Bikes 

Riding Impression of the 2000 Buell Blast

Harley Davidson 2000 Buell Blast

It’s been a much-discussed rumor. It’s been the subject of wild-guess speculation and thinly-veiled references by industry insiders. But it is conjecture no more. The Buell Blast is a reality. And not since the Aermacchi days of the Sixties and Seventies has Harley-Davidson taken such a bold step in the direction of entry-level motorcycling.

A statement made by Jerry Wilke, CEO of Buell Motorcycles and former Marketing Director of Harley-Davidson, explains more about the reasoning behind the Buell Blast than anything else: “For each year of marketing, the average Harley-Davidson customer gets one year older.” So, while Harley is still growing its market quickly, it is growing it older. If that trend were to continue, Harley would someday sell its very last motorcycle to the very last great-grandpa still interested and able to ride.

Harley’s response to that grim prognosis is the Buell Blast—a small and inexpensive motorcycle specifically designed to do one thing: bring new people into Buell and Har­ley dealerships, thereby expanding the motorcycle market. How will it do that? First, the price. At $4395 ($4495 in California), the Blast is more than a grand less than the least-expensive Sportster, low enough that quite a few people could buy one with a credit card. Second, the Blast was de­signed to be non-threatening to new riders. With an all-new, 500cc single-cylinder en­gine producing 30 horsepower, and with a claimed dry weight of just 360 pounds, the Blast is aimed to perform adequately without having any intimidating capabilities. Third, it’s sized to make even very short riders feel comfortable at stoplights and when maneuvering through park­ing lots; there are two different seat heights available, even the tallest of which allows someone 5-foot-4 to place both feet on the ground.

Inspiration for the Blast project began at the very top with Harley-Davidson’s CEO, Jeff Bleustein. Explains Wilke, “You have to remember that Harley has been on a roll for more than 10 years. Jeff identified a serious challenge when he told us that we may run out of customers. We want to keep demand ahead of supply, and to do that, you have to build new customers faster than manufacturing builds motorcycles.”

In answer to his own challenge, Bleustein mandated his design team to come up with a simple, low-cost machine that could be sold as an entry point to motorcycling, whether to new riders or returning ones.

That’s when Erik Buell became involved, quick­ly turning Bleustein’s vision into hardware. Working with Gary Stippich (Buell Powertrain Liaison from Harley-Davidson at that time), Buell created a single-cylinder, proof-of-concept prototype that utilized a one-cylinder version of a Sportster engine bolted into a Buell Lightning chassis with shortened suspension. That first running concept model was crude, but it clearly demonstrated that a pushrod Single could offer acceptable performance.

After that, the work got serious. While the company’s product planners and market researchers were busy accumulating information about what potential Generation-X motorcyclists were looking for in a bike, the engineers at Buell were trying to figure out how to build an inexpensive—but not “cheap”—motorcycle that met all the parameters.

From early on, the decision was made to base the new bike’s engine on the Sportster’s. The powerplant wouldn’t simply be a single-cylinder slice of the XLH motor, but it would share some parts and as much of its tooling as possible. The reasons were both in timing—the Sportster engine was well-proven, and a derivative could be spun off quickly—and in cost. Harley had invested in automated tooling so it could build tens of thousands of Sportster engines economically and with great precision. By taking advantage of that tooling, Buell could save hundreds and hundreds of dollars on the Blast’s retail price.

Harley Davidson 2000 Buell Blast

“We want to keep demand ahead of supply, and to do that you have to build new customers faster than manufacturing builds motorcycles.”

Jeff Allen

A skunk-works group of H-D engine engineers was placed in a trailer behind Buell’s offices in East Troy and given the task of turning this concept into reality. It also offered a won­derful opportunity to incorporate all the changes desired by manufacturing to make the new engine easier to machine and build, as well as some of the engineering lessons hard-won during the Twin Cam 88 development. The engine that resulted bears only a slight visual resemblance to a Sporty motor, and shares only a few parts directly.

The Blast’s lone cylinder is carried in new engine cases that are the final outcome of a thorough finite-element analysis of strength requirements. The cases incorporate numerous brackets, including the swingarm-pivot bosses and muffler brackets, that were separate parts on previous Buells—the kind of sim­plification that reduces costs and im­proves quality. The engine pushes one 31/2-inch-bore piston, the same as in a 1200 Sportster, through a 31/8-inch stroke, which is 11/16-inch shorter. The net result is 492cc of displacement.

