American psycho

Published: 05 May 2000

BRUTAL, that’s the only word for it. The X1 Lightning has always been a bit of an animal, but this carbon-clad version has taken things to a new extreme. I can’t remember the last time I had a bike demand so much attention. Pull up at a set of traffic lights and car drivers don’t just give you that short, sharp glance, they actually stare.

With its mismatched lines and bits and pieces jutting in and out, it simply looks bad. That’s bad as in it should be ridden by a bloke in combats and a matt-black helmet. But if that’s not enough for onlookers, you just have to blip the throttle and the barely legal exhaust will send them reeling. Ear plugs are a must.

It’s a strange creature and that shouldn’t be a surprise as it comes from a strange background. Back in 1987, former Harley-Davidson employee Erik Buell had a vision of creating the perfect sports bike with perfect weight distribution. From day one Harley – which now owns 98 per cent of the company – supplied Buell with XL1200 Sportster motors. Buell engineers would then strip and rebuild them with lighter crankshaft fly wheels and pistons, a longer duration camshaft and reworked cylinder heads. The latest generation of Harley’s breathed-on powerplant kicks out a claimed 95bhp and is fuel-injected.

Erik Buell then adds his own unique frame – or a writhing mass of chrome-moly tubing, depending on how you look at it. The bikes also sport a short wheelbase, lower weight, minimal suspension linkages, and Buell’s trademark rear shock hung below the engine. Even the battery is laid on its side above the gearbox. It’s all part of the design brief of keeping the weight close to the middle – that’s mass centralisation in Buell speak. The X1 might not look pretty, but it’s got a lot of thought behind it.

Stock X1s cost £7495, but this higher-spec version comes in at £7995. The extra cash buys you masses of carbon goodies, from a fuel tank cover to drivebelt guards, front and rear mudguards and a small nose fairing. The standard wheels have been replaced with lightweight aluminium PM items and there’s also an aftermarket pipe to help unleash more grunt. The parts are also available separately.

Hit the starter and the V-twin – which comes equipped with Harley’s own digital fuel injection system – barks into life, ticking over with a sound more like a First World War biplane than a motorcycle engine.

You perch high on the seat astride the narrow tank unit with a massive Helmholtz resonator airbox on one side and the massive air scoop drawing cooling air to the rear cylinder on the other. From the front it almost looks as if someone has fitted panniers to the wrong end.

The X1 Lightning’s dash is spartan to put it mildly. There’s a speedo, rev counter and a few idiot lights, including a novel little engine management light with a dinky V-twin graphic. But that’s about it. It doesn’t need any more.

Cutting through town traffic is a blast no matter what gear you’re in. The X1 Lightning’s stubby 141cm wheelbase combined with a torquey motor allows you to chop through traffic at every instance.

The bike makes even more sense down back roads. Snap open the throttle and you get a big shock. This thing is pure fun. Pick virtually any line you want and the V-twin’s monster grunt will catapult you through corners.

It’ll hold its own against sports bikes and it’s hard to resist the temptation to move around in the seat or play around with clutchless gearchanges. Every crest on a twisty back road begs you to twitch the bars and pull the front wheel skywards. If you like wheelies, this is the machine for you. It’s a laugh from start to finish.

The brakes are up to the job, too. An excellent 320mm single disc and six-piston caliper nails the front wheel to the deck as and when needs must, the only gripe being with the upside-down Showa forks.

The front end is great when you’re not asking too much from the brakes, but go for some serious braking action and the forks pogo – a sure sign of being under-dampened and too lightly sprung.

That aside, the carbon-clad X1 Lightning is a brilliant ride. OK, so most people wouldn’t quite agree with Erik Buell’s definition of the perfect sports bike... but it’s a right laugh all the same.

BUELL X1 LIGHTNING CARBONCost: £7995Availability: Buell 01280-700101Colours: Black, yellow, red, blueSPECIFICATIONEngine: Air-cooled, 1203cc (88.8mm x 96.8mm) 4v pushrod four-stroke 45° V-twin, digital fuel-injection. 5 gearsChassis: Steel trellisFront suspension: Showa inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound dampingRear suspension: Showa single shock, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound dampingTyres: Dunlop D204 ; 120/70 x 17 front, 170/60 x 17 rearBrakes: Performance Machine; 340mm front disc with 6-piston caliper, 230mm rear disc with single-piston caliperPERFORMANCE Power: 95bhp@6300rpm,Torque: 86ftlb@5600rpmWeight/power to weight ratio: 200kg (440lb), 0.48bhp/kgTop speed: 135mph (est)Geometry (Rake/trail/wheelbase): 23°, 8.9cm, 141cmAverage mpg/tank capacity/range: 36mpg, 18 litres, 142 miles