Ebony and Ivory
Words and pics: Andy Hornsby
Second Opinion: Rich King

This has got to be a leading contender for the shortest head-to-head feature that we've ever run in American-V, but it is no less valid a comparison for all that.

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OKAY, SO THE FRAMES,WHEELS, BRAKES AND BODYWORK are common - a couple of colours and finishes notwithstanding - but you can say the same about a couple of Dynas, Softail and Tourers and we've always been amazed at the differences between those. In this case, we're not drawing comparisons between the bikes but between the characteristics of two engines, using their common rolling chassis as a level playing field.

For the record - and because it matters far more in the context of a Buell than it does a Harley - the new 1200cc motor generates 100hp@6,600rpm and 81ftlb@6,000rpm, which equates to 19% more power (15hp) and 27% (17ft/lbs) more torque than the 985cc motor. To complete the picture, it is marginally up on power compared to the tube framed 1200 models which made 95hp@6,200rpm, but is surprisingly down against the Thunderstorm's torque figures of 86ftlb@5,600rpm. This should also answer an unasked question, notably why bother to make the 985cc model with the 1200 back on the books? Do we really need a smaller, engine in something that is pitched as a sport bike? The knee-jerk reaction is "no!"

The considered reality is a qualified "yes".

To get a handle on the dilemma you've got to go back to the last season of the tube frame 1200s, which was the first for the XB9R. The new motor offered similar horsepower to the outgoing X1 Lightning but it provided that power at higher revs. Not much higher for its peak, but sadly it was compressed into a tighter powerband and married to markedly lower torque. For all that, it sat fairly well alongside the older model on the road and gave a good account of itself, undoubtedly aided by its smaller frontal area, lighter weight and an allnew range of technologies that eclipsed everything that had gone before: fuel in the frame, oil in the swingingarm and the frame geometry of a 250cc race bike wrapped round almost a litre's worth of air-cooled 4-stroke V-twin. It was also the first production bike with a rimmounted disk brake.

The marriage of high-tech race technology and old-fashioned motor shouldn't have worked - and a lot of people insisted that it couldn't work - but when the bike was launched on a race track known for its demanding corners and long straights, they were silenced. It wasn't twitchy, it was stable, it stopped and it had power - albeit not the sort of power that they'd just about begrudgingly acknowledged enjoying on the 1200s.

Two years later we're used to that trick engineering but it is no less radical for its familiarity, and still unique to Buell: the Japanese have yet to plagiarise Buell but then they continue to see the American sportbike as a quirky sideshow rather than genuine competition.

The concept that accompanied the XB9R was the "Sportfighter" - a sporting streetfighter - and it was intended to give aspiring road-racers their jollies on proper roads at realistic speeds.

That is something that will strike a chord with riders of R6s and CBR600s, who will be used to being considered second best when their bikes are compared to the bigger R1s and Fireblades, despite significant evidence to the contrary. It's less true of the R6/R1 market as the R6 is a much more specialist bike, but a lot of CBR600 riders aspire to owning a Fireblade in spite of the fact that the CBR600 is probably a far better bike for them. For better or worse, the market believes bigger is better and while that is true in certain circumstances, it's not always the case.

No matter how often you tell most people that performance isn't necessarily about speed or power it doesn't sink in. No matter that an average rider on the light, tight package that is an Buell XB9 will show a clean pair of heels to almost anything on the normal roads that crisscross the oft-times challenging landscape that is Britain, if they're going to get stuffed by an R1 on bypasses and motorways, folk aren't interested. The XB9 didn't, and doesn't have the straight-line speed and that's the end of it. Game over for many people. Shame.

As the tube framed models were withdrawn, so too was the big bore Buell, and we lost the yardstick against which to measure the XB9R, so we got down to living with it.

I confess that I didn't get on too well with the first Firebolt that I rode. It was too cramped and too specifically race-inspired for my tastes. I concentrated on getting to grips with the technology, getting my feet up high enough to find the footpegs, and dancing on the gearchange in search of the powerband when I'd opened it up too quickly in too high a gear from too few revs. The new Lightning, that had just been announced back then, couldn't come quickly enough for me, although I had doubts that it would be any more comfortable judging by the first press shots, which was to prove unfounded.