To keep the deck height the same as the Sportster’s, the Blast uses a proportionately longer connecting rod. The Sportster’s oil pump has been retained, but the oil passages were reconfigured for easier machining on modern CNC centers, and a smaller oil filterwas tucked away just under the cam cover; the big oil filter and boss of the Sportster are a vestigial styling effect de­signed to be reminiscent of the generator on classic engines.

Similarly, the cam cover iteslf shrink-wraps over the mechanisms underneath, rather than extend beyond them to make the engine appear larger than it is. The multiple gear/separate-cam-lobes concept remained as it is on Sportster/Buell Twins, but with the two rear cams removed. Because of that ex­traction, the cam drive from the crank had to be moved from the Twin’s rear-cylinder intake cam to the Blasts’s solo intake cam. That, in turn, reversed cam rotation and re­quired the cam lobes to be mirror-images of the Sportster’s lobes.

Perhaps the biggest difference between these two engines, though, was the removal of the “trap door” for the gear­box. Sportsters and Buell Twins have an access plate that allows the gearbox to be bench-assembled and dropped into or removed from the side of the engine without splitting the cases. That no doubt was a worthwhile feature in an earlier world of unreliable gearboxes, but as Erik Buell likes to point out, “We’ve never had a warranty claim on the gears in a Buell gearbox.” Since the Blast uses the same gears as an X1 Lightning, and since those gears were originally designed to handle 100 foot-pounds of torque, they should last several lifetimes in the 30-horse Blast. So, the gearbox fits directly into the cases, which are stronger and lighter without the trap door, and certainly less expensive.

It was that kind of thinking that continued throughout the entire design process for the Blast. From the beginning, the focus was on making the bike a usable, functional, high-quality motorcycle, but to achieve that with a low price tag. To that end, Buell engineers looked everywhere in a quest to eliminate parts, to make one component do the work of two or three.

That philosophy is clearly evident in the Blasts’s wheels and brake discs, and in the final drive. The wheels were designed specifically for the Blast, and the lightweight, cast units have mounting bosses on the spokes; this allows both the brake discs and the rear sprocket to mount without carriers at just under their working diameters. The boss on the wheel stands slightly proud of the disc, so with the addition of a simple wave washer, a floating-disc design is achieved.

On the final drive, a Gates toothed belt is employed, as on other Harleys and Buells, but this one is just 18mm (about 3/4-inch) wide. The latest Gates belts stretch so little, and Buell was able to hold such tight tolerances with the swingarm pivot in the engine cases, that no belt adjustment whatsoever at the rear axle was provided or needed.

As for the frame itself, it’s an innovative but unusual-looking structure comprising a rectangular steel back­bone mated with nu­merous stamped sheet-metal pieces, welded of a combination of mild and 4130 chrome-moly steel. It uses a simplification of Buell’s “Uniplanar” rubber engine-mounting concept, which has one mount suspending the front of the engine, and a second, Dyna-style mount attaching to the top of the gearbox and the rear backbone. As on other Buells, three tie-rods allow the engine to float while keeping the wheels in alignment.

As for the frame itself, it’s an innovative but unusual-looking structure comprising a rectangular steel back­bone mated with nu­merous stamped sheet-metal pieces, welded of a combination of mild and 4130 chrome-moly steel. It uses a simplification of Buell’s “Uniplanar” rubber engine-mounting concept, which has one mount suspending the front of the engine, and a second, Dyna-style mount attaching to the top of the gearbox and the rear backbone. As on other Buells, three tie-rods allow the engine to float while keeping the wheels in alignment.

Steering geometry is set responsively, with a 25-degree head angle and just 3.4 inches of trail. The wheelbase spans the same 55-inch distance as the larger Buells, but the wheels and tires are smaller, 16-inch units. What results is a low machine that seems in perfect proportion until you place it next to another motorcycle; with that contrast, you see just how small the Blast is.

