One year after receiving the devastating news that Harley-Davidson was discontinuing his namesake motorcycle brand, Erik Buell is back in business and working harder than ever to make his innovative motorcycle designs a reality. The 60-year-old iconoclast now heads Erik Buell Racing (EBR), housed in a small corner of the former factory on Buell Drive in East Troy, Wisconsin. There he converts existing 1125Rs into dedicated racing machines like the fearsome 1190RR that Harald Kitsch of Germany's Pegasus Racing used to dominate the 2010 European Twins/Sound of Thunder Championship, while at the same time laying the groundwork to re-enter the streetbike market with a new line of high-end, American-made sportbikes. Recently released from his non-compete contract with The Motor Company, Buell shared with us his opinion on Harley's decision to shutter Buell (at a staggering, $125 million cost), his struggles with management as that company's focus shifted to "core customers," and the fate of the radical B2 Barracuda prototype. Buell also revealed his future plans, including a return to volume motorcycle production and a possible collaboration with Bombardier under the Can-Am name.
Q: What were you told regarding Harley-Davidson's rationale for discontinuing Buell?
A: I was not privy to any management discussions. I was just told they were pulling the plug-period. I got hearsay from people who'd been in meetings where it was suggested that Buell was disrupting Harley-Davidson's ability to focus on its "core customers." I do know they surveyed the H-D dealer network, asking dealers if they thought they should keep Buell. Only 35 or 40 percent of H-D dealers even sold Buell in the first place, so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the majority would say "No, let's just focus on Harley." Beyond that, who knows? I'm not really in a position to say anything.
The next-generation Buell B2 Barracuda prototype, shown in this spy shot with Erik himself
Q: What was Buell's financial performance in the year before the shutdown?
A: We were making in the region of 8000-10,000 bikes a year. I'm not allowed to talk about the financials, but the entire sportbike industry was in a bad situation in '09, Buell included. Our sales had dropped significantly. Buell was a little division of a great, big company that was doing 350,000 units a year, and it was in trouble, in a sector that was in trouble. So maybe it's not surprising that Harley decided to get out. From that perspective, it's not an irrational decision to close Buell. It's exactly the kind of decision that people with that background and those goals are used to making. They just did what executives do.
Q: What is the status of the Buell Motorcycle Company right now?
A: The Buell name remains with Harley-Davidson, as does the intellectual property and all of the original patents. That's the case when anybody leaves a company.
Q: Is it true that Bombardier approached Harley-Davidson to acquire the rights to produce and distribute the complete 1125R motorcycle?
A: I don't know what all the negotiations were; we were too busy trying to get Erik Buell Racing off the ground. There were people who thought the Buell name had value, but in the end, nothing happened. That's all water under the bridge.