Monday 22 June 2015

Editorial - The fall of Erik Buell Racing and why it is your fault

Erik Buell Racing

As you have likely heard by now, Erik Buell Racing is in receivership with no apparent hope for a bailout. For the second time in a decade Erik is facing the abyss, except this time he has 20 million dollars of debt hanging over his company's head and his Hero MotoCorp investors have apparently washed their hands of the whole operation despite owning a 49.2 percent share of the company. For those of us in the industry who long to see some fresh ideas in a market that favours bland conservatism and pragmatic design, the closure of EBR is a huge blow. Buell has long been the underdog, the classic American innovator fighting the status quo and achieving remarkable results despite going against the grain in every respect: he made a name for himself by breaking traditions you didn't even realize existed until he designed something different, something better.

EBR 1190 RX

The release of the 1190RX and SX gave us renewed hope that Buell could go toe to toe with the big boys in his own quirky way, and in so doing accomplish something unprecedented: building a competitive American superbike, when everyone else in the USA is content with either aping Harley-Davidson or being Harley-Davidson. With EBR on the rocks, once again we've been disappointed, and once again Erik has to fight and scramble to keep building his inimitable bikes.  

And it is all your fault.

EBR 1190 RX

I suppose I should qualify that accusation. It's not your fault in particular, unless you happen to be one of those ignorant, naysaying blowhards populating various comment threads with worthless, self-righteous declarations of "I told you so!" and "those things are ugly and stupid and expensive and a GSXR is faster anyway". Unless you are one of those internet tough guys shitting all over the dreams and ideas of an innovator who did more before breakfast this morning than you've done with your whole life you aren't to blame directly.

EBR 1190 RX

No, I say it's your fault - our fault - because we've bred a culture of conservatism and short-sighted traditionalism in the motorcycle industry that stacks the deck against idea men like Erik Buell, and dooms remarkable machines like the 1190 to failure before they even leave the drawing board.

Buell RSS 1200

I first encountered Buell's designs in my formative years of riding; I'm not sure where I first saw them, I think it was probably in a review in a magazine somewhere, but I was immediately struck by how goddamned wacky they were. I can't recall if I was initially put off or fascinated by these weird bikes, or some combination of the two - I think a lot of riders had a similar, confused reaction to Buell's designs.

Buell RSS 1200

The first time I rode one was around 2005, when I got the chance to try out a 2006 XB12Ss Lightning (aka the Lightning Long). My fascination tempered by apprehension remained. This was a machine that was powered by a diesel-like 1200cc Harley engine but that changed direction like a flyweight supersport, in spite of the longer wheelbase and more conservative geometry on the example I rode. I still remember how cheesy the components appeared, cheap plastic and ugly gauges and mirrors that flopped like limp dicks at idle, and how the engine felt like it had a completely flat powerband that ended abruptly at 6000 rpm. I didn't think much of it at that moment, but I was intrigued by how utterly alien this machine was in appearance, engineering, and dynamics.

Ten years later I still vividly remember the details of my first ride aboard a Buell. I've forgotten most of the ordinary bikes I've ridden since then. Even if there has been far superior machinery under my ass, the Buell was memorable in a way that most bikes just aren't.

Buell RSS 1200

Some years later, long after Buell was closed by Harley, I had a few days to rip around on a borrowed 2008 1125R. The owner had bought it during the fire sale following the company's closing, nabbing it off the dealer lot at 50% off retail. The fuel injection was atrocious, the worst I've ever sampled on any vehicle. The suspension was completely out of whack (probably due to owner meddling) and feedback through the chassis was poor, and I swear I could feel the ZTL brake torque the front end sideways under hard braking. But I didn't care. Once again it was memorable. The Rotax engine pulled obscenely hard in the midrange, with stunning roll-on performance from 3000 rpm up. It steered well and had good stability despite the wonky suspension setup and lack of feel. I'd step away from it and stare at the huge fuel-bearing beam frame, the squinty headlights flanked by bulbous rad shrouds, not sure if I should appreciate the "purposeful" design or throw up. It was horrifically ugly, but somehow endearing.

Buell RR1000

There was a lot to hate, but somehow that 1125 stuck in my mind enough for me to half-heartedly look at classified listings, and seriously inquire about a 2009 CR (which I ultimately didn't buy). I developed an appreciation for Buell's dogged determination to buck the status quo of motorcycle design, his attempts to apply rational engineering to how a bike was laid out. He is an engineer turned designer - his quirky bikes look the way they do because their forms are dictated by the principles of mass centralization and the reduction of unsprung weight. Styling came second to function. A distant second.

