Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Buell "Innovations": A Closer Look

If you spend enough time on internet motorcycle forums you’ll eventually hear someone accuse motojournalists of being lazy; for example, not bothering to check the facts and instead rewriting the sales literature that came with a bike and passing it off as a road test. It’s not a charge I’m prepared to dispute unconditionally, although my guess is it has less to do with laziness and more to do with a lack of solid journalism skills.

Still, a lot of writers who should know better have, for so long I can’t remember when it started, parroted Buell’s claims that it pioneered several “innovations”—the quotes are intentional—like fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm, and inside-out front disc brakes, the latter rebranded with the flashier term Zero Torsional Load.

I’ve held my tongue about this for years, and probably committed the innovation offense myself now and then just to keep an editor happy. If that's lazy, then I’m guilty as charged, although I could argue that it was a necessary economic decision based on the fact that few editors are prepared to pay me for being a nitpicky know-it-all (even though I'm really good at that).

But tonight I brought home a copy of a major motorcycle magazine from the library, and sitting down to read it over dinner, finally reached my limit.

Accompanying an article about the closing of Buell was a sidebar called “Buell Timeline”; it ran down the significant milestones of the company’s short life, including the debut in 2002 of the XB9R, “with innovations such as fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm and inside-out ZTL front brake.”

There are plenty of examples of these “innovations” appearing long before Buell laid claim to them.

In the May 1972 issue of Cycle Guide is an article about a monocoque-framed street bike that then-editor Bob Braverman whipped up using a chassis from a company called Competition Racing Development Center in Brisbane, California. The two principals of CRDC were Don Haagstead and Jim Gordon. I remember seeing and talking to them at the first AFM races I rode in the early 1970s. Their monocoque design used the frame as a fuel tank, and the seat for an oil tank for the two-stroke powerplant. For more pictures of their work go here and scroll down to CRDC in the section about special-framed bikes. (An even older example of fuel in the frame can be found here.)

I couldn’t turn up any examples of motorcycles with the engine oil in the swingarm prior to the XB9R, but there are plenty of examples of trials bikes with a chain-oil reservoir in the swingarm; this period test of four trials bikes notes that three of them had reservoirs:

Swingarm chain oil reservoir. The Ossa doesn't have one. The other three bikes did. The Kaw has a bolt to keep the oil in. The Yamaha has a plug that keeps popping out.

It's not big leap, once you've put chain oil in the swingarm, to put the engine oil there.

Finally, in the book Arlen Ness—Master Harley Customizer by Timothy Remus, on page 128 is a picture of a Ness custom with what is unmistakably an inside-out front brake. Ness didn't call it Zero Torsional Load, instead modestly preferring to engrave his name in the rotors. But he beat the XB9R to the punch by several years. And it could well be that others beat Ness; never underestimate the imagination of Harley customizers, who seem willing to try almost anything to stand out from the crowd.

I should make it clear I’m not out to kick Erik Buell when he’s down. I was never much interested in his bikes, except maybe the Ulysses, but a lot of other people were, many of them passionately so. A few of them worked for Buell, and the fact that they lost their jobs largely due to a decades-long epidemic of head-up-ass disease in Milwaukee sucks hard.

But before anyone gets all teary-eyed about the company’s demise, remember that it staked its fortune on a niche bike that at its best was no better than its competition, and at its worst was a lot worse; and that boasting about “innovations” is no substitute for building reliable motorcycles that more than just a few people want to buy.

I hope Buell’s new racing shop thrives, and that when his non-compete agreement with H-D expires he comes up with something so terrific that the suits at Harley who cut him loose will be taking turns kicking each other around the block.

I just don’t want to hear him use the word innovation ever again, unless it’s really justified.

1 comment:

Haitham said...

I appreciate that if someone else did it before, it may not be a true "invention" on Buell's part, but the examples you gave are not commercially practical - and sorry but the chain oiler example is not the same at all.

The point is that while they may not be called "inventions" I think there is a big difference between the examples you gave above and real commercial practical applications of the technology. Erik Buell and his engineering/design team definitely deserve the credit for applying the technologies in a useable, practical, reliable and good performing application.