Buell Factory Tour
An inside look at Buell, plus an interview with Erik about the company's history
Get the Flash Player to see this player.The Buell Motor Company has a unique status in the pantheon of motorcycle companies, harking back to the early 20th century when clever people with mechanical skills would develop innovative machines out of their own garages.
Buell was founded by Erik Buell, and his now-legendary drive and determination has grown the company from a small farmhouse operation near Mukwonago, Wisconsin, to a 25-plus-year history of manufacturing that has produced more than 100,000 bikes. Now headquartered in East Troy, Wisconsin, and with the might of Harley-Davidson as a majority investor, Buell Motorcycles is on the most solid foundation it's ever been on.
It's been a tough row to hoe for Buell since he began trying to sell his first home-built bike in 1985. The two-stroke RW750 he produced became a stillborn project after the AMA annulled the Formula 1 roadracing class the RW was built for; only one bike was sold. And that's just the first of what would become many obstacles that might've demoralized a lesser man.
Erik Buell once had a famous Nietzsche quote hanging on his computer that helped provide inspiration: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Motorcycle.com recently got the opportunity to tour the company's three facilities on Buell Drive with none other than Erik Buell himself. Just 170 employees are responsible for the entire operation, and Mr. Buell joked during the tour, “Ducati has more people in their race department than I have in my whole company!”
A small office with three cubicles is where a lot of research and development takes place. Here, work is done in a virtual world using complex computer programs that can test for things like a strength/weight ratios of components to chassis flex. The list of items scattered around the room speaks to the personalities of these creative designers : scale models of GP bikes; racing posters; modern art paintings; Buell posters; “Easy” buttons; an 1125CR; design magazines; and frame castings.
We were treated to an animation of a Buell 1125R blasting through a virtual wind tunnel in a Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) program. It measures airflow and air pressure, and like all things at Buell, the software used isn't an off-the-shelf program – Buell added additional inputs and data to make it more accurate.
It was in this room where the design for the 8-piston calipers used on current Buell sportbikes were designed and created. Although built by Nissin, they are a total Buell design. Erik notes that the Analytical and Test groups are “glued together,” adding this is a situation, unlike most OEMs, that enhances creativity and the implementation of new designs.
The design team works within a matrix organization also composed of Purchasing and Quality engineers, and it's common for these guys to step seamlessly from “from CAD to dirty hands.”
Hearing Dane Hoechst (lead designer for the XB platform) and Matt Sheehan (lead designer for the 1125 chassis) speak about their jobs, it's obvious they share great enthusiasm for the Buell legacy they are building.
These guys aren't just desk jockeys, either, as they are often in the saddles of their development mules or doing competitive benchmarking on competitor's bikes, and there are many racers and trackday junkies working in the company. Not immune to the laws of physics, dozens of employees who have found themselves rubber side up during the years are immortalized on a Tree of Shame-type of crash trophy. “They don't have me on there anymore because they wouldn't have room,” Erik teased himself with a laugh.
The eagerness and devotion I saw from the engineers was quite evident, and an observer could readily tell that these guys really enjoy their jobs.
“If you are a guy who loves living on the edge and working really hard, you couldn't find a better place to work,” said Buell proudly about his crew. “It's fun if you like to be on the gas.”
Here's where things get a little more hands on, as engineers conduct tests of components from single parts to systems of parts to entire vehicles. Reams of data are gathered from a phalanx of sensors (temperature, pressure, vibration and mechanical stresses) that test for durability, performance and regulatory requirements.
We were able to witness an interesting test of the strength and durability of the Buell's 1125R/CR chassis, something they called the GVWR stoppie test. With the bike laid on its side and the frame fastened in place, repetitive pressure on the forks is applied to the extent that the naked eye could see the frame's steering head visually flex. A micrometer is affixed to precisely measure the amount of bending in the aluminum component. “It's one of the stiffest chassis in the industry,” commented test engineer Bob Sunday.
We had the opportunity during our tour to ask a few questions that were apropos of nothing in particular but somewhat revealing.
- Magnesium is a lightweight alloy that Erik Buell says weighs about 40% less than a similar aluminum component but it is costlier to purchase. The best places to lose weight from a motorcycle are at the furthest ends from center and from up high, so Buell uses a cast-magnesium bracket for the headlight and instruments on the 1125R.
