EBR 1190 RX Review & Exclusive Erik Buell Interview

Most people are dreamers. Fewer are doers. Even more far is someone who is repeatedly successful. Erik Buell is on his fourth generation of motorcycles companies, and has left an indelible mark on the sport.

After cutting his teeth racing Ducatis and Yamahas in the 1970s, working as a motorcycle mechanic, getting an engineering degree at university oF Pittsburgh, and getting a development job at Harley-Davidson, Erik Buell decided it was time to start his own motorcycle company.

Buell Motor Company got the ball rolling in 1982 with the legendary RW750 (running a British-built Barton motor) designed to compete in the fledging AMA Formula 1 series. Despite the cancellation of AMAF1, BMC went on to build Harley-Davidson powered racing and street motorcycles For sale to the public into the 1990s.

Chapter 2 began when Harley-Davidson bought a majority interest in the re-branded Buell Motorcycle Company, turning Buell into an H-D subsidiary, which gave Buell’s innovative technologies access to a wider audience.

Among these designs were the Zero Torsional Load single front disc brake that is mounted to the rim (rather than the hub), fuel-carrying frames, and swingarms that doubled as oil tanks, as well as the now-standard practice of placing the muffler under the motor instead of in the vicinity of the rear wheel.

The Harley-Davidson period Buells ran Sportster-based motors, and were used in models ranging from superbike, supermoto, streetfighter, and adventure. At the end of the Buell H-D run, however, Buell collaborated with Rotax in Austria, designing a Rotax-built liquid-cooled, DOHC V-twin engine for two new motorcycles (one superbike, one café racer).

When Harley-Davidson and Buell parted ways in 2009, all but the Rotax-powered models were dropped and Erik Buell Racing (EBR) was formed, the third edition of Buell.

EBR purchased the rights to the design of the Rotax-associated motor, along with some of the tooling needed to build it, and moved powerplant production to East Troy, Wis., along with the rest of EBR manufacturing.

Then, in 2013, EBR took what was to many an unexpected turn, though it was telegraphed when EBR built a concept hybrid scooter for the foreign manufacturing giant. Hero MotoCorp is an Indian-based company that had sold 50 million two-wheeled vehicles to date, a 46-percent market share in India, and a market cap of over $5 billion. With $25 million of that money, Hero bought a 49.2-percent stake in EBR.

Hero has an interesting background. Founded as Hero Honda Motors in New Delhi in 1983 as a manufacturing arm of Honda, growth occurred quickly, and Hero Honda was building one million motorcycles and scooters a year by 2001.

From 2000 to 2002, the company manufactured the world’s best-selling motorcycle — the Splendor, which was powered by a modest 110cc, single-cylinder, SOHC motor with a four-speed transmission. Strong growth continues and Hero Honda is selling five million vehicles a year by 2011, resulting in a restructuring of its licensing agreement with Honda.

Honda is dropped from the name, and the company becomes Hero MotoCorp. Two years later, Hero’s strategic partnership with EBR begins, giving Hero access to the American market with EBR as a distributor. Additionally, Hero goes World Superbike Racing in 2014 under the EBR banner, which is where we are now. The Hero-associated EBR is not exactly an all new company, but the teaming with Hero is certainly revolutionary for EBR.

Still a work in progress, Erik Buell told us in an exclusive interview that integrating with Hero has been “very complex — lots and lots of planning, discussions, learning, adaptation.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the interactions of the two companies is EBR becoming a Hero distributor in the United States. We asked Buell about the different markets for EBR and Hero, and how the companies would reconcile that.

“Different customers, indeed, but we think the common themes are fun, quality and customer service,” he said. “Very different products, but really not that different in how you react as a distributor.”

The natural question is what sort of cross-pollination will there be between EBR and Hero models. Buell flatly states that there have been no discussions about EBRs being manufactured in India, or Hero motorcycles being built in Wisconsin, though he was a bit cagier about the possibility of co-branding opportunities.

“Nothing substantive at this time,” Buell says, which indicates at least some preliminary discussions have occurred. When asked about the concept hybrid scooter EBR built for Hero, he revealed, “We are in the process of bringing a production version to market.”

