The demise of an important marque

Let’s hope it’s just ‘so long’ and not ‘good bye’

Included in Harley-Davidson’s quarterly financial report issued on October 15 was the shocking announcement that after 26 years of operation, Buell Motorcycles would cease to exist, with all production at their East Troy factory ending on October 30. The Motor Company has also let it be known that none of the Buell models will be retained and rebadged as Harley-Davidsons.

I’m gonna think of it as a “hiatus,” firstly, because I detest the notion that The Motor Company, after 100-plus years of hardscrabble business tactics, would be so shortsighted as to permanently kill Buell Motorcycles simply to bolster the stock. Secondly, like it or not (and too many do not), Buell, the man, is the most innovative designer/engineer extant in this industry.

It appears that Erik is going to remain affiliated with Harley-Davidson in some advisory capacity or other for the time being. But, to my mind, that’s a lot like keeping a leopard on a leash—in your living room! I suspect that unless there’s some real action in the areas Mr. Buell is good at, this arrangement is destined to be temporary. Still, I hope Erik can hang on long enough to watch the economy turn around and lobby successfully for the re-introduction of his motorcycles into the marketplace at a later date. I hope that rather than being declared dead, Buell Motorcycle Company is just resting. Or regrouping!

Damn few in the history of motorcycles knew what to make of machines truly ahead of their time and incapable of being pigeonholed into any somewhat ephemeral so-called class. The current legends and lore surrounding an old (dead since the ’50s) British bike called the Vincent is but one textbook example. Cherished and expensive in the extreme these days, that brand struggled (and ultimately failed) to survive in its time because people didn’t know what to make of it. Instead, they bought conventional—and often mediocre—rivals, rather than embrace a leap forward in first-principles thinking and elegant engineering. Not much has changed when it comes to Buell—either man or machine. Buell the man is an inspiring example of thoughtful, insightful, sometimes downright brilliant approaches to building better motorcycles. The fact that the results are not always perfect in execution, less than conventional in design, and neither racebike, sportbike nor Harley is entirely secondary. They are damn fine machines! Confounding to all but the connoisseur to be sure, but worthy of the same respect as any Vincent ever was and more than most supposedly better competitors that have only refined conformity to offer.

Unwilling or unable to determine—let alone label—just what a Buell motorcycle really is, it stands to reason it would be difficult to market. Sure enough, The Motor Company stumbled its way into a decision to stuff the bikes into Harley showrooms… like it or not! Although the arguments for doing so have been articulated and rationalized to death, in hindsight it would simply have been better to allow Buells to be sold alongside Ducatis, Triumphs and that ilk—where passion and cultish adoration are cultivated rather than quashed. The sought-after buyer demographics would have been closer to the mark, to boot! Buells are emphatically not Harleys, so why the hell mix oil and water? Especially when the purity of Buell’s progressive thinking was dissipated and wasted in the sea of traditionalism that is H-D. Yet that’s what happened and, sadly, it hasn’t worked out.

That’s more than momentary cause to pity Erik and his band of hooligans—it’s a major long-term loss to everyone who respects obsession with purity in motorcycles. And one less choice in life—of ways to live it on two-wheels for you and me—if it sticks! If indeed it’s not just hiatus, our world will be the poorer for it… regardless. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you give a damn about Ulysses, Thunderbolts, Lightnings or 1125s. That’s myopic. The big picture is that the future belongs to visionaries, designers and engineers with the mind and mechanisms to make all motorcycles matter more to everyone, whether they know it or not.

Erik, if you’re still paying attention, this means we need you and your machines, so get past this and get on with it!


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