The introduction of the liquid cooled, Rotax powered Buell 1125R is generating a lot of excitement and questions, too. There’s a lot of speculation about what it means for Buell so it seemed like a good idea to go straight to the source and ask Erik Buell about his thoughts on all of this. After gathering a lot of your questions and adding a few of my own, I talked to Erik to see what he had to say. Erik’s a great guy and he had a lot of very interesting comments. I hope you enjoy it.
Kneeslider: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. Let’s start right out with the 1125R. How long was the 1125r in development? What sparked the idea?
Erik Buell: That’s a long story but the current product that we have was a little over 3 years in the making. The idea of a water cooled superbike is something I’ve had for a pretty long time, we took a couple of runs at it before but things weren’t quite ready.
Kneeslider: Following up on that, how much input does Harley Davidson have on the production of a Buell? Are they “hands free” and let you do your own thing or more involved?
Erik Buell: It’s an interesting relationship, Buell is a division of Harley Davidson, Inc. and Harley Davidson Motorcycles is a division of Harley Davidson, Inc. so we are both part of the same corporation but we are really an independent company in many respects, we have our own styling group, our own engineering group and we’re in a completely different facility. When we work on bikes with engines produced by Harley Davidson there’s a lot of interface with power train engineers and on this bike we had a couple of Harley Davidson engineers helping us coordinate the deal with Rotax because they had experience in those areas after the V-Rod project which was a lot like that plus we had a lot of help with airbox and exhaust design to make it completely legal but still sound good, things like that. But this was completely a Buell project which then had to be approved by the corporate leadership.
Kneeslider: Were you planning to use a Rotax engine from the beginning or was it one of several choices that you were considering? Has the Revolution engine ever been considered as an option for this or any new model?
Erik Buell: Well this is really a Buell engine not a Rotax, it was built for us by Rotax but this is completely our own engine built to our specification, it’s a clean design, not something that existed at all. Other than maybe the oil filter or something like that, this is totally new, it’s not used anywhere else.
The second time we had taken a run at a water cooled superbike it was actually going to be using the Revolution engine, it was in the mid ‘90s we started that project, which wound up being the V-Rod engine and what happened that time was the specifications we needed and the specifications Harley needed just couldn’t gel well enough and the Harley one took precedence but the specifications of what we needed were just too different.
Kneeslider: A number of people were wondering about whether you had ever considered the Revolution engine …
Erik Buell: We actually started that project.
Kneeslider: Really? I don’t think a lot of people know that.
Erik Buell: Yep.
Kneeslider: When you say you went to Rotax with a set of specifications, what were you looking for? What were those specifications?
Erik Buell: Well, you start at a very high level and work your way down, you start with what riders want and look at it from a total vehicle perspective, what the vehicle needs to be, what the engine needs to be. For instance, we knew there are a lot of people that like the power delivery of the XB12 but there are also a lot of people that wanted more so we said we wanted the same power band as the XB12 but we just didn’t want it to stop and one of my goals was I wanted to get into 5 digits, I wanted to go over 10,000 rpm, so I wanted a power band that starts at 3500 rpm and goes to over 10,000 rpm and I want a dead flat torque curve because I wanted a certain level of roll on performance based on what riders want. When you look at all of those requirements it sort of spits out an engine and that’s where the 1125 came from, crank the numbers and this is what you get and I said I wasn’t concerned about any racing rules. This is a road bike and at the time the 1200cc rule hadn’t come around and if someone could make a kit to shrink it to 1000cc, fine if we were ever going to do that but it wasn’t designed that way, this is a road bike.
There was a lot of debate about how we wanted to do things because you can do things to give a bike a kick and make it feel like it’s really fast even if you aren’t getting any more power but based on what our riders tell us and the type of rider we feel we’re getting, they’re probably not a first time buyer and they’re well through the giggly girly phase of “ooh the bike scared me,” these are guys that want to ride. What I don’t want is to be in the middle of a turn and have the tire light because I’m right on the edge of the power band.
The interesting thing is the bike doesn’t feel fast, it’s like an electric motor, it almost has a torque line instead of a torque curve. The faster riders we had in development said it’s really different, you don’t know how fast you’re going until you look at the lap times or you realize you’re in a higher gear than you thought because it pulled so nicely.
Kneeslider: What are we looking at for availability? Any firm dates beyond late 2007?
Erik Buell: Distribution through the network is kind of hard to say, depending on where the dealer is and things like that but the full time running of the line is October 15th. The marketing guys have worked hard to try to get the bikes distributed reasonably well but some dealer might get a bike October 16th and some maybe not until December but they’ll start arriving early fall.
Kneeslider: You touched on it a bit earlier but what about racing? Any plans for that?
