Erik Buell is the founder of the Buell Motorcycle Company. A national AMA road racer and a chassis engineer for Harley-Davidson, Buell left Harley in 1982 to pursue his dream of building his own racing motorcycle. His first bike was a two-stroke AMA Formula One racer called the RW750 that he completed in 1983. When the AMA dropped the Formula One road racing class Buell turned his attention to building the first world-class sportbike designed and built in America. That led to the production of the Buell RR1000, utilizing a Harley-Davidson engine. Buell’s small company expanded to a major manufacturer when Harley-Davidson bought into Buell in 1994.
Buell was born in Pittsburgh on April 2, 1950. He grew up on a farm and learned to work on equipment from a young age. As a teenager, Buell, like many of his generation, took up motorcycling. His first machine was an Italian-made Parilla 90cc moped.
"Next, I took a giant step up and got a 74-cubic-inch Harley in a basket," Buell remembers. "To be exact, it was a '57 Panhead in a '52 frame with KHK front end. Red metal flake paint and those crazy two-piece ape hanger handlebars, which would come loose and swing back and forth. I'd shove wads of steel wool into the mufflers to quiet it down for the cops, but when I was really hauling, it would shoot these glowing balls of flame out the back. Man, that's cool stuff when you're a kid!"
He then progressed through a series of bikes and raced motocross before becoming interested in road racing in his early 20s. Buell progressed through the club ranks and by the mid-1970s he began competing in AMA national road races. By the late 1970s, Buell was a solid privateer racing a Yamaha TZ in AMA Formula One and a Ducati in Superbike, where he scored a couple of top-10 finishes.
During this period, Buell was a motorcycle mechanic by day and engineering student taking night classes at the University of Pittsburgh. After earning his degree in 1979, Buell turned down offers from other major companies to pursue a career with Harley-Davidson. He flew himself to Milwaukee to get an interview and "beat my way in the door," Buell later said.
At Harley-Davidson, Buell worked on chassis design and with his road racing experience was able to put the big bikes to the test, riding the cruisers well beyond the limits on test tracks that any normal rider would be able to duplicate on the street. Buell’s rigorous test riding, along with the state-of-the-art electronic chassis testing instrumentation and development test methodology he implemented, helped to greatly improve the handling of Harley’s street bikes.
While doing this testing, Buell’s racing took a back seat. With Harley-Davidson going through tough times in the early 1980s, he didn’t feel right racing a Japanese or Italian motorcycle. He’d heard about a small private GP engine maker in England producing a water-cooled, 750cc Square Four two-stroke racer. He purchased one of the bikes with the idea of racing it in Formula One, but he found the bike was so poorly manufactured and used such cheap materials that it was far from ready to race. He began modifying the engine and building a new chassis himself when he found out the struggling maker of the bike had gone out of business. He might have abandoned the project, but found the parts and tooling of the company were available at a cheap price so he purchased the machinery and had it shipped to his home workshop.
"I was just approaching it as a bike to race," Buell said. "I really wasn't trying to turn it into a business."
Buell refined the bike and dubbed it the RW750 (RW standing for Road Warrior). He did well on the club level with the machine, but its temperamental and over-powered motor made the RW750 a difficult bike to ride, and the reliability wasn’t sufficient for AMA racing.
"There were places in the powerband where it would pick up 40 horsepower in 500 rpm! You couldn't ride it. The only way to ride it was to ride it around the corner completely out of the powerband, get it completely straightened out, turn on the thing and have it wheelie. Or, you had to ride it with the wheel spinning, because you couldn't deal with it coming on the pipe in the corner — it would just crash. The bike was incredibly hard to ride. The power was like a light switch. This thing was a monster. It was terrifying to ride."
Buell left his job at Harley-Davidson and continued to refine the RW750 and decided to offer to build bikes for customers.
"At the time, the Yamaha TZs were becoming unobtainable and the Hondas were going for $30,000," Buell explained. He offered the Buell RW750 for $17,000, but unfortunately his timing couldn’t have been worse. Superbike had supplanted Formula One as the premier AMA road racing class and the AMA decided to discontinue Formula One, leaving Buell with no market for his two-stroke racer.
Again Buell reached a crossroad. He could have written the RW750 experience off to bad timing, but instead he turned the apparent setback into an opportunity. He had built a solid road racing chassis. All it needed was a motor to power the bike. Through his relationship with Harley-Davidson he found the factory had a number of unused XR1000 engines. Buell had ridden an XR1000 to a podium finish at the 1983 Road America Battle of the Twins National, so he knew the engine had excellent potential for sporting use.
In 1985, Buell melded a Harley-Davidson XR1000 engine to his custom Grand Prix-style chassis and built the first Buell RR1000. The unique bike featured exotic bodywork. Vetter (a fairing company) displayed the RR1000 at motorcycle shows and the bike was also featured in several magazines, giving Buell’s new machine a strong launch. From the start, Buells were built for the track and established a reputation as excellent handling motorcycles. Riders looking for an American sportbike finally had a place to turn.
Buell sold 50 of the original RR1000s. His relationship with Harley-Davidson grew and his bikes were being sold through Harley dealers.
Buell continued to grow with the introduction of the RR1200 and RS1200 motorcycles using the new Harley-Davidson Evolution engines. When it was introduced in 1988, the RR1200 caused quite a sensation, with its streamlined bodywork, rubber-mounted Harley engine, Buell-designed four-piston front brakes, and a Works Performance rear monoshock mounted under the engine.
Over the next several years, Erik Buell refined those concepts into his own line of street motorcycles, while maintaining close relations with Harley. And in the ’90s, Harley began to invest in the motorcycle company its former engineer founded, eventually increasing its ownership to 100 percent of the Buell brand by 2003.
With Harley financing and Erik’s vision, the Buell brand has moved on to create some of the most innovative motorcycles of the early 2000s.
True to its heritage, Buell’s machines have always been a part of American motorcycle road racing. His company sponsored several racing series as well as individual teams and riders. Buell riders won AMA nationals in Formula Xtreme and Pro Thunder classes as well as winning other races and championships around the world.
The Buell Lightning was a leader in ushering in the "Naked Bike" era of the late 1990s, named for sportbikes that are stripped down without a lot of bodywork to make them lighter and to show off the engine of the bikes.
In 2009, a Buell 1125R won the AMA Daytona SportBike Championship, piloted by Danny Eslick. However, due to the strains of a severe recession, Harley-Davidson suspended production of the Buell product line in October. Nevertheless, Buell's meteoric rise from a single two-stroke race bike to a full-fledged manufacturer in such a short period of time is one of the most remarkable stories in all of motorcycling.
Eric Buell was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.