We've played with Firebolts a few times since the launch of the Lightning, and with each encounter they have grown on me. Each time I've dreaded the cramped riding position, and each time it's been less of an issue - and each time I've ended up riding it further to take it back to Buell's supplying dealer, and done so in reasonable comfort, which must say something. It feels as though the seat has moved forwards, but that might be my sliding further forward in the seat, but whatever the case, I've come to accept them for what they are.

As the long-stroke grunt of the bigger motor became a more distant memory, it became easy to forget the missing torque and concentrate on the advantages of the free-spinning engine - until I got back aboard my own M2, and for all the new model's horsepower, it was still lacking. Old school Buelligans didn't exactly form a queue for the new bike, and a lot of sports bike owners who were migrating to an alternative were picking up on Harley-Davidson's sportier offerings - which weren't helped by tales of woe from the mainstream press regarding the belt final drive, which had some high profile failures, which have been attributed to the belt being twisted when the rear wheel was removed for its first tyre change at normal tyre fitters (it must be done by the book, with the belt guards being removed first).

I would expect that committed Buell fans had been wooed on the hooligan torque and weren't about to compromise that for the increased sophistication, but in a flash of orange at the end of the summer of 2003 the torque, and the 1200s were back. The shop-fronts of the Buell friendly dealerships were littered with used X1s and M2s as never before. Everything that was good about the XB9 combined with more power than the best that the Thunderstorm 1200 motor could muster was destined to be a winning combination. You would have to go a long way to make your tube frame model as quick, and if you were prepared to compromise the flexibility afforded by the greater physical size of its forebear you could have a Buell that could hold its head high in the most exalted circles. And if you need the flexibility, there are some very tasty used Buells looking for new owners.

We've already had a bit of a play with the new Lightning to see how that held up against the 1200s that went before it, but as we've not given the Firebolt any space as yet, and as we had time on our hands waiting for any news at all regarding the 2004 Harley fleet, it seemed an ideal opportunity to try out the XB9R against the XB12R, to find out how comfortably the spinner sat alongside the torquemeister. In December. One day we'll get to play with one in the summer.

As it worked out we had the XB9R for a week before the 12R was available, which gave me chance to reacquaint myself with the bike that I've never quite been won over by.Notably, too, it was a 2003 model, as there are no 2004 XB9 models in the country, so it serves to show the improvements: the new model gets a courser pitch, stiffer belt with guards that are easier to remove, mirrors on longer stems so you can see past your shoulders and upper arms, and the funky but functionally compromised speedo / tacho unit is been cleaned up and now readable at all times. I was already in Buell mode when I picked up the baby Firebolt, having worked up to it on my Cyclone, running south down the A5 to Wayside, in Towcester, in the company of friend Dave on his X1, skirting the rain that was sitting moodily over Birmingham. I know I shouldn't have taken the Cyclone because it has always made the first few miles on an XB9 less pleasant than they should be, but apart from nearly stalling the cold engine as we turned back onto the A5, this Firebolt felt more accommodating than previous bikes. It might just be me, but the contrast between the old and new generation Buells has normally been more marked than it was this time, so either it's a case of it being not as bad as the anticipation - as opposed to previously not being as good as I'd hoped for - or someone's moved something and kept it quiet. With the motor warming, and the two-lane A5 settling into fast sweeping bends for the short burst up to a left turn, and a marked increase in traffic, it settled into its stride. We'd had the best of the journey on the run down, but had planned to drop in at the NEC bike show on the return journey to catch up with a few people we'd missed, which would effectively be a run back underneath Coventry before heading back north on the M6.Not a bad circuit, all told, taking in a good selection of road types, but it would've been better had the rain not started as we hit Daventry.

I hadn't brought waterproofs because the all-in-one suit that I really should have replaced a while ago is too tight over leathers to allow the squatting frog riding position, and I'd been to idle to go back to the house and get the keys for the Electra's panniers and release my waterproof trousers. Never mind though, it gives you an idea of how well the screen works. The Cyclone's deflector works surprisingly well at keeping the worst of the weather off, but I was aware that I'd be better off if I was six inches shorter to tuck in behind the Firebolt's aerodynamic screen. To be honest as long as we kept moving, it did a surprisingly good job and the inevitably wet leathers that I hung over the banister when we finally got home were on the wet side of damp, but certainly not sodden. Not bad for a hundred miles of rain with sixty of them complemented by motorway spray.

