Buell, an obituary

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“It was built by a team of people doing things in an innovative way working under incredibly tough conditions,” said Erik Buell, describing the genesis of Buell Motorcycles. Purchased fully by Harley-Davidson in 2003 after a 10-year partnership, everyone thought Buell’s future was assured. The brand produced its 100,000th motorcycle in 2006 and launched the liquid-cooled 1125R superbike in 2008.
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Describing the company’s unique approach, lead engineer Tony Stefanelli
said, “Applying the latest technology and out-of-the-box thinking to
the design of motorcycles can keep us competitive in terms of cost and
technology and we can become leaders in terms of the technical content
of the products we’re delivering.”

To the untrained eye, Buell motorcycles appeared to be nothing more
than uncompetitive products burdened with making the most of the
ancient powerplants its unsuitable parent company foist upon it. But
converts, those who have ridden the motorcycles Buell made, know that
what the company offered wasn’t on-paper parity with rivals, but the
thing those numbers could never add up to. Buell was one of the last
proprietors of the thing known as “character.”

Riding a Buell quickly wasn’t merely an exercise in self restraint and
steering in the right direction. Riding a Buell was challenging,
involving and rewarding, even at relatively sane speeds, in ways that
have been lost by other modern motorcycles.

Thanks to genuine and unique technological innovations and
applications, faultless handling was almost a given on all of Buell’s
bikes. Zero Torsional Load brakes helped reduce unsprung weight;
underslung exhausts, fuel held in frames and oil in swingarms
centralized mass before doing so was made fashionable by Honda; and a
massively rigid frame provided the best possible platform from which
the high quality suspension could perform to its greatest possible
ability.

Riding a Buell, you could change direction quickly, yet they weren’t
unstable; they absorbed bumps well, yet held firm when lent over; you
could get on the power early, yet they were still exciting to ride. On
paper performance limitations simply didn’t hold true in the real
world, where all of the above mentioned benefits managed to overcome
the latest power headlines of inline-fours. And boy did they wheelie.

It was always the air-cooled XB9 and XB12 range that were most
appealing, even while the Rotax engines appeared to finally close that
perceived performance gap. Despite all the handling benefits, the ugly
Harley Sportster-derived engines and their tractor-like power delivery
made riding a so-equipped bike kind of like riding a two-stroke, just
with low-end torque instead of high-end power. To make progress, you
absolutely had to be in the right gear, at the right moment, no
exceptions. Just like an RS250 or and RD350, there was only about
1,500rpm of usable power while everything else was an absolute loss.
Somehow, this characteristic made Buell’s accessible rather than
difficult or at least accessible in their difficulty.

String that limited powerband together with the handling and you had a
bike more enjoyable on the track than just about anything else. Last
fall I did my first trackday post the whole arm-mangling incident, yet
after 6 months off, massively reduced confidence and an extremely weak
left arm I still managed to show every GSX-R, 1098 and CBR how riding
fast is done on a relatively slow XB12R. Grant, not suffering the same
problems, was even faster.

Perhaps the greatest loss isn’t Buell’s products, but the combined
talent of a company full of enthusiasts. Erik is obviously an
incredibly talented engineer and rider, but he’s not alone in those
traits, every other Buell employee we’ve ever met has been the same.
That trackday was sponsored by Buell as part of its marketing efforts.
Rather than simply tout its superiority on ad pages, Buell would buy
out an entire day at a racetrack, bring a trailer full of bikes, a few
head honchos and invite locals to come out and try their bikes. No
caveats. Sure, a bunch of people bent the bikes, but more got to
experience the unique Buell quality in its natural environment and talk
to the people who designed the motorcycles. That that kind of corporate
environment was allowed to flourish within a company that embodies all
the evils of corporate America to the degree that Harley-Davidson does
is absolutely unbelievable. But it happened. Our fear is that it may
not ever happen again.

Buell, you will be missed.

  • sam

    rip you quirky sons of bitches

    • scott

      Wow, I’m not really surprised on MV, I was more surprised when they bought them, seemed hard to believe the Italians would let ownership slip from Italy…. So this might be a good thing.
      Kind of shocked on the Buell news… also glad myself or my son did not buy one as both of us had been kicking that thought around this year.
      But then again…. This might drop prices to fire sale points right off the bat, before they go up… If they go up. Would make a great track day bike. Though the parts outlook sounded pretty grim. Not a good way to get people to snap up the remaining units, slapping on the statement that parts/warranty will be available while they supplies last… and you know the after market guys just scrapped everything as well.

      I watched the video of Erik Buell announcing the closing. That was tough to watch, you could see it was really emotionally draining on him. I hope he resurfaces somewhere else and shows us some thing good again, with better backing!

