Springtime in East Troy

A short return visit to the once and future digs of Erik Buell & Co.

Erik Buell illustration
Erik BuellIllustration by Hector Cademartori

The winter of 2010 was the best of times and the worst of times, as our friend Dickens would say.

It was the best of times because I was celebrating my birthday by buying a new Buell Ulysses from a Harley dealership in Racine, Wisconsin. It was the worst of times because I'd just gotten word that Harley-Davidson was closing the Buell factory in East Troy, Wisconsin, about 60 miles east of my home.

Sad news. Buell was a big employer in the area, building charismatic bikes whose technical innovations and chassis design appealed to my own sense of logic and balance.

There was regional pride to consider. Wisconsin, after all, was a state where you could buy a cruiser (Harley), a sportbike (Buell), an aerobatic airplane (Citabria) or—until 2008—a new SUV or truck (Chevy), all built within an hour’s drive of your home. And then you could celebrate by drinking any of a dozen great local craft brews. This was how America was meant to be.

Adding to those 2010 winter woes was the big economic meltdown, making customers thin on the ground at most bike dealerships. But, ever the optimist, I forged ahead and bought the new Ulysses anyway. Barb and I drove to Racine in the middle of a blizzard to pick it up. On the way home, we swung by the Buell factory in East Troy, where a liquidation sale was in progress. Most of the tools and shop equipment were already gone, but I bought two swiveling office chairs for my own workshop and a plastic storage crate with “Property of Buell Motorcycle” stenciled on it.

I asked if Erik Buell was around and was told he’d rented a small space at the far end of one of the factory, where he was still doing work on customer racebikes. I went down and knocked on the door, but no one was there.

So. Four years later, the phone rings in my workshop while I'm assembling the swingarm on my 1974 Norton Commando. I wipe the smelly 140-weight hypoid oil off my hands, flop down in my chair, and pick up the phone. It's Editor Hoyer, asking if I could break my flimsy vows of retirement by paying a visit to the new, reborn EBR (Erik Buell Racing) factory in East Troy, talk to Erik, and see what's going on there.

“Funny you should ask,” I said. “I’m sitting here in a Buell office chair with a Buell Ulysses in front of me, looking at ‘Property of Buell Motorcycle’ stenciled on the end of a box on my storage shelf. You seem to have reached Buell Central.”

So I left on a snowy mid-March morning and headed for East Troy. I turned onto Buell Drive and pulled up in front of a familiar factory building, now leased to EBR rather than Harley-Davidson.

In the four years I'd been gone, of course, Erik had not been idle. He'd negotiated an end to his no-compete clause with Harley-Davidson, regrouped as EBR, redesigned the Rotax 1,125 V-twin into a potent 1,190 (with no common parts), built 100 of the beautiful—if expensive—1190RS racebikes, and gone racing with considerable success. (You simply must watch the YouTube footage of Danny Eslick dicing for second place in AMA Pro SuperBike at Homestead in 2012). And in the search for investors, he'd landed a heavy-hitter indeed: Hero MotoCorp of India, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

EBR began as an engineering consultant to Hero—designing the high-tech new Leap hybrid scooter for the company in record time—which led to Hero buying a 49 percent interest. The cash infusion allowed EBR to design and build the new 1190RX. EBR will also be taking on distribution of Hero motorcycles in the US and Canada, while helping to design the Indian company’s new models. Busy times.

What about new EBR models, I asked, noting there was a mysterious “AX” version in the works. Could the “A” possibly stand for “Adventure,” something along the lines of my Ulysses?

Erik laughed, and said, “We see ourselves as builders of _sport_bikes, and by ‘sport’ I mean anything that’s athletic, where your feet are underneath you.”

Seems those sporting plans are beginning to fill out the main factory building. EBR now employs 130 workers, with