We were shocked and saddened and bummed-out to hear about Erik Buell Racing’s latest financial setback last week, but maybe not completely surprised. When you’re out there on the edge of traction, sometimes you fall off, especially when you get bumped by corporate nabobs. This isn’t the first time our favorite motorcycle iconoclast has had an unplanned dismount. (I, for one, know the feeling…) But a big reason we love the man is because he never fails to get right back in the saddle. Another reason is because he doesn’t choose the path of least resistance and maximum profit and personal safety, preferring to build outrageous American motorcycles nobody else has had the courage to do since Al Crocker. Here’s to Erik and to hoping all the good people at EBR doing God’s work will, ahh, bounce back once again and keep doing it ASAP.
10. DOWN: the Formula 1 RW750
In the early ’80s, Erik Buell bought up all of Barton’s square-four two-stroke engines and assorted other parts, and re-engineered the English boutique racer into a wild thing that was clocked at 178 mph. The RW750 was going to be a serious contender against TZ750s and new V-Four Hondas in the AMA’s old Formula 1 class. By the time EB had quit his job (at Harley-Davidson) and all the pieces were finally reliable(ish) and in place after a couple years of hard labor, the AMA announced Superbike would be the premier class in 1986, and dropped Formula 1.
9. UP: 1985 Buell RR1000 Battletwin
Did Erik give up? No he did not. He went back and bought up a batch of XR1000 engines from his friends at Harley-Davidson and built the first four-stroke Buell. The RR1000, circa 1985, had most of the building blocks all the mass-produced H-D Buells would later use: the Uniplanar engine mounting system that used the engine as a stressed member while isolating its vibration, the under-engine exhaust, and horizontal rear shock operating in extension. Complete with lights and all the other required street equipment, this bike made Buell one of two American motorcycle manufacturers. Definitely unique.
8. UP! H-D Buys into Buell
In 1993, Harley-Davidson bought 49% of Buell and mostly let Erik be Erik in his Troy, Wisconsin, factory. Actual practical motorcycles like the ’94 Thunderbolt S2 (with a few teething problems) were produced in quantity, and MO’s founder, Brent Plummer, was heavily involved in building Buells that competed successfully in AMA Pro Thunder competition when they weren’t strewn all over the MO offices. By 2003, Harley owned 100% of Buell, and in 2006, Buell announced it had shipped its 100,000th motorcycle.
7. WAY UP: Buell XB9S
Personally, the XB9S is my favorite Buell and the best one ever for personal transportation. Tiny, sharp-steering, terrifically torquey and amazingly smooth-running. Too bad politics within Harley-Davidson kept the 150-hp turbocharged version from ever seeing the light of day. What wound up being the V-Rod engine was another miscarriage of engineering justice that was originally supposed to power a true Buell American superbike, while the V-Rod went on to not be a huge success. At all.
6. UP: Buell 1125R Wins Daytona Sportbike Championship
Danny Eslick won the Daytona Sportbike championship against an angry mob of 600 riders who claimed it had way too much displacement, but Eslick also had his hands full dealing with tire wear and only won three races. In any case, it was a helluva lot of fun to watch. The 1125R was the first Buell to use the Rotax-built 72-degree liquid-cooled Helicon V-Twin, the engine that launched Buell into the modern era for the 2008 model year. Before that, Buells had won AMA nationals in Formula Xtreme and ProThunder, along with a few championships in other parts of the world.
5. DOWN (or UP, depending on your point of view): H-D Pulls the Plug
In October, 2009, Harley-Davidson announced it was shutting down Buell Motor Company (and selling off MV Agusta), in a move it said would allow it to concentrate on its core cruiser business. So much for diversification. CEO Keith Wandell was quoted in various places as never having been in favor of Erik’s “racing hobby,” and the aftermath of the housing bubble implosion and massive financial mismanagement in Washington provided the perfect opportunity to drop the axe. EB’s farewell address is a sad thing to watch, but he didn’t stay down, did he? Oh no, he did not. Neither did his hair. Picking up the pieces, Buell started up Erik Buell Racing a month later, with a focus on producing racing machines only.
