Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 18th June 2008

Erik Buell spent many years racing Harley powered Buell specials and then began the long journey into making a volume manufactured machine for the road use.

The RS1200 is one of those steps along the way and gives a unique glimpse back at the evolution of a sporting twin.

With uprated power over the stock Harley motor, better brakes and his own uniquely designed chassis, the RS1200 Buell was a bike that attracted plenty of interest in the early 1990s, and also a few buyers – even at over £13,000 on the road.

If you have an RS1200, hang onto it, as this will surely be a collector´s item in the future.

Sometimes people can be a little bit too clever for their own good. When Erik Buell a 39-year-old former road-racer, musician and Harley-Davidson employee; now a self-employed innovator and engineer decided to build what his tee-shirt slogan describes as “America’s Faaast Motorcycle” around a Harley engine a few years ago, he left no stone unturned in the search for speed.

After designing a neat, compact, lightweight and extremely clever chassis to hold the big V-twin, Buell finished the job in the most logical way possible: with all-enveloping bodywork that held the lone rider in a perfect tuck, gave the moving bike a supremely aerodynamic shape, and provided maximum speed from the horsepower at his disposal.

One problem: nobody could tell that its engine was a Harley any more. No matter that Buell painted his creation in Milwaukee orange, black and white, and wrote “Powered by Harley-Davidson” on its bulbous flanks. With its uniquely evocative motor hidden away, the Buell Battletwin looked like a cross between a CBR1000 and a brightly-decorated Easter egg.

That did not stop the first Buell being a success, originally as the RR1000 and then after Erik had negotiated with his former employers for supplies of Evolution Sportster engines as the RR1200. The bikes created interest as roadsters and did well on the racetrack too. Production of the RR is creeping steadily towards three figures, with plenty more orders in the book.

And now he has produced a stablemate: the RS1200. Look at it one way and the half-faired, dual-seated RS is less clever than the RR, having lost the singleminded devotion to speed that is the characteristic of the original Buell. One step backwards, perhaps, but two paces forward as a result. There is absolutely no need at all to note, even on bodywork finished in Honda style blue, that the Buell RS1200 is powered by Harley-Davidson.

This RS, the fourth one built and the first of its kind in Europe, belongs to John Warr, boss of Harley specialists Fred Warr’s, just off London’s King’s Road. John made something of a name for himself by racing an RR Buell, powered by a quick but temperamental pre-Evolution XR1000 mill, a couple of seasons ago. Now he has quit the tracks himself but had a new, Evolution-powered RR in the showroom waiting to be tuned and prepped for his firm’s Twins-racing campaign next season.

The RS has been bought as John’s own road bike, though he’ll import machines to sell to anyone with the necessary £14,332. Parked in line outside the shop it looked much more at home than its fully-faired forbear ever could among the stock Sportsters, Softails and much-modified customers’ Harleys. Its enormous lump of double-potted ironware hung out for inspection, and if the engine was still not quite all visible there was no doubt at all as to the bike’s motive power.

The dramatic facelift has had other advantages, too, because it was always a shame that so much of Erik Buell’s clever engineering had been buried, along with the engine, behind fibreglass. Now almost all is revealed: the lattice-style steel frame with its unique, Buell-designed rubber-mounting system, the horizontal rear shock beneath the engine, and the stubby SuperTrapp silencer running alongside. Even the Buell-designed front wheel and the man’s own four-pot brake calipers, largely hidden by the RR’s wind-cheating mudguard, are now on show to the world.

Yet the character of the bike has not been lost by the changes. The basic shape of the half-fairing, tank and seat unit remains, the various parts running smoothly into each other and held together by a succession of cross-headed screws. Finish is good, with neat knee-pads in place on the fairing. The RS’s riding position is a little more upright than the RR’s, and far more flexible. Higher clip-on bars and new footpegs give a roomier ride than the head-down racer, which was often criticised for not quite fitting anyone just right.

And most crucially of all, the brute is still unmistakably a Harley when you fire it up. Ignition on with the key in the right of the fairing, a dab of choke with the lever on the opposite side; then press the button and the big motor shakes into lazy life with a hollow thrapp from the SuperTrapp.

At low speed the motor jiggered about a bit on its mounts, than as the revs rose it smoothed magically like no other Sportster lump alive. There was torque from rock bottom, of course: given a touch of throttle the Buell lolloped away with just an occasional hint of pinking but with its engine feeling amazingly sweet despite not yet being completely run-in.

The Buell is a very short bike “its wheelbase is almost as tiny as that of Honda’s RC30” but despite a lowish seat it felt quite tall, less low-slung than a typical Harley. It was manoeuvrable at low speeds, though, flicking through the west London traffic with the only complaints coming from my thumbs: the stock H-D switchgear meant that indicators needed holding on at all times to make them work, and the less-than-generous steering lock trapped my poor pinkies against the tank on either side.

Who cared, though, when the bike chuffed and coughed and rumbled along as evocatively as this one, yet still ticked-over at a rock-steady 1000rpm at the lights? And the powerplant was equally impressive at higher speeds, where the curvy screen kept wind off my body, if not my head. (You’d have to squint through the black perspex screen to avoid the draught completely.) On the open road the long-legged lump thrust the bike forward with incredible smoothness, moving easily up and down the four-speed gearbox and pulling crisply from 1500rpm without the slightest hint of a power step.

The Buell comes with a stock Sporty motor, and even the bigger version of the basic pushrod twin is by no means a horsepower hero. With only about 70bhp to call on despite a slight gain from the two-into-one pipe (which can be tuned by adding or removing baffle plates in its end), the racy-looking Buell would start running out of breath at much over the ton even when fully run-in. But Warr’s can easily perk it up at a price.

