View Full Version : Buell Motorcycle Design, Innovation and Production

12-06-2006, 05:05 PM
Buell Motorcycle engineering, innovation, & dedication: in an industry marked by foreign domination, Erik Buell not only established America's only sport bike maker, he changed the rules of design, engineering and procurement in ways the auto industry would do well to emulate
Automotive Design & Production, August, 2006 by Kevin M. Kelly

East Troy, WI--population 3,564, located 45 miles southwest of Milwaukee--is the home of Buell Motorcycle Company. Three gray buildings amid Wisconsin cornfields house the operations of this $93.1-million manufacturing company. It is physically and philosophically far removed from some paint-by-number tech park despite the fact that the sports bikes produced there are among the most technically innovative products on the planet. Erik Buell, founder, chairman, and chief technical officer of the company that bears his name, sits in an office decorated with logo-ed shirts and jackets and the first bike that bears his name, a 1983 RW 750. Unlike most executive offices, there is a sliding window that allows him to communicate directly with his long-time secretary. Throughout the day the PA blares with pages for telephone calls--just as they're heard throughout the rest of the facility. Buell's story is one about hometown values, teamwork and determination.


It's 1979. Erik Buell, fresh out of college and having spent a few years racing Yahamas and Ducatis on the Formula One and Superbike circuit, applies for an engineering job at Harley-Davidson, which was then part of the AMF conglomerate. They tried to give him the brush-off, telling the Pennsylvania-born and educated (University of Pittsburgh) Buell that Harley only hired folks from Wisconsin. But he wouldn't go away. "I had to go work for Harley," recounts Buell, "because I knew I didn't want to do anything but engineer motorcycles." He also knew he'd never rise as far at a bike maker headquartered overseas. Buell was eventually hired as a junior test engineer just as things began to fall apart as AMF pushed Harley executives to increase output without any concern for quality. Though Buell managed to get promoted each year--he worked on several new chassis and engines, including the FL line, FX RT and Sportster, and the Evo engine--AMF issued pink slips to 40% of the staff to stave off bankruptcy. Though they offered him the top Sportster job, Buell quit to develop a new breed of sport bike around a Barton engine and an English chassis. But then the American Motorcyclist Association changed the rules, requiring racing motorcycles to be based off production 750cc street bikes. His dream was put on hold.

In 1985, Buell's RR1000 concept bike--the first with a Buell-designed chassis--broke cover, and caught the eye of motorcycle fairing manufacturer Vetter Industries which was looking for a "bike of the future" it could display at a trade show. With the funds Vetter provided, Buell acquired one of the few remaining Harley XR1000 engines, and spent the four months turning the chassis concept into a fully functional motorcycle. "Vetter wanted something that would just roll into the show, but I said, 'Screw it, this is my chance.'" Just before the scheduled introduction, Buell called a journalist friend and had him ride the bike, which led to an article that got people talking.


Talk, however, is cheap as Buell found out. He spent nearly two years trying to sell the new bike on his own, and netted three sales in the process. But then things began to change. Invited by a Harley dealer friend to join him on a cruise for the top Harley retailers in the country, Buell took advantage of the situation by passing out brochures on his bike, hoping some of them would be interested in selling it alongside their Harleys. Unfortunately, Vaughn Beals, then chairman of Harley-Davidson, wasn't amused at what Buell was doing. He confronted Buell with a curt: "What the hell is this about?" Buell took the opportunity to lobby Beals for Harley's 50 remaining XR1000 engines, explaining that this would be just enough to homologate a race bike, something the Harley dealers wanted in order to enhance the company's image. This discussion moved from below deck to the ship's main deck, where Beals offered to sell the remaining engines to Buell directly--and on friendly financial terms. This paved the way for Buell to build 450 RS1200 and RR1200 bikes over several years, but it was not enough to satisfy his desire to become more than a boutique bike maker with 10 employees. While looking for venture capital to expand the business, Harley called. "They bought 49% and left me with 51% for five years," Buell says, "but the most interesting part was that they left me in control because they said, 'We'll probably screw it up'." Harley provided the cash needed to design a new generation of motorcycles, including the S2 Thunderbolt, which was penned under the direction of Mike Samarjza, who has led Buell design since 1991.


"The first bikes we did together weren't designed to be built in the quantity necessary to support the Harley distribution system, and our supply base wasn't ready for it. We were the worst quality of anything in the Harley group," Buell says. Because of the high demand for the bikes but their low quality, Buell convinced Harley to invest the necessary capital to design a bike that would eradicate quality concerns and set the tone for the future. The result was the 2000 Blast, an entry-level cycle powered by a single cylinder 492cc engine that amazed people at Harley because of its high quality scores. But with success came additional demands: The Blast's success forced Buell's team back to the drawing board to develop a new series of larger bikes utilizing the same principles, and dubbed "The Trilogy of Tech."