The Black Buell rumbles in…Sportster Pt IV…the end…

Maybe it’s genetic. You know, like damaged genes. In my case, DNA irreperably altered by youthful indulgences. Not anything as exotic as huffing glue or snorting girl’s bicycle seats but the simple act of riding a Vincent Rapide around the streets of Hurlburt AFB when I was a kid was enough to permanently damage my cognitive abilities. I am inextricably drawn to the rhythmic burble of big V-twin engines. (I’m also attracted to giant radial aircraft engines but I can’t afford to indulge…) The damage isn’t extensive enough to make me endure the pain of riding chrome-drenched American V-twin motorcycles for significant distances but I really do like the sound. That’s why…even though the XLC 1200 was gone…I remained vulnerable.

Just days after watching the Blue Beast disappear into the west toward the wilds of Sierra Vista, I tie-strapped a crated Lycoming O-360 aircraft engine onto the platform of my Kendon trailer and transported it north to an FAA certified rebuild station in Phoenix. On my way out of the big city I stopped to see John Walkup at Chandler airport to discuss some continuing aerobatic flight training. So far, so good. Then, fate intervened. On my way out of Chandler, I spotted a sign emblazoned with the familiar BMW roundel. Hmmm; a shop I’d never visited before. Who could resist?After all, I was a member of the BMW Motorcycle Owners Association and was quite happy with an ’85 K100 that had served me well on several cross-country rides. I wanted to touch a K12RS, not buy one but at least look. Three BMW K bikes adorned the showroom–new motorcycles all–each one emblazoned with intricate flame paintjobs. “Nice,” a salesman said, nodding toward the row of visual atrocities. “They’re custom,” the salesman added, as if I might be under the misapprehension BMW was shipping new motorcycles splashed with flame paint. (The hideous decorations became understandable when I later learned that the dealership was part of a Harley-Davidson bike and Cadillac car conglomerate.)

“Why would anyone fuck up a nice paint job by adding flames?” I asked.

“Some people like it,” the salesman said with a sniff. I was about to leave when a young mechanic rolled a black Buell motorcycle into the display room and parked it at the end of a row of used cycles. I didn’t know much about Buells but I moved closer to take closer look. “Came in on a trade,” the mechanic told me. “We haven’t even checked it out yet.”

The salesman reappeared. “That one doesn’t have flames,” he said sarcastically. “Show me your license and motorcycle endorsement then you can take it for a ride.”

I saw, I rode, I don’t need to go into the gruesome details of our negotiations. I walked out the door twice, once I was almost to my vehicle, before a final price was agreed upon. It was just like buying a fucking car; nothing was easy even though I paid cash and paid just what I first offered. Eventually the Buell was loaded onto my Kendon and I was on my way home chanting, “oh, shit; oh, damn; what an idiot I am…” the entire four hours back. Why? Why would I buy another Sportster, even if it came with a different shirt and pair of pants? It’s still a Sportster. I had lost my mind.

The next day, leather jacket and chaps strapped and snapped into place to partially ward off the cold, I went for a ride. The grin was back. I liked the Buell. It had the big-twin sound without the nut-numbing vibration of the Harleys. The Buell might be a keeper. I even paused to take a few pix of my new machine (such as this one with the Broken Spoke Saloon trailer in the background. I was enjoying myself. Performance wasn’t that bad, handling was fine, a troublesome check engine light was blinking on and off but I figured I’d have some maintenance to catch up on. Ah, yes.

Home with Eric Buell’s revenge parked in the basement, I began learning about the vagaries of working on this odd Harley. For one, the engine hangs suspended from rubber mounts in a trellis frame. That’s not so unusual; my first Ariel had a suspended engine (though not from a trellis) as do several other motorcycles. What I came to learn about the early Buells was their tendency to eat the rubber suspension biscuits and occasionally do something odd such as dropping the engine out of the frame when the front mount shears. Has this actually happened? I’ve not seen it occur myself but during my research on the subject I found a number of photographs of serious damage caused by these mounts failing.

OK, winter was still wrapping its icey claws around the southeast Arizona mountains and I had time to sort out any difficulties. The engine light turned out to be an intermittant failure of the head temperature sensor. My local HD stealer agreed to order one of the little suckers, promising that no more than three or four weeks would pass before a new sensor would be on the shelf. I have no faith in the HD parts desk. Fifteen or twenty long distance calls later, I located the part at a Buell shop in Modesto, California. (Good thinking on my part. More than ten years since I ordered the sensor–the parts counter guy said I could pay for it when it arrived–and I still haven’t heard back. Maybe next week.)

No part of the Buell suspension is particularly easy to check out: Nothing, at least not on the older Buells such as the S3T that I’d purchased. Usually it’s a matter of disassembling a major part of the motorcycle then determining clearances or whether the rubber was misshapen or failing. Still…as I said…it was winter. I had  work to do, some flying, some writing, some instructing but in my spare time, I tinkered with the Buell. The bike was really in pretty good condition. A prior owner had failed to keep the machine clean (a common fault for sport bike owners) but it hadn’t been attacked by a cobbler with a brass mallet and a crescent wrench like some of the cycles I’ve seen.

