Erik Buell | Achievement in Motorcycle Design

The progenitor of Objectivism, Ayn Rand, claimed art is “a re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments.” Erik Buell recasts that statement for motorcyclists to embrace: “Every time you ride, you’re creating a piece of performance art.”

Buell designs and builds motorcycles the way he believes they should be. Like Rand’s heroic architect Howard Roark, who would rather break rocks in a quarry than go against his truth, Buell does not flinch. In 2008, he celebrates his company’s silver anniversary with a new Symphony in Buell Blue.

Those blue notes reverberate throughout the Wisconsin farmlands, towns and countryside as Buell leads us on a ride astride his fresh creation, the 1125R. RRMC’s review (December 2007/January 2008) makes it clear: the new Buell is the most complete manifestation yet of the creator’s personality. As the Helicon V-twins become dueling guitars churning out a John Lee Hooker boogie, we slice along back roads dappled with Indian summer, following the master who shows us every line. The machines disappear from underneath us. We are one with Pegasus, which emblazons the company’s symbol. Convinced we are not riding motorcycles, we are beings with winged wheels. This metaphysical result is precisely what Erik Buell intends.

The new advertising campaign declaring, “The machine doesn’t come first, the rider does,” is not a confection of propagandists hired to spin Buell’s message. It springs from the man himself. His years as a racer, competing on Japanese and Italian machinery, flavor his process. Like his contemporary, the great Massimo Tamburini, whose conclusions have shaped Bimota, Ducati, and MV Agusta, Buell draws on a unique, first-hand understanding of motorcycle dynamics, advocating his now-familiar principles of his Trilogy of Tech: mass centralization, low unsprung weight, and chassis rigidity.

In the early 1980s, 30 years old and a star engineer at Harley-Davidson, Buell was at odds with the firm’s focus on traditional styling and orientation. “I wanted to build a world-class sportbike. When I couldn’t, I leapt into the void,” he wryly admits. “It was impetuous, but a decision I had to make.” Buell’s new motorcycle company consisted of Erik and two loyalists who are with him to this day.

We approach the family’s old farmhouse and its barn where they constructed their early examples. A decommissioned Studebaker Commander—designed by Raymond Loewy, one of Buell’s inspirations—watches over the memories, the workbenches, and tools.

He remembers how the barn’s kerosene stove kept them going through brutal winters. The fledgling firm, with a paucity of capital, and sourcing engines from a soon-extinct English supplier, rolled the dice. But Buell’s category-busting 1983 Formula One RW750 saw its future evaporate when the AMA changed the class rules. “Those were lean years,” he recounts.Buell remained committed to his American Superbike obsession. His wild card being exceptional ability in chassis design, he employed unused stocks of Harley-Davidson XR1000 motors to power a machine that presaged the compactness and efficiency of today’s MotoGP bikes. Impressed by Buell’s perseverance, H-D welcomed the return of the prodigal son.

Still, Buell was riding on the edge, often ahead of the curve. The mid-’90s saw his lineup of Buell streetfighter motorcycles emerge. “The Lightning was a hooligan bike before there were hooligan bikes,” he muses. Harley’s engine, reworked with hotter cams, fuel injection and other enhancements, was re-christened Thunderstorm. As early as 1991, the innovative Buells were the first production bikes to use upside-down forks, braided steel lines and six-piston brake calipers. Distinctive features abounded, such as fuel-in-frame; a cast aluminum oil-in-swingarm; exhausts slung under the engine and perimeter brakes; all setting his motorcycles apart from the crowd.

“It wasn’t about being different,” Erik Buell says, sharing the roots of his solution set. “It was all to achieve better rideability. Putting the fuel in the frame came from my racing days: the effect of the changing weight of the fuel in a tank came to me while roaring around the banking at Daytona on my Yamaha TZ250.” As for the oil-in-swingarm, he concedes racing influence again, as “another way to save weight by eliminating a part.”

Buell underlines agility as a core objective, citing aircraft principles of roll and yaw when describing his exhaust placement. “With the exhaust, it just made complete sense to me to put it under the engine where that mass is most efficient, rather than have these big metal bratwursts hanging off the side of the machine,” he laughs, “or having a pair of hot pipes tucked under your seat.”

