Buell Could Have Offered Harley A Lifeline Into The Future

Buell’s V-Twin-based RR1000 BattleTwin.
Buell’s V-Twin-based RR1000 BattleTwin.
Photo: Erik Shilling

Buell built over 136,000 motorcycles during its existence, the vast majority of those built while Harley-Davidson either owned or had a major stake in the company. You can find some of these sitting uncomfortably in the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, just over 10 years after Harley unceremoniously and inexplicably shuttered Buell for good.

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Nowadays, Harley isn’t dead like Buell, but it is hurting, thanks to a lot of problems Buell, if it was still around, might have been able to help them fix. Take the issue of “young people,” for example, who very much aren’t interested in motorcycles these days (in America, at least) and are especially not interested in Harleys, which are big and heavy and hard to handle if you’re a new rider.


Harley knows this and has tried to make some bikes for the youths, but the smallest of these still has a 750cc engine between your legs, which is enough power to go very fast in a very short period of time. It’s probably too much power for a new rider. It’s also too much power to train on, something Harley also knows, giving its trainees in the Harley Riding Academy 500cc Harleys to ride, which is closer to a proper amount of power for a new rider.

But not everyone goes to Harley’s training courses; most new riders go to ones put on by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, with nearly half-a-million riders taking the MSF’s basic rider course every year. And when I took it earlier this year, they didn’t put me on a Harley, either, it was 250cc Suzuki, which is the proper amount of power for a beginner.

This could be part of Harley’s problem: when the newest riders in America meet their first motorcycle, it’s usually small and Japanese. All of which is a long way of saying: Do you remember the Buell Blast? Yes, the 500cc Buell Blast, one of the ugliest and most boring motorcycles ever made. It looks like this:


I mention it because the Buell Blast, built from 2000 to 2009, was born from the same problem Harley suffers from today—new riders were learning on small Japanese bikes, not Harleys. And so Harley tasked Buell with creating a bike for trainees, hence the Blast, which told you absolutely nothing about Buell’s history of creating speed bikes but at least was an entry into the Harley brand, a company that Harley owned. The Blast was used in Harley’s early efforts to train new riders but the Blast died along with Buell in October 2009, when Harley’s CEO Keith Wandell killed the brand six months after he’d been appointed to the job.

And, indeed, I know when most people think of Buell they think of the performance bikes and technological advancements and the charisma of Erik Buell, its founder. But when I think of it I sometimes think about the Buell Blast, one of the meh-est motorcycles ever sold but one that also represented the right idea for Harley, at a time when the 883cc Sportster was the smallest thing they sold.


Harley didn’t get the execution but the broad strokes were correct: Make something small and approachable. It was a bike a new rider wouldn’t be terrified of, something probably even smaller than the Blast, something 300cc or less. Call it a Harley (or Buell). Sell it for under $5,000. Seed them to MSF classes everywhere. Get people at least familiar with the idea—at the beginning of their riding lives—that Harleys don’t have to be heavy and expensive. Worry very little what damage this might do to the “brand.” Your brand will be fine. It’s dying right now anyway.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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Harley will end up in business school textbooks as the poster child for its myopic double-down strategy. When they were flush with cash, they knew exactly who their customer was. They had to know that the goalposts were moving this entire time. A simple survey or, hell, a trip out to Sturgis, would confirm it. Basically their entire customer base is aging baby boomers, blowing their retirement wad on the “hog” that would finally allow them to be the lawless vagabond they longed to be once the dentist’s office closed. When the last boomer shuffles off his mortal coil, Harley will effectively be out of customers.

I feel like I have some unique insight on this. As a kid of 10 or so years old, my grade school classmates and I held the Harley Davidson nameplate in revered esteem. Only the dads of the most rough-and-tumble among us could mount a rumbling hog, their finger raised to the establishment as they rode into the sunset. Back then, Harley riders were caricatures out of Easy Rider come to life. They were scary, but in a bad-ass sort of way. They lived life on their own terms.

By the time I was a young adult, however, the Boomers had moved in. It seemed like something shifted, because the type of guy that would quietly pull up in a bomber jacket on a Goldwing or an Electra Glide was suddenly wearing chaps and a bandana and affecting his best grunt to say “loud valves save lives.” And just like that, Harleys became the bike of old people playing make-believe.