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Motorhead Memo: Requiem for Buell… or is it?

By Kip Woodring

“Oh, I’ve seen the bottom and I’ve been on top. But mostly I’ve lived in between. And where do you go when you get to the end of your dream?” —Dan Fogelberg

I sat down to regale you with the odd facts regarding how Harley-Davidson began racing OHV machines while selling IOE and side-valves to the public… then turning that on its head… wound up selling OHV machines to the public but racing flathead stuff. Then, at that very moment I got the e-mail!

The e-mail was to inform me that the following day, vultures were invited to pick the carcass of EBR… Erik Buell’s ill-fated adventure into building the ultimate American sportbike. To say this saddens me is to understate things immeasurably. Face it; whether we like Erik Buell’s star-crossed machinery or not, we owe him a debt. When you ride a V-Rod, any rubber-mount Harley, admire the handling of an FXR, romp on a XR1200… and especially if you appreciate the, agile, smooth, V-Twin-powered machines that handle like a GP bike and have the torque of a locomotive… there’s some Erik in all of it.

For me it runs deeper than that. First principles engineering and cutting-edge solutions, unorthodox approaches to improving and refining the two-wheeled vehicles we know and love… all that appeals to me. I was drawn to Erik’s philosophy from the beginning. It went a little like this:

● Tom Horning, owner of South Coast Harley-Davidson was a Buell dealer in 1989, when it was pure Buell. For reasons I can’t recall right now, it fell to me to take an extended test ride on the token Buell in stock, an RR1200. My out and back involved four stops, one planned, the rest not so much. The planned one, a gas fill, had people surrounding the bike and asking questions while I pumped. Then there was the guy running along the sidewalk, flagging me down to ask if I “built it.” A second guy, in his car, honking and waving to get my attention and hitting me with a barrage of questions… he’d never seen anything like it! One unintended stop involved the dreaded red lights in the rear view… only to discover that cops were curious too. The other, on the way back to work the following morning, was more of same. Yup, when the police and civilians alike become instant fans… it tells you something. The bike told me something as well. Spoke to me loud and clear.

The second BOTT racer to the carry the moniker “Lucifer’s Hammer” was, in fact, a Buell RR1000. With the butt-ugly stock bodywork removed, a great deal of what made these bikes special is exposed. The closer you look the more you see… exquisite!

● H-D dealer meeting a few years later… Reg Kittrelle and I are there to cover it for THUNDER PRESS. We saw the S-Series Buells for the first time and were frankly smitten. Reg starts a magazine, buys a Lightning and a Thunderbolt… leases the T-Bolt to me for a buck a year. Best deal ever!

● Buell introduction a year or so after that. The corporate dude gives all the journalists “the ride rules talk”… follow the leader, nothing illegal or nutty, be professional. Ten minutes later we’re out in the middle of Zion, and no one is doing anything that isn’t the antithesis! Erik hangs back in the twisty parts, watching. As soon as he’s pretty sure we’re enthralled, he finds his mojo and the redline… then blasts past everyone. The last leg out is a rifle-barrel road that terminates in a dead-end wide spot with a gas station and a restaurant and nothing beyond. It’s a straight four-mile run to a turnaround… and Reg and I get down to business on the way to it. Chin on the gas cap, me under the fairing bubble of a Euro-spec S3 and Reg being blown off the back of an S1… I tapped an indicated 144 mph… the fastest I’d ever been… Reg trailing behind. Aerodynamics matter, to the tune of about 10 mph.

● Isle of Man TT 1997… Buell ride tent just off the circuit. I’m watching dour Brits line up to take Buell offerings for a toot, on the fabled island of great twisty roads and no speed limits… motorcycle Nirvana. They return with tousled hair and shit-eatin’ grins on their faces… one couple having ridden the entire 38 miles on Mad Sunday, two-up… wanted to buy one on the spot. You can tell they get it. Locomotive torque in a 250 GP-sized machine… yee-ha! Tell the Vincent guys to look out… there’s a new legend in town!

This Buell S2 still holds a Bonneville record of 153.338 mph in the Production Pushrod 1350cc class for stock frame machines

● Buell rally 1998 and the two standout memories are the dyno contest and the burnout BS. Fun was had by all! The dyno winner made more naturally-aspirated horsepower than I had ever seen out of a Harley-based S&S tweaked big-bore. The smell of burnt rubber abounds and I was damn glad I didn’t need to buy all those fried-to-the-cord rear tires!

