A Conversation with Erik Buell

Erik Buell

By Florida Night Train


“Erik Buell did for Harley Davidson what Carol Shelby did for Ford,” said a long-time friend of mine who is quite knowledgeable in the Harley Davidson world as a shareholder. These words resonated with me. Erik Buell’s life is rich with experiences, in a career path crowned by achievements, few can boast.

Erik F. Buell was born April 2, 1950, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the founder, former Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of the Buell Motorcycle Company, which eventually merged with Harley Davidson Corp. Buell is a pioneer of modern race motorcycle technology. He is also the founder of Erik Buell Racing. His first two-wheeled vehicle was an Italian Parilla 90cc moped. Early in his days he was a part-time road racer on a 1977 Ducati 900ss in the AMA ‘Superbike’ class and a Yamaha TZ750 in ‘Formula One’.

Erik received a degree in engineering in 1979. He then took a job at Harley-Davidson after he went to Milwaukee, WI, and “beat my way in the door,” as he puts it. He was involved with concept motorcycles and improved chassis designs of cruisers. Buell used his racing experience to personally test Harley-Davidsons beyond normal riding limits. He implemented an electronic chassis testing regimen at H-D that greatly improved their handling.

In 1981 he bought Great Britain-based engine maker “Barton” limited production racer. The Barton was featured in the 1980 motion picture “Silver Dream Racer”. He re-engineered parts to increase reliability and saw performance gains. Buell first raced a prototype of his bike in the summer of 1982 at the AMA National on the Pocono Speedway. He clocked at a top speed of 178 mph; that’s 3 mph over my own record so far, but Eric’s true top speed to date is 185 mph. I have some “operator improvements” to implement!

His purchase of Barton took place in 1982 but logistical complications occurred. Erik’s inquiry with his employer to gain engineering and financial support was declined due to reliability problems with the Barton engine. Buell then quit his job at Harley-Davidson to devote more time to his racing effort.

Following that, The Buell Motor Company got some attention because by late 1984 the American Machinist’s Union Racing Team bought, tested, and raced the first publicly sold Erik Buell’s bike, the RW750 (commonly known as ‘RW750 number 2’), and gave it glowing marks. In the spring of 1985, AMA announced the Superbike class would supplant Formula One. This left Buell with no market for his creation.

Buell forged ahead and designed his first entry into the sportbike market, the RR1000. Using his connections at Harley-Davidson, he acquired left-over XR-1000 engines. He then designed critical parts, some of which became a patented engineering trademark of Buell sport bikes. The fairing design had lower aerodynamic drag than a few 21st century sportbikes.

Buell designed, fabricated, and sold fifty RR1000 models during 1987-1988. In 1987, Devin Battley smuggled Erik Buell onto a cruise ship for the Harley-Davidson annual dealer’s meeting. They set up a table for Buell to speak with dealers, and by the end of the cruise he had deposits and orders for 25 motorcycles.

Buell then saw the newly developed 1203 cc Harley-Davidson Evolution engine being used in their ‘Sportster’ model line as solid base platform to further tune the performance and handling qualities of his bikes. The RR1200 model was introduced during 1988 using a modified version of this different engine design. Through 1989, 65 were produced for sale. In 1989, Buell introduced the RS1200 model, a two-seat version of the RR1200. 105 of these models were produced through 1990.

In 1991, Buell incorporated a five-speed transmission mated to the 1203 cc engine. Buell responded to Harley by further improving an already innovative design: the RS chassis. Later that year, Buell introduced a single-seat version of the RS1200 model, dubbed the RSS1200. It won approval of the industry press. Combined production of RSS and RS models totaled 325 through 1993.

In the 1990s, Buell reformed his house as the ‘Buell Motorcycle Company’ in which Harley-Davidson invested a 51% interest. Harley-Davidson bought complete control of Buell Motorcycle in 2003, and distributed all Buell motorcycles through select Harley-Davidson dealerships. Erik Buell remained responsible for the engineering and design of all Buell motorcycles.

Buell led the company to create some of the most innovative, usable sport bikes under Buell Motorcycles. On October 15, 2009, amid the economic crisis and to Erik’s surprise, struggling Harley-Davidson announced that production of Buell motorcycles would cease on October 30, 2009. Buell only wishes he would have been part of the conversation. Not surprisingly, most executives involved in that decision were thanked for their services after.

In November 2009, after being dropped by Harley-Davidson, Buell launched Erik Buell Racing. The firm produced and supported race-only versions of the Buell 1125R. Unrestricted by Harley-Davidson, the company released the EBR 1190RS, the 1190RX and the 1190SX. The engines have been re-engineered with a displacement of 1190cc, with a substantial power boost to 185 hp and 102 ft-lbs. of torque.  I usually don’t get into specs that much but this is worth mentioning! I thought my BMW s1000rr was badass!

During July 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported Hero MotoCorp, a maker of high-end street motorcycles bought a 49.2% stake in Erik Buell Racing LLC, for $25 million. The remaining stake was held by Erik Buell, the founding chairman and chief executive, however the company went into receivership and is owned by a liquidation firm in Michigan. Erik is no longer involved….

Now Erik is almost retired, but he is having fun focusing his engineering energies on design work for the FUELL E-vehicle company. In 2019 Buell partnered with French financiers to form a new Electric Vehicle company Called “Fuell”. This new company currently offers an electric bicycle called the “Flluid” and is hoping to release an electric motorcycle called the “Fllow”. The Fllow is touted to have an urban ride range up to 150 miles, fast charge time under 30 minutes, and the acceleration of a superbike with a curb weight of only 350 lbs. The Flluid bicycle was first released in 2019 through an Indiegogo campaign, and now is being distributed by Tucker to their dealer network. 

Buell’s EBR 1190RX currently holds best lap record at JenningsGP. Erik’s grin at the mention of that achievement betrays his justifiable pride. “It was the best handling bike at the time,” Buell said.

Father to four daughters and stepfather of two sons, he says his children are his pride and joy above all. His advice if anyone cares to listen he says is to “cut politics down, look for talent, and bring jobs back to America”. “Governments should enable choices, not force them” Buell declared. “Tesla has created more new American jobs than any other car manufacturer,” he said. One of his best memories is the pride of his Buell co-workers when their bike won the AMA championship shortly before Harley announced they would cease production of Buell motorcycles.

I will forever be thankful to Erik for this interview. It truly is a privilege to have spent some time together discussing life, dreams, family, and all that should consume a man in this lifetime. Erik was once pronounced dead after a serious accident. His out of body experience taught him we truly are here to be kind to each other, helping one another. Looking back his wish, among others, would be to have better navigated corporate politics.

Sources and pictures: Erik Buell, Internet