      And a big hats off to Harley…dropping this on the employees like an atom bomb on a Oct morning, arranging to lay everyone off on Dec 18th. Just in time for Xmas.
      Nice corporate gesture Harley Davidson.

      A Harley name plate will never have a space in my garage.

  • pigsbladder

    the xb9 was the worst bike I’ve ever ridden. Lots of vibration and uncomfortable. But I really liked how they look.

  • 1050 hooligan

    great fighter out of the box…..RIP.

  • DoctorNine

    Wow. I guess that particular experiment is over. I hope the people who made Buell what it was, get into a new design. I have a feeling there is a phoenix about to be reborn somewhere. Skoal, y’all…

  • J.

    Well, perhaps Buell’s loss is a gain for the dozen-plus other sportsbike brands who will hopefully get a bit healthier in their absence. To me, there are too many bikes in this segment anyway, with too few points of genuine differentiation. To me, others did it more stylishly, with better performance and apparently greater reliability. But I’ll miss Buell’s current ad campaign, which made worthy points about hand-waving and helmet choices at speed.

  • Sally

    CEO (and other ‘executives’) must be held accountable. These bastards are paid millions of dollars for their “management” capability.

  • http://www.worldof2.com/ Justin Penney

    This is the best summation of Buell that I’ve read today.

    These bikes were quirky and improbable but they worked when you rode them. Character, soul … whatever you want to call it, screamed from these bikes.

  • Boggled

    How will these bikes be thought of in 5-10 years?

  • powermatic

    Do you know any particulars on the finances concerning the dissembling of the company? No word on any sale, or attempt to sell, so assuming HD is eating its 51%, what of E. Buell’s percentage?. Any idea if he still owns the rights to the name?

    This whole deal has a ‘sold his soul to the devil’ vibe. E. Buell had a lot of good ideas, but he was never going to build a proper sport bike in tandem with overseers who are content with technology from about 1907.

    • Isaac

      “This whole deal has a ‘sold his soul to the devil’ vibe.”

      +1

  • Adrian

    Wes, a great response to the bad news, it’s good to see a few of us got what Buell were about.

  • Ben

    Absolutely missed.

  • http://www.moto-infos.com Charles

    Here in France, there were rumors around MV Agusta but the Buell implosion is quite a shock. Although motorcycles is a business as others, financial narrow-minded managers may always experience severe difficulties to understand the non-USD side of it.

    Anyway, when Voxan, the sole and very weak roadmotorcycle french brand was collapsing in 2001, the owners united and a big demonstration happened resulting in focusing attention and eventually finding a solution to go on.

    Guzzi’s fans recently did the same to save Mandello plant.

    So what about Buell owners ?

  • http://forums.somethingawful.com Woody

    If I were to win the powerball tomorrow or ever, first thing I would do is call up Erik Buell and ask “Do you still want to build motorcycles?”

  • JP

    It was a sad sad day in this house yesterday when we learned the news. There will always be space in the garage for our two Buells, which are the quirkiest, best handling machines I have ever had the priviledge of riding. As an owner would I unite, hell yeah, but no doubt HD have stitched it up so tight nothing gets out. I think we will see a Buell in HD clothing in the future. Would I buy one? After this, I’d rather walk!!!!

  • pbxorcist

    Thanks for this Wes.

    Once the rain lets up I am going to take the XB9 out for a little flogging.

  • http://vodkabuzz.com Robert

    The Firebolt XB12R was the first bike I fell in love with. While it’s not as technologically advanced as the Japanese sports bikes, the design principles / engineering impressed the hell out of me. It was for the same reasons I got an RX-8 instead of something from the plethora of other sports cars. Buell was innovating down a different path than other bike makers.

    My heart sunk when I heard Buell was getting the axe (and it sunk even lower after hearing Erik Buell’s farewell video). The industry can only benefit from companies like Buell pushing the envelope in ways most ignore. I hope Erik and the Buell team go on to bigger and better things. They certainly deserved better than simply having the door shut on their operations. If only Harley could have spun them back into a separate company…

    For what it’s worth, I think It’d be cool to see what kind of innovation they could introduce around the burgeoning electric bike segment.

  • El Barto

    Cant they axe HD and save Buell?

    • tzed

      Well said.

  • Skip

    I do not see what the big stink is about. Buell was destined to fail from the get go. How many of you people out there want to buy a so call Sport Bike with a 1950′s era Harley motor in it? Or – best of all, did you ever go into a Harley dealership and look at a Buell? If you don’t have a pony tail, leather vest and are dressed up like a pirate the salesmen ignore you.

  • Da Foxx

    Character and soul were two things Buell had in spades. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they did things their own way because they wanted to. And in a wierd-assed way, it worked.

    That kind of self-determination is admirable.

  • Ted M

    My Buell has Soul….

