Erik Buell interview

It took me a while to get accustomed to the dimly lit interior of the Deeley Harley-Davidson hospitality room. The usual trappings of a publicity machine were neatly laid out on the various tables a shiny coffee urn, clear pitchers of water and juice, press kits, and complimentary pads of paper for the absent minded journalists who forgot to bring their own.

Words: Uwe Wachtendorf, Pictures: As specified, Editing: Editor ‘arris

It took me a while to get accustomed to the dimly lit interior of the Deeley Harley-Davidson hospitality room. The usual trappings of a publicity machine were neatly laid out on the various tables a shiny coffee urn, clear pitchers of water and juice, press kits, and complimentary pads of paper for the absent minded journalists who forgot to bring their own.


Erik Buell (right) gets comfortable with Uwe.
photo: Editor ‘arris 

Against the far wall of the room, next to a couple of easy chairs and a low table, Erik Buell stood waiting for his next interview. Dressed as I had expected in blue jeans and a casual green shirt emblazoned with the Buell logo, the chairman and C.T.O. of Buell Motorcycles seemed to be slightly out of his element.

Forced by duty to assume a role for which he lacked an affinity – to promote his latest creation, the 2008 Buell 1125 – he seemed the type of man who would rather be working on a motorcycle than playing host to an endless parade of journalists.

However, it’s clear that both the company and the man have great expectations for their newest motorcycle, which is being touted as the one that will “redefine the sport bike riding experience.” That’s a big claim to make in an age where advancements in technology happen at a record pace and the replacement cycle for a class-leading sport bike is a mere two years.

Still, the 1125R represents a radical departure for Buell, who has been faced since his company’s inception almost 25 years ago with the limitations of building sport bikes around air-cooled motors often described as antiquated lumps.



19 years in the making.
photo: Buell 

Although Buell motorcycles are often praised for their chassis, the 1200cc air-cooled mills that drive them are the focus of criticism. The obvious first question is why it took so long for a motorcycle like the 1125R to turn up in the first place. So Erik, just how long does it take to design a new motorcycle?

“Well actually, on this bike it was 19 years, but that’s a long story. That’s when I did the prototype for this bike, the fuel in frame, split radiator, water-cooled V-twin. God, I can’t believe it took this long.

“But that being said, the actual execution now we’re really going to do it, we have the money, we have the ok to go ahead … about four years. The first year was basically sorting out the engine, set-up, the supplier and a little bit of work on the chassis, and then three years of really putting it all together.”


Whereas the handling and chassis performance of a new Buell could almost be dismissed as a given, it’s the brand new engine in the 1125R that has grabbed a great deal of the spotlight. Literally a central element to the new motorcycle is the BRP-Rotax-built Helicon engine that was produced in collaboration with Buell Motorcycles. Erik Buell explained how that part of the project came about.


V-Rod motor was originally slated for Buell, but then it got too big.
Photo: Richard Seck 

“Basically you look at who can do this: who has the experience, who has the history and who does engines for other people, who has a great quality reputation and has the willingness and opportunity to do it.

“We had to find the engine supplier because Harley couldn’t do it. They said, ‘We’re booked, we can’t do an engine for you until 2015.’ When we did the VR (V-Rod) motor it was originally going to be a Buell engine. Then Harley got involved and we were going to share it.

“Their needs and our needs were a little different, and we had to bias ourselves towards their needs because it was more important. Getting fairly late in that program I raised my hand and said it’s not going to work (for us); it’s gotten too big and too heavy, it’s really not a good sport bike motor.

“We went to Porsche originally but it was the same deal, they didn’t have the capacity. I think their image was a little different because of the experience they (Harley) had with the VR. We know where Porsche is good and we know what they’re not good at. Porsche is really good at quality and at particulars, but slow and not real flexible. I had this image of what German was, but it’s not true — that just was Porsche.


Built by Rotax.
photo: Buell

“That was part of what was going on in the first year. Sending out the Request For Quotes, Rotax just rose to the top really quickly. We had a very thick book saying everything we wanted to do, and getting the feedback and working with them, it’s been fantastic.

“It’s a great fit and we’re so lucky. Rotax has been a part of Bombardier for a long time, and Bombardier is a family company like Harley, and like Buell. There’s a social fit for example that’s much better than what Porsche was, for whatever reason.

“They said the RFQ book we have is by far the biggest and most comprehensive that they ever got from anybody. They said, ‘We never get this much detail from BMW ever.’ They came in the door and said, ‘You’re not hoping to buy any of our existing engines are you, because they’re all obsolete. You’re going to have to buy a new one.’ ‘Cool,’ I said, ‘I want it.’”