And I wasn't uncomfortable. I was glad I was home, but not uncomfortable, which was a pleasant surprise, because wet and cold on a bike I'd rather not be riding does little for my general demeanour.

And then I had a week to put some miles on the XB9 before surrendering it to Rich. Choosing my roads and weather conditions carefully - well, matching them to each other, because you don't really have a choice when you've got to put the miles in - I was really starting to enjoy myself by the end of the week, and was really looking forward to the arrival of the 1200 - as in really looking forward to it.

A couple of days later than anticipated, the XB12R sat alongside the 9R outside the office and I awaited Rich's arrival, preparing to give him the bad news that he was taking the white one while standing tantalisingly close to the bike he'd prefer to be running away with - especially having missed out on the Lightning runout a few weeks before. Still, Rich had surprised me with his enthusiasm for the Firebolt on first riding one, so I knew he'd make the most of renewing his acquaintance. Seeing the two side by side emphasised the differences between them … or rather the lack of them. You can spot a stock XB9 from a distance: it'll have unpainted aluminium wheels, frame and swing-arm, black engine cases and its bodywork will be either white or blue in colour with a clear screen.

It doesn't matter whether it's a Firebolt or Lightning, those are the colour schemes.

By contrast the XB12 has orange wheels and screen tint, a dark grey frame and swing-arm, magnesium-tint cases, and its bodywork will be either black or red. Externally, that is the only difference that you'll pick up on because you can't see the additional 17.44mm of stroke, extra 4mm on the fuel injection body, or the trick exhaust. Well, except the stickers on the fairing and either side of the seat, and an insert in the top yoke, but while they are certainly there, they are subtle.

It's an odd one, as I'm not normally one to make an absolute judgement on colour, but I'd have the XB12R every time because in black it looked stunning. And I don't think it was just the black of the bodywork, even with the welcome dark hues of the frame. The orange sets it off a treat,more so that I would've expected, and any thoughts I had of what I'd do with the orange screen, once I'd replaced it with a black or a clear one, disappeared completely. It was both menacing and elegant at the same time. It looked smaller than the XB9, but that's purely the illusion of colour, but the XB9 looked very much more mechanical compared to the anthropomorphic, sinuous form of the 1200. This is a bike that will be given a name by its owner, and quite probably one that conjures up something sinister.

I called it one or two names on the way home, as it proved to be a little moody when cold, struggling to keep its fire lit through rush hour traffic, but its biggest test was never going to involve white-lining through busy streets on a cold motor. The first proper test was going to be a run to our unwitting repro house through Cheshire's leafy lanes - and don't let anyone tell you that Cheshire is all flat. The road was dry, the rush-hour over, and with little more than light traffic to contend with the Buell let out as throaty a roar as its stock pipe would allow, pulling hard from low revs and broadening the appeal of an already exhilarating bike. It was going to be a straight run out and back, but Cheshire's county council had other ideas. I went increasingly off-piste on the return journey, with tighter corners, rougher surfaces and everincreasing challenges to my own abilities, rather than roadworks testing my patience. It would have been quicker to wait at the roadwork traffic lights but that would have such a waste of a bike and the opportunity to use it as it was meant to be used.

The torque of the new motor certainly made the bike easier to ride, being less demanding of correct gear selection, and that surge of bottom end stomp, missing on the XB9, added another dimension to the experience, not only of its smaller sibling but also the 1200s that have gone before. There has never been so pure a Buell 1200 Super Sport, and it is by riding the XB12R that you realise just how much can be achieved by the right engine in the right frame if the rider's weight is in the right place. I got back late, but with the germ of an idea in my head.

