Winter is coming, which means most motorcyclists in the Midwest will soon put away their toys and wait until the leaves turn green once again. I am stubborn and don’t stop riding once the temperatures get frigid. But, it hit me that I don’t have a motorcycle I’m willing to ride in the snow and road salt. So, I did the logical thing and bought a beater, a bike that’s been abused and crashed. I just spent $1,000 on a 2001 Buell Blast, a motorcycle with just 1,500 miles, but crash damage and tires almost old enough to rent a car.
This summer I’ve returned to building a collection of fun and quirky motorcycles. My stable includes a Buell Lightning XB9SX City X, a Triumph Rocket III, a BMW R60/7, a Royal Enfield Classic 350, and my unfinished project Yamaha U7E. I came to the realization that I didn’t want to ride any of these bikes in the winter. Winter is harsh on a motorcycle and I would feel terrible taking any of the above bikes out into road salt and snow. My previous solution to this problem was a 1999 Triumph Tiger adventure bike. It was just crappy and broken enough that I didn’t care. It got me through two Illinois winters before I sold it earlier this year.
So, I needed another winter beater. I set a low budget of $1,000. Just a few years ago, a grand would get you a mechanically sound Universal Japanese Motorcycle from the 1980s with a worn-out paint job. A grand would get you a nearly pristine vintage Honda Gold Wing or a well-used beginner bike. Times have changed and the vast majority of $1,000 bikes I’ve found in Illinois don’t even run or are missing major parts. Weirdly, I did find a lot of cool and sometimes obscure $1,000 bikes in Detroit, but I’m not willing to drive a 12-hour round trip for a $1,000 motorcycle.
That’s when I remembered one motorcycle that’s always cheap no matter what: A Buell Blast, Harley’s expensive beginner bike experiment. Toss in some questionable reliability and speed so slow that some call it the Buell “B-Last” and you have the perfect recipe for a cheap beater. Bingo, I found one in Chicago for just $1,000. As luck would have it, I needed to go to Chicago for an unrelated thing, anyway, so this was perfect.
The Buell Blast
To understand why this motorcycle was just $1,000, we should take a look at why the motorcycle was arguably a failure in the first place. Let’s flip our calendars back to the 1990s. Harley-Davidson was riding on a wave of success thanks to major changes in the 1980s. The company launched the revolutionary Evolution engine, it broke up with American Machine and Foundry, and it even convinced the federal government to kneecap high-displacement Japanese imports with tariffs. Harley-Davidson was America’s darling and the 1990s were such a roaring period that at one point, Harley-Davidson controlled 56 percent of America’s large motorcycle market.
At any rate, Harley-Davidson was interested in keeping the cash flowing in. Harley-Davidson CEO Jeff Bleustein came up with a plan for this. The Motor Company would teach people how to ride a motorcycle at its Rider’s Edge riding school, then get those fresh riders on a Harley. Those new riders would then be expected to remain in the Harley-Davidson ecosystem for the entirety of their riding careers. Of course, in order to execute this plan, Harley needed motorcycles for beginners. As Cycle World reported, Bleustein envisioned an entire lineup of baby Harleys for beginners. Ultimately, Bleustein discovered that Harley-Davidson, a company known for its large cruisers, was unable to give him a fleet of tiny, inexpensive motorcycles. However, Harley-Davidson did own a company that could give him what he wanted.
Harley-Davidson tapped its Buell Motorcycle Company subsidiary for the job. Opened in 1983 by racer and engineer Erik Buell, Buell Motorcycle was known for its hardcore sportbikes that used Harley engines. Erik and his talented team hadn’t built a beginner bike, but they were up to the challenge.
Erik teamed up with Harley powertrain engineer Gary Stippich to create a 500cc Blast prototype. The crude machine used a Sportster’s engine with a cylinder lobbed off and a shortened frame of a Buell Lightning. It was decided that using half of an Evolution engine was going to be the path forward. The Evolution had already proven itself to be a reliable engine and modifying an existing engine would cut down on development costs.
Buell’s team wouldn’t just build any beginner bike, either, but the ultimate beginner bike. Harley-Davidson knew its core riders were getting older and thus it needed to breathe some fresh life into the brand. The Bar and Shield would attract new and young riders away from other brands by making a motorcycle that was easier to live with than the competition. Inexperienced riders often drop and crash their bikes, which would normally mangle and break the plastics of typical motorcycles. And if the panel survived, they had to deal with dents or missing paint.