EBRs have also been racing the AMA Pro Racing SuperBike class in a partnership with Pegram Racing with team title sponsor Foremost Insurance. Larry Pegram (pictured opposite, sitting with Erik Buell) and Cory West have campaigned the Pegram Racing EBR 1190RX in 2014, and both were in the top 10 in the standings at the time of this writing.

“AMA has been important for us since it is our ‘home’ series, and is lower cost,” Buell allows. “It’s also great racing, although the rules are a bit weird. However, the exposure has been weaker than our sponsors would like. World Superbike has far more exposure, and to the global audience, that our sponsors and we need. However, it is very expensive for us.”

The AMA and WSBK teams convened at Laguna Seca this year, with thrilling results. EBR had been chasing its first WSBK championship point when the series arrived in California. With Pegram and May representing the brand on the grid, EBR remained frustrated after Race 1 —Pegram didn’t finish and May took 18th.

With both electric and hybrid EBRs a possibility in the future, Buell describes the range of models he expects from his company. “We plan to keep expanding to a wider and wider range of sport motorcycles,” he says. “That includes all sorts of street,
on-off, off-road, in a range of displacements — anything except cruisers, grand tourers, choppers. Those products are well covered by other American manufacturers!”

Switching to racing, Buell gives full credit to Hero’s financial might for EBR’s entry into the FIM World Superbike series. Followers of WSBK have watched Team Hero riders Geoff May and Aaron Yates struggle, as you would expect any new company with new-to-WSBK riders to do in a series that is so competitive, and has deeply entrenched and experienced teams.

Although Hero has deep pockets, the future of EBR at the world’s racetracks is still tied to the realities of economics.

“We want to continue in racing, but we will be selective where we run,” Buell explains. “We have two big objectives in racing. One is to stretch and develop our proprietary designs and technology to the benefit of our customers.

“This does not mean that what is best for racing is best for the street, but it is a place to get data on the designs in a narrow set of extreme circumstances. The second is to build recognition of our brand and our sponsors’ brands. So, this means the audience is more important to us than a certain series or a specific championship. We need views.”

Race 2 was a wild and wooly affair, and two red flags played to EBR’s advantage. When the checkered flag finally flew, Pegram’s 14th place finish earned EBR two world championship points, with May just over one second out of the points in 16th. Buell was, of course, thrilled.

“Really knowing what it takes to get these points as I do, it was a really cool moment,” he says proudly. “It has been a massive achievement of the EBR team to come from nothing to this level in four years.”

With EBR in World Superbike, we broached the question of a possible MotoGP bid in the future. “I do not know when we would go to MotoGP,” Buell says. “The rules there are very narrow, and the costs astronomical. You need to spend a lot of money, and you are very tightly restricted by the rules to a narrow band of product design. It pretty much doesn’t fit our first objective, although the brand exposure for the second objective is good.”

This brings us back to the street. As challenging and rewarding as racing can be, motorcycles still have to be sold to the public. EBR has built 135 examples of the RS model—a flagship with niceties like high-end Öhlins suspension, carbon fiber bodywork, magnesium wheels and a claimed wet weight (no fuel) of 389 pounds. The market for the bike is limited, of course, by a price tag near $50,000.

The 2014 1190RX is EBR’s move toward the mainstream. At just under $19,000, the RX has the same motor, but in a more relaxed chassis (0.4 degrees more rake) that is 30 pounds heavier, with Showa suspension, aluminum wheels, and a traditional plastic fairing. Riding the RX is a unique experience, certainly. It is a raw machine that feels untamed by the street.

The 72-degree ET-V2 motor is a cacophony of mechanical sound upon startup that never goes away, and neither does the vibration through the grips and round pegs. You will never forget that you’re on a bike with an internal combustion engine.

For a fully tucked-in superbike, the RX is comfortable. You aren’t stretched out as if on a rack, and the thin seat feels right. When you pull the radially mounted hydraulic clutch lever in, you will be shocked at the required grip strength needed — clearly the springs are heavy enough to make sure that there is no slipping with the over 100 ft/lbs of torque on tap. You don’t snick the RX into gear—the movement has to be deliberate and the results are audible.

It may be an 1190cc V-twin, but off-idle power is wanting. To get underway requires some revs and can catch you out in town if you are not careful, though the RX does not pretend to be a city bike. The motor is highly oversquare and demands that you spin it up to 4000 rpm or so before it performs as expected.

