Retrospective: 1999-2002 Buell X1 Lightning

1999 Buell X1 Lightning
1999 Buell X1 Lightning. Owner: Jason Len, Arroyo Grande, California.

In addition to the weather phenomenon, the word lightning means fast, as in the speed of light or 186,000 miles per second. This motorcycle is not quite that fast; its speedo only goes to 140 miles per hour. But the X1 does get up there in an earthbound way, with a top speed close to that 140 mph, and a quarter-mile time in the 11s. Not bad for a bike powered by Harley’s 1,203cc Sportster engine.

Erik Buell, a longtime chassis engineer at Harley-Davidson and a serious racer, decided to go off on his own in the mid-1980s. His last accomplishment at Harley was the frame in the FXR series, which was greeted with great enthusiasm when introduced in 1982. Eric was a dyed-in-the-leather Harley enthusiast, having talked his way into a job in Milwaukee after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1987 he began producing the RR1000 Battle Twin, building a drastically new frame holding leftover XR1000 engines, which had been used in those sporty Sportsters that did not sell well. When that XR supply ran out he moved to the 1,200cc engine, and did quite well with the Battle Twin line. Harley was so excited by this turn of events that in 1993 it bought 49 percent of the Buell Motorcycle Company, which gave Eric financial comfort.

In 1996 he came up with the S1 Lightning, a return to his basic concept of a “fundamental” sportbike — a bit too fundamental for many riders. He built 5,000 of these and had to listen to praise and damnation concerning its performance and appearance. Late in 1998 he elected to make it a little more pleasant to ride and change the look slightly, hence the X1.

1999 Buell X1 Lightning

The chassis is the most interesting aspect of the bike. The frame, a bit stiffer than that on the S1, was made of tubular steel in the form of a trellis, with sections coming down on both sides of the cylinders. A backbone connected to one of the most notable aspects of the bike, a subframe that was perhaps the largest aluminum casting seen on a bike. And it carried a modestly improved seat that held two riders without too many complaints. Beneath the seat a large rectangular aluminum swingarm helped the belt final drive get to the rear axle.

Buells had often been criticized for their limited turning radius, and on the X1 the steering head was moved forward slightly, giving an extra four degrees in steering lock. Still tight, but better…says the photographer who had to turn this bike around. A 41mm upside-down Showa fork with a rake of 23 degrees gave 4.7 inches of travel — and trail of 3.5 inches. It was fully adjustable, with spring preload along with compression and rebound damping.

1999 Buell X1 Lightning dash

The rear end used a single Showa shock absorber, which wasn’t really at the rear but was laying flat under the engine. There wasn’t room for the shock anywhere else, as the bike had a rather short wheelbase of 55 inches, five inches less than on the stock Sportster. Most shocks rely on compression as their standard, but this one used tension, pulling apart in response to a bump rather than pushing down. It had full adjustability, including ride height, with adjustments being best left to experts.

Cast wheels were 17 inches in diameter, with Nissin calipers, 6-piston in front and 1-piston out back, squeezing single discs. Because the Showa fork was already drilled for it, this bike’s owner added a second front brake disc and caliper.

And the engine? A mildly modified Sportster, an air-cooled four-stroke 45-degree V-twin displacing 1,203cc with an 88.9 x 96.8mm bore and stroke, and, yes, hydraulically adjusted valves, two per cylinder. The trick here was Eric’s Isoplanar rubber mounting system for this shaker. A standard Sportster shook like Hades when even mildly revved, and none of this was felt on the Buell machines. The engine was actually part of the chassis, with all the vibes going into a single longitudinal plane, and apparently this increased frame rigidity. Which requires understanding beyond the limits of this scribe.

1999 Buell X1 Lightning engine

Buell had developed his Thunderstorm cylinders and pistons for the S1, with better porting and 10:1 compression. A dynamometer rated the rear-wheel output at 85 horses at 6,500 rpm, an engine speed no rider on a stock Sportster would ever want to attain. For the X1 Eric tossed the 38mm Keihin carb and bolted on a 45mm Walbro throttle body using a VDO injection-control computer, labeled Dynamic Digital Fuel Injection. There was no increase in power; the system just made the engine run more smoothly. A triple-row primary ran power back to a 5-speed transmission and belt final drive.

The look was pretty sporty, beginning with the abbreviated front fender and a very small wind deflector over the headlight. When this bike came out of the factory it had big black boxes on both sides of the 4.2-gallon gas tank, the right one feeding the airbox and fuel injection, the left intended to keep the rear cylinder cool enough to not roast the rider’s leg. Underneath the engine was a spoiler intended to protect the shock and conceal the huge muffler. However, the owner of this X1 prefers the “fundamental” look and removed the black boxes and spoiler. He is careful about jumping curbs, as there are only five inches of ground clearance.

1999 Buell X1 Lightning shifter

Dry weight is 440 pounds, 50 pounds less than the stock Sportster. People still complained about the seat, the vibration and a number of other things, but they were just pansies. The bike was intended for seriously sporty riders who didn’t mind a little discomfort as they kicked butt with an old-fashioned engine in a new-fashioned chassis. In 1999 the X1 and the Ducati 900 Supersport cost about the same; take your pick. 