Buell’s solution for this was Surlyn, a plastic material created by DuPont for use as golf balls and used by Chrysler for the bumpers of the Neon. Surlyn is not just extremely flexible and resistant to breaking, but it’s also molded in color, which hides damage really well. This basic concept would see other automotive use in cars like the Smart Fortwo. You could key a Buell Blast and the plastic underneath the surface is the same color as what you dragged the key through.
Of course, a motorcycle that’s resistant to breaking is only part of the puzzle. Beginners typically don’t know a ton about maintenance, so it’s best for the motorcycle itself to require little attention. A Gates belt runs the final drive, meaning no chains to lubricate. The engine used self-adjusting hydraulic valve lifters, so riders would never need to do valve adjustments. Likewise, the Blast would eventually get an automatic choke, which means no figuring out how to keep a cold engine running. Instead, the engine figures itself out. Automatic chokes are common today, especially in scooters, but over 20 years ago they were a bit more novel. Further, Buell even took away the guesswork of suspension adjustments. The 37mm Showa fork and a Showa compression shock out back cannot be adjusted.
The motorcycle still had Buell quirks, too, such as floating brakes, fluids stored in the frame, and a final drive pulley bolted right into the rear wheel. Since the Blast was a cheaper bike, Buell figured out a way to cut the cost of his quirks. Much of the motorcycle was designed so that one part could perform duties normally done by multiple parts. For example, the motorcycle stores its oil in its frame. Other Buell motorcycles store their fuel in their frame and oil in their swingarm.
At launch in 2000, the Buell Blast was $4,395, over $1,000 cheaper than a base Sportster. That Sportster-sliced-in-half engine has a 492cc displacement and makes 34 horsepower. It’s connected to a transmission using the gears from the sporty Buell X1 Lightning. The case of the engine was designed using finite-element analysis, a computerized process that predicts how something can react to the stresses of the environment it’ll be operating. That’s a process used in all modern vehicles.
Sadly, slicing an Evolution engine in half did not save any money. As Cycle World reported, the engine came 80 percent over budget and ended up being hundreds more expensive than better engines from Rotax. Making matters worse was the fact that the 34 HP engine and its 30 lb-ft torque had a lot of grunt down low, but 250cc motorcycles easily outran it on the top end. A Kawasaki Ninja 250 had half of the displacement, but two more horsepower and had no issues hitting the ton. In my experience, Blasts struggle to exceed 95 mph.
It would appear that Erik himself felt the Blast didn’t really fit in with his company. In 2009, Buell ran an ad campaign showing the company removing the Blast from its lineup by sending one into a crusher. Some of the final Blasts were then crushed and sold as memorabilia. Erik wrote this on Buell’s website:
“The Buell Blast was a cute little motorcycle. It just never made much of a sportbike. But, as luck would have it, it makes a killer ottoman. Or end table. Or art piece. Through an innovative process known as crushing, we’ve turned a limited number of Blasts into colorful metal cubes, each numbered and signed by Erik Buell himself. Hey, there’s no denying the Blast’s aforementioned cuteness. But there’s nothing cute about racing or riding a sportbike the way it was meant to be ridden.”
The Blast cost Harley-Davidson a ton of money and even today, riders mock the machine for how slow it is. So then, you’re probably wondering why I just bought one. In fact, this would be my second Buell Blast. More than five years ago, I bought a Blast as my very first motorcycle.
I’ve owned over 20 motorcycles since 2018, and many of them did not leave a lasting impression. I have fond memories of bombing a 1980 Honda Gold Wing down an interstate, but almost never think about the 1970s Yamaha DT175 that followed me home one day.
The Blast is one of those motorcycles I sometimes think about. I loved how my old Blast sounded like the demon spawn of a Sportster and a dirt bike. I loved how you could redline every gear and still be under the speed limit. It still had those excellent Buell traits like leaning into a turn with just the mere thought of going around a corner. Going 70 mph on a Blast felt like going 120 mph on anything else. And I loved how it was a tiny bike that got a lot of attention. Having half of an Evolution engine ended up being more of a talking point than I expected. It was slow, it broke in hilarious ways, and it ate its rear tire like a Chicagoan scarfs down a hot dog, but it was fun and it had character.
So, when I saw one for $1,000, I decided to get another Blast back into my life. It’s actually sort of amazing how cheap Blasts have remained. I paid $1,200 for my first Blast back in 2018. It had 19,000 miles, bald tires, a vapor lock problem, and shook so much it literally sheared its own exhaust off. Oh, and a month into ownership it deleted its second gear.
