Thursday, October 15, 2009


What a sad and infuriating day.

Harley-Davidson announced today that they will pull the plug on the Buell Motorcycle Company, effective the end of this month. They also announced that they will sell the MV Agusta brand, but apparently they will not offer to sell Buell because of the interconnectedness of Buell's business and dealership networks with Harley's own.

I, of course, have a brand new Buell in my garage, my second in three years. And while this turn of events has no impact on my bike or its servicing or warranty or on my riding pleasure or the brilliance of the bike itself, it still feels like a punch in the gut. I've covered my feelings about these bikes in several posts here, and I just never swing a leg over the bike without marveling anew at what an inspired bit of engineering it is.

I did quite a bit of hand-wringing about the initial purchase in the fall of 2006, feeling that the bike seemed to have all the right moves on paper but feeling nervous about wandering so far afield from my comfortable Honda and BMW experiences. But the more research I did on the Buells, the more I was won over. It seemed almost unbelievable that so small a company, one located in a couple nondescript industrial buildings in a little farm town outside Milwaukee, could have something meaningful to say against the likes of Honda and Yamaha and BMW. But here was a genuine bit of innovation, an old concept bristling with new ideas. And when my local dealer insisted on a lengthy test ride (really!), the bike just grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go.

In the end--after I owned it and had put some miles on it--I really fell for my Buell. And I came to really respect and feel a passion for everything that encompasses Erik Buell's vision: light weight and a sporting underpinning; a truly innovative brake system; the fetish for mass centralization; the fuel in the frame (and the distinctive look that resulted). And the biggest surprise for me was the Sportster-derived motor (derived, but very heavily modified), with its reasonable power and quite unreasonable torque. I had never had a bike that provided such an easy and shocking squirt of torque, even right off idle. The bike will practically dislocate your shoulders at will. And the whole package came together with absolute brilliance, quite as well or better than any machine I had owned from any of the goliaths of the motorcycle industry. I had every expectation of great things to come: they had their new, designed-from-scratch, Rotax-built Helicon motor, and they were enjoying their first success at the upper levels of racing. Life looked good; the future looked exciting.

And just like that it's done. It's a business decision for Harley, I know: Harley's drop in profits--a function, of course, of the overarching economic malaise--means, apparently, that sacrifices must be made. But it confirms every foul thing I think about Harley that their perceived way forward is to look backward, back to their retro-fetish nostalgia machine. Their announcement says they will concentrate on "strengthening our core business," which means, I'm afraid, "Ramp up the marketing machine to sell more two-wheeled jewelry to the wealthy image-obsessed." Of course I'm biased, but it seems a perfect inversion of sensibility to throw out all that is forward-looking and innovative and technically advanced and competitive--all of it a pittance in the Harley universe--and concentrate instead on what is old and stale and gaseous. And the pain comes from having, for the first time in my riding life, the option available to be biased toward an American-made motorcycle that was NOT a kind of badness Viagra for the biker wannabe. The industry has been shown one way forward and, unable to see beyond a year or two of recession-induced bad numbers, they quickly throw in the towel and retreat to their happy place. But I wonder how long that place will remain happy, the place of $25,000 fashion accessories in a post-recession world (when we get there).

I can't imagine what Erik Buell himself must feel. He's been building motorcycles with his name on the tank now for 26 years. I can't say, of course, that the recession would not have killed his company off in any case, but it's a shame that Harley-Davidson bought into things initially and then bought the Buell company entirely, only to let it drop when the going got tough. That they are unwilling to keep the door open for Buell to continue under someone else's management seems criminal.

(I"m remiss not to mention that for the 180 employees of Buell the tragedy is far worse. I refuse to abandon all hope that some solution might be found.)

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