25 COMMENTS

  1. Such a forward thinking design back then.
    They only got better after that.
    Harley lost track of their target customers and built factory trikes instead of pursuing a younger buyer. Look where they are now.
    Their demise will not be surprising, shame Buell may have been just what they needed to survive.

  2. Having owned a number of the Buells I can say there were some things to complain about such as the recalls. When I reflect on owning the Buells I will be the first to admit I did not appreciate the engineering Eric put into them. I rode one of the early S-1’s to California from New Mexico. The S-1 was noted for its very narrow seat and on a long trip one could justifiably find fault with it. When asked about this I would explain it made me a better Christian learning to turn the other cheek. Looking back all I can say is my Buell ownership was one of a kind and that I did not do it justice.

  3. I owned a Buell Cyclone it was an awesome machine…had tons of fun and won a heck of alot of street races.
    Thanks

  4. Eric Buell is an American hero; the likes of Glen Curtiss & Jimmy Doolittle. Harley-Davidson also deserves our praise for their courage with stepping out of their comfort zone & venture into new markets. I’m sure that the management wished they succeeded. Who knows? Had the Buell line met H-D’s hopes & expectations, the Live Wire would have the Buell name slapped accross the tank!
    Stay Safe at Any Speed~General T

    • But they did succeed. The closing of Buell was simply a useless gesture by HD management in ’09 to show the board they were doing something, anything, in the face of the financial crisis. Funny how it turned out it was precisely the wrong thing to do given their current state.

  5. I bought a used XB12Ss (long) last summer, it’s the closest thing to a Harley I’ve ever owned.
    Granted that XB is not something for an old guy like me to do long distances with but putting less than 250 miles a day is not bad. After having retrofitted the muffler and ECM back to OEM stock I love the torque this engine produces.
    Erik might not have been the best man for marketing but as an engineer… Erik Buell is a GENIUS!
    This bike is a keeper.

  6. My brother had a ‘99 X1. Rear shock was toast quickly. Replaced under warranty but it also failed so replaced with a Penske. Shook like an Israeli carp. Exhaust mounts cracked repeatedly. Fun bike though. My brother passed and his son ruined the bike. It’s in the junkyard now. So sad.

  7. Great article, Clem. It brought back lots of memories, and made me feel young again. I had a roommate back in the day who had an early Buell. You’re right, Buell’s were not bikes for pansies. They were hard core bikes for hard core riders.

  8. I had a X1, bought it used and rode it for a couple of years. Didnt like the twitchy handling so much. But that could have been the Gordon tires it had on it. Sold it for 200 more than I paid for it 6 years later.

  9. Still own and ride them, in fact 3. Wonderful machines. Love them. They are what Sportsters should have been. 5 speed rubber mounted engine with 85+ hp, about 150 lbs lighter then a Sporty, What’s not to like? HD came close with the XR1200, but my tube frame Buells were lighter, faster and fit better.

  10. The firs time I saw one I was like, a sport bike with a hoped up Harley Motor! I have to have one!
    I’m the Proud owner of a 2000 X1 Lighting, Racing Red Stripe.
    Nimble/ Tork/ Head turning/ American Made.
    Doesn’t get much better. Unless maby if you own a 2014 Buell with the 190 hp Rotex motor.

  11. I had a S3 Thunderbolt and it was a fun bike at the time after I took locktite to every single bolt or nut on the bike. It even had fiberglass saddlebags making for plenty of fun in the North Ga mountains. Im 61 and ride a KTM 1290 Super Adventure today…still like that v twin..

  12. Like David I too am proud owner of the x1 lighting limited red racing #114 of 800 in fact. so my reluctance to put any serious seat time on a street machine yielded instantaneously to the rumbling montrocity thats forever synonymous with sneaky grins and random swearing at all things raw and powerful, having riden the dirt kings of torque and rumble such as XR500/600/400, yt600, and dads old BSA 500 shifting on the wrong side, my muse for low end tire raising performance lent loads fast throttle response to fulfill my need for instant gratification. unless you drive a super car dont expect more heads to turn, or more moms who quickly snag the arms of unsuspecting children as this terrifying beast thunders through Wally worlds parking lot. you’d think a runaway truck was headed at em the way people slide to a stop on their sneakers, to either have a glance or stay well out of its way

  13. I have a 2001 X1 sitting in storage. Sadly it is very broken. This was my first bike and I loved this thing. After a couple of mods that 140 speedometer just wasn’t high enough. With the rev limiter removed I lost my license twice on this thing. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

  14. Love hearing about the X1, I’m bringing a 99 back to life. Here’s what’s bothering me…I’m hearing about reliable issues, on a sportster??? I’ve been all my life, I’m 66, I have had iron head sportsters, stock and built to drag race, I’ve had evo sportsters, and never, not once has these engines ever left me stranded. I’m a serious rider, average 20k miles a year, been a HOG director, so I’m trying to figure out, our those who complain just pansies?

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