WHAT­EVER HAP­PENED TO Buell Mo­tor­cy­cles You want the thrill of a new Suzuki? We get it.

FACT FILE Buell Mo­tor­cy­cle Com­pany 1983 2009 Erik Buell Rac­ing April 2015 2016? 7KDWʧV ZK\ \RX FDQ QRZ JHW \RXU KDQGV RQ D QHZ 6X]XNL ZLWK $35 UHSUHVHQWDWLYH RYHU PRQWKV ZLWK MXVW e GHSRVLW $QG ZLWK PRQWKO\ UHSD\PHQWV DV ORZ DV e SOXV D e GHSRVLW RQ WKH

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Founded by the charis­matic en­gi­neer Erik Buell, Buell carved out a rep­u­ta­tion for per­for­mance ma­chines wildly at odds with what you’d ex­pect from an Amer­i­can bike. They were light, quick steer­ing and in­no­va­tive. Then in 2009, af­ter six years of stut­ter­ing, they were gone.

Erik Buell? An ana­gram, surely? Erik Buell is a 66-year-old en­gi­neer, en­tre­pre­neur and ex-racer. He grew up on a farm in Penn­syl­va­nia, put him­self through engi­neer­ing school at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh by work­ing as a bike me­chanic, raced in the AMA Su­per­bike and For­mula One classes, and spent 14 years work­ing for Har­ley be­fore found­ing the Buell Mo­tor­cy­cle Com­pany. The first bike he de­signed and built was the RW750 in 1983. The two-stroke, “square-four”, ro­tary-valve en­gine was built purely for he him­self to race in the For­mula One class.

Name Born De­funct Re­born as De­funct (again) Re­born (again)

What makes his bikes so spe­cial? Tech­ni­cally imag­i­na­tive, per­for­mance­fo­cused de­sign. Buell ap­plied the con­cept of mass cen­tral­i­sa­tion long be­fore Honda claimed it for their own. A typ­i­cal Buell is short, light and steers like noth­ing else. It may also carry its fuel in the frame and its oil in the swingarm. Watch out, too, for a rim­mounted front disc brake.

Wow, Buell sounds like the fu­ture As Buell him­self put it: “Our de­sign DNA is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.” From the early years of pro­duc­tion in the 1980s his bikes were char­ac­terised by tak­ing Har­ley en­gines and putting them in a stiff and light chas­sis com­bined with a rub­ber-mount­ing tech­nique patented as the ‘uni­pla­nar’ sys­tem. The use of the en­gine as a fully stressed mem­ber of that frame was key, as was rear sus­pen­sion planted be­neath the mo­tor and a host of other tweaks de­signed to bring all the bike’s weight as close to the cen­tre of grav­ity as pos­si­ble.

So why do I hardly ever see a Buell on the road? Limited avail­abil­ity. The RR1000 was Buell’s first en­try into the sports­bike mar­ket. They built 50 of them be­fore they ran out of XR1000 en­gines. Pro­duc­tion grew but even at Buell’s peak the fig­ures were never huge. Only 40 RSS1200S were built in the sum­mer of 1991; in 1993 just 325 RSS and RS mod­els com­bined were put to­gether, while in 1994 the Thun­der­bolt S2 (plus the tour­ing ver­sion, the S2T) sold 1000 units all told. By 1999 – buoyed by, amongst oth­ers, the ad­di­tion of the Light­ning and Cy­clone bikes to the range – global sales hit 8000, and in 2008 had risen to 15,000, but it was too late for Buell by then.

Too late? What went wrong? The global fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, com­bined with an un­suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship with Har­ley-david­son. Har­ley had bought a mi­nor­ity share back in 1993, but in 1998 bought 98 per cent of the firm, the­o­ret­i­cally giv­ing Buell the clout to fi­nally be­come a global suc­cess. When the econ­omy fal­tered Har­ley lost a fifth of their sales in a sin­gle year, prompt­ing man­age­ment to shut down all its non­core di­vi­sions, which in­cluded Buell. The last ma­chines built at the fac­tory in East Troy, Wis­con­sin were do­nated

to the Bar­ber Mo­tor­sports Mu­seum in Alabama. Erik, mean­while, was left with noth­ing, not even the brand name that he’d built up since 1983. Find­ing him­self with “a lot of time on his hands”, he re­leased a blues al­bum un­der the name Erik Buell and the Thun­der­bolts. Why didn’t they sell more bikes? “Erik wanted his bikes to look unique, and if you de­vi­ate more than 10% from the norm, there’s only a cer­tain level of new­ness a cus­tomer will ac­cept,” said one com­men­ta­tor. Buell had tried to meld two worlds to­gether: that of the Har­ley-rid­ing ‘biker’ and that of the mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­ast who loves the han­dling of a sports­bike but also has a soft-spot for the rum­ble of a pow­er­ful Amer­i­can twin. The ap­peal was ad­mirable, but – it turns out – too niche. Poor build qual­ity didn’t help, ei­ther.

What hap­pened next? Erik started Erik Buell Rac­ing and con­tin­ued to make race ver­sions of the 1125R. The 1190RS and 1190RX, both street bikes, came in 2011 and 2013. In­dian firm Hero Mo­tocorp paid $25m for half of EBR in 2013 but the busi­ness filed for re­ceiver­ship two years later.

And what’s hap­pen­ing now? Amaz­ingly, the liq­uida­tors (owned by a mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­ast) de­cided to keep the fac­tory go­ing. As re­cently as March 17 a “stars and stripes” 1190RX rolled off the line as a state­ment of in­tent. If the rhetoric on erik­buell­rac­ing. com is any­thing to go by, the saga may yet pro­duce an­other twist: “Be­fore he was a suc­cess­ful en­gi­neer/mo­tor­cy­cle de­signer/mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer,” it says, “Erik Buell was a mo­tor­cy­cle racer. And like any good racer, when you get knocked down, you get right back up.”

Fuel in the frame, rim-mounted brakes, the Fire­bolt was a high­point for in­no­va­tion and han­dling

RR1000… noth­ing odd about it at all The man him­self, Erik the in­no­va­tor

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