At that point, the RX moves well, and you will start to feel things happening more rapidly at about 6000 rpm. The torque peak comes in late at 8200 rpm, though not as high in the rev range as a Ducati Panigale. The only thing holding you back from running at that speed, or up to the horsepower peak of 185 at 10,600 rpm is the vibration; it is inescapable and quite rough on the hands. Like a racebike, the RX is about short runs through the canyons, and then a break to recover.

The handling is excellent, and where Erik Buell’s ideas really shine. With light weight, an aggressive 22.4-degree rake, standard steering damper, and Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires, everything is in place. Yet, there is much more to the Buell than that, with highly centralized mass and much less unsprung weight at the front giving truly excellent chassis feedback and a neutral yet flickable personality at high speed.

It takes more time to build confidence in the RX than it does in its Japanese and European superbike counterparts, though per- severance is worth it. Turn-in is neutral and very quick—agile is certainly an appropriate description. The RX is also very stable and holds its line well, yet if you need to adjust that line mid-corner the chassis will react as instructed and without drama.

Showa’s inverted Big Piston Fork and linkless rear shock needed the damping increased by a couple of clicks, but the fully adjustable suspension is of excellent quality and handles bumps well.

As with any firmly sprung repli-racer, the EBR prefers fast and smooth roads rather than bumpier, tighter ones; thanks to the heavy clutch and slow-shifting transmission, this is definitely a corner-speed bike rather than a cut-and-thruster.

The adjustable traction control keeps the rear wheel from spinning uncontrollably, so you can pick the bike up easily coming out of turns, which then allows you to get back on the gas quickly.

The real strength of the Buell—and in homage to Erik’s fanatical and innovative efforts to centralize the mass — is its ability at speed to transition quickly from one full lean angle across to the opposite side with maximum intuition and minimal effort.

Riding up our favorite stretch of highway, the RX was noticeably less fatiguing to ride than other machines of its ilk; in a racing situation, the impeccable weight balance is a huge plus for the riders.

While we can’t say we were enamored by the looks of the cooling air scoops for the single eight-piston brake caliper, its performance is more than adequate for the street. The wheel assembly’s remarkably low weight and reduced inertia is a major contributor to the spectacular turning ability of the Buell.

As a brake, the initial bite is soft on the single 386mm disc, yet it is predictable and ramps up progressively to stop with impressive power and feel. It is slightly less powerful than a high-end fully radial twin disc set up, and in racing situations the street brake has had to be abandoned for twin rotors.

Don’t let that concern you though — the brake is excellent, and you should not allow its unconventional looks to put you off. The rear brake with its Hayes caliper is also very usable, despite the lack of ABS.

Fit and finish on the 1190RX is good for a custom bike, but not quite up to production standards. For example, where the upper fairing meets the middle fairing, you have a squared off edge mating to a more rounded shape.

It doesn’t look right, and the gap is different on each side of the bike. Further, the lower shock mount bolt is too long, the plastic faux gas-tank is too flexible, and too much engine heat is vented to the legs. On the upside, the full-color dashboard is impressive and readable in all conditions—something we couldn’t say about the Ducati Monster 1200 S we tested in this issue.

The 2014 EBR 1190RX is for the rider who wants a race-bike experience on the street, and a feel that is brawny, single-minded, and raw. If you are not going fast on the RX, don’t bother — it is not enjoyable for anything less than hard riding. The RX owner will be someone who craves a unique experience, and is willing to accept some rough edges to get it.

It will be interesting to watch the EBR motorcycles develop before our eyes, as well as the relationship Erik Buell’s company has with Hero MotoCorp.

“There was very little interaction on the EBR models so far,” Buell says of its alliance with the Indians, “other than we at EBR were able to learn some things just by observing Hero as we worked on products for them. I think as the two companies work more and more together there will be even more we learn from each other.”

EBR is looking to expand into Europe, which Buell sees as the company’s largest export market in the near future, and to fully exploit the Hero association. Buell expects “commitment to a long-term relationship with each other, and commitment to our stakeholders.”

Buell has big plans for his latest motorcycle company. Hero is certainly capable of helping EBR turn expectations and aspirations into reality. The ambition of EBR is impressive, and the machine that the Wisconsin company has come up with to further its goals is one that is singular and dedicated, just like its creator.

Photos by Patrick Daly, Drew Ruiz, Don Williams

Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.