Erik Buell: No, I’d love to go racing but we don’t have any firm plans, we’re still a very small company and we have to pay the bills. This project takes a certain amount of investment and it costs a lot of money to go racing. The bike has all the potential to be there but potential and reality are often separated by money.
Kneeslider: Who is this bike aiming at? You said your typical rider might be a bit more sophisticated rider who would have certain things in mind, suppose someone considering the 1125r says “It’s either this or …” What is the “or?”
Erik Buell: It’s a technically sophisticated premium sportbike so it might fit into the realm of a superbike from other manufacturers but our approach is a little different than the other guys. There was no bike we specifically targeted but we pretty much ended up in the superbike group, not the hyberbike, Hayabusa type, but solidly in the high performance literbike kind of world, but it’s a different bike, it’s not a race replica and yet it has performance much like one, but with a broader power band, maybe not as much peak power. It could compete with other superbikes choice wise but it depends on what the rider wanted.
Kneeslider: How about the evolution of this bike, could we expect a sport touring version or …
Erik Buell: Unfortunately, we never talk about future products.
Kneeslider: A surprising number of questions (to me anyway) centered around the Blast. A high performance single seems to be on a lot of minds, at least among the question I received. Is there a single cylinder Rotax sometime in the future? Are there solid plans for future development of the single in the Buell lineup? A higher spec version?
Erik Buell: Again, we never talk about future products but the Blast is a good bike and it’s been doing a very good job for us and it’s doing what Harley wanted it to do.
Kneeslider: What about the dirt bike project? Is there anything you can say about that?
Erik Buell: It’s definitely a project underway and when we talked about it last January we said we would have a bike for the market within 2 years and that is still the plan but it’s not scheduled.
Kneeslider: Is there any possibility of something other than a V-twin or single somewhere in the lineup?
Erik Buell: Well, the very first Buell was a 2 stroke, it all depends what you want to achieve but it’s interesting, when we initiated the project with the Revolution engine but we decided we weren’t ready, it wasn’t working out and Harley needed one so we put it on the shelf for a while but we were a couple years into the project and I remember always reading people say “Buell will never do anything but an air cooled” and we sit back and … (laughs)
Kneeslider: Yeah, everyone “knows” what you’re going to do …
Since you’ve gone the Rotax route, or rather a Buell engine manufactured by Rotax, would you ever consider dropping anyone else’s engine in a Buell like Bimota does or something like that?
Erik Buell: Well, ever since the 984 engine and the Blast engine, those were Buell engines, they’re not used in any Harleys and this Rotax is just a continuation of what we’ve been doing, it’s just a different engine supplier than Harley but they’ve always been our engines, at least since the Blast, the tube framed bikes used a tweaked Harley Davidson engine but the XBs have new cases, heads, cams, even spin a different direction so there’s a lot of things in the configuration that look like a traditional Harley engine because, for that customer, we thought that was important, but it really was a unique engine when it came out, it shared almost no parts with the Sportster, since that time they’ve brought more of those parts into the Sportster but there are still many, many differences so it is truly a unique Buell engine. So there will never be a time when we have a Buell where we drop someone else’s finished engine in it.
Kneeslider: So you want a Buell powered by Buell?
Erik Buell: Yeah.
Kneeslider: Any thoughts of Buell only dealerships? Some Harley dealerships have decided not to carry Buell, maybe they did in the past, and you aren’t aiming at a typical Harley rider, any thoughts?
Erik Buell: There are actually a couple of those today, there’s one down in Florida, but it’s difficult to do that because there’s not a wide enough product range to keep a dealership in business and to give a really high quality dealership, service and parts experience and while there have been some dealerships not as engaged with Buell as we would like them to be, in a way it’s understandable because they have such a huge Harley Davidson business and we knew we had to earn that. A number of years ago we looked at the dealerships and realized if we had a few less dealerships we could probably do a better job so we thinned the dealers a bit because some were stepping on each other’s toes when they were too close and each dealer had to semi-train a mechanic to work on a limited number of bikes and we thought maybe in this city we need only one dealer and that way he can afford to have a full time sales guy and a full time mechanic. Bringing the 1125 in and the dirt bike, I don’t think we need outside dealers so much as we need specialists.
If there’s one thing Harley Davidson dealers know, the experience is a whole lot more than buying a refrigerator, more than cheapest guy on the block and push the guy out the door which is the thing some multi-brand import dealers do, the sales guy sells whatever the spiff of the month is. We don’t want to do that, and what Harley has done in the cruiser market is deliver a better experience than anyone else delivers, so we know they understand that, so getting them enough business and getting them to know this new type of customer and giving the customer a sportbike version of that experience is what we’re looking for. So when you look at that, it’s still probably a better fit for Harley and we need to do things to help them, deliver the training so they can have the specialists and dedicated floor space which makes more sense to them as they see where we’re going. Especially when they see Buell is becoming an true American sportbike brand and not just a way to get rid of some extra Sportster motors. When we came out with the Ulysses, people said, “Hey there’s more here.” And that’s what we’re trying to do.
