Motorcycle.com

It’s always amusing when we have news to report about Erik Buell and his star-crossed motorcycle company. Most people are like me, pulling hard for EB to triumph over evil once again and build more great motorcycles. But every time his company dies, there are also plenty of voices who pipe up to say he deserves it! His motorcycles are junk, the rake and trail are all wrong! He’s a terrible businessman, he doesn’t know how to market…

Number one, how many brilliant engineers have also been great businessmen and marketers? Number two, many of our favorite current motorcycles come from Piaggio’s subsidiaries. Just because a thing lacks a huge dealer network and isn’t easy to acquire doesn’t mean it’s junk, does it? When the Harley connection went away, so did Buell’s distribution network. Everybody doesn’t want to eat at the McD’s drive-thru every day just because it’s there, do they?

Personally, I just don’t see how you can root against an underdog like Buell? Maybe if the only Buell you ever rode was a pre-XB, some of which did have their issues (which I personally bagged on), but most of which are still on the road and deeply loved by their owners. I don’t know if Soichiro Honda’s first strap-on bicycle motors worked perfectly from day one, but I have to think there are precious few start-up motorcycle companies whose first designs had zero bugs. And in more recent times, the EBR 1190sRX and SX – got great reviews (including ours).

Buell Factory Tour

In the latest falling-out, with Hero, more than a few overweight linemen have wobbled up to pile onto Erik, stating that his insistence on going World Superbike racing is what bankrupted the company, that nobody wants a sportbike anymore, that his mother dresses him funny…

In fact, EBR’s race budget came from Hero, who really wanted to go racing to get their name out there (probably why HERO was so prominent on the bikes I’d have to guess). And racing, of course, is the thing that drives tech forward at companies like EBR (and Honda, and Yamaha, Ducati, et al…) and leads the way to cutting-edge motorcycles. And if sportbikes are dead (a big if), the AX adventure bike was next in line to be produced, heir to the very popular Buell Ulysses.

Is the only good Indian a debtor Indian? Rumor has it EBR did a lot of work for Hero’s small-displacement home-market program in addition to the World Superbike deal.

So, the WSBK effort was less than successful, but still pretty impressive if you ask me: For a tiny company with 130 employees in Wisconsin to even make the grid against Ducati and Kawasaki in the first year of trying is a big accomplishment in itself. I wonder if Harley-Davidson would’ve made the WSBK cut with its VR1000, back when they paid Miguel Duhamel and Scott Russell big money to ride it? It almost did win one race in what, six years of AMA competition?

EBR’s last race win may have been the pair of back-to-back wins in the Chinese Superbike series at Zhuhai International Circuit last June, just after EBR had gone into receivership. Cory West had won the first two rounds on the Splitlath Racing bike, but decided not to compete. Splitlath called upon Australian Mark Aitchison, who’d never seen the bike or the track. He won both legs anyway, in front of a crowd reported at 70,000.

The naysayers re: the Hero affair, of course, are probably the same ones who were sure it was Buell’s fault when Harley yanked the rug out from under Buell Motorcycles in 2009. Clearly Buells were all junk nobody wanted, they said, and never mind the nearly 137,000 mostly satisfied customers who’d bought Buells in the 26 years it was in business. So, when Hero withholds the financing Erik Buell was depending upon, it only reinforces their conviction that it’s Erik’s fault for mismanagement.

What does Erik think? This: “The really nasty and untrue things being expounded on the internet about myself and EBR are tough to take, but I’m a pretty tough guy. I think there are enough minority independent thinkers to buy what we build. That’s why the 137,000 happened – more bikes than some other known (and less vilified) brands sold during that period. And perhaps someone will buy into continuing the journey based on that potential. Because there are free-thinking customers out there.”

Well, I have no idea what soured the relationship between EBR and Hero, but Hero is the biggest motorcycle producer in the world, with a market capitalization according to Wiki, of $5.66 billion in 2013. If Hero had thrown in another 25 million to keep Buell going, which was what they originally paid in 2013 for their 49.2% share, it still would’ve represented a mere drop in the bucket to the Indian behemoth (and the real sum EB had been counting on to keep the doors open was probably far less).

But I think I’m beginning to get it. An article I was just reading about the rise of Donald Trump brings into focus a thing I always knew existed but maybe didn’t have a word for; it’s all about the Authoritarianism. Take this simple test: If you’re raising a child, is it more important that the child be i) respectful or independent? ii) obedient or self-reliant? iii) well-behaved or considerate? iv) well-mannered or Curious? If you picked the first option for each question, you sir, identify as strongly authoritarian according to this study in Politico, and may therefore be prone to dig the Donald.

Erik Buell is “B” across the board: independent, self-reliant, considerate and curious – a bad seed through and through if you’re an authoritarian parent. According to the study, authoritarianism is “one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”

Did some people see the Buell Motorcycle Company as a threat to Harley-Davidson and the American feet-forward way of life? When he got shot down again by Hero, did the people who gained strength from seeing Buell fail the first time see an affirmation of their earlier conclusion? If Americans were meant to fly, would God have given us Ducati Panigales? Is there an even-stronger-than-usual undercurrent in the U.S. today that’s opposed to progress if it disturbs the status quo (even when the SQ ain’t so hot), and derives pleasure from driving slow in the left lane? Since when are we a country that hates to see Horatio Alger succeed?

So my question is, where’s the xenophobia when you need it? Why don’t we blame the Indians for killing Buell instead of Erik Buell? Why are the Indians the bad guys in The Searchers, even though John Wayne was a tremendous d-bag in that 1956 John Ford classic, but now we blame Erik Buell? Wait, what’s that? Different Indians? Sorry, my bad.

(Personally, I blame Harley-Davidson for prematurely ejecting Buell in 2009, but I do give the Motor Company full props for bankrolling MV Agusta’s 800 Triple! I’m off to ride the new Brutale next week.)

Erik thinks: “Maybe a good thing to think about related to authoritarianism: To maintain trust of the fawning masses, a lot of disguising of the truth is required. Lots of historical precedent ranging from the humorous emperor-has-no-clothes, to the very not humorous “Arbeit macht frei” and the like. I guess you can get depressed, give in, or fight back.”

Why do I care anyway? Because I hate to see geniuses work their butts to the bone in the service of motorcyclekind, only to suffer ridiculously poorly aimed slings and arrows from the thickest section of the peanut gallery, that’s all. It almost makes you feel sympathetic toward President Obama, who recently claimed that if he found a cure for cancer tomorrow, the opposition would be all over him for putting all those nurses and drug companies out of work.

As for Erik Buell, he’s not going to complain about broken promises or what went wrong on this or any other forum, because, “What I say about topics like this could be twisted to be whining. And I don’t whine!”

What he does do is stay positive, and believe there’s a good chance the final chapter for Buell motorcycles has not yet been written. It’s more fun to watch than a Trump debate. Go Buell!!

Erik Buell inside the shop where he built his first motorcycles.