The demise of Buell?

Much has been written already about Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s stunning press release earlier this week announcing that they are ceasing production of Buell-brand motorcycles. Some in the industry have gone as far as stating that this action was long-rumored or even expected for quite some time. I guess I missed the invitation to drink the Kool Aid and eat the Oscar Mayer wieners and bologna being served by Harley-Davidson, so I’m not convinced that the death certificate has been signed yet.

Buell Motorcycle Company has long been known (by those who truly understand the motorcycle industry) as an overachiever. They have done more with less than any other motorcycle company around, yet their step-parent (Harley-Davidson) never acknowledged the contributions made by the East Troy, WI-based staff. Most of the folks at Harley’s Juneau Avenue facility knew little about Buell other than the fact that some (not all) of the motorcycles manufactured there used a Harley-based engine.

In spite of this, Buell continued to grow. It grew because of its incredibly passionate staff and the ideas they fearlessly brought to the table. It grew because its products struck a nerve to those fanatical motorcyclists who care more about the ride than how they look on the way. And it grew because Buell’s philosophy put the passionate staff members in touch with the fanatical riders and that interaction drove constant improvement. Is Buell a worthwhile brand? Unless you are a product of the American automobile industry, you know the answer is a resounding "YES!" So why pull the plug on the company? And more than that, why pull the plug on this company while offering MV Agusta for sale? Hmmm.

Have you seen Erik Buell’s video message announcing Harley-Davidson’s decision?  As you can expect, Erik is almost in tears making this announcement. I know Erik, and I have worked side by side with him. I’ve sat in his office and had heart-to-heart talks with him, including the one where I told him I was leaving The Motor Company to move back home to upstate New York so I could be close to my family. I will tell you first-hand two things that you need to understand now. The first is that Erik is an incredibly passionate man. Whether it is the motorcycles that bear his name, the guitars that are never far from his grasp, or the people he surrounds himself with, each stirs a feeling within this incredible man that goes to a depth many of us will never understand. When you hear Erik’s voice crack during the announcement, you are witnessing what is happening within his heart. That is the first thing you need to know.

The unknowing might watch the video and think they’ve just watched a beaten man deliver his last message. Harley has pulled the plug. It’s over. Even Erik told us so. Right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe not. The second thing that you need to know is that Erik Buell has the heart and soul of a prize fighter. Let’s look at history… The first Buell, the RW750. He risks it all, quits his job, invests his life savings and builds a motorcycle only to have the AMA eliminate the one racing class where the motorcycle can be ridden in the United States. The entire investment value plummets to zero, and the one motorcycle he is building is now useless. Even THAT wasn’t the end of Buell. Compared to that, this is just another obstacle they face. Erik and his team have overcome insurmountable odds before, so unlike most observers, I’m not ready to give up. If there is any team in the industry that can use this obstacle as a stepping stone, the free-thinkers from East Troy are the ones I’d pick to do it.

I may be the only person in the motorcycle media who is saying it, but I just get a feeling that we haven’t seen the last of Erik Buell and his band of believers. Erik mentions in the video "I personally look forward to exploring how I can continue to work with Harley-Davidson to bring advanced product technology to riders." Erik is a much better man than I, because I could never work for the company that slashed projects and research budgets to the point that there was no room to develop new products, then went and spent $179 million (a 109 million dollar purchase price and H-D assumed 70 million dollars in corporate debt) on MV Agusta only to spin it off 16 months later. (How far would 10 or 20 million dollars in development money have taken Buell? We’ll never know.)

Obviously, Harley’s new CEO is worried enough about the future of his company that he wants to focus on it and only it. (And on getting his company’s stock price back where it was a few years ago.)

On one of our previous shows Bill, my ever-direct co-host, stated that Buell would probably be better without Harley-Davidson. He pointed out that Harley’s finances allowed Buell to live, but The Motor Company’s control kept Buell Motor Company from expanding its wings. Could it be that Harley-Davidson doesn’t want Buell out there competing against it, so it is simply shutting the company down?

Never fear folks, because we’re chasing the answers to these and many more questions regarding this horrible turn of events. We might even be able to make sense of it for you before this whole thing is over. Tune in next week as Bill and Todd B throw away the chrome and get to the frame of this issue.


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