By the time I rejoined Rich in North Manchester, almost a week later, the idea had taken shape. We had to get both bikes down to Crewe for returning to their respective bases, and neither of us had any desire at all to use the direct motorway route, so a trip down through the foothills of the Pennines and the Peak District would give the Buells a chance to show their true colours, and a competitive pace would be set. I surrendered the keys for the 1200 to Rich, who would only really get this trip to get to grips with the new model, and we set off with me setting the pace on the slower XB9. The run south had to take in as much as possible, road-wise, and I think we managed just about every possibility from empty motorway to farm track.

I was concerned that my time with the XB12R would have spoiled me for the smaller version, but I couldn't have been more wrong. I knew what the 1200 would do and went out of my way to keep it a safe distance behind, using the revs of the short-stroke's motor to keep the XB9 in the thick of its power. Riding the buddy system tends to temper your solo aspirations, making sure your riding partner is in sight - which keeps the red mist from descending - and an especially difficult challenge bearing in mind you can see little in the short stalk mirrors. Industrial north Manchester gave way to rolling hills in no time with both bikes sweeping traffic aside, heading south, cross-country to Buxton. Not a natural destination for a fun ride out in December, but it sets you up for the perfect run back to Cheshire: the A54 Wildboarclough road. Yippeee!

Yes, I know I keep banging on about it, but I've never had the opportunity to ride that stretch of road in the company of another Buell. In fact the only time I've had the opportunity to ride a new generation Buell down that road was in the company of a pair of Pan- Europeans police bikes on wet roads, and directly into a setting sun. This time it would be different. This time the road was dry, the sun was hidden behind dense cloud and the Police were on another beat.

The climb up to the point where the road splits from the more renowned Cat and Fiddle run is a series of hairpins, usually chock full of cars and with few safe passing places, but as soon as you crest the rise, and the Cat and Fiddle pub is visible on the horizon, the vast majority of traffic bears right giving you a clear road ahead. Clear but very twisty, and anything but flat. We peeled off behind a VeeDub hot hatch driven by someone who evidently knew the road exceptionally well, so rather than have him tucked up behind me on the descent, I used him to remind me of the severity of the corners and settled in, a respectable distance behind.

My previous favourite moment on a Buell was on this road, two-up with panniers watching three Jap middleweight sportbikes disappear from my mirrors at an unexpected pace: it was the day that I came to understand unsprung weight, and what a difference a lack of it can make. I've been airborne on an FXDX Super Glide Sport down there on a particularly nasty rise. I've scared myself witless on the Glide hitting a corner with too much boost. And I've held my own on an XL883R Sportster down there wondering when the two guys behind would finally make their move on their Fireblades so I could stop riding in the gutter.

And now I've got a lasting memory of an XB9R Firebolt, feeling as though Buell have worked out a way to harness the earth's magnetic field. It felt glued. More than glued, it felt as though additional pressure downwards might be slowing the bike just a little. Best way I can think to describe it is to imagine holding a powerful magnet just within range of a magnetic surface so you can feel its pull. It was surreal and the broad grin that normally accompanies another successful navigation of the road's curves and contours would've made a Cheshire cat skulk off with feelings of inadequacy when we pulled over at what I hoped would be a suitable place to shoot the bikes. But for a lack of time, failing light and a recognition that this would be the last best chance to sort out pictures, I'd have turned round and headed back the way we came, just to experience it again.

Roll on summer 2004. I'll book another Firebolt for a more detailed test and then book a weekend off from life's commitments: you can keep the A537 past the Cat and Fiddle: it's for pussies - with or without a violin.

When we pulled over, Rich told me that he hadn't been down that way before through another beaming smile and I confess I'm looking forward to hearing his comments relating to the journey - we really do write this lot wholly independent of each other's influences and thoughts. There is a chance that it was the way the XB9R was set up, and if so whoever set it up did a cracking job because I wasn't tempted to modify anything. Judging by the state of the rubber on the back tyre - which I'd love to claim as my own work but honesty prevents - it has seen a track day or two in its short life so it might be that the bike had been sorted out for that. Rich's experience of the 12 will qualify that. A lack of the lenses that would have done the bikes and location justice meant we continued on our way down the less demanding, but no less exhilarating few miles down to Congleton, stopping off to finish off the business of the day and wondering how far those sport bikes heading off towards Buxton might get before we'd catch and pass them if only we'd had the time. Part mischievous speculation, part absolute confidence in the bike's abilities to exceed expectations.