    I know that’s cliche but it’s the freaking truth…

    I believe there’s magic in East Troy…

    This isn’t the end… Just an intermission…

  • Marcel

    Wes thanks for this.

    Skip you nailed it. I once tried to buy a Buell and the sales pirate kept on trying to sell me a Sportster so I left and bought a Ducati Monster.

    I always hoped that there would be a non HD engined Buell in my motorcycling future.

    I trust HD will take care of Eric Buell and he can come out of this whole deal with his passion still burning and motivation to build amazing bikes without HD holding him back.

  • 4Cammer

    My XB9R might be a bit odd, a bit quirky. She might have an engine design older than I am (42), though heavily updated. But she makes me look forward to every ride, makes me feel like I am on a MOTORcycle and not an appliance.

    Thank you, Mr.Buell.

  • pdub

    RIP Buell motorcycles. I can’t say I was ever tempted to buy one but I really admired some of the thinking going on there. So much of it just made sense. The underslung exhaust, perfect. The massive frame and swingarm housing fluids, genius. While everyone else was still throwing fuel in a big bubble on top of the bike he was where I first heard of that tank thing being simply an airbox cover. I was always hoping they would cut free of the relic power plants and design around a motor as innovative as their chassis. Ditching the HD albatross twin and going Rotax like Aprillia had before them had me hopeful and open that maybe someday there would be a Buell that wasn’t just different but better. Yeah the bikes were fugly. If they would have had an Italian on the team maybe that could have been fixed too. All too bad. Best wishes that Mr. Buell and all the Buell employees find rewarding endeavors.

  • carlos

    ok, so if you think enough people take their buells, and let’s say transplant another motor in it; will it gather up enough attention to get e. Buell back in the game?

    It seems that the biggest stain on Buell was their H-D motor. and granted, I guess motor options are a bit limited from American manufacturers. But if you were to take another engine, let’s say a from a old 999 or something of the sort, would it perform?

    • Oscar

      A 999 engine wouldn’t fit in a Buell chassis. The 999 engine is too long, and the Buell chassis is too short. Maybe you could squeeze a KTM LC8 in there, but I doubt it. A 60-degree Rotax from an RSV-1000 might fit. You’d probably have to fabricate some side mounted radiators.

      • Ceolwulf

        A parallel twin maybe? What happened to the MZ 1000cc twin?

        • Gary Sideburn

          MZ went bust a few years ago. Anyone heard of Wakan? Yes, it’s very expensive, but it’s a sportsbike with an American (S&S) V-twin and the costs could’ve been reduced massively. If Buell made bikes that looked like the Wakan, but cost Buell money, things might’ve been different. GI

          • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

            Gary, you’re so adamant that Buell’s were ugly, and I’ll concede that the 1125R and CR were exactly that, but I have yet to see a better proportioned modern sportsbike than the XB12S and R. That massive bean frame combined with the minimal bodywork is utterly purposeful, if not beautiful. As a proponent of unconventional, often odd bikes, I’m surprised to see you be so dismissive of Buell. I’ve had a lot better experiences with this brand than I ever did with Benelli, even if I never had the chance to coax one across the Sahara.

            • Gary Sideburn

              Wes, I’m not promoting Benelli. What the hell has Benelli got to do with anything, except they’re another example of a company trying to sell bikes not enough people want? Do you think I’ve ridden one bike in my whole life and that’s my reference point?
              Yes, while the XB Buells looked good, the build quality was poor. The welding isn’t the best, the tank badges and finishes are like a kid’s toy, the clocks are cheap, the controls cheap, the bodywork plastic has a sturdy but cheap feel. This isn’t rocket science. Honda were always held up as the ones who had quality nailed, then Yamaha caught them up, Triumph and the other Japanese factories are catching up, Ducati mix in some very high-end names to their standard bikes and riders like that. Buell did NONE of that. Perhaps they thought all the customers would change all the cheap stuff for aftermarket stuff like a lot of H-D owners do.

  • http://www.moonlkevintage.com james

    He would have been better off not making a deal with HD. Big Fish don’t care about small fish. GM doesn’t care about Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Olds, AC Delco. Chrysler didn’t care about Kaiser-Frazer, Fargo, Willys, AMC and Daimler did care about Chrysler. Guys like Ken Dreer and Erik Buell should be boutique bike builders, let their artist mind loose and build up there own brands. Sure you might not get “fuel in frame” and “oil in the swingarm” but when resorces are limited somtimes other ideas develop. Nows a great time to reboot if HD doesn’t own his intellectual property.

  • Cadillac Jack

    HD really makes it easy for people to hate them.

