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One Man’s Imperfect Quest To Build Sportbikes In America

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Anytime anyone rags on one of Erik Buell’s motorcycles, I have to fight an overwhelming urge to pick them up and shake them. “Don’t you understand his story?!” I shout in my head. Not enough people do, so let’s fix that once and for all. It’ll make you appreciate the quirky, flawed genius of his motorcycles.

This story originally ran on May. 14, 2015 and is being featured again for the Jalopnik Christmas Evergreen Bonanza.


The Beginning

Erik put himself through engineering school at the University of Pittsburgh by working as a motorcycle mechanic. On the side, he raced motorcycles. First in AMA Superbike, then Formula One, where he rode the insanely fast Yamaha TZ750. In 1979, after graduating, he hopped on a plane to Milwaukee and, “Beat my way in the door,” of Harley-Davidson, where he worked on the Nova V-Four and helped fix the stability of the company’s FXR range.


Harley was the only motorcycle game in town, if your town happened to be the United States of America. Something Buell, himself, would eventually change.

During his time at Harley, Erik helped re-engineer the fast, but incredibly flawed Barton 750cc square-four two-stroke, racing the English bike in AMA’s Formula One series. The bikes were incredibly fast for the time, hitting speeds of 178mph at Talladega, but wouldn’t stop breaking. Erik believed in the bike’s potential though, deciding to leave Harley to focus on the Buell Motorcycle Company full time.

By 1984, he had quite the product. Complete with a purpose-built chassis of his own design, Buell’s Barton-based RW750 (above) was capable of winning Formula One races and he was selling it for just $17,000. Yamaha had just stopped producing the TZ and buying a Honda to compete in the series would cost teams $30,000.


The right time and the right place for a talented young engineer with the right product? Nope. The next year the AMA decided to can the Formula One class in favor of Superbike and his RW750 didn’t meet the rules. This would be the first major setback Buell would overcome.


The First Buell Street Bikes

Having quit his job at Harley to make race bikes that were now no longer eligible for racing, Erik did what any logical person would do: he decided to squeeze a Harley motor into a futuristic chassis and forever change motorcycle design.


His contacts at Harley helped him acquire a container of forgotten XR1000 motors, for the time about the most powerful V-twin engine going. Around that, he designed a unique steel trellis frame based on the RW750’s that used innovative uniplanar rubber mounts to make the engine a stressed member of the chassis. That made the bike incredibly light.

Of course, he didn’t stop there. Rather than mounting the shock in the traditional location, between the swingarm and rear cylinder, Buell instead moved it below the engine, where it would help centralize mass and locate the shock in cool airflow. This required a unique linkage mechanism unlike any designed before, stretching the shock as the swingarm moved up and compressing it as it moved down; that’s opposite how they normally work.


Around all that he wrapped an all encompassing, aerodynamic fairing. In addition to being one of the most uniquely engineered motorcycles ever made, it’s also one of the most unique looking.

Buell sold 50 RR1000 Battletwins between 1987 and 1988, emptying that container of motors. That enabled him to purchase Harley’s new 1,203cc v-twin for a second run of 65 bikes, now dubbed the RR1200, in 1988 and ‘89. Further refinements to this bike and a dual-seat version helped move 325 units by 1993.


Harley’s Performance Range

In 1987, Erik was smuggled aboard a cruise ship that Harley had rented for its annual dealer meeting. There, according to CycleWorld, a group of dealers and former racers helped pitch the idea of a sport bike range to the Motor Company’s executives, suggesting Erik could do so externally, with virtually no risk for Harley. It took a few years, but they bit and, in 1993, Harley-Davidson acquired a 49 percent stake in The Buell Motorcycle Company.


The first fruit of this partnership was the S2. Its chassis dated back to that original Formula One race bike, now holding the 1,200cc motor from Harley’s sportster range. $100,000 was invested in the motorcycle’s design and it was to be sold through a handful of Harley-Davidson dealers. Projected sales were just 300 motorcycles, but 1,399 bikes were built between 1994 and 1996. The new Buells were a hit and production continued to grow through the rest of the ‘90s.

