Buell S3 Thunderbolt
Buell S3 Thunderbolt
Air cooled, 45° V-Twin, four stroke, pushrod
actuated overhead valve.
hydraulic self-adjusting lifters,
2 valve per cylinder.
Bore x Stroke
88.8 x 96.8 mm
43mm Throttle bodies fuel injection
Electronic / electric
101 hp 73.6 kW @ 6000 rpm
90 Nm @ 5500 rpm
5 Speed / Kevlar belt
Showa inverted forks, compression and
rebound damping adjustable. 119mm wheel travel.
Showa single shock, preload,
compression and rebound damping adjustable. 116mm wheel travel.
Single 340mm discs 6 piston calipers
Single 230mm disc 1 piston caliper
Dry Weight / Wet Weight
219 kg / 233 kg
Source by By Chuck Hawks
Ride the Thunderbolt! That is the only way to
understand this motorcycle. I had looked at Buell motorcycles, especially the
top of the line S3 Thunderbolt, almost every time I visited my local
Harley-Davidson dealer, but I never understood these motorcycles until I finally
took a test ride.
That is what the Buell motorcycles are all about:
the ride. There are fancier, plainer, costlier, cheaper, prettier, homelier,
faster, slower, lighter, heavier, bigger, and smaller motorcycles available, but
in all my years of riding I have never ridden anything like a Buell. That also
seems to be the opinion of the Buell owners I have talked to, including those
who have owned a variety of expensive (read Italian) sport bikes.
Speaking of which, Harley's investment in Buell
appears to be paying off. Last year (1998), Buell outsold all of the other
"specialty sport bikes" (a term which, I believe, excludes the regular
production of the Japanese Big Four) in the U.S. except Ducati, who managed to
stay in first place by the slimmest of margins. This year, Buell expects to
outsell Ducati and take over the number one spot.
As I write this, in 1999, the Buell line of
Vee-twin sport bikes consists of three models. There is the surprisingly
economical M2 Cyclone, the X1 Lightning street fighter, and the sport or
sport-touring oriented S3 Thunderbolt. All exhibit similar, but not identical,
styling and performance, and all three are powered by a modified Harley-Davidson
Sportster 1200 motor. All three are sporty motorcycles designed to get you off
the line and down the road quickly, with the maximum amount of fun. Real world
performance is the forte' of these bikes, and not much can catch them on the
Like all Buells, but unlike most other sport and
sport-touring bikes, the engine of the S3 is left open to view. There is no
bodywork to hide that big powerplant. The visible V-twin motor is probably the
easiest way to identify a Buell American Motorcycle. In a world of look-alike
sport bikes, nothing else looks like a Buell.
Because I am a fan of the sport-touring concept,
the Thunderbolt S3T is the Buell for me. All Thunderbolts feature a frame
mounted sport fairing designed to protect the rider and gas tank (without
obscuring the motor), You get to pick from a variety of color combinations for
the Thunderbolt. My favorite color scheme for 1999 is the "Molten Orange" (fairing,tank,
and tail section) with "Nuclear Blue" (frame and wheels) color scheme. Hey,
there's safety in conspicuity!
I recommend the S3T touring package. This
includes touring handlebars, fairing lowers, two fitted soft storage bags for
the fairing, an underseat tote bag (perfect for a toolkit, and not much else),
and the newly improved, color coordinated, detachable, hard saddlebags, which
come with fitted removable liners. The saddle bags come with your choice of deep
(read bulky) or narrow (read trim) covers. Although the deep covers will swallow
a full face helmet, I prefer the sleeker and more attractive narrow covers, a
triumph of form over function. The other covers can be ordered separately later,
if it becomes necessary.
I don't have much use for the color matched
fairing lowers, included in the S3T touring package, because they trap even more
of the already excessive heat generated by the big 74 cubic inch engine
throbbing within inches of the rider's legs, and detract from the bike's
appearance. Also, they are fairly flimsy (the body parts of these bikes are
designed to be light in weight) and stick out to the sides, and are therefore
liable to damage if the bike falls over in a parking lot mishap (or something
similar). Fortunately, they are designed to be easily removed.
