The talented American engineer, passionate rider-racer Erik Buell, created some of the most interesting motorcycles of recent times. Buell cut against the grain, and it was arguably by doing things differently that his company’s sportbikes gained such a fiercely loyal following.
The small, yet ambitious American company had started life competing on US racetracks with modest budgets, buying-in engines from the British company Barton for some first road bikes. In the early ‘80s, Buell switched direction and began to offer factory-built performance bikes designed to challenge the dominant Japanese and European marques.
It was courageous; especially against established opposition with factory race teams who could advertise their credentials to millions of customers via the TV every weekend. And it was daring, because Buell utilised the sizeable, air-cooled V-Twin engines from his former employer (and eventual majority shareholder-owner) Harley-Davidson.
The mighty Harley-Davidson has a rich racing and endurance riding history. But by the time Buell began ramping-up their V-Twins for pure performance, Harley was totally synonymous with stylish cruisers like the Fat Boy or uber-comfortable touring models such as the Road King.
Using ‘old school’ air-cooled engines from a marque that excelled at producing handsome, comfortable cruisers with lots of leather and chrome was a challenge.
Put bluntly, Erik Buell had some convincing to do that a Harley V-Twin (even taken from a Roadster like the Sportster) could give a Sportbike the beans it required.
But the challenge was met head-on. Buell’s team stripped away excess weight, tuned-up the Harley engines, fettled the brakes, created an extremely distinctive, bold styling language and established themselves as a brand with an alternative, quirky outlook.
And those big V-Twins taken from Harley’s Sportster range had the key advantage of delivering huge handfuls of torque and a raucous exhaust note. All that torque offered some naughty, rubber-burning fun where and when it was safe and legal to do so. Early converts liked to call themselves ‘Buelligans.’
The first UK Buells appeared through the second half of the 1990s and genuinely intrigued the Brit motorcycle press who often road-tested these American imports. Owning an early Buell meant you stood-out from the crowd.
They were brutish, characterful American-made motorcycles created by an owner-enthusiast whilst never being as agile or the pure, track day weapon Japan or Europe’s finest could offer.
Admittedly, build-quality and reliability was often a notch below Japan’s ‘big four’ of Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki. But with Buell owners tending to be enthusiasts and most bikes not being used for slogging commutes, there’s every chance that buyers today can unearth something that has been extremely well cared for.
A few pre-Millennium examples worth looking out for are the very rare S1 and X1 Lightning bikes, the M2 Cyclone as well as the S3 and S3T Thunderbolts which had a longish production run.
Erik Buell continued to innovate throughout the 2000s - radically and impressively so, with some more meaningful funding coming in from Harley-Davidson - and he delighted riders seeking something distinctive, with riding enjoyment being the key ingredient.
Sadly, this glorious ’disruptor’ project hit the buffers when the 2008 Recession landed. Buell was still a brand in need of major financial backing and was not contributing enough profit, so time was called. Harley-Davidson and the investors culled the Buell project.
The good news is that Erik Buell is still out there - designing bikes and consulting on projects - and looking at things in his own, very unique way.
Do you own a Buell motorcycle or have you spotted one in the wild? Let us know in the comments!