“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.
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
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.