The Ode: Buell Motorcycle Co.

Despite its innovation, this maker of custom racing bikes and its uncompromising attitude couldn't survive an economic downturn and a changing marketplace.

Buell Motorcycle Co., America’s only noteworthy sportbike manufacturer, was born to motorcycle racer Erik Buell in 1983. Buell was a former Harley-Davidson engineer who quit that company to develop an overpowered racing contraption he later admitted was “terrifying to ride.” It was the first of two-dozen-odd sportbikes bearing his surname. They were his answer to Japanese crotch rockets from the likes of Yahama and Kawasaki, or European makes such as BMW and Ducati. After the company’s successful launch, Harley gradually brought Buell back into its fold, entering into a partnership with him in 1993, and buying him out five years later.

Buell designed and built the bikes largely by hand in rural East Troy, Wis., using Harley engines. Harley, seeing in Buell an opportunity to win customers outside its traditional base, sold them through its dealer network. (Harley’s heavy touring bikes appealed to tattooed gentry, organized criminals and Yankee men suffering mid-life crises. Young riders, women and minorities proved less enthusiastic.) Buell’s first customers were Harley owners, but it evetually won fans in the sportbike strongholds of Europe and Japan.

Many Buells were unique. The company was the first to fit the tailpipe beneath the bike to lower its centre of gravity, and it eliminated gas tanks by storing fuel in the frame — innovations imitated by other manufacturers. Yet its designs were not universally esteemed. “The powertrain shakes like a St. Bernard coming in from a rainstorm,” one reviewer complained of the XB12X Ulysses.

But Buell, an uncompromising company, cared only for racing. “Sitting is not a sport,” it sneered in promotional literature that seemed bent on alienating potential customers. “Unfortunately, most people who buy sportbikes do just that. They hit the starter button, raise the kickstand, gently release the clutch, and sit their asses off.” Riders unaccustomed to leaning 45 degrees into turns should stick to porch swings. Sissies.

Recent years were some of Buell’s best — it shipped about 13,000 bikes last year, compared to just 1,500 in the mid-1990s. Yet its sportbikes contributed at best a rounding error to its paent’s financials. (Last year Harley shipped 300,000 units.) “What does Buell bring to Harley?” one analyst asked in Time magazine last year. “Good question.”

That left Buell vulnerable. Motorcycles are discretionary purchases and are often bought on credit. Its sales sputtering, Harley slashed workers this year, trimmed production and declared it would “exit non-core business operations.”

Buell’s last bikes rolled off the line in October. In an emotional eulogy delivered via YouTube, a choked-up Erik Buell proudly recalled that a Buell bike won a racing championship in New Jersey in September, “competing against the much larger factory-backed teams from Japan and Europe.” The observation seemed irrelevant from a business perspective. A racer, though, would understand.