During this time, Buell was also tasked with developing a suitable training bike for Harley dealers. The smallest bike Harley sold for many years was the 883cc Sportster, which was simply way too heavy and compromised to make a good learning tool. New riders were learning on Japanese bikes, which Harley saw as unacceptable, and it wanted to integrate new rider training into its own dealers. So, they came up with the harebrained scheme of lopping a cylinder off that Sportster motor and designing a new bike around it. It was also a scheme that would see Harley make money on each motor it sold to Buell, then Buell took a net loss due to the extreme cost of re-engineering it. The end result was one of the ugliest, most boring bikes ever made: the Buell Blast.


Harley Buys Buell

In 2003, to little fanfare, Harley purchased the remaining shares of the Buell Motorcycle Company, turning it simply into the Buell Motorcycles brand. Erik was tasked with developing all its new motorcycles.


That same year, the innovative new XB range (above) went on sale, complete with a staggering list of new technologies. An all-new aluminum beam frame wrapped the engine’s perimeter, also holding the fuel. This left room for a very large airbox, right on top of the motor. The brakes moved out to the front wheel’s rim, reducing unsprung weight and increasing their leverage over the wheel’s momentum.

Of course, that motor was still pulled from a Sportster, leading to an odd combination of forward-thinking technology built around an engine that was now positively archaic. Riding one was like riding a 250cc GP bike — the handling was incredibly sharp, yet totally stable — just one that was powered by, well, a Harley. The bikes met with limited success, even after the more powerful 1,200cc motor was fitted. That’s a shame, because these bike had character. Looking for a future classic? XBs are the best bikes Buell ever made and, right now, they’re dirt cheap.


To compete with the rest of the world, Buell desperately needed a liquid-cooled motor. He originally developed the V-Rod engine with Porsche for that purpose, but Harley ended up perverting that project for its own ends. So, for the first time, Erik had to turn to another supplier: Rotax. This is about the time we met each other for the first time and also when Erik was starting to realize that being owned by Harley might not be all that great.

He’d originally conceived what became the brand’s 1125 range as an all-out, 1,190cc superbike built to win races and make Japan and Italy look silly in a single blow. But Harley meddled, and what was released was instead a half-faired sport tourer with a smaller engine, marketed as a superbike. The public didn’t get it.


“If we had raced the 1125RR as an 1190 superbike first and then come out with the 1125R, with the higher higher handlebars and the bigger fairing and the saddlebags — which is really what that bike was, a sports touring model, but things got mixed around by management — would it have sold better? No freaking doubt,” Erik told me a couple of years later. “I will go to my grave believing that we made a mistake.”


Shortly before Harley suddenly shuttered Buell, the brand released this bizarre ad. At the time, no one really understood it, but with hindsight we can understand it as demonstrating how frustrating having the expensive Blast program hanging around Erik’s neck must have been.

Harley Kills Buell

In 2009, an evil corporate fuck named Keith Wandell became CEO of Harley. He didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle and had no experience with them. Almost immediately, he went gunning for Buell, which, according to CycleWorld, he described as “Erik’s racing hobby” and questioned “why anyone would even want to ride a sportbike.”


As an evil corporate fuck, he also saw that $20,000 cruisers had almost zero development cost, giving them incredibly high margins while $10,000 sport bikes had high development costs, giving them low margins. So, without analyzing the end cost of doing so and without attempting to sell it, Wandell simply killed Buell Motorcycles.

Famously, this made Erik cry. His life’s work was just flushed down the toilet by someone who couldn’t even ride a bike.


Expectedly, the move proved controversial with The Motor Company’s shareholders. Doubly so when Wandell was seen to block a purchase attempt by Rotax’s parent company, Bombardier. This ended up costing Harley $125 million in shut down costs, a double punch to the beer gut when you consider 2009 was the company’s worst sales year in over a decade.

All of Erik’s former patents and designs remained property of Harley. This would be the second major setback Buell would overcome.


Erik Buell Racing

Later that same year, Erik announced the formation of EBR, a new company based out of a little lockup in East Troy, Wisconsin.


His first bike was the 1190RR, made using that Rotax engine he’d originally wanted to bring to market under Buell Motorcycles. It was first raced by Pegasus, a German team, at Oschersleben. I flew over there with Erik to watch that happen. On track with the fastest V-twins from Aprilia, Ducati and Honda, raced by teams with equivalent budgets, it looked like a MotoGP bike let loose on a public track day. It was a vindicating moment for the engineer and a pretty solid weekend of of beers, crazy germans and heavy metal. Erik plays guitar in his own band.

