October of 2009 brought the sad news that Harley-Davidson had pulled the plug on Buell Motorcycles and would be selling its recent purchase-MV Agusta. Both brands were anomalies in a company as steeped in tradition and image as Harley-Davidson. Buells were never fully accepted into Harley-Davidson showrooms, and the direction of the MV/H-D relationship was yet to be revealed.
One expects a brand with the history of MV Agusta to continue-Italian marques have a way of surviving despite all odds. Buell is different, however. It is so closely integrated into Harley-Davidson, that if there is to be another Buell Motorcycle Company in the future, it will undoubtedly be something altogether different.
It is easy to forget that Buell was almost stillborn. The inagural Buell-the RW750-was a pure racebike. Unfortunately, the AMA changed the rules of the class the RW was designed to compete in, leaving the bike an orphan. Founder Erik Buell dusted himself off and soldiered on, using the RW as the inspiration for his first streetbike, the RR1000.
Ironically, Buell went out a winner, taking the 2009 AMA Daytona Sportbike Championship. Again, rules played a part in the story. Buell won the championship with a controversial Rotax-powered 1125R that many thought manipulated (and broke) the rules. And, inarguably, it was running against 600cc motorcycles.
Just as the 1125R was a contentious racebike, so, too, were the standard production Buell motorcycles. Erik Buell equipped them with a large number of unique features that polarized motorcyclists-most of them against the Buells-which never advanced past cult status. From a numbers standpoint, Buell shipped 2,441 motorcycles in the first quarter of 2009, compared to 74,670 Harley-Davidsons. That is a small sliver of a two-piece pie.
Personally and professionally, I enjoyed riding Buell motorcycles. My preferred line was the Lightning, the upright steetfighters with the endlessly torquey pushrod V-twins. The short-lived Lightning Long and Super TT were my favorites. The Long was a bit more relaxed than the typically compact Buell, adding to the fun factor without compromising its sporting street capabilities, while the Super TT cross-pollinated flattrack and supermoto in an unexpectedly invigorating way. Neither bike found its audience, but that does not detract from their appeal.
In the wake of the news, Copy Editor Kelly Callan was in a serious funk. She was already planning on getting the 2010 CityX (aka Lightning XB9XS)-one of her favorite commuting bikes ever-for a test ride. Unashamedly a Buell aficionado, Callan was incredulous that a company that could manufacture bikes so unique, so cool, and so enjoyable, could vanish into thin air.
Ultimately, Buell was about more than simply great motorcycling. Buell represented the underdog fighting to stay alive in a tough pit, using guile and ingenuity, rather than simple brute force. Whether or not you bought into the various designs-the fuel-carrying aluminum frame, the rim-mounted disc that was the signature of the ZTL (Zero Torsional Load) braking system, the underslung exhaust, or the oil-in-swingarm-Erik Buell took the risk of offering choices to a world that too-often seems engaged in groupthink.
In retrospect, anyone can second-guess the Buell experiment. Could Harley-Davidson have swallowed its pride and allowed Buell to access outside powerplants sooner? Would Buell have been more viable as an independent brand available to all motorcycle dealers? Should Buells have been equipped with the V-Rod motor that powers the exotic Roehr 1250sc?
Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda. Regardless, Buell can leave the marketplace with a sense of accomplishment. The little company that could-a tiny part of a big company that never quite understood it-managed to make its way in the world for over a quarter-century.
And, remember, that only Buell Motorcycle Company has passed on. Erik Buell, the mastermind behind these unique bikes is still alive and kicking. Let’s see how his new Erik Buell Racing company fairs in his second coming.