You don’t need to park it next to another bike to notice how well finished it is, though. The bodywork shines with a smooth, mirror brightness whose evenness is almost impossible to achieve with paint. That’s because it’s not painted. The front fender, gas-tank cover (the actual tank is the black, roto-molded part beneath), flyscreen fairing and tailsection are molded from a high-tech Dupont material called Surlyn. It’s a plastic with molded-in color originally developed for cut-proof golf balls, and later used by Chrysler for bumper covers on its Neon cars.

Harley Davidson 2000 Buell Blast Wheel

Innovative wheel design attaches the brake rotors and final-drive pulley at bosses cast into the spokes, rather than at the hub. Thus, the rotors need no carriers, and the reduction in braking/drive torque transmitted through the attachment points permits smaller, lighter mounting hardware.

Jeff Allen

Buell is only the second vehicle manufacturer after Chrysler to use this material, and the parts come out of their chrome-plated molds with the finish you see on them. While this process limits color choices—only black, blue or red, initially—the molded-through color of this plastic means that scuffs or scratches can be buffed away. The parts are also far less costly than painted items would be; the entire collection of body­work can be replaced for less than the gas tank alone on some imported bikes—which further helps a Blast owner by keeping insurance costs down.

Sit on the Blast, and once again you are reminded that it’s a small machine. A six-footer fits reasonably well with the higher of the two seats, though your knees may rest slightly higher than your hips with your feet on the pegs. The ignition switch (with integral fork lock) is up on the top triple-tree, and a couple of seconds of pressure on the start button fires things up. Almost uniquely among motorcycles, the Blast is fitted with an automatic choke, so there’s little to do but listen to the surprisingly deep-throated Single warm up at a fast idle for a minute or so.

Pulling away, the torquey character of this powerplant is noticeable; with fairly mild cams—the same profile as those on the 1200 Sportster Sport—it pulls strongly from just off idle, requiring no clutch slippage to get moving. The clutch pull is light, and gearshifting is easier and more precise than it is on larger Buells. The little Single revs quickly, rapidly reaching the 6500-rpm rev limiter and pul­ling quickly to highway speeds. Performance up to 70 mph is sprightly and relatively close to that of an 883, with the larger bike’s greater power doing little more than compensating for the 140 extra pounds it carries compared to the 360-pound Blast. Only above 80 mph do you really notice that you’re on a 500.

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Vibration throughout the entire rpm range is quite well-controlled. As with other rubber-mount Harleys and Buells, there may be some (mostly low) engine speeds at which a bit of vibration reaches the rider via the handgrips and the seat; but on the highway, the Buell proves to be one very smooth Single, offering too little vibration to complain about.

In town or on a backroad, the Blast is re­sponsive, light and maneuverable. Its quick steering geometry and small tires make it feel bicycle-responsive, yet the rigid chassis keeps everything under control. Like any other Buell, the Blast can be ridden hard without doing anything to scare its rider.

The riding position is basically upright, with feet well to the front—almost like a classic British or Japanese standard from the Sixties or Seventies. The taller of the two seats—the dealer installs one or the other when you buy the bike—is fitted with soft foam that lets you sink down into it. That’s good for balancing the bike, but a heavier rider can sink too far and feel the shape of the seat pan underneath, thus perpetuating a Buell tradition of marginal seats. This will likely be less of a bother for lighter riders.

Harley Davidson 2000 Buell Blast

The quick steering geometry and small tires make it feel bicycle-responsive, yet the rigid chassis keeps everything under control.

Jeff Allen

In keeping with Bleustein’s original mandate, the Blasts’s suspension components—a 37mm Showa fork and a single, conventional Showa compression shock in the back—offer no adjustments; the designers wanted nothing on the bike that might intimidate or discourage a new rider. The suspension is set up soft at both ends, and the ride is outstanding, better than that of any other Buell. A skilled rider trying to whip along a tight backroad would wish for stiffer settings, but that’s not the bike’s target audience. Besides, Buell planners felt that the harsher ride and the perceived nervousness that usually comes with stiff suspension weren’t worth the trade-off.

So, what we have here is a collection of skillfully made compromises, trade-offs that deliver a well-finished, good-performing, fun-to-ride Single at an attractive price. And along the way, Buell has carefully eliminated almost any attribute that might disgruntle or confuse a new rider. In achieving this, the designers and engineers have created a motorcycle that is fully capable of pleasing a new motorcyclist without insulting an experienced one.

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