Buell S3 Thunderbolt and M2 Cyclone

Things That Go Thump In The Night 

by Lee Meyer

It’s a fine spring afternoon…finally. What could be better than to kill some time riding a couple of brand new motorcycles? The bikes in question happen to be Buells–the M2 Cyclone and the S3 Thunderbolt courtesy of St. Paul Harley-Davidson.

I have been curious about the Buell since I first saw one many years ago at an auction. I had never given Harley a spare thought before that. Since then, the Buell has evolved, and I continued to be intrigued. I wondered what it would be like to ride one of those weird looking things. Wonder no more. Here we go.

On first impression, the bikes look pretty clean and simple up close. Your basic motorcycle. Kind of sporty even. Fire them up, and they don’t really have that lumpy, loud, standard Harley sound. It’s a smoother, quieter, balanced tone instead. You can tell it’s a Harley engine, but a very refined one.

The S3 Thunderbolt with its big tank, fairing and swoopy rear looks much larger than the Cyclone. At idle, it would make a good paint shaker. The fairing and mirrors shake so much, I wonder how long that fairing will last before it’s cracked to bits.

The Cyclone, however, does not have “the shakes” nearly as bad. Its mirrors are fairly still at idle.

This year’s Buell models have a more standard control setup on the bars which is nice. Previously, Buells had controls like on the big hogs–one turn signal on each hand. Strange.


I ride the Cyclone first. I assume these things are supposed to be sport bikes. The seating is more like sitting ON a tractor or maybe a dirt bike. On a traditional sport bike, you sit IN.

Riding away from a stop the little bugger pulls like crazy. It’s got torque-a-plenty. All the gears are bunches of fun. Except fifth which is good for uneventful, steady highway cruising and (probably) good mileage. Blech. Down shifting is a necessary event, if you want to get out of your own way at highway speeds of 60-70mph.

Hard acceleration shifting produces torquey little wheelies. They may be fun, but they give the front fork a touch of the squirrelies. So does cornering on bumpy or less than perfect pavement. A little extra effort on the bars takes care of the problem.

Riding the Thunderbolt is different. The chassis is the same as the Cyclone’s, but it feels bigger because of its big fuel tank, fairing and extra bodywork. With the hotter engine, it seems to pull harder at higher RPMs, but not as well at lower Rs as the Cyclone. In a side-by-side run through the gears with my co-test pilot Mike, neither bike pulls away from the other.

The S3 with its inverted fork doesn’t get the jitters like the Cyclone. But for seating comfort, go with the Cyclone. The Thunderbolt put my rear and legs to sleep in a relatively short time.

The $3000.00 price difference also throws my vote over to the Cyclone. Basically, you get the same performance as the S3 but with more simplicity and bottom end umph. It would be a bitchin’ little commuter bike and Sunday road blaster. Its front end twitchiness kind of adds to the bike’s personality, as it wasn’t bad enough to get worked up over.

Brakes on both bikes work quite well, however, the rear brake does not have much feel–the pedal is rock hard. The first time I use it, I am confused. I think I’m stepping on another foot peg. It is very tough to lock the rear wheel.

A couple of things bug me. The Thunderbolt sputters and coughs through the carbs frequently, and the engine knocks and pings in stop and go traffic. Probably lean carburetion. I am told that they typically come this way from the factory and run like this until they accumulate some miles.?

The decals on the Cyclone’s tank are bubbling up under the clearcoat. Uncool. No tach on the Cyclone? What kind of deal is that? Do the designers who decide to delete a tach ever ride motorcycles? Both bikes have provisions for a second disc brake built into the left fork leg, yet no brake is there. What’s the point?

One last gripe–the indicator light panel is the smallest thing I have ever seen, or have never seen. We spend most of our ride time cruising around with a blinker on.

If Buell is expecting some cross-over business from the Japanese market, they must meet a touch higher quality standard for this kind of dough. But the Buell has improved significantly through the years.

Hey, Harley, how about sticking that VR1000 engine in one?

Cafe Racing and Biker Bar Ornamenting 

by Michael Kamrad

Welcome again to the Buell Testing Grounds. The American sport bike manufacturer has introduced two new rides for 1997–the 81 horsepower M2 Cyclone, a two-seat version of the S1 Lightning, and the new, improved 91 horsepower S3 Thunderbolt. Both motorcycles offer a high performance ride and different types of ergonomics.

All the new Buells share the Lightning-style perimeter frame that debuted last year.

The M2 and the S3 both have a Harley-Davidson 1200cc Sportster based engine lining in the chrome-moly cage. The engine is rubber mounted and sport Buell’s two-into-one exhaust system. The “shoe box” air cleaner hangs off the right side of both bikes.buell_b

Take a close look at any Buell engine, and you will see modified cylinder heads. The Thunderbolt also gets high performance cams. The special heads and cams are a result of Buell’s continuing mission to extract more power from the Sporty engine.

The chrome-moly steel perimeter frame is well designed and incorporates the bikes’ components well. The S3 has an inverted fork while the M2 wears a standard set of legs. Radial ZR rated tires are standard on both, as are single disc brakes, front and rear. Both bikes have a six-pot front caliper. There are mounting holes already in place for the addition of a second rotor and caliper. The belt drive to the rear wheel means no messy chain.

The Thunderbolt gets 7/8 inch bars and standard switch gear this year just like the M2.

The look of a Buell is still one of brutish grace. A bike for a nonconformist. Maybe a die hard Harley enthusiast’s answer to the sport bike question. If this description makes you smile, then step forward. This is your bike. And just think. I haven’t even started one up for you yet.

Goosing the throttle on an open road shows the Buells’ characters. I swear the snorting sound from the air box is as loud and thrilling as the sound of the exhaust. Don’t be fooled by this Sporty engine. Two 600cc cylinders make for a low and mid range monster putting serious torque to the street.

Outside the fact that both of these bikes have sport-touring ride positions, the feel of their ride performance is one of true sport bike control. At low speed or high speed, the Buells give excellent rider confidence.

Picking a favorite depends on where your taste sits in the sport bike body styles. If you like minimalism, the M2 has that “Naked Bike” look. The S3 has wider bodywork, a bigger gas tank, and a semi-functional front fairing.


The S3’s hotter cam also sets it apart. Not by much. But you are getting a little more power out of the motor. It was enough for me to notice.

I must remind you that the party stops at 6,300 RPMs not 12,000. So, if revs cream you, don’t sniff around the Buell bush. You need to go to the land of Buddha. Or if a motorcycle built with the world’s leading technology and manufacturing techniques is what you are after, look to the Japanese and Europeans. The Buell is a brutish creature of nonconformity, and it reflects this in its build.

Not that it is built poorly. It is a different kind of build. Think of this as the difference between owning a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda and owning a 1997 Porsche 911 Coupe.

Let’s face it. The Buell is built by Americans for the American Dream. It is a motorcycle for open road touring and city cruising. For cafe racing and biker bar ornamenting. Could you ask for more? 


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