I was contacted through this blog a few months ago by a woman who worked for what was then Buell’s advertising agency. She had read a post here in which I wondered why roadracing wasn't more popular in the U.S. For some reason she thought I might be able to tell her why, given Buell’s recent successes in AMA roadracing, sportbike riders weren't flocking to Buell showrooms.
She was aware that Buell’s wins were tainted in some race fans’ eyes by virtue of the 1125cc twin running in the same class as 600cc fours. I wasn't too sure there was any real basis for that resentment—the Buells weren't exactly walking away with every race—but it certainly had to be thrown in the mix.
I then shifted into full bloviating mode. Buell’s real problem as I saw it was more complex than resentment at its roadrace wins against smaller bikes. First, although they were tricker and faster than anything Harley had ever put on the street, they weren’t any faster—and were a lot less trick—than your average 600cc four from Japan. Sportbike sales live and die on performance, and Buells didn’t outperform the competition sufficiently to make them a viable alternative.
Also, in order to buy a Buell, in most cases you had to go to a Harley dealership. For years now Harley has been selling the sizzle instead of the steak. A lot of veteran Harley salespeople didn’t know what to make of an actual steak sitting on their showroom floor. They were unprepared to answer the kind of questions sportbike riders asked, and had little or no interest in the Buell line of motorcycles except insofar as they took up space where another blinged-out Big Twin could have been sitting. A lot of them just didn’t care about Buells, and equated selling them with some tedious community service they were obliged to perform, like picking up roadside litter after a DUI.
It has to be said, too, that most of the “innovations” Buell loved to crow about—fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm, the rim-mounted front brake, the underslung muffler—had all appeared first on other bikes. Buell collected them all into one package, for which he deserves some props, I suppose, but it smacked of the “because we can” school of engineering. None of those things made the bike substantially faster or better handling than its competition, just different.
One huge thing that held Buell back was there from the very beginning—that engine. Sportster engines, like steam locomotives and Stearman biplanes, are charming devices in an antediluvian sort of way. But sportbike powerplants? Please. Stuffing one in a purported sportbike is like breeding a thoroughbred and then breaking one of its legs before the race. By the time Buells got the engine they deserved from the outset, it was way too late.
The nice lady from the ad agency listened patiently to what I said, thanked me, promised she’d be in touch, and never called back. Later I read that her agency had been dropped by Buell. It probably wasn’t the first messenger to be shot that way, and likely won’t be the last.
In the press release announcing the closing of Buell, Keith Wandell, the new, non-motorcycle-riding CEO of Harley-Davidson, said, “We believe we can create a bright long-term future for our stakeholders through a single-minded focus on the Harley-Davidson brand.” Wandell hasn’t been with the company very long, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing that this “single-minded focus” is a strategy of convenience, easily set aside when there’s a shiny bauble within reach. Harley is subject to fits of compulsive shopping, often followed by deep bouts of buyer's remorse. In the last 25 years it bought and discarded Tri-Hawk, Holiday Rambler, and now Buell and MV Agusta. Each of these purchases was hailed as the beginning of a bright new partnership; each of these corporate marriages ended in tears.
So when news of Buell’s demise broke last week, I was shocked but not surprised, except perhaps by how long Harley stuck with Buell before casting it aside. Anyone who comes under the Harley umbrella, even willingly, has to be thinking, night and day, that he could be the next one thrown out of the sleigh.
Maybe that was Erik Buell’s fatal mistake—ignoring history.