Buell RR1000 Battle Twin

Buell was a loner doing something different because he believed he could build a better motorcycle by rejecting traditional design ideas, which aren't as far removed from the formula laid out by those bicycles-with-an-engine-attached of the 19-teens as you might think. While he didn't go so far as to adopt a radical suspension design and do away with teleforks, which would have been the next logical step in solving one of the key problems with modern motorcycles, his work was subject to the same knee-jerk criticisms that any alternative chassis faces: motorcyclists hate change, and are quick to belittle anyone who dares challenge their conservative conception of what a bike should be and should look like.

Buell RR1000 Battle Twin

Buell has become dogmatic in response, clinging to his ideas and his designs with grim determination. He is certain that his designs are the best, even if there is evidence of flaws. It's a common sentiment I've encountered among designers who dare to challenge tradition, a result of their marginalized position within this industry. They have to be inflexible because we as an industry are constantly disparaging and ignoring them. It's a form of reverse conservatism that you need to adopt to succeed in building anything different in our strange little world.  

Buell American Motorcycles

I encounter this sentiment a lot in the course of researching subjects for OddBike. My mandate, such as it is, is to profile the weirdest, rarest, and most interesting motorcycles out there. In effect I have become some inadvertent custodian of nearly forgotten machines, and a vocal proponent of alternative ideas. Doing what I do you quickly realize that this industry is based on very old precepts that are not easily given up, due to a combination of slow-moving corporate entities that resist expensive shifts in design and an unfortunate degree of conservatism among buyers who favour traditionally styled machines sold at the lowest possible retail price. If it looks different or is priced any higher than a Honda, motorcyclists generally won't like - worse, they will sit at their keyboards and loudly disparage anything and anyone that dares to be different, as if a motorcycle has no right to exist simply because they won't (or can't) put one in their own garage. It’s a fickle, short sighted attitude of "If I don't like it, then you shouldn't either."

EBR 1190RS

Why do we feel the need to cut down people who are driving innovation? Why do we demand the same crap over and over again? Why don't we appreciate new ideas? These are some of the questions I've come to ask myself over and over again, without ever coming up with a good answer. The failure of EBR has renewed those questions in my mind.

EBR 1190RS

Aside from being an iconoclastic designer, Buell led the only company that challenged the hegemony of Harley and Harley-patterned/powered machines in American motorcycling, at least until Brian Case and Lee Conn started working on the Motus MST in 2008. Buell had a hand in designing the first and last Harley superbike - Buell built a fuel-in-frame prototype chassis for the VR1000 way back in 1988, and it was his idea to use a liquid-cooled narrow angle V-twin in the first place. The V-Rod retains some of the basic dimensions of his first blueprints. That's not mentioning his work on the chassis of Lucifer's Hammer II, or his own Sportster-powered RR Battletwins.

EBR 1190RS

Buell has designed the only true American sport bikes of recent memory, the only successful road racers built in America by Americans - in a town of 4000 people in Wisconsin no less. The 1190 was as close to a world-class superbike you could possibly imagine coming out of a sleepy town like East Troy, and all signs pointed to it being an awesome street bike and a capable race bike to boot.

EBR 1190RS

And this was after Erik Buell managed to pull his name out of the ashes and reform it into EBR following a calloused shutdown by Harley-Davidson, a corporation he had been serving loyally since the 70s. While their money and support had certainly helped make Buell a household name, their meddling was notorious. The 1125 was an 1125 because Buell was explicitly directed to not exceed the capacity of the flagship V-Rod, which was then displacing 1130ccs, even though the two machines would never, ever compete with each other. He was forced to use belt final drive when a chain would have been far more suitable. So many compromises were made that by the time it hit the market the 1125 ended up being some ugly quasi sport bike that was far from the all-conquering superbike Erik had hoped it would be. Before that, his had bikes were foisted upon indifferent dealers who preferred to sell traditional Harley products, and Buells were presented as an entry-level machine that would be a stepping stone for riders to trade up towards a "real" Harley. Buell's brand identity was curbed to suit the HD marketing machine. Then when everything looked rosy, with good sales despite the economic downturn, and the 1125 beginning to achieve success on the track, HD unceremoniously and unexpectedly pulled the plug in 2009 to save money and bolster their core values.

EBR 1190SX

Following his split with HD, what Buell accomplished with EBR was remarkable: going from out on street and losing the rights to his own name to mass-producing an all-new superbike in the span of 6 years, with the aim of conquering the most viciously competitive segment of the motorcycle market. Because HD retains the patents to the 1125 and the rights to Buell's own name, he had to start from scratch and subtly rework all of his own designs to create something that was unmistakably a Buell but wouldn't incur the wrath of HD's lawyers. He would fix all the problems with the design of the 1125 and build the superbike he envisioned before Harley interfered.

If that isn't determination, I don't know what is.

But no. Buyers thought it was too expensive and it didn't make enough power on a dyno to seduce fickle buyers away from continuing to buy conventional Yamondakawasukis. We let the most interesting sport bike on the market die on the vine and the company shrivel into receivership because somehow 185 hp and a metric fuckton of torque in a capable chassis just isn't good enough nowadays. You didn't want to spend a few extra bucks to get something built and designed in America, by Americans, to take on the world. You didn't want something cool, something different, something smarter than the average sport bike.