Once through Congleton and back on Cheshire's Plain, the roads settled down to normal trunk roads again and final leg was a blast back to Crewe, with Rich on the XB12 holding close formation, passing everything with ease, in safety and with power to spare. If we'd chanced upon a well-ridden Jap sportster it would have been a different story perhaps, but we didn't and we made it back to base with a fresh insight into the world through the eyes of sportier riders than ourselves. Which begs the question, how relevant is a Buell Firebolt to American-V?

It really isn't for everyone, and I'd guess that very few of our readers would consider themselves to be in the Firebolt's target market, because it is the antithesis of a classic Harley, and in a different dimension to a custom. In fact, it is only here at all because it is made in an American factory, and because it shares one of the defining characteristics of an American motorcycle: its power delivery.

That brings us back to the original question. Why make the two bikes, and what are the differences? The bigger motor really does have a feel of the Buells of old, and its power delivery gives it a special place in the hearts of those whose soul is stirred by stump-pulling torque. But the smaller one? I expected the smaller Firebolt to be slaughtered by the 1200, and expected that I would try to ride it as I had the bigger one, but I didn't. I spun it up and used the revs, and the power that lurked there, almost instinctively. Rich reported a flat spot at 3000rpm which I hadn't found until I went looking for it - which was not so much a flat spot as an intermittent black hole that all the power dropped into, and surely down to a fuel problem on the specific bike - but it hadn't troubled me until I went looking, and by the time I returned the bike a couple of days later, I'd forgotten about it again and just got on with having a ball.

I felt that the XB9 was not rendered irrelevant by the 1200 because it was so different an experience to ride it. I did miss the torque, but there was no lack of exhilaration. What it delivered, it delivered in a different way - in fact it was a markedly greater contrast than I experienced between the Deuce and the Vegas last issue - and that alone justified its existence. I would venture to suggest that the XB9R would be ridden harder, generally, because it needs to be stirred more to give its best, while the 1200 will just trickle along amiably - giving your wrists a hard time in the process - until the mood takes you. Once the occasion arises, the XB12R would show a clean pair of heels to the 985cc version on anything except the Wildboarclough Road, or Wrynose Pass, Holme Moss or other roads of that ilk, in which case its additional power will count for little for it'd be more a contest between riders than their engines.

So should there be two bikes?

Unequivocally, yes. There should be a 985cc version for those who don't want or don't need the additional torque, insurance cost or to spend another thousand quid. There should also be the 1200cc version because to most of Buell's existing converts, the 1200 is what it's all about.

I'd be tempted to go for the 985cc motor in a Firebolt if I were ever to be making such a decision, and the 1200cc in a Lightning because the torque suits the sheer hooligan stance of the Firebolt's brother, but if I did go for a XB9R I'd have to black the wheels, the bodywork and even the frame, because it does look so much better in the darker hue for my tastes. And then, of course, I'd have to concentrate on fine-tuning the smaller motor to get the most out of it, because it would be seen as a 1200 and would be expected to party with the big boys.

And there's one last aside, for those who'd question the role of a short stroke motor in an American bike. There's a short stroke 45-degree 4-stroke V-twin that bears the Harley-Davidson name on its side, and that was the most successful race bike of all time: the XR750.

Second Opinion
Words: Rich King

I didn't get a whole lot of time on either of these motorcycles - though more time on either than a prospective purchaser could hope for - but that shorter time than usual does mean that I can allow myself to be a little more subjective than I would normally feel obliged to be, so I'll cut to the chase.

Out of the two 2003 XB Firebolts, Buell are currently offering, I much preferred the XB12R. There you go, job done, sorted.

That's not fair I know. In fact, if it wasn't for the new 12, I would be raving incoherently about the smaller capacity XB9R Firebolt. I loved having the 984cc short-stroke for a couple of days and made up one excuse after another to ride it. I even took my girlfriend around and about Manchester biker bar hopping one night, sacrificing mere alcohol for, let's face it, a real buzz.

