In the Middle Ages, the alchemist’s goal was to turn a base metal into gold. If there is a modern day equivalent of a base metal in the motorcycle world, it is quite possibly the Harley-Davidson powerplant. Designed for appearance over performance, the big V-twins from Milwaukee surely excel at their jobs as successfully as a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14 powerplant. But then, there are the alchemists. The men who strive to defy physics. Erik Buell is one such practitioner—he has taken on the challenge of powering a viable sport bike with a tall, heavy motor originally designed for cruising.
This takes some inventive thinking, and, by necessity, Buell American Motorcycles is as much of a marketing concept as it is a motorcycle company. Buell positions its performance oriented motorcycles with some of the same visceral imagination shown by its parent company and motor builder, Harley-Davidson. Extreme meteor-ologically inspired monikers such as Thunderstorm, Firebolt and Lightning dominate the Buell catalog, along with unambiguous hues such as Kick Ash, Hero Blue, Villain Black and Cherry Bomb. Buell builds a different kind of sport bike and the company sells it in an equally distinctive manner. (Click image to enlarge)
Positioned as the “American Streetfighter” arm of the Buell program, the Lightning line ranges from the hooliganesque CityX to the relatively urbane Long XB12Ss; a streetfighter that plays by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. (Click image to enlarge)
Compared to the standard Lightning XB12S, the Long employs an extended swingarm that lengthens the wheelbase by two inches and at the same time, the rake and trail are suitably increased to further relax the handling. Additionally, the rider is given supplementary room thanks to a taller, wider seat. A stretched tail section means the passenger also benefits from the Long’s expansion. Still a streetfighter, the Long is now presentable in civilized society.
In a world populated with 200 hp hyperbikes, the air-cooled, two-valves-per-cylinder Thunderstorm 1203cc 45-degree V-twin may seem under-powered, as it barely nudges the dynamometer’s horsepower reading into triple figures. The Lightning Long’s power comes on low—the sweet spot ranges from 4,000 to 7,000 rpm—with peak torque attained when the rev counter hits 6,000 rpm, so short-shifting is the preferred motor management tactic. This is a powerplant you direct with your right wrist, not manipulate with the clutch and shift levers. There is emphatically sufficient acceleration to satisfy riders who are not addicted to neck snapping throttle response. Part of the motor’s adequacy is due to weight-saving efforts that puts the Lightning Long’s dry weight on par with the Ducati Monster S4R. (Click image to enlarge)
Helmet: Icon Hooligan Chrome Mainframe
Jacket: Icon Merc Leather Hero
Gloves: Icon Pursuit
Pants: Icon Anthem
Boots: Icon Field Armor Chukka. Photograph by Riles and Nelson. (Click image to enlarge)
Buell’s attention to the centralization of mass is visually apparent. The largest weight contributor on the XB12Ss is the motor, which sits at the center of the bike, nestled inside the aluminum twin-spar frame that doubles as a 4.4-gallon fuel tank. The entire exhaust system exists between the tires. At the Long’s extremities, weight savings techniques are abundant the aluminum swingarm, belt drive and the front wheel with its unique single-disc Zero Torsional Load braking system.
Reducing weight and optimizing its placement has great benefits on the XB12Ss’ handling, as do the Showa suspension components. Despite its status as a long-stroke V-twin with an extended wheelbase, the Lightning Long refuses to disappoint in tight quarters. While we cannot describe the handling as flickable, the Long will not affix itself to a prescribed path against the pilot’s wishes. The riding position, though roomy, is nevertheless oriented toward sport riding; body english is effective and the superb new Pirelli Diablo T tires enhance line correction capabilities. Having said that, the Long is most at home when choosing the correct line through a turn and then adhering to it.
On high-speed straight-line runs, the XB12Ss is reassuringly stable as the big motor nudges up the speedometer without an alarming climb in engine speed. Returning to legality from those adventures gives you a chance to admire Buell’s Zero Torsional Load front brake, which extracts both power and feel from a single, rim-mounted disc and a six-piston caliper.
The simple act of mounting the Lightning Long is a rewarding one. Though a bit wide, it has an inviting seating position. Firing up the motor stirs the soul. Over 100 years of Harley-Davidson history rumbles through your body—this is no velvet-smooth in-line four—and, without the slightest touch of subtlety, it provokes a craving to ride. The motor is a provocateur and the chassis is its willing accomplice. Really, the XB12Ss leaves you no choice.
As flexible as the Harley-Davidson motors are in their own motorcycles, the Buell-specific Thunderstorm powerplant and reliably shifting five-speed transmission makes operating the Lightning Long unforced. Whether you are putting on a couple of miles to the local Starbucks, or a couple of hundred miles to a favorite spot in another state of mind, the XB12Ss will turn the knots accumulated from your corner office and massage them out of your memory, and that, perhaps, is the greatest alchemy act of all.