This bike is $200 cheaper and in way better condition.
The seller of this 2001 Buell Blast told me it had just 1,500 miles and those miles are original. I found that hard to believe. The Surlyn was bashed and beaten, obvious signs of the motorcycle having been dropped a bunch of times. A turn signal was snapped off, another turn signal didn’t work, and one of the pegs got bent. The seller told me someone had come by earlier that day and dropped it during a test ride. That person also broke one of the mirrors, which were already aftermarket replacements. It was obvious to me that this motorcycle had been dropped so many times.
Yet, despite the damage, it’s not going to take much to make this bike pretty again. I’ll replace the turn signals with LED units, give it new mirrors, and replace the bent peg. Then I’ll polish the plastic to hide some of the drop damage. Still, this didn’t seem like 1,500 miles to me, but maybe 10,500 miles of beginners dropping it over and over.
Still, it ran, it rode, and it had a clean title, so I gave the seller $1,000 and rode away happy. At first, I was just going to tow the bike home on a trailer, but I had to give it a ride around Chicago.
They Had No Idea What They Were Doing
Taking the Blast for a test ride was rather chaotic. The engine seemed like it was “idling” at halfway through its RPM range. I figured I would fix the issue when I got home, but I made it maybe a mile before I got fed up. Besides, idling that high was going to just cook this air-cooled engine in Chicago traffic.
I pulled into a gas station and examined the carburetor. Sure enough, someone fully tightened the idle screw (which controls where the throttle closes). I haven’t seen such a thing before. Did one of the previous owners think this was a screw that was supposed to be tight? Was a previous owner such a bad rider that the only way they wouldn’t stall it was by having the engine essentially running away? I backed off the screw quite a few turns, which turned the idle down to something normal. The bike has a fine idle and a clean carb, so it couldn’t have been covering up an issue.
The next problem I found was with the motorcycle’s oil. The seller told me that I’d probably have to change the bike’s oil due to age, but it’s way weirder than that. Someone filled the oil tank up to the very top. It was way past full on the dipstick. Did someone think you fill up oil like you fill up gas? I ended up having to remove a bunch of oil from the system, which made the motorcycle run even better.
Somehow, I’m still not done yet. One of the previous owners installed a nice LED headlight. This light is bright, has great coverage, and has a stylish DRL, but it points at the ground. An examination showed that not only was this light poorly installed, but nobody bothered to tighten the hex bolts on the bucket. So, the vibrating engine immediately shot the bucket down to the ground.
Through all of this, I figured this motorcycle couldn’t have 1,500 miles. Clearly, the speedometer had to have been replaced at some point. Then, I spotted clear evidence that the seller was probably telling the truth. The front and rear tires were in terrible condition with cracking all over. Yet, they still had tons of tread and even little nubs on them. The date codes? Both tires were made in the final weeks of 2000. The motorcycle was finished in May 2001. Yep, this thing is riding on 23-year-old tires! Nobody in the past 22 years said “these tires are cracking something terrible, I should replace them.” So, I will.
The seat is also maddeningly uncomfortable. My last Blast had this problem, so I’m not sure what I expected. But there are remedies for that.
Is It A Rescue?
Even after replacing those tires and sprucing up the broken parts, I think this bike will serve me well. Thankfully, riding this Blast reminded me of my old one, in a good way. These are great little going-to-town rigs and I’ll have a ball sending it down country roads.
As far as modifications go, I plan on doing some minor changes like I did with the Triumph Rocket III. I want to find a more comfortable seat, or at the very least a comfortable pad to put on top of the seat. I also want to drop the pegs about an inch or so. I might even add some soft cases and a windscreen. I’m not entirely sure just yet.
My wife, Sheryl, has a knack for saving abused animals. A couple of years ago, we adopted a senior chihuahua that was left abandoned in a house for months. His health declined severely during that abandonment and nobody wanted to adopt him. The no-kill shelter was going to put him down. We couldn’t let that happen and gave him a year of fun adventures before his health really made a hard dive. We also rescued a budgie from another abandonment situation and a conure from an irresponsible pet store chain. Seriously, the pet store had the poor guy living in a box all by himself with a broken foot and broken wings.
When I brought home the bike, Sheryl told me I rescued it from a series of owners who didn’t appreciate it. I’m not sure about that, but I will give this bike the rides it has deserved for more than two decades.
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