  • Brave Little Toaster

    Sad fuckin day. I guess thats what happens when you try to do something different and innovative. All hail the status quo! :-(

  • Mad Chalet

    I really appreciated/admired Buell’s innovative approach to design, both in terms of engineering and aesthetics (radiator scoops aside). I hope they’re not gone period.

  • RJ

    I believe that Harley-Davidson would own all of Buell’s intellectual property since 2003. If it wasn’t for HD’s investment, Buell would not have had the capital to develop the XB. Fuel in the frame, oil in the swing arm and ZTL brakes require millions in resources to develop and test for manufacturing.

    If HD wants to shut it down, that’s their option. I don’t feel bad for Buell – crushing your own product and poor aesthetics on the 1125R were not the best decisions in my opinion. But I do feel bad for the 180 employees in East Troy, WI and hope they can find something.

  • http://twitter.com/greatistheworld will

    There are few things more disheartening. Real American innovation and intuitiveness struck down by the corporate icon everyone thinks is the symbol of America.

    Stay the course, HD.

  • zanon

    I love my XB9. The passing of Buell has made the sportbike scene more boring.

    Would you like an inline 4? Or maybe go crazy and get an inline 3?

    Thank goodness for Ducati.

  • raffyv3

    Wow. That sucks hard. I love my XB9 to death.
    Buell was one of the few that just did it different.
    And it was great!

  • D Chester

    My current 25th Anniversary model XB12T has just shy of 39k km on the clock and one before, an 06 XB12X had 22k km when swapped, so I’ve had a good, long ride on Buells over the past 3 years or so. Up until early this year my Buell parked in the garage next to my 06 HD FLHRSi Road Glide and it still shares with a Gilera (Piaggio) Fuoco and a Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa. I do 200km each day commuting and there’s no gold star for picking which one of my steeds I choose to ride most days. Why? Because for me, the Buell Ulysses does everything well and is the best all-’rounder I’ve every owned (and I’ve owned dozens). When I heard the sad news of Buell’s closure I immediately rang my local HD/Buell dealer and put my name down for one of their remaining stock. I plan to stay on a Buell for as long as possible.

  • brian

    Great piece,I am 43 yrs old and I love my 1125r. So much so that when I heard the sad news, I rushed out and bought a Ulysses to keep it company. It took me a while to get on a buell but now I am more passionate about this brand than I ever was about any Suzuki, Honda or Kawasaki I have ever owned.
    I wish Harley and Buell had done a better job of marketing and sales. How do you expect to sell bikes through a harley dealership where the salesman not only knows nothing about the product but appears proud of it?

  • andy

    What a tragedy, the announcement that Buell is to be shut down. I purchased a Ulysses XT a few months back. What a great bike, with loads of character. A lot of people here in the U.K. thought I was mad saying it would fall apart etc etc. Apart from one minor electrical issue no problems in 3000 miles. Most Brits ride the same androgynous Japanese bikes, or occasionally ride Harleys. Harley riders in the U.K. spend more time polishing than riding! I think H-D are making a big mistake, surely they need to broaden their position in the market. They need new innovative products to broaden there image not draw back to what they have made for years. If there is a “save Buell” website or a “vote for Eric” website to voice ones feelings to H-D can someone please advise. Anyway off for a blast on the XT. It may be winter, but its dry and no frost yet.

    Andy the Brit!

  • nola

    Brian, your comment about the dealers not knowing anything and “appearing to be proud of it” truly hit home.
    I’m currently a Triumph guy, but I was always curious about Buell. Good luck getting attention at the dealer. Essentially, my Buell-hunting experience consisted of me asking questions met with blank stares, and the inevitable steer towards cruisers. Even when I explained that I was specifically looking at Buell’s and not cruisers, I was met with a shrug. An actual shrug. I’ve always been aware of Halrey-related douchebaggery, but this really shocked me.

    IT’S YOUR OWN BIKE!!!!

  • Carlos

    Here in Colombia many of us didn’t buy buells just because it was harley owned(Harleys have a well earned reputation of being trashy overrated bikes with innumerable mechanical flaws..I’d rather spend my money on something that doesn’t leak that much), but now that they don’t want to continue on the Buell project I just hope they sell it to a trully relliable motorcycle company so that I can buy a brand new Buell Ulysses.

  • Chris Heistad

    I just got one of the last lightnings. Never rode a Buell before this, but I have had many Japanese sport bikes before which I did enjoy tremendously.

    All I can say to anyone who doesn’t have a Buell by now… Too bad… Best bike I’ve ever owned. Didn’t know what I was missing…

  • jimmy levins

    RIP…How many bikes did you sell in japan???
    I doubt more than just a handful, and thats where you lost the battle cause you could not make anything more than a nostalgic boutique BS bike…
    Harley smiled bigger than ever the day they shuttered the BUELL line, well except for that whole 1977 AMF Harley fiasco…