Two options available only from the aftermarket
(as I write this) are a taller "touring" windshield, and thicker, softer, gel
handgrips (is anybody at Buell taking notes?). Buell does offer an excellent
tank bag, which I recommend. The result is a sport-touring bike from the sporty
end of the spectrum.
Other neat features of the Thunderbolt include a
chrome-moly tubular perimeter frame, digital electronic fuel injection (which
eliminates the hassle of a fuel tank petcock, as well as a choke), hydraulic
self-adjusting valve lifters, electronic ignition, belt drive, stainless steel
header pipes, fully adjustable suspension with inverted front forks and a rear
mono shock which operates in extension, aluminum arc swingarm, hollow 3-spoke
cast wheels, "Z" rated radial tubeless tires, superb brakes, completely sealed
maintenance-free battery, halogen headlight with an adjustment knob in the
fairing, excellent fairing mounted mirrors (you actually see the traffic behind
you, instead of your arms), European passing lamp flasher (a little trigger on
the left handlebar controls that flashes the high beam), and folding footpegs.
About all that is missing is self-canceling turn signals (Dear Buell
representative: please note).
All 1999 Buells come with a much improved dual
seat, and I am happy to report that the new, wide, Thunderbolt seat is
adequately comfortable for solo commuting and Sunday rides. I have not taken any
long trips, so I cannot comment on its suitability for serious touring. A
drawback to the wider seat is that it is a longer reach to the ground than it
used to be from the old, uncomfortable but narrower, version. The factory
specification says the seat height is 29.5 inches, but they must have measured
it with the suspension at both ends set to the lowest possible setting, and the
tires flat. It feels higher than that. The Thunderbolt would not be my first
choice, given my 30 inch inseam, for a lot of complicated parking lot maneuvers.
Nor is it a particularly good bike for riding with a passenger. The bike is
somewhat top heavy to start with, and this top heavy feeling is aggrivated by a
seat that puts the passenger too high and too far back. If you ride two up a
lot, a Buell may not be the bike for you.
After mentioning the new seat, I should mention
that I find the rider's seating position quite comfortable. An average size
rider is postioned in a relaxed position with a slight froward lean. It is
better, in my opinion, than the seating position on a BMW R 1100RS sport-tourer,
or a Triumph Thunderbird Sport (bikes with which it might reasonably be
compared). The location of the rider's footpegs, in particular, is very good. So
is the height and reach of the touring handlebar. The layout of the handlebar
controls and switches is conventional, and easy to learn.
Mounted in the dash are a large tach and speedo,
plus a surprisingly useful quartz clock. Also on the dash are a variety of idiot
lights, including a handy low fuel warning light which illuminates when .4
gallon of petrol remains. The large 5.4 gallon fuel tank means 225-265 miles (on
average) before the low fuel warning light comes on. This is outstanding range,
greater than that offered by most luxury touring bikes. On a recent 205 mile
Saturday ride from Eugene to Sisters and back, involving both the old and new
Mckenzie Highways over Oregon's Cascade Mountains, I actually averaged 59.94
miles per gallon. That would mean approximately 300 miles from a full tank of
gas before the low fuel light comes on! More complete technical specifications
for all of the Buells, and many other top sport bikes, can be found in the
"Sport Motorcycle Comparison Chart," on my Travel page.
The only area that needs improvement, to make the
Thunderbolt a decent touring bike, is rider protection. The factory supplied
windshield is pure sport bike. Combined with the smallish fairing, it offers
good protection for the torso, none for the hands, and directs the slipstream
coming over the windshield about at the chinbar of the rider's helmet. This is
tolerable on a Sunday sport ride, but fatiguing on a long freeway ride.
I fitted a Rifle brand replacement windshield 17
inches tall (the only aftermarket replacement I could find) and while this
represents a marginal improvement, it is far from ideal. The factory windshield
is very short, about 13 inches, and angled at what appears to be less than 45
degrees above the horizontal. The Rifle replacement is angled almost bolt
upright, and still too low. The wind collapses behind and around this
windshield, and hits the rider in the face and shoulders. It is marginally
better than the factory windshield, in that you are being hit in the face by
broken air (I believe the aerodynamic term is "burble"), rather than the almost
laminar airflow off the factory windshield. Faint praise, to be sure, since at
speed the rider's head is still continually buffeted by the wind. If I lay over
the tank, the Rifle windshield provides excellent protection--but who wants to
ride a long distance laying over the tank?
