The unique street-fighter brand from the United States. Pioneering technology, fighting the system and the ultimate sacrifice. A bike that found itself punching above its weight in a world that just didn’t understand. Header Pic ©
Erik Buell, an ex-Harley Davidson engineer, had a passion. he wanted to produce the ultimate race bike. In 1984 he teamed up with a small outfit from North Wales to produce his first Buell based on the Barton team’s 2-stroke square four to take on the AMA Formula One class. Alas, almost as soon as it started it was over as the AMA lost interest in Formula 1 and Erik was without a race for his bikes, or an income to stick in the bank.
The USA was doing nothing in the race scene. The Superbike series was totally dominated by Japanese fours and Ducatis which were ripping the tarmac and leaving Harley Davidson way behind. Erik Buell had been approached by Rex Marsee, an ex-racer and talented engineer and the two got talking, and between them they conceived a new race bike for the road.
Needing an engine they looked no further than Milwaukee where Harley arms were twisted to secure fifty dusty XR1000 V-twins from the store room.
The engines could be tuned to produce some useful beef, but they bucked and jumped in the frame like a mad dog so Buell designed the Isoplaner mount which allowed the engine to move without passing the negative effects to the rider or bike. The resulting new frame used the engine as a stressed part of the chassis which junked a lot of steel and weight in the process.
A steep 25 degree steering angle allowed nippy cornering and the single rear shock was mounted under the frame through some clever linkage work. With 16 inch wheels it was very compact and weighed in at a nimble 395lbs. The 180mph RR 1000 Battletwin went like stink and handled like it was on rails – it was a killer.
To secure a high profile shot at racing Buell had to sell all 50 units so a cunning plan was hatched and managed to gain access to a cruise ship packed full of Harley dealers on their end of year bash. With so many of them into the racing scene orders were taken for 25 before the ship reached port. Soon the press published the story of America’s first new motorcycle company for 65 years and the metal started to shift out of the door.
Harley spotted a good thing and decided to invest in Buell which allowed his team more access to R&D funding, security and a great dealer network.
In close succession five more variations of the bike were launched using a modified version of the 1200cc Harley engine – they sold like hot cakes.
The S2 Thunderbolt was launched in 1994 as a touring version of the bike. It was expensive to develop but, instead of the predicted 300 units, nearly 1400 shipped in its first year easily refilling the bank account. 1996 saw the S1 Lightning hit the road and with 5000 bikes sold in 3 years it was easily paying for its keep.
At the same time other variations were released in the form of the S3 Thunderbolt, S3T Thunderbolt and the M2 Cyclone – a full product range at last gave Buell a recognised position in American bike culture.
Harley wanted more of the action and in 1998 the Milwaukee giant became the majority share holder leaving Buell with just 2% of his own company.
The team were reworking the V-Rod motor for the next prototype, but Harley took the reins and the over-engineered result was considered to be inappropriate for the lightweight bike. After much modification it did eventually find its way into the fuel injected X1 Lightning in 1999.
The new millennium opened with the single cylinder Blast which had a very healthy production run of 9 years whilst supporting Harley’s own new rider training schools. The mill’s R&D budget was massively expensive which was good news for the Harley development team but it took a huge slice out of Buell’s pie in the showrooms.
Buell went back to the drawing board and did what he liked doing best – thinking outside the box. His basic principles of low weight, strong frame, tight handling and centralised mass would mean the engine didn’t have to work so hard to produce the same results.
The 2003 launch of the XB-series took the bike press by storm – this was a radical bike full of innovation. First there was the idea of storing the fuel in the frame which kept the bike’s centre of gravity low and negated the need for a large steel tank up top. The false tank housed a massive air filter to enable excellent air flow into the engine.
The sump oil was stored in the swing arm for the same reason plus it gave it a chance to be cooled away from the engine. At the back end technology continued with a belt drive which made it maintenance free – an idea that made its way on to the Harley machines.
To save weight the rear brake was incorporated into the swing arm assembly allowing a twin pot caliper to be used with no great addition of weight.
Buell’s best known trademark is the perimeter front disc brake. With its extra radius it needed only one rotor on the front wheel to halt the bike’s mass. With a 6 pot caliper and newly introduced up-side-down forks the unsprung weight on the front end was reduced considerably.
Buell took things even further by introducing the under-slung exhaust, the significant weight loss coupled with the centralisation of mass rather than hung outside the bike helped handling even further.
All told, this bike was a major breakthrough; even with Harley’s 985cc engine producing just over 100bhp (the later models had a hike to 1200cc), its agile handling and masses of torque gave it agility and acceleration which matched its streetfighter looks.
Despite an abandoned R&D project to bolt on a supercharger (which added an unwelcome $2000 to the resulting finished unit cost), the bikes got good reviews and sold reasonably well. Buell pushed ahead with an off-road version marketed as the Ulysses. With a similar look to BMW’s GS range the bike picked up sales from adventure riders.
But things weren’t looking good – Harley were in control and Mr Buell was finding the company’s engines limiting for his plans. Rotax Helicon produced a water-cooled double-overhead cam motor which produced 146bhp with a very long torque curve which fitted the bill exactly. The newly-engined 1125R was launched in 2007.
There wasn’t really a lot of Harley about the new bike despite it being an extremely able machine and the holding company just didn’t see where it fitted within its brand.
If built in Europe where sports bikes are the norm it may have had a life, but the new management team at Harley felt that the new Buell was just not fitting with the company’s plans.
It was going to be an eight figure sum to buy in the engines from Rotax and they just weren’t prepared to buy into that when, in their eyes, they had a healthy selection of V-twins on the shelf ready to go.
It cost a fortune to close the company down but in October 2009 that’s exactly what happened.
But all was not lost – Erik Buell Racing, a new company produced the 1190sx 185bhp road bike which received great reviews from racing circles as well as the motorcycle press. It was sure to be a hit. But all hopes of a re-emergence faultered when in mid 2015 the company ceased trading.
Since then the Buell brand and assets have been up for auction, but with complications and further delays it seems January 2016 will be the next time we get any news of future plans. Let’s hope its’s good news this time.