Incidentally, as she had been last year with the previous model, she was still fairly impressed with her pillion perch. And that despite having to endure 'stop/go' city work rather than snuggled behind me on the motorway - which had been her only other previous experiences long term on a Firebolt pillion before. She finally admitted though that the XB9R was starting to get uncomfortable a few hours - and a few bars - later, but for a long legged lady of 5'10"-ish, that's not really a damning indictment.

Though the weather was pretty dire and the surfaces as dodgy as they possibly could be, the short-stroke Buell was still easily tractable enough to make confident low rev progress on slimy city streets. Which in English means you didn't have to blip the throttle and slip the clutch dangerously to make slow and careful progress on a lurching machine that's desperate to stall. And because the XB9R is a Buell also meant that, on a straight dual carriage-way for instance, the transformations from cute, nice friendly bike to nasty mutha was literally a squeeze of the throttle away.

Always sure footed, balanced and superbly braked, the relatively revvy XB9R Firebolt would, I think, make an ideal, involving and exciting choice for someone getting bored with, but still very much used to riding Japanese Super Sports motorcycles. And neither would I 'throw one out of bed' personally I would be chuffed to own one …

… if it weren't for the choice:

The XB12R Firebolt is to all intents and purposes exactly the same as the 9 except for three very important and, for me, even more desirable differences: the XB12R features a torquier longer stroke motor for phenomenal low-end stomp and awesome but silky smooth mid range power; it has even more power courtesy of its bigger, 1203cc motor; and, well, sorry, but the XB12R can come in the sexy black with orange highlights that you see here - and don't even try and tell me that isn't important.

The handling and braking were uncannily like the XB9R, the riding position though was perhaps a tad more comfortable because this particular 12 had been fitted with the lower footrests from a Lightning. I know that Andy always appreciates the lower pegs but personally I'm not so sure it makes that much difference for me. I'm never that uncomfortable with the high foot controls to be honest - and I haven't exactly got 'Sooty legs'* either in case you're wondering.

Because the stroke is longer on the 12R it means the engine's characteristics are more in tune with my style of riding. Like many of you reading this, I've come through lots and lots of other, seemingly lazy, torquey, four-stroke and mainly American twins to get here: they're what I'm used to, they're what I ride better, and indeed, faster, than bikes with revvier, toppier, engines.

So while the XB9R could sometimes feel a little frantic for my taste the 12 never did. Instead, my first impressions that day I had with it, out on some glorious, if damp, roads, was of effortless and seemingly inexhaustible power. That power was there from nothing, but don't be alarmed, like all Buells before it, that power is totally, one hundred percent under the control of the rider - all you have to watch out for is that the rider is fully under control!

To be honest, it was some time blasting through the fantastic hill roads between Glossop and everywhere else that I took any notice at all of the speedo. Experiencing the phenomenal grunt was taking my breath away and - safe inside my helmet, with perhaps only the odd wall dwelling stoat to overhear - I was whooping my head off.

Gliding down a beautiful twisty narrow road between Buxton and finally Congleton I finally took in the speedo at - erm - speed while tucked in close to Andy on the XB9R. He himself was tucked up behind a swiftly moving hot hatch being driven by a guy who definitely knew the road, even so, given the opportunity, both Andy and I were ready to take the guy in a jiffy. Neither he or I were at all stressed, we were going fairly quick that was all. The glance at the speedo changed all that and the rest of the ride was carried out in a state of total admiration and awe.

We'd been getting damn close to the ton!

Both Buells, not just the XB12R it must be said, were coping with road conditions that would have other machines tank slapping, high siding and leaving the road - like in jumping, mind you - AND AT SLOWER SPEEDS. I could not believe what I was experiencing at first.

NEVER have I ridden a machine that tracks the road so well as that XB12R - and I'm sure Andy will say the same about the XB9R. Both XBRs share a chassis, suspension and brake combination that is quite frankly staggering. Both are acceptably comfortable and now come with a choice of bullet proof engine to suit your own particular riding style, whether you come from sports machines, streetfighters or grunty cruisers. Take your pick, try both: I would, I promise you that there is no way you're going to be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

* A bright yellow bear-based (supposedly magical) hand puppet featuring, among other things, very short, virtually vestigial lower limbs - so not like mine at all you see. Which are long.