Once the work was underway, I found a few spare parts (eBay to the rescue) that I couldn’t resist adding or replacing. First among the new pieces was a Buell performance upgrade kit that included a high rpm ignition modual, a somewhat more traditional air intake system (the breadbox as many riders refer to the original Buell filter went away), and a much curvier set of pipes/muffler combination that supposedly improved performance. The muffler was a necessity as the bike had a Vance and Hines can that someone had fastened together with cherry rivets after it had fallen off once or twice. Since I had both the time and the necessary tools, I lightly sandblasted the new pipes then power coated them with a black, heat-resistant finish before final fitment. Front brake pads were replaced with a semi-metallic compound that supposedly would effect a vast improvement on the big, single-sided disc, all fluids were replaced, a thermostat-controlled oil cooler was attached to the frame downtube, shift linkage was updated to replace the clanky multi-rod system on the early Buells and by then, winter was coming to an end. I still had some changes planned–I wanted a new rear shock and progressive springs in the front tubes–but that could come later.

The Buell was ready to ride. Photo to the left is the S3T sitting out behind my house awaiting a roar around town for the first time since it had entered my basement torture chamber two months earlier. The big twin rumbled to life with no hesitation. I clunked it into gear–even with Mobil 1 synthetic, Harley transmissions are noisy–and went riding. The blinking engine light was gone, the bike was responsive and I liked the sound emanating from the new muffler. The old aluminum can had a tinny note. Maybe it was just a couple of baffles rattling together but it soundled like a Royal Enfield with the rods about to make an appearance through the side of the case.

So, weather improving, the Buell and I made several short trips together. I was learing the eccentricities of this machine. (All motorcycles have their eccentricities, just some have a lot more than others. Make a list of Italian bikes to begin with…) The Buell method of attaching the capacious saddlebags was a bit odd and I fashioned some grommets to improve stability. The bags themselves were wonderful; large enough to conceal a full-face helmet with space to spare and, unlike the plastic cases on many motorcycles, they don’t mount close to the exhaust pipes where eventually heat destroys the plastic. The Buell muffler is under the center of the bike, attached to a set of curly pipes that look large enough to be headers on a B-25 engine. Said muffler, at least the high-performance iteration, is a huge, industrial looking can that raises a cloud of dust toward the left rear of the bike when the throttle is cracked.

I’m not a racer–I break and bruise easily–plus Arizona has few roads that really cater to knee-draggers. This is great for bikes like the Buell…and old guys like me. The seat, though not particularly thick, was comfortable. The bars were low enough to give a nice body position; semi-erect but not like sitting back in a Barclay recliner with legs spread, ready for the speculum. Night time outings exposed a common failing of most older motorcycles. Headlight strength is measured in candlepower; there aren’t many candles burning behind that rectangular glass. Older people suffer from diminished night vision–rods need far more oxygen than cones and the rods are what the eyes use for seeing at night. Maybe an oxy bottle strapped to the seat and a cannula under my helmet would provide an improvement but I find myself taking the safe way out and not riding at night when I can avoid it, particularly not on long, dark highways with psychotic animals waiting for an opportunity to commit murder/suicide. On the positive side, the tail light on the S3 is giant, stretching the entire way across the big, wide tail section. Drivers approaching the back of the bike can see the brake light clearly (unlike so many motorcycles that have tiny red lenses that are almost useless as a warning).

So, the Buell and I were bonding. I enjoyed the attention the motorcycle received when I parked it downtown at the coffee shop. Harleys are like fat old men; they’re everywhere. The Buell, Harley that it is, still merits a second look. This particularly pertains to the original Buells, the Lightnings and the S series. I don’t find myself drawn to the ugly frame of the newer Buells or their stubby appearance. Apparently many other riders agreed with me, as Harley-Davidson saw fit to pull the plug from Buell production in 2009. Whether I appreciated the later bikes or not, I hated to see the Buells go away. They provided an alternative for the riders who like the Harley engine and the Harley sound but don’t want the retro-bike ride.

In the end, someone liked my Buell better than I did. I ventured north to Tucson for a leisurely afternoon, planning on a couple of stops, a bite of food then a putt back home before the sun dropped. I parked in a mall lot, tucked my shiny black Arai helmet into the saddlebag then spent an hour or so at the stores, ate a greasy sandwich then went outside. The mall I was at is not, at least in my way of thinking, laid out in a simple manner. I thought I knew where I parked the bike…but I’ve been known to err. Frequently. I circled the lot, walked the entire way around the mall. By the time I was back to where I thought I’d parked, I knew. The bike was gone. I called 911 then sat outside waiting for a sheriff’s deputy to appear. An hour later he was there, copying down the necessary info for a report. He was not encouraging.

“It’s probably already parted out by now,” he said. “They don’t last long…”

The bike was insured. That was about the only positive part of the experience. I have owned many, many motorcycles. This was the first time one was ever stolen. Left outside a bar while I indulged in mortal sins, parked on the beach overnight while I don’t remember what I did, left sitting in an apartment lot for weeks while I was gone: never before had a bike been stolen from me. I gathered up all the Buell parts I had accumulated, put them on eBay and turned my back on the affair. That was almost ten years ago. I’ve been tempted more than once but there was something final about the disappearance of the black Buell.

Anyway, now I have a big-twin Ducati, a 907ie, bright-Italian-red, and it provides my big-twin fix when I need one. Plus, anyone who ever did the valves on a desmo Ducati (or knows what a pain in the ass they can be) wouldn’t bother to steal one.

 

 

 

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