Everything Must Go! - Scenes From The Buell Motorcycle Factory Liquidation Sale

Scenes From The Buell Motorcycle Factory Liquidation Sale

By Aaron Frank, Photography by John Hanson

The first sign appears a few miles away, stuck into the frozen grass alongside I-43. "Motorcycle Liquidation" it reads, black letters on a yellow background, with an arrow pointing right. I exit at East Troy and head north toward Buell Drive, and the soon-to-be-vacant Buell Motorcycle factory. It's a sunny, bitter-cold January morning in Wisconsin, barely above zero. Yet despite the frigid temperature, more than 500 people are lined up outside, waiting for the Buell Motorcycle Factory Liquidation Sale to open.

I recognize lots of faces: friends, racers, former Buell employees, staff from nearby dealerships in Milwaukee, Madison and Janesville. Some are looking for good deals on tools and shop fixtures. Some are looking for an authentic Buell souvenir. Some have no particular connection or affection, and have just come to witness the dissolution of this proud-and occasionally puzzling-American brand.

The doors open at 10 a.m. and the mob descends like vultures on the factory's steel-and-concrete carcass. "Rape and pillage" is how one Harley-Davidson employee describes the scene. A sign hanging from the ceiling reads, "EVERYTHING MUST GO NOW." Bike lifts. Engine stands. CNC mills. Floor scrubbers. Air compressors. Hundreds of rechargeable DeWalt tool batteries. Plastic bins holding thousands of hand tools, priced at $4 each. "Look at all these computers-no wonder this company went out of business," one attendee says. He clearly has no idea what it takes to produce and sell world-class motorcycles.

There are vehicles, too: the Freightliner FL60 crew-cab that pulled Buell's demo trailer around the country; the 2004 Ford Econoline van that was a familiar-if not iconic-sight at racetracks around the Midwest, driven by Henry Duga, Buell Racing Manager and employee #1. Even competitive-brand motorcycles used for engineering studies are here, including a KTM 640 Adventure and 990 Super Duke, a BMW R1100RT and a roulette-green Triumph Speed Triple.

One dollar buys your choice of posters-including an autographed action shot of Pascal Picotte on the Harley-Davidson VR1000 Superbike-that look like they were just removed from some employee's cubicle wall, complete with tack holes in the corners. There are boxes of rubber bands, bundles of zip ties, packets of staples, open cans of paint. When the merchandise is gone, they'll probably roll up the carpets and sell those too.

Deals are scarce, at least on the first day of this month-long sale. Trucks and bikes are priced at Blue Book value. A tired-looking enclosed trailer with Harley-Davidson bar-and-shield graphics is marked $2300. This doesn't deter shoppers. A large Buell dealer sign, $400, is gone in 60 seconds. A $60 Firebolt airbox cover, signed in kanji by Japanese Buell fans, is also quick to sell. A friend waits in line for over an hour to pay for a multi-meter, ratchet and a large roll of "Not For Production" stickers.

There are ghosts at this funeral. A back corner of the warehouse is roped off with caution tape, protecting a lone forklift operator loading crated Buell motorcycles onto a semi. Behind another ribbon of tape sit a few dozen partially disassembled 1125CRs. These are the last remaining Buells, one of the last remaining Buell employees tells me. Originally intended for Brazil, these are being converted back to American spec to be delivered to U.S. dealers. Eight air-cooled Buells, all marked "sold," rest behind cyclone fencing in another corner. Across a dry erase board inside this cage someone has scrawled, in blue magic marker, "Harley-Davidson sucks."

I find former Buell President Jon Flickinger walking the sale floor. After uttering a few non-answers regarding details surrounding the "discontinuation" of Buell, Flickinger asks if I want to speak to Erik Buell. The headquarters of the newly formed Erik Buell Racing are in a small office adjacent to the former factory, and Erik happens to be in.

Honestly, Erik is the last person I want to see on such an emotionally charged day. He has taken incalculable risks and made untold sacrifices to build his eponymous motorcycle company from the ground up. Now, that two-wheeled legacy is being liquidated just 50 yards away. I couldn't imagine that he'd be in the mood for casual conversation.

The meeting goes as expected. Erik is cordial, as always. But with little to lose and no brand to protect anymore, he tells me with extreme candor exactly how he feels about Buell Motorcycles' unceremonious end. Then he goes on for some time about his many frustrations with those of us in the motorcycle press. Buell has had a notoriously prickly history with the motorcycle media, and some of the stories written recently-especially those surrounding the 1125R's controversial AMA Daytona Sportbike Championship-have left him profoundly upset. We also talk about his occasionally problematic history with The Motor Company, and the fate of the Buell Barracuda prototype. That we'll never see this motorcycle enter production is particularly heartbreaking to Buell. "That's the bike we should have been building all along," he laments.

It's an uncomfortable conversation, but I walk away knowing this isn't the last we'll hear from Erik Buell. He's renowned for his resilience. Through his career he has faced countless obstacles-everything from serious racing injuries to bankruptcies to massive product recalls-and has always clawed back stronger than ever. Though his pride is wounded, he remains passionate about building world-class, American-made sportbikes. I can't imagine he'll ever go back to Harley-Davidson, but he's certainly not going away. He has too much unfinished business-and too many critics still to silence-to just leave now.

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