By this point Erik Buell had settled back in his chair. As the discussion continued, his enthusiasm for motorcycles became obvious and there was a genuine eagerness to discuss the result of four years of hard labour.

To the uninitiated, engines are little more than noisy objects that consume oil and gas. For the enthusiast, they are much more: a little bit of the designer’s soul can be found within the heart of every machine. If engines are the extension of a creator’s imagination, conceived to play a specific role in the character of the motorcycle, what imprint did Erik Buell leave on the Helicon?


Like an XB12 that never stopped.
photo: Buell

“I want it (the Helicon) to be just like an XB12 that never stopped. I want this dead flat powerband, just like an electric motor. Whether I’m riding hard, or I’m riding medium or any of the transitions in between. I want it to be seamless.

“In the old days the higher performance bikes had nothing … and then everything. They were really horrible to ride around slow. Well they kind of fixed that; so what they have is kind of like Jeykll and Hyde personalities; you can ride it around slow or you can ride it really hard, but if you’re in that grey area in-between it ain’t fun.

“That’s what I wanted to get rid of and that’s what I was telling them (Rotax) about. I want you to be able to ride it at 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, 90%, 100% and never have a hole to go through. So it’s like an XB12 that never stops. Actually some of the journalists said, ‘We don’t think it has as much power as it has.’ I said, ‘Well, you get it and put it on a dyno.’ It feels easy and that’s what I was looking for.”


The 1125R was a down-to-earth approach to engineering that avoided the vortex of the superbike arms race in a quest to bring usable power to the people. It also brings to mind the bolded wording on the first page of the 1125R brochure that claims that it’s “built from the rider down.” Where did that come from?


From the rider down?
photo: Buell

“Those guys (publicists) did come up with that as a buzz line this year, and I said it was really cool, ‘you guys put it in.’ They said, ‘We listen to you talk and it finally clicked,’ because I’d always been talking about mass centralization. ‘Well why do you do that, because it’s a cool tech term?’

“’No, because I want the bike to feel one with the rider. I want the bike to disappear when you’re riding – I want to feel like Superman with wings. I don’t want to think or worry about the bike, I just want to be going to that Zen zone where you’re just having so much fun riding that the world is flowing through you.’

“Well, it’s because of this, and one of the guys picked up on it. I never would have thought of it, but that’s a cool way of saying it in a few words. Because it really is what it always comes back to.”


There was no denying Erik Buell’s status as a motorcycle enthusiast. His passion for the sport had the same energy found in the masses that were pouring through the manufacturer’s booths down the hall. Erik Buell is the average rider, and it’s his humble beginnings that continue to leave an indelible mark on every motorcycle that Buell builds.


ZTL brake – good for a while.
photo: Buell

“I’ve been in the real world, I’ve been a mechanic and a service manager so I know what the customer interface is like, and I know what it’s like to be a mechanic and work on something. I know what simplicity means.

“Some of those things that fundamentally have driven Buell are based on that experience. I don’t want the product to go obsolete, so let’s do something really inventive and keep it for a while instead of inventing the flavour of the year.

That’s where the ZTL (Zero Torsional Load front brake system) came from. I can redo the brake every year and gain two ounces by going to a new hollow, or I can just move the bar by eight pounds, make it simple and just leave it alone for a while.”

I asked him if after 25 years of pursuing motorcycle nirvana he would consider his to be a dream job.


Pals …
photo: Breanna

“Yeah, it’s still very fun. It’s a transition being hooked in with a bigger corporation. There are some things that are tough about that, but on the other hand Harley-Davidson is fundamentally still in the same business I’m in.

“They make customers happy, they spend a lot of time in the field, they understand that connection, and that’s what’s made it liveable. There aren’t very many big corporations we’d be able to be linked in with; we would’ve just screwed it up. Harley has made that pretty easy for us.

“I love doing motorcycles and I love the people I work with. The small team of young guys at Buell are all fired-up and inspired, and they buy into what we’re trying to do. That’s very fun too, seeing these guys getting better and better at what they do.”

By the end of our allotted time Erik Buell had formed a strong impression on me. Here was an amiable guy, somewhat shy and reserved, but who would spring to life at the introduction of his favourite subject. His energy and enthusiasm for motorcycles is contagious while his achievements personify the guy next door who made it big by pursuing a dream.

However, there was one particular moment during the interview that stood out for me. It was so subtle that it could have easily been missed, and yet it was that brief instant which best sums up both Erik Buell the man, and the company he founded. In a lowered voice that hinted of embarrassment, he said while addressing no one in particular, “I love motorcycles.”�

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