What is needed is a windshield taller than the
Rifle version by about 5 inches, and angled back at about 60 degrees. This would
put it somewhere between the excessively upright stance of the Rifle windshield,
and the very swept-back angle of the factory windshield, and hopefully it would
send the slipstream over the rider's head. Certainly a competent designer, with
a little practice, could produce a satisfactory touring windshield for the
Thunderbolt fairing. It has been done for plenty of other motorcycles.
It is no secret that Buell motorcycles have had
something of a "kit bike" reputation. After all, Eric Buell originally started
building them in his garage. (Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers started the
same way, back in 1903.) Everyone agreed that they were a blast to ride, but
niggling problems like cracks in ultra light body parts, excessive heat
radiating from the engine and exhaust pipes, broken engine mounts, uncomfortable
seats, saddle bag latches that didn't work, and similar problems have drawn
criticism, and rightly so.
The 1999 models are the first since
Harley-Davidson acquired 98% of Buell American Motorcycles. Eric Buell remains
in charge, and still owns 2% of the stock. Harley had previously owned half of
the company, with Buell owning the other half. The changes allowed by Harley's
deep pockets are apparent. Everything has been improved, including the frame,
engine mounts, fuel injection, front forks, swingarm, rear monoshock, seat,
handlebar controls, the S-3 fairing, the S3 saddlebags, and more. Unfortunately,
work remains to be done to eliminate the small, niggling problems to which the
bikes are still prone.
Judging by my experience with the S3, build
quality still does not appear to be as good as a Harley-Davidson. In fact, it is
probably below that of an average Japanese motorcycle, not really bad, but not
perfect. There is no assembly line at the Buell factory. Each motorcycle is
built individually, by a small team of workers, who work only on that particular
bike until it is finished. This system yields great job satisfaction, high
employee morale, a lot of promise for the future, and motorcycles that are maybe
a little less uniform than they might otherwise be.
Before founding Buell American Motorcycles, Eric
Buell worked as an engineer for Harley-Davidson. Based on what I have read about
Eric Buell, the most basic ingredients of his design philosophy seem to be
centralization of mass, low unsprung weight, and frame rigidity. Let's take a
quick look at these concepts, because they are central to why a Buell is so much
fun to ride.
I am no engineer, but as a sailor I am familiar
with the benefits of mass centralization. A boat designed with the weight
concentrated in the center, instead of out at the ends, will respond more
quickly. It will tend to ride over, rather than plow through, the waves. Two
people with access to a small skiff, dinghy, or rowboat can experiment with this
concept. First, have one person sit in the very bow, and the other at the stern.
Note how the boat feels sluggish and responds slowly to the waves. Now move both
people (the mass) to the middle of the boat. Suddenly it feels more lively, and
responds faster, now that the mass is centralized. The same basic principle also
holds true for motorcycles. This is why Buell concentrates the weight of the
heavy components of the motorcycle, the engine/transmission, muffler, gas tank,
rear monoshock, and battery near the center of the motorcycle. Everything is
basically placed above or below the engine/transmission unit, the heaviest
single component of the motorcycle. The result is that Buell motorcycles feel
exceptionally lively, and a lively motorcycle is more fun to ride.