EBR Race Team

It didn't matter if it got rave reviews. It didn't matter if the 1190s almost seem conventional because the rest of the industry has just begun to catch up to the ideas that Erik introduced 30 years ago. It didn't matter that they were downright handsome compared to Buell's previous work, and that the quality was miles ahead of what he was building under HD's ownership. Nobody wants anything different. Conservatism reigns. Underdogs are doomed to failure.

EBR 1190RX

The support of the frighteningly powerful Hero MotoCorp apparently wasn't enough to secure EBR's future. After their initial investment and their taking advantage of EBR's remarkable talent pool (the gang in East Troy provided R&D work for the Indian giant, including 13 cutting edge concept bikes and scooters, and some tantalizing work on electric powertrains) Hero was quick to abandon EBR when the walls started closing in. Word from the company since EBR filed for receivership has been exactly what you'd expect from a multi-billion dollar corporation pumping out scooters by the millions: they would find R&D support elsewhere and the closure wouldn't affect them in the slightest. Amidst the bickering and disappointment following EBR's closure, rumours are circulating of EBR failing to hold up an important part of their agreement with Hero: starting a distributorship for Hero products in the US and Canada.

EBR 1190RX

Then there is the issue of the highly-ambitious EBR racing program sucking up massive amounts of money that the upstart company just didn't have. Throw in lackluster sales to an indifferent market and you have a recipe for failure. Maybe the closing of EBR isn't that surprising; just another case of a company being too ambitious for its own bottom line. Which, in my mind, makes EBR seem all the more endearing - they failed because they were trying too hard and aiming too high.

Maybe us fickle motorcyclists aren't to blame after all. Maybe EBR's failure is just another example of capitalism at work. But it doesn't change the fact that we as an industry need to pull our heads out of our collective asses and start recognizing talent when it kicks us in the nuts.

EBR 1190RX

Whatever the reason, it isn't the first time Buell has been cast out into the cold, and with any luck he will bounce back once again. Or at least I sincerely hope he does, for his sake, for the sake of the American motorcycle industry, and for the sake of motorcycling in general. We would do well to have more strange bikes like the 1190 on the market, something that those mouth-breathing troglodytes who have smugly embraced EBR's demise don't seem to understand: even if YOU don't want to buy a machine, that doesn't give it any less reason to exist, and the motorcycling world will be a better place if it does. We need more alternative ideas. We need more weird machines. We need more underdogs to challenge the hegemony of soulless corporations pumping out endless variations of the same two-wheeled shit.

We need Erik Buell, and more folks like him.

Buell RW750


  1. Another thought-provoking read—and great to see it picked up by Jalopnik too.

    I've always thought that the one thing that has hamstrung Buell is the styling. The bikes have never looked beautiful—conventional or otherwise. And I'm sure that's a major part of his troubles.

    It takes a leap of faith for a buyer to drop big money on a sportbike that is not from a major manufacturer, and if that bike looks a little 'odd' too, then it's not going to work.

    Tesla is a good example of getting it right—innovative technology AND great aesthetics.

    1. I'm one of the minority who appreciates weird aesthetics when they serve a purpose. I like strange designs (obviously) and wish to see more of them in the market. I'm the guys who looks at a bike like a Buell/EBR and say "now that's cool!" when everyone else is suppressing their gag reflex.

      Maybe Buell's model is/was doomed to fail. But I for one still desperately want him to succeed and carve out a niche, flaws and all.

      Failing that people will always remember Buell, just like they will always remember Britten - because he did things differently, damn the consequences, damn the expectations of the market, and damn tradition.

      We almost had a Tesla in the moto world: what happened to the Mission R? Sexy design, sexy styling, kickass performance... and now they are defunct. So it's not a simple formula, as I'm sure any designer will tell you. Let's see how the Lightning does.

  2. I think Erik Buell has himself to blame - bad choice of partners both times. Both make horrible, uninspiring vehicles and know nothing about innovation.

  3. what's about motoczysz?another national inventor...
    i've always wanted lightning, maybe some day
    i like buells for all things the rest don't like:)

  4. I enjoyed this article... very interesting perspective.

  5. Totally not my fault. :-P
    I've only ever seen one Buell in the flesh. Kinda hard to sell them in Ireland when there's only one Harley dealership in the entire country, and they made zero effort to promote the brand. Hell I don't even know if they ever had any in stock.

  6. In a perfect, parallel universe, one would choose between a new Britten and a new Buell.

  7. Buell killed itself. You cannot compete at the top of the market when there is harsh competition and little opportunity to move product. Add a doomed racing program to the mix and you are spending money with no hope of selling product to make money. Sadly, as bright an engineer as Buell is, his business sense is not up to snuff.