen to save tyre wear by relinquishing contact with the ground.
Handling is very nice indeed. Although hardly a featherweight,
the Buell is very easy to drop into corners and tracks steadily
and surely under all the conditions I could throw at it. Open
road high speed corners sometimes induced a very slight weave,
but I think that was down to me rather than the bike, and it certainly
never felt as though it were getting out of hand. Turning in requires
a deliberate effort but is by no means hard work, and the bike
responds equally well to shifting your body as to staying in the
seat. Ground clearance is not a problem – I think you will
touch your elbow down before anything solid decks out on the bike.
The brakes remain powerful and progressive right up to silly
speeds, the lights are very good, the horn is as effective as
it could possibly be asked to be and the pillion seat is only
of any use if you are on very good terms indeed with your passenger.
And they are quite bendy. And brave. And not very big. Look, just
assume it’s a single seater and you’ll be fine.
Around town the Buell is comfortable and narrow enough to get
through most gaps without problem. The clutch gets heavy after
a while, especially with the tall first gear necessitating quite
a lot of slipping at times, and the engine produces an immense
amount of heat. Which was great during the winter but which I
could imagine would get a bit of a pain, possibly literally, in
the summer. I was happily able to ride the Lightning for a couple
of hundred miles without any aches and pains although the lack
of wind protection, while putting a sensible, licence saving cap
on maximum sustained speed, does things a little uncomfortable
on the motorway.
So don’t take the motorway – this bike doesn’t
belong there anyway.
To sum up, then. The Buell
XB12S Lightning is a character. A flawed character, perhaps, but
no less loveable for that. A bit like the kid at school –
there’s always one – who’s totally out of control,
usually quite clever, takes huge liberties with everyone but somehow
avoids getting detentions or kickings because he makes everyone
laugh. It’s a great bike. I don’t know for sure that
I could live with one if it were the only bike I had, but if I
were picking something for riding around, say, within the M25
then it would be very near the top of my list.