- Several top-line sportbikes have their fork sliders treated with low-friction coatings such as titanium-nitride (colored gold) or Diamond-Like Carbon (black). These anti-stiction elements are intended to allow enhanced freedom of movement of the front suspension for a more controlled and supple ride, but they aren't present on any current Buell. According to Eric, the TiN or DLC coatings would add about $100 to the cost of a bike, and he believes that money is best spent elsewhere on his production bikes.
A stable of competitor's bikes leads up to this area where theory meets testing and practical application. Inside a room were two custom-built apparatuses. On display was a device that measures a wheel's turn inertia (the amount of energy needed to turn a front wheel from upright) and spin inertia (the amount of energy stored in a rotating wheel/tire. From these measurements, Buell can confidently say its single perimeter-style front brake rotor has less spin inertia than a typical dual-disc setup.
Also in the room was an immense table with the ability to tilt in every direction, an arrangement that accurately determines a motorcycle's center of gravity and the positioning of a bike's moment of inertia pivot. A common CoG height of motorcycles, according to a Buell employee, is 19-20 inches.
ELVIS Is In the Building
Maximizing efficiency is critical for a manufacturer of any size, and Buell has been developing ELVIS (Electronic Linked Vital Information System) since 2001 to meet these needs. First dreamed of in 1997, this Buell-developed custom productivity software offers info sharing on every single part or a whole bike that comes into or out of the Buell factory.
Erik Buell says ELVIS is representative of what his company does, offering unmatched tracking possibilities, even selectively linking via the web to Buell's parts/components suppliers. “It's part of what allows us to do what we do,” says Erik. On the day of our visit, an ELVIS info screen on the factory floor told us Buell was scheduled to build 35 bikes that day, less than half of the possible 80 per day maximum output.
Located in a separate building next door to the administrative facility is the Buell production line. It's laid out in a semi-circle and, like any modern factory, each bike has an electronic build sheet that follows the bike through its stages of construction.
The first step in building a Buell motorcycle is to prep a pre-built frame which consists of applying serial numbers, heat shielding and the requisite warning decals. Next up is mating the frame to an engine: The air-cooled XB engines are shipped from Harley, while the liquid-cooled 1125 bikes are fitted with motors shipped from Rotax in Austria. Further along, forks and swingarms are added to each bike, as well as the electrical systems. Bodywork and various other parts are fitted to complete each bike.
The final step is a rolling road dyno system where the bikes are fired up and run through the gears. This is the last opportunity to ensure all systems check out and the bikes are fully operational.
Long before he was constructing motorcycles, Erik Buell was a racer – first in the dirt and then in the roadracing ranks. As such, it shouldn't be a surprise that he has a separate facility down Buell Drive in which Buell's racing activities stem from. Racing is something Erik Buell doesn't take lightly, and an indication of the company's commitment to competition is the recent hiring of David McGrath, an ex-Factory Honda Superbike crew chief who heads up Buell's racing activities.
Although race parts are developed for the air-cooled XB platform, it's the recent introduction of the liquid-cooled 1125R sportbike that has put the company's racing activities on a higher plane. Young ex-dirt-tracker Danny Eslick has already carded three wins this year in the AMA's Daytona Sportbike class for the Rossmeyer GEICO Powersports RMR team, showing the potential of the V-Twin-powered machine.
The race shop also develops equipment for the 1125R competing in the Canadian Superbike series. At the time of our tour, a Superbike built for the Canadian national events was sitting on a stand. Interestingly, the CSB machine had two horizontally placed radiators instead of the stock bike's laterally placed ones. It is hoped that the pair of small but thick rads will offer comparable cooling but with less weight.
In Daytona Sportbike competition, the 1125cc twin-cylinder Buell competes against 600cc four-cylinders, giving them a power advantage. However, newly reformatted rules stipulate that the Buells must weigh at least 380 lbs, a 20-lb penalty compared to the Japanese Fours. Stay tuned to Motorcycle.com for a ride report of a race-prepped 1125R.
We've always had a soft spot for Erik Buell and his innovative company, and that was only reinforced further after our tour of Buell's headquarters. Although Buell hasn't yet unveiled any new models for the 2010 model year, we're looking forward to seeing what will come next from the devoted and inventive people working for this American pioneer.