by Victor Wanchena
As I write this the last warmth of our abbreviated fall has gone. The leaves have fallen and we are settling in for another winter. This seemed the right backdrop for Harley-Davidson’s announcement that they were ceasing production of the Buell line of motorcycles. Erik Buell, the company’s founder and inspiration, delivered the somber news in a teary statement on Buell’s website. Buell is no more.
I normally don’t eulogize the passing of companies here, famous or infamous, the notable exception being Excelsior-Henderson. But the death of the Buell line gave me a moment to pause. Years ago we had poked fun at Buell running a caption above a photo of Erik Buell that read “I left and the place went to hell” after essentially every Buell made to date was recalled. They were not pleased with our jeers, but we were impressed they soldiered on. We actually held them in high esteem for wading out into the deep end of the pool among the wickedly smart Japanese and the haughty Europeans.
Discussions among motorcyclists seemed to revolve around what H-D did wrong with Buell. The styling was too radical, the engineering was not mainstream enough, or they should have been sold outside of H-D dealerships. I listened and was guilty myself of armchair quarter-backing the corporate decisions at H-D and Buell. But then someone offered a moment of clarity. They simply asked how many Buell’s I’d owned. In all honesty, I had to answer none and therein lies the true reason Buell failed.
On the outside Buell is a casualty of a weak economy. H-D looking at the bottom line of their balance sheet decided to cut their spending and focus on where they make the bulk of their revenue. But when you ask the question how many did you own, Buell becomes a victim of a fickle consumer. I may not have been in their targeted demographic, but I have certainly considered their bikes. We’ve liked every Buell we’ve tested. I thought that the 1125 was incredibly well designed and executed. The Ulysses was on my list when picking a replacement to my last bike, but I never bought one. And the same can be said of most consumers. We never bought one.
This isn’t an indictment of motorcyclists, simply an observation. Buell built a wonderful bike packed with engineering and technology. The story of the birth of Buell is an American original. But a good looking spec sheet and charming history isn’t enough to sell bikes. Ultimately, people need to come into a dealership and plunk their money down, and that never happened. Motorcyclists, as consumers, are fickle and don’t always buy what the industry expects. Buell wasn’t able to survive on “build it and they will come”. (My apologies for a “Field of Dreams” reference)
Motorcycling will move on. Sport bikes will still be built, engineers will still dream up new crazy designs, and riders will continue to have a universe of choices for their next bike. Motorcycling will move on after Buell, but will not be richer for it. They were truly America’s sport bike. Born in a garage and built by a visionary.