EBR was eventually able to campaign the 1190RR with some success in AMA superbike and, in 2011, brought the $45,000 1190RS to production and was able to sell about 65 of them. Erik was back! But he wanted to do more than just sell a handful of exotic superbikes. He wanted to go racing and he wanted to make a real motorcycle company again. And that’s where he got into trouble.


In 2013, gigantic Indian manufacturer Hero Motor Corp acquired a 49% stake in EBR for $25 million. This gave Erik the capital to expand quickly, something he did by hiring 126 employees, entering the top-tier World Superbike series and developing a mid-priced superbike intended to tackle Ducati et al head on. In hindsight, all of that must have been expensive.

Then, last month, it all came to crashing halt. EBR filed for bankruptcy, released its employees and closed down its racing operation. The precise events that caused this are unknown and Erik didn’t respond to my requests for comment this time. But, industry analyst Michael Uhlarik provides some insight for us:

Erik Buell had a viable business. They managed to sell 65 bikes priced at $45,000. That is remarkable by any measure. For an unknown brand to get to $3 million in revenue in only 18 months with zero marketing or distribution is a testament to the enormous potential the company had. Which is why Hero was willing to stump up the $25 million for the 49% stake.

But that is where things went off the rails. With EBR now valued at nearly $50m the company had to generate income at an exponential rate to justify its existence. The market for ultra boutique sport bikes, globally, is tiny, so EBR was pushed into making mass market sport bikes which put them on a collision course with the giants of the industry. To do this effectively, the EBR product needed to be exceptional in every way, while marketed and distributed effectively, neither of which was possible with the resources available.

EBR’s foolish forays into international road racing didn’t help. Uncompetitive and invisible to potential consumers as a result, the racing program sucked up huge sums of money that needed to be invested in quality and design. In the end, the EBR products were just no match for off-the-shelf superbikes from mainstream brands, while at the same time not being different or special enough to appeal to high rollers seeking the ultimate exotic. Buell played for the middle ground, where the crowd snuffed him out of existence.


This is Erik’s third major setback. Will he overcome it this time?

Buell’s Future

Erik doesn’t sound like he’s given up. Writing on EBR’s Facebook page shortly after the doors shut, he stated:

Thank you for the supportive posts, texts, and e-mails since the announcement that EBR has ceased operations. This is a difficult time, and your comments mean a great deal to me personally and also to the EBR team that has done such amazing work over the past few, intense years.

No doubt, it was an incredible ride, feeling like the longest qualifying lap ever. And, then, just when we knew we were about to set an all-time record, we tossed it in the last corner…

Keeping with racing analogies, now we need to get back on the track and look ahead remembering all the things we were doing right around so many turns.

Unfortunately, in the end, we tried to do too much with too little funding, but it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments. We introduced the world class American super bikes of 1190RS, 1190RX and 1190SX, while at the same time doing revolutionary work for Hero on the HX250R, Leap, SimplEcity, iON, RnT and many others, plus concepts never publicly seen. It was great EBR innovation and design, and introduced new technology to Hero and its suppliers to provide a real kickstart for them. But in the end all of this simply overwhelmed us, and for that we are sorry and saddened.

I want you to know that looking ahead my focus is 100% on helping the receiver best maximize the value from EBR to benefit all, and I will make every possible effort to get the new organization to where it can support the dealers and customers first, and then help find investment to get back to full throttle.

Thank you for your support, it means a great deal. Please stay tuned—I cannot predict the future, but always believe the best is yet to come.


Uhlarik suggests that the opportunity remains to produce a quirky, characterful, exotic motorcycle. One that’s produced in limited numbers and remains incredibly exclusive as a result. Attempting to compete against companies with billion dollar budgets, established dealer networks and successful race teams has just proven not to work.


What will Erik do next? He’s failed before, he’s started over before. And every time, he comes back stronger. There’s no way to know what’s next, but I bet it’ll be fast.

Reformed motorcycle journalist Wes Siler now writes about going camping with his dog. You can read more of his work on IndefinitelyWild.