Kneeslider: Buell design is different than most any other motorcycle, it’s very distinct. Have you ever considered a more subtle or conventional design for a bike? Café racer, sport touring, etc.?
Erik Buell: There’s a lot of companies that do conventional and if you try to execute better on what someone else is doing you have to ask “What’s my value proposition to the customer then?” That can lead to lowest cost producer and I know one of the major Japanese manufacturers is in the process of moving a major part of their vehicle manufacturing to China and that’s an OK international way of doing business but what I’m trying to do is be innovative and, without sounding like a cliché, “design from the rider down” and there are a lot of benefits to that. The guy that reads about the 600cc GSX-R or whatever and wants one or something like it probably isn’t our customer and we don’t have the volume to compete in that market, but once you learn how to ride and really like it you start to appreciate what really light wheels are like, for instance, and how a bike handles and some of the things we’ve patented really do make a difference. We try to make one part do several things and keep the quality high, it takes a bit longer but in the long run it pays off. We want to control the design and quality and do it better instead of doing what others do.
Kneeslider: Are there any motorcycles or designers that have influenced or provided inspiration for your motorcycles?
Erik Buell: I’ve been steeped in motorcycles so long and so deeply and I look at many things outside motorcycling, the things I think are really cool are often scattered in time, there’s not much that someone just came out with that I might say more than “Oh, that’s nice” but not “Wow!” I get a lot of Wows from things a long time ago or with some things people are thinking about starting a new industry with. One of my favorite things is the step through 50cc Honda, it was just a brilliant design, so clean, simple and efficient and they’re still making them in some parts of the world, things that people did that changed things and had an effect on people’s lives while making a business out of it.
Kneeslider: What’s in your home garage?
Erik Buell: A bunch of dirt bikes …
Kneeslider: Checking out the competition …
Erik Buell: My wife keeps telling me to remember the competition is more durable than my body (laughs)
Kneeslider: What do you do to get away from the everyday business? How do you relax?
Erik Buell: I like to ride and be with the family and play guitar, we were just going over the cover for a new CD for my group. I have a CityX, a Firebolt and a Ulysses and I do ride those, unfortunately, I didn’t get on the list for an 1125 soon enough so I probably won’t have one of those for a while.
Kneeslider: Did you ever think when you were building Buell racebikes in your own garage that one day you would be a major motorcycle manufacturer like you are with major investment from HD? Was this your plan or dream?
Erik Buell: Well it really was a dream but there were some things that helped me stick to it for the long haul. I really loved motorcycles but I also like the idea of building American bikes because I worked my way through school and I’ve worked around guys that build things with their hands and it’s one of the reasons we have a very level society at Buell and guys coming into engineering get a quick lesson they better listen to the guy in the welding shop and the people on the line because they’re equals. I was at Harley when times were tough and a lot of guys got laid off and that had a real impact on me and when I left to start my business I thought maybe I could do something with a sportbike because there are a lot of American sportbike guys and maybe we could do something here.
I’ve told the story before, Enzo Ferrari and Soichiro Honda kind of came into being at the same time but if I could be either one of them it would be Soichiro Honda because I’m more excited by a step through 50 than a Formula I car because it puts a lot more people to work and many, many more people get enjoyment out of them, I’ll never be one of those guys by any means but it’s one of those, who I want to be. I don’t want to build collectible niche products for wealthy people, there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not what motivates me. Buiding the CityX for $8495 is cool, it’s a great value, it’s fun. It’s always been about getting started and staying employed and turning out great work
Kneeslider: Well, I was a very early Buell owner, an ’89 RS1200 and it was a neat bike, had some problems but that was in your very early years but one thing really cool at the time was no one, and I mean absolutely NO one had a Buell and everywhere I went people would ask, “What is that?”
Erik Buell: That was about 20 years before Jesse James, before it was cool to be turning out hand built motorcycles …
Kneeslider: You could have had a TV show, you could have been a star …
Erik Buell: Those early bikes definitely had charisma, you had to look after them but there were about 6 of us at the time and the place we built them looked like a factory from the 1930s and for a bike built in a facility like that it would have been a pretty damn good bike in the ‘30s (laughs) , people back then had no problem carrying a wrench in their back pocket but we had to accelerate our learning curve to get up into current times and we’re there now.
Kneeslider: I had a real love/hate relationship with that bike …
Erik Buell: Me too, I had to support them. But it was a good time.
Kneeslider: Well, Thank You very much for taking the time to answer some questions, It’s very, very much appreciated.
Erik Buell: You’re welcome, I’ve enjoyed it.