Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 1st May 2009

Harley bought Buell a few years back and have since embarked on a rolling programme of improvement.

Can a hot-rod Buell Lightning cut it in the English Lakes? Alastair Walker finds out.

Buells used to be curious, almost antique variations on the roadster theme. Vibey engines, poor reliability and some decidedly iffy styling on early models didn’t do the marque any favours. I recall testing one early Lightning in the late 90s and the engine died after water flooded the air box, wires came loose and then the battery went flat overnight. Not good.

But Harley bought Buell a few years back and have since embarked on a rolling programme of improvement. The new 1125 engine is a delight for example, the gearboxes are slicker, the whirring impeller fan is less intrusive on the air-cooled motors and the attention to detail in terms of machine production has got better.

The Ulysess is now a credible rival to something like a V-Strom 1000, or a Morini Gran Passo and the changes to the 2009 1200cc Lightning make it worthy of comparison to say a Guzzi Griso, or perhaps a Ducati Monster, maybe an Aprilia Tuono. The Lightning is a funky, edgy kinda hot-rod, very different from the mainstream.

New for 2009

For this season, the Lightning gets the new eight-piston ZTL front brake caliper. This is the same brake caliper fitted to the 1125R sports model in the Buell range and it helps deliver outstanding stopping power, plenty of fine control at the lever too. You could use the bike’s torquey, V-twin power on Lakeland roads knowing that a dab of brakes would deal with any errant sheep in the way. The Lightning featured Pirelli Diablo tyres as standard by the way, which were outstanding, really confidence-inspiring in all conditions.

The Lightning feels like it has a re-shaped saddle, maybe a touch lower than the previous models. It’s easier to get on and off the bike and you don’t feel quite as perched on the machine as you used to. The tiny flyscreen doesn’t really stop any windblast, but the Buell feels relaxed up to 70mph. It’s hard-ish work on motorways, but this is a sunny Sunday morning type of bike, not a long distance tourer. New 2009 paintwork schemes work well; I especially liked the electric blue XB12Scg model. The Buell looks different, unique.

The chassis carries the weight really low, so the bike handles with real finesse and holds no surprises for relative novices. I still think the concept of carrying the fuel inside the frame and the engine oil in the swingarm is very clever, even if a couple of manufacturers tried it way back in the 20s. It keeps essential weight really low, so the Buell feels light, despite featuring a heavy, old fashioned pushrod engine. That 1203cc engine hasn’t got huge amounts of power, a claimed 95bhp, but it is enough to make life fun on the road – all the useful poke is developed before 4500rpm. The engine never overwhelms the chassis, the bike has an easy poise, a balance, that makes it a winner for novices and those with grey hairs who just want to potter about.

Belt-drive at the back end, and an old fashioned engine design make this an easy machine to live with, the servicing costs should be much lower in the long run than something like a Ducati Monster or Moto Morini.

Would I buy one?

Hmm, not quite. For me there are still a couple of irritating things about the Buell, like the mirrors, which don’t work too well, the vibes which may shake a few parts loose over time and its patchy finish on a few parts. Mechanically, it feels 100% better than the Lightning of say four or five years ago. Apart from a clunky noise when hitting the starter button, or selecting first gear, the Buell Lightning has shaken off the bad reputation of the past. It’s become an easier bike to ride in busy traffic too, less jerky more relaxed.

But when you park a Buell Lightning next to a Guzzi Griso, the American machine doesn’t look so dramatic, so well finished overall. In terms of performance a Bandit 1250 stomps all over the Buell, ditto the superb Honda CB1000F, the sweetest-handling all-rounder I have ridden lately.

If you buy a Buell Lightning then you have to accept, and love, the quirkiness; the way it sounds with that woofling growl when you twist the throttle, the vibration, the volatile residual values. It is fun, and may have all the performance you need for real world biking. Buell have a big promotion on demo rides this Spring, so I’d say this is definitely one to test ride if you fancy something genuinely different from the mainstream.

Just turn up with a licence and an open mind.

Get Buell bike insurance for the Lightning 2009.


Vital Statistics


ENGINE Four stroke, 45 degree V-twin, air cooled.
BORE AND STROKE 88.9mm X 96.8mm
PEAK POWER 95bhp (claimed)
FUELLING Fuel injection, 49mm throttle bodies
GEARS 6 speed
FRAME Twin spar aluminium alloy
FRONT SUSPENSION 43mm Showa forks, multi-adjustable
REAR SUSPENSION Showa monoshock, multi-adjustable
BRAKES; SINGLE 375MM DISC 8-piston ZTL caliper, single 240mm rear disc Single piston caliper.
WHEELS/TYRES Pirelli Diablo 120/70 ZR front, Pirelli Diablo 180/55 rear, both 17 inch diameter
FUEL CAPACITY 14.5 litres
Buying Info
WARRANTY 2 years, unlimited mileage