Unsprung weight is the weight of the components
not supported by the suspension, principally the wheels, tires, lower fork legs,
and brakes. Lower unsprung weight allows the tires to maintain better contact
with the uneven surface of the road, thus making for a safer, better controlled,
and more enjoyable ride. Buell uses hollow 3-spoke alloy wheels of the lightest
and most rigid type for all of their models. For the Thunderbolt, Buell uses
expensive Showa inverted front forks. Inverted forks put the smaller diameter
fork section on the bottom, which lowers unsprung weight. They are also
extremely strong, and more rigid than conventional telescopic forks. Going
further to eliminate as much unsprung weight as possible, the Thunderbolt has a
single stainless steel floating front brake disc, rather than the dual discs
found on almost all other specialty sport bikes. Brake discs and their
associated calipers are very heavy. To ensure adequate swept area, that single
disc is the largest found on any production bike, 340mm in diameter. To make it
lightweight while retaining the necessary thickness in cross section, it is
extremely narrow in profile, and to ensure an excess of stopping power, the
Thunderbolt comes with a 6-piston front brake caliper. "Stoppies" are easy on a
Buell. Other premium motorcycle manufacturers can and do take some of these same
steps to lower unsprung weight, but none combine all of these strategies as
Almost everyone agrees that a rigid frame is
crucial to precise handling and control. Buell selected the expensive but
effective method of using chrome-moly alloy steel tubing to build a perimeter
frame with triangulated sections. Buell calls it a "geodesic perimeter frame."
In the best modern fashion, the engine serves as a stressed member of the frame.
The result is an exceptionally light and stiff frame, which improves handling
and control. A bike that handles precisely and delivers exceptional control is
more fun to ride.
The centralized mass, low unsprung weight , stiff
frame, and premium suspension, when combined with a rather short 55 inch
wheelbase and only 24.5 degrees of front-end rake, should result in a light and
quick handling motorcycle, and indeed it does. You might think the same
combination would also make for a twitchy feeling motorcycle, but it doesn't. I
expected, and found, a fast handling bike, but what I found most surprising was
the Thunderbolt's excellent static stability. Static stability means that left
to its own devices, it will run straight. This is a bike that will run straight
as a die with the rider's hands off the handlebar. I guess the 3.8 inches of
trail has something to do with that. Whatever the reason, the bike responds
quickly, handles superbly, and runs true.
Of course, more than trick engineering is
necessary to build a complete motorcycle. The motor is the key to performance,
and all Buells use a highly modified Harley-Davidson Sportster V-twin engine.
The hot-rodded 1203cc "Thunderstorm" power plant used in the Thunderbolt
produces an ample 101 horsepower at the crankshaft, and a gut wrenching 90 ft.
lbs. of torque. This translates to about 71-78 ft. lbs. of torque and 85-90 hp.
at the rear wheel, depending on whose dyno you read. Remember that horsepower is
a measurement of work performed over time, and torque is the turning force at
the crankshaft (or rear wheel). This is why torque is more important in everyday
riding. Torque is what is responsible for that slingshot feeling when you roll
the throttle on, not to mention those "power" wheelies.
The vibration produced by the compact 45 degree
V-twin motor is isolated from the frame, and the rider, by Buell's proprietary
"Uniplanar" mounting system. This system works. It is amazing to ride a bike,
powered by what is basically a Sportster 1200 engine, that is so smooth. At idle
it feels about like a Sportster, but as the RPM increases, vibration diminishes.
By the time the tach has moved past 3000 RPM, vibration is almost completely
absent. The Sportster, as I wrote in my article "The Harley-Davidson Sportster,"
is quite pleasant to ride below about 60 MPH (in 5th gear). But vibration
intrudes as speeds increase, and becomes uncomfortable (to me) by about 70 MPH.
But on its cousin, the Buell Thunderbolt, the faster you go the smoother it
gets. At 70 MPH and above, it is uncannily smooth. It is hard to believe it is
powered by a Sportster 1200 motor, let alone one producing about a third more
It seems to me that the Thunderbolt is a pretty
good sport-touring bike, by which I mean a great sport bike for Sunday rides,
with its power and razor sharp handling, that still has the capability of making
overnight and longer trips. It has the range, speed, smoothness, stability,
comfortable seating position, and available luggage to serve as a solo touring
bike, plus the benefit of a very extensive dealer network should something go
wrong while on the road (a good point to consider before purchasing some exotic
brand sport-touring bike). Rider protection is the primary deficiency at
present, but all it needs is a properly designed touring windshield to bring it
up to snuff in that area. I hope that someone, either at Buell or in the
aftermarket, will eventually respond to fill this need.
If you want a sporty looking motorcycle for cheap
transportation, there are more economical alternatives. But if you're leaning
toward a sport or sport-touring bike, and ride for the pleasure of the
experience, you owe it to yourself to at least test ride a Buell Thunderbolt.