25 Years of Buell by Court Canfield and Dave Gess, arrived last week and I read it over the weekend. This is a very complete history of the Buell Motorcycle Company starting with Erik Buell’s early years and interest in motorcycles right up through the current Buell 1125R. If you are the least bit interested in Buell motorcycles, this is a must have book, and no matter how much you think you know about them, you’re sure to come away knowing far more, not only of Buell, but, of the work involved in starting a production motorcycle business. Even if Buell in particular is not your primary interest, you’ll have a much greater appreciation of what Erik Buell has accomplished.
The book covers in some detail the RW 750, Erik’s first production motorcycle, a race bike with a square 4, rotary valve, water cooled 2 stroke engine. It wasn’t very well known and suffered through a series of engine problems. When the AMA dropped Formula One, it had no class to race in so the market for it disappeared, however, Erik learned a lot about actually producing a motorcycle and the effort resulted in a Cycle magazine article which brought Buell wider attention.
His next motorcycle, the RR 1000, used a Harley Davidson XR 1000 engine in the same Buell chassis design he developed for Lucifer’s Hammer II, a Harley Owner’s Group sponsored racer. The RR 1000 featured fully enclosed aerodynamic bodywork which was a refined version of the RW 750. These two motorcycles really laid the groundwork for the many models to follow and the story of how each ensuing model evolved is fascinating.
Erik Buell focused on building the best motorcycle he could at every step and the story that emerges over the years is one where Erik’s determination combined with his team, both carefully selected and sometimes fortuitously found, kept the company alive when it seemed it would take a miracle to stay in business. Those early RW 750s and RR 1000s were built in the Buell “factory,” an out building on a farm in Mukwonago, Wisconsin where they managed to produce the first bikes before moving up to a Quonset hut, not the picture many imagine when thinking of a growing motorcycle manufacturer. Money was always tight but if bikes could be produced, shipped and paid for, the parts could be reordered to build more.
These shoestring beginnings led to a company which has now produced well over 100,000 motorcycles while building an extremely loyal following among owners and the book is filled with many stories along the way of the “challenges” a small but growing business encounters.
A good example was when the S1 was being designed, Buell settled on the large round headlight, same as used on the Ducati Monster and an older BMW as the unit they would use. Ordering a few from Bosch, for preproduction bikes, everything checked out, so when S1 production was scheduled to begin, Buell ordered hundreds more and Bosch said, “Thank You, we’ll deliver them next summer.” It turns out the unique light was only produced in a single batch once a year based on Ducati and BMW order numbers with a few left over, so those were all they had. Calling Ducati, they found some in the U.S. and Ducati North America contacted Italy to dig up a few more, enough to launch the S1 but only enough for two weeks of production. When BMW heard of Buell’s predicament, they found enough to solve the problem as long as Buell agreed to order through a BMW dealer. So Buell went to the somewhat surprised BMW dealer in Milwaukee and ordered $10,000 worth of headlights at the parts counter, not your average January order, but Buell S1 production was secured.
The book covers how the vital investment by Harley Davidson came about as well as the move to the XB series and away from the original tube frame models. Every new model brought something different to the lineup and though they haven’t covered the entire spectrum of motorcycle possibilities, 100,000+ motorcycles over 25 years is a long way from hand building bikes in farm buildings and Quonset huts.
One aspect of the company that gets a lot of attention is how much each employee matters in the process of building the bikes. Everyone is empowered to make sure the bikes sent from the factory are done right, not just “good enough.” I like that.
Every Buell model is covered along with specs for each and a photo. There are many photos illustrating the early years, the people involved, factory photos, Buell motorcycles at Bonneville, including Team Elves and continuing up to the present. There are lots of sidebars explaining how various technical features were developed and more stories of unexpected events that made the business a real roller coaster ride.
As an early Buell owner myself, a 1989 RS 1200, I found it an eye opening and inspiring read, especially when I saw what a precarious operation it was in those days. I can now better understand the “interesting little challenges” I often experienced which sometimes made me question my decision to buy a bike so little known and new to the market.
I highly recommend this book for many reasons but especially for the story it tells about commitment to building not only a motorcycle but a motorcycle business. If you like the articles about the builders and motorcycles featured on The Kneeslider, you’ll really enjoy this book.
Link: 25 Years of Buell