Performance stuff for Harleys stretches as far as your wallet is deep. For real go, John recommended twin-plug heads and a Branch Flowmetrics porting job (around £600 per exchange pair of heads), a camshaft set (£350 including valves and pushrods), and replacing the stock CV carb with something by Mikuni or Screaming Eagle (£230). With labour added, you’re looking at a price not far short of £1500 “and a ball-busting final output of around 95bhp”.

Alternatively, you could just try and catch ’em up in the corners… The little Buell chassis really is quite remarkable, combining a Ducatiesque steel ladder frame with Erik B’s unique engine-mounting system and a suspension set-up that is almost as weird but “on this evidence” not yet quite as wonderful.

Buell’s Uniplanar set-up joins motor to frame via rubber mounts in three points, but has one big advantage over the anti-vibe system Harley themselves use on their posher models. Instead of the rubber allowing the engine to dance in all directions, Buell uses four adjustable ball-ended rods, each bolted to engine and frame, to restrict the V-twin’s leapings to the vertical plane only. The result adds engine stiffness to the trellis without passing vibration to the rider: clever stuff indeed.

Cycle parts too show Buell’s determination to get things right in his own way. Forks are 42mm Marzocchi M1R units plumbed with Erik’s Harley-style Air Control Technology (ACT) anti-dive system. This uses solenoid valves, operated by the front brake lever, to cut the forks’ air volume effectively increasing the springs’ rising-rate just when it’s most needed. At the back, a rather puny-looking steel swing arm operates a Works Performance shock which, as there is no room for it to stand behind the huge engine in such a tiny bike, lies horizontally beneath the engine. The shock body is enclosed to keep out road grime, and the unit extends over bumps, compressing its spring via two bolts running down its length.

Brakes and wheels, too, are Buell’s own design. Wheels are polished aluminium 17-inchers running fat Dunlop Elite tyres. Brakes follow racebike trend in being massive at the front but minuscule at the back: four-piston calipers clamping twin 310mm rotors one end, a two-pot caliper brushing a single 230mm disc at the other.

The effect of all this is much as you might expect. Grab a handful of front brake and the little 450lb bike attempts to loop the loop as it digs a trench with its front Dunlop. The stopper is as controllable as it is powerful, though, and gives heaps of feel at the standard Harley lever. The rear brake is intentionally more like a stock H-D front item virtually undetectable and can therefore usefully be used to slow the bike a shade without risk of locking-up.

There’s not much wrong with the forks, either. The stout Marzocchis, variable for air pressure as well as having a four- way compression damping adjuster on the right leg, gave a mix of firmness, comfort and control under braking that was just about right. Rear suspension was less impressive, though, lacking the rebound damping to keep a stiff spring under control. Over bumps the bike jolted harshly. And even in quite smooth bends the Buell’s back end pogoed, not dangerously but noticeably, as the shock failed to cope. Backing off the preload didn’t help, merely hastening the moment that the less-then-abundant ground clearance ran out with a crunch of folding footpeg while the Dunlops still had grip to spare. It wasn’t like cornering a Softail Custom, but it wasn’t right either.

The shock problem is a shame because previous Buells have shown a similar lack of damping, and meanwhile the bike’s brilliant handling potential remains just that. Radical geometry gave lightning-quick changes of direction, even at speed, and suggested that with the suspension sorted out this bike would give even Ducati’s 888 a run for its money in the bends. A steering damper lurks inside the fairing’s lower left side, just in case. Even as it stands this is one very impressive motorcycle, and we haven’t even mentioned Buell’s other piece of design genius the seat hump. A youthful Erik, it appears, once wheelied a girl off the back of a bike he was showing-off on, and determined to devise something that would stop this happening in the future.

The RS’s seat hump achieves its aim brilliantly, hinging up (after a locating pin has been unscrewed) to become a pillion backrest when needed. At the same time it solves the problem of what to do with a normal detachable tailpiece, and also gives permanent storage space for a thin set of waterproofs or similar. The execution could perhaps be a little tidier when folded back down for solo use the hump is a bit ugly – but the concept is so clever that it can only be a matter of time before a big firm tries to pinch it. (Hope he has the patents sorted out…)

There’s that word clever again, and if any one-man motorcycle designer deserves the description it’s the man from Mukwonago, Wisconsin. Buell and his team of 12 build four bikes a week, the majority of them the RS. His original machine was perhaps more typical of the man superbly designed and crafted, ruthlessly singleminded in its search for the holy grail of speed. But it is with this second version that Buell’s creation really hits the mark as a roadster. The RS1200 is expensive, as any small-volume bike is bound to be. It needs a touch of tuning work and perhaps a new shock to do itself justice at that price. But as it stands it is an inspired, superbly professional attempt at building a true Harley-Davidson sports bike.

Get Buell bike insurance for the RS 1200.

Vital Statistics
Engine Aircooled 45-degree 2-valve pushrod V-twin (Harley-Davidson)
cc 1200
Claimed power (bhp) 70bhp
Compression ratio 9:1
Transmission 4 speed
Cycle parts
Rake 25 degrees
Trail 91mm
Front fork Marzocchi telescopic with air-assistance and anti-dive plus 4-way
compression damping adjustment
Rear suspension Works Performance monoshock with adjustable preload
Brakes Front Twin 310mm discs; 4-piston calipers. Rear: 230mm disc; 2-piston caliper
Tyres Dunlop Elite. Front: 120/70VB17. Rear: 170/60VB17
Wheelbase 1410mm
Seat height 749mm
Weight 210kg approx (wet)
Fuel capacity 18 litres
Buying Info
Current price £1500