4. UP: HERO Buys In
On July 1, 2013, Hero MotoCorp, an Indian motorcycle giant, acquired 49.2% stake in EBR for $25 million. The deal was described as one in which Hero would give EBR support and sponsor its AMA Superbike program in exchange for technical expertise. EBR had produced only 65 bikes in 2012, but Ravi Sud, chief financial officer of Hero, said the goal would be to sell 20,000 by 2017. After a break-up with Honda in 2011, Hero was reported to be India’s biggest seller of motorcycles and scooters – 5.91 million sold in 2012 – most between 100 and 223cc. Later in 2013, EBR also announced it would be the distributor of Hero in the U.S. beginning in the summer of 2014. For whatever reason, that never happened, and we did hear rumors that the Hero/EBR relationship was not quite the happy marriage it at first seemed to be.
3. WAY UP!: EBR 1190SX
How good is the EBR? So good it actually came this close to unseating our Motorcycle of the Year KTM Super Duke R as our favorite Streetfighter last year in a two-bike comparison. The KTM won because it’s more user-friendly, but not by much. Here’s what I had to say then: “It sort of comes back to, is this going to be an only bike or one of a few? If you’re only having one, it would have to be the KTM because of its ride-by-wire refinement, greater comfort (heated grips!), ease of use and in general broader performance envelope. But if you already have a general-purpose bike to ride most of the time, and wanted something a little more bombastic and unique to ‘act out’ upon now and then, maybe do a track day or two, this EBR is a great and deserving descendant of the outrageous, thumb-in-the-eyeball-of-authority Erik Buell legacy. Two middle fingers up.” (Erik agrees. His goal was to make this one “more bad-ass” than the KTM.)
2. DOWN: EBR Pulls the Plug
April, 2015: EBR ceases operations for reasons Erik tells us he is not currently allowed to discuss. Our best guess is that he was expecting a chunk of cash from 49% EBR stakeholder Hero, which failed to materialize – but it’s all conjecture for now. From Dennis Chung’s April 15 post: “The turn we recently took, after we thought we were moving forward, was unexpected. We thought we had secured funding, but in the end, we were not able to get the funding in place. Therefore we need to do the best we can under the circumstances for all parties in interest,” says Buell.
“To say this setback is a disappointment does not begin to express what I feel right now. I am personally grateful for the support of our outstanding workers, customers and vendors. While this is a sad ending, I personally hope for a new and better beginning,” Buell said.
1. WAY UP: Erik Buell is still Kicking
A lot of guys might’ve given up by now, but EB isn’t built that way. Here’s a little excerpt from a Cycle World interview I did a couple of years ago:
“I’ve had some things happen in my life that are pretty amazing. I think those things have had an influence on me. Believe it or not, I had an out-of-body experience and was dead for awhile and was brought back to life … I was sent back, told `There’s more to do down there.’ I absolutely do believe, I know, there’s something after this. On the other hand, I believe what we’re doing here is important. Or you wouldn’t get sent back for it. And it doesn’t mean that it’s the most important thing in the world; it just is like, if your time isn’t done here, you should be enjoying it because it will be done. You won’t get to do it again. You might as well do the best you can. The other place I went to was wonderful, spectacular, it was ecstasy and freedom and release – and to be sent back from there into this busted-up body was agony! Why come back? What’s the reason to experience this temporary time in these fragile bodies of ours?”
JB: What? When did all this happen? You crash a bike into a tree or what?
EB: “I hit a wall (while racing motorcycles) at Charlotte. I should write a book about this. I was there with a girl I was dating at the time who I was very much in love with. She was a teacher just graduating college. I was in night school and working and she came to the races with me and was there in the hospital after the crash. She was the one who ran out of the room when I stopped breathing and got the doctors to come back in. She was pretty shaken up about the whole thing, and about six months later, when I finally healed and was going back to racing, she told me we couldn’t be together, that she couldn’t deal with me racing and wasn’t going to discuss it, because she knew how important it was to me, that I was obsessed with it. So she went her way and I went mine. I was pretty devastated by that. I loved her very much. What’s bizarre about it, is when I had the out-of-body experience, the voice told me you have to go back for her, she needs you. And I could never tell her that. It’s like my tongue was tied – like it wouldn’t be right to tell her about that. So I was doubly angry when she split from me; it was like, what the hell was that about?
And now I’m married to her! She was married to a really nice man, had two boys – and the husband died when the boys were young. After I’d been married a couple times and divorced and completely dedicated to never, ever having anything to do with anyone ever again … I ran into her and, ahh, married her. So I’m taking care of her and the boys and it’s a wonderful relationship. And she takes great care of my kids, and it’s an absolutely wonderful marriage. And you sit there and go, holy crap … maybe sometimes patience is a good thing. Sometimes you wait.”