When Erik explains the origin of his perimeter disc brake system, one truly grasps the scope of his know-how. “I was the US distributor for Lockheed motorcycle brakes back in the early 1980s,” he says. “They approached me to make some of my patented stainless clad aluminum rotors for a twin disc perimeter system that they were testing.”  

“There were problems with that system. The disc mounted directly to the rim was vulnerable to being distorted with any rim damage; twin perimeter discs had significant increase in rotational inertia and wheel weight; and since there were two discs, that meant two calipers. So, the fundamental advantages of more leverage, more surface area and higher surface speed provided by larger diameter discs were negated.

“I went back to a basic principle of physics to move the state of the art: reduce unsprung weight. Buells changed from dual discs to the largest possible single disc conventional disc, with a big six-piston caliper, which made the front wheel lighter. Maximum rotor diameter was limited by the caliper having to fit into the wheel rim profile, and then the disc was smaller than that, because the caliper had to bridge over the top of the disc. In order to be stiff and not flex, that bridge had to be substantial.

“To get more stopping power out of a single disc, I needed more diameter; the only way to do that would be an inside out rotor. To address the issues of direct rim mounting, I designed a caliper with long thin pads so the rotor swept width could be kept to a minimum. We used a totally new front-wheel concept based on the idea that without braking loads being fed through the hub and back out through the spokes, then there would be no torsional loads through those spokes. That enabled us to take a significant amount of weight out of the wheel.

“We’ve now achieved a level of unsprung weight no conventional system can get to, even if wildly expensive materials were used, and we do it with conventional high-quality high volume materials and processes. The new ZTL2 8-piston 1125R assembly is close to 20% lighter than the very best conventional systems.”  

This kind of conceptual depth and execution has found its audience. Across the Atlantic, Buells enjoy cult status. Appreciative of their abilities as urban assault vehicles and on the twisty tarmacs that recognize the forgiving nature of clever chassis design and the latitude of V-twin engines, Europeans heard Erik’s Blues, and sang along. “We sell more motorcycles in Europe than we do here,” explains Paul James, the company’s Director of Product Communications.

In his home, just a few hundred yards from the compound where his first motorcycles were born, Buell picks up a favorite guitar and plugs in. Sketching sharp, soulful blues chords, he closes his eyes as the rapture takes hold. He puts that guitar down and presents another he has been building. “I wanted this shape to echo a woman’s body—a Vargas Girl’s curves,” he smiles. Then he plays the “Riders of the Edge” CD, recorded with his band The Thunderbolts. It explodes with an exuberance Neil Young and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan would approve of. His lyrics and vocals are telling: “I’m alive, and I’m gonna ride/right through your plans to break our pride/’cause freedom is the power, destroy your ivory tower/it’s the ever-growing flower of our mind.”

“I want you to be able to ride the bike without wearing yourself out,” says Buell, presenting his case with serene fire in his blue eyes. “Sure, you can have lots of edgy power and a bike so sharp you’re wielding a scalpel. But who rides like that on a daily basis? How many of us are expert enough to extract the maximum from street-legal racing machines? On a Buell, you can have fun, whatever your skill level—and if you want to race, we’re there.” The flame in his competitor’s soul flares. “Some sportbikes are like bodybuilders. Our motorcycles are triathletes.”

We walk outside to the Buell 1125s sitting in the driveway and prepare to resume our flight. I scan the bike’s surfaces; see the guitar and the Vargas Girl, and the shape of the jet fighters Erik admits a fascination for. “Look at the side pods,” he says, pointing out the intakes on his new sport challenger. “They’re like an F-18.” Again powering up the Helicon V-twins—named for the mythological Greek mountain where Pegasus’ hoof struck releasing a magical spring—we soar on, rocking in the free world.

Individualism is the note Buell sustains, as it has sustained him. Holding his constituency close, he attends Buell club events and track days. His office door always open, he answers letters and e-mails personally. His, and the firm’s, persona are unvarnished by corporate gloss. Erik Buell and his motorcycle company know the road they are destined to travel.