● Reg decided to go road racing on his S1. We used factory race kit stuff and some other known good tweaks to get 90 rear-wheel hp outta the bike. He was doing well, learning fast, going around nicely, then… not! Turned out some “expert” riders were turned loose with the newbies and one of ’em punched his Lightning in the butt… launching it into the weeds where it caught fire and burnt to a crisp. Yeah… you remember stuff like that.

● 1999 and the X1… and Daytona. I remember the H-D factory team, with all the money, resources and palatial facilities imaginable… and the Buell team… with the late, great Henry Duga presiding over… well… a two-bay garage in the pits. Coupla things about that; Buell on a shoestring actually did better in the races than H-D and none other than Dick O’Brien stopped by to see how and what Buell was up to. The tallest of the riders had just come in from a practice lap, complaining that the bike was too cramped for his lanky self. The windscreen was duly trimmed before he went back out… O’Brien opined that the mod would cost him seconds per lap… O’Brien was right.

My own poor attempt at a “cafe racer” Thunderbolt. Affectionately referred to as Dancing Bear… this bike carried me to and through many a winding road with aplomb!

● The X1 wasn’t… quite. All the same, a brave leap into fuel injection and hybrid (tube and cast) chassis… waiting for the next iteration.

● 2003 in Auburn, Washington… RandR Cycles’ Bob Robinson is taking care of the lad who had been astonishing sportbike riders on the race tracks of the area. He’s riding a Buell XBRR… damn well! Turns out it’s neck and neck for the season title in the class. He wins it on the Buell. It falls to Bob to get him ready for next season. The XBRR has been flogged to within an inch of its life and never failed… but it’s shot! Bob gets it apart and it needs a lot of help… parts being hard to come by since XBRRs have practically nothing in common with regular XBs. Bob’s perseverance pays off… the racer is ready… the rider moves on… WTF? That’s racing!

● In 2005, Bike magazine, the biggest motorcycle rag in the UK does a one-off… “the best-handling motorcycle of all time.” Against 50 world-class machines, all brands, types and ages… guess what wins? Yup… a Buell XB12R Firebolt. Think about the competition… think about what it took… Wow!

Shown here just because this nicely-done XB is similar to my current Buell and a reflection on what first principles engineering can do to make a “Harley Sportster” into a dream ride. Thanks, Erik!

● Late in 2006 the distinguished German publication Motorrad does a piece on a 50,000-mile test Buell. Their XB12S Lightning is the subject of quite the critique. Commuting, autobahn flogging and some road racing… still hadn’t hurt it. They were frankly amazed! A belt broke, a hairline crack showed up in the exhaust, and the exhaust valves looked tired but still held compression. What befuddled and impressed them most was during their dyno tests the Buell made more power and more torque at 50K than it did when they got it!

● 2008 and water-cooled, Rotax-motored 1125Rs come into it. By now, I’m too old and slow, the bike is too new and fast… so not my thing, but respectable effort nonetheless. Came closer with the 1125CR… I’d still like one of those.

● One year later… it’s over! Harley overreacts to the financial crisis and Buell gets the axe. No one who’s seen the video Erik did to announce the fact will forget the emotion he couldn’t hide over an ill-advised betrayal.

● 1190 EBRs make the scene… Erik’s back… with a full-blown, take-no-prisoners superbike! I’m peripheral to it by this time, but glad he’s got something to do… showing what he can do… unfettered.

Removed from Harley money, meddling and motors, here’s what the 1125 Buell could have been. This is the last (and likely lost) EBR 1190… the Black Lightning. With Buell’s long-standing penchant for BSA model names… ironically this one recalls old British Vincents… in more ways than one! If you can find one of the few prototypes that made the show circuit… buy it! Instant collectible!

● Musta been 2015 and the Triumph dealer in Las Vegas is moving to their new facility. I stroll through and at the end of the long, narrow, soon-to-be showroom… sits half a dozen of the “affordable” 1190s. I sit and twiddle and decline the offer of a test ride on an SX… because I’m a nitwit. The bike suits me extremely well and to this day I’d call my chance to ride/purchase that day an opportunity missed. That’s bothered me ever since.

● Next thing I know, Erik’s backers in India (Hero) fail to come through with promised money to grow EBR as a brand. The market and timing are crap… so EBR goes to a scrap dealer. The guy tries to keep it going but fails… then the e-mail came.

Now… it’s all over. Or… maybe ready to begin again. That would be up to Erik if he’s up for it. I can’t help but speculate, though. You can’t keep a good man down… and if nothing else comes along… I hope and pray that Polaris gets into road racing Indians the way they have flat track. If so, they’ll need a great chassis designer and development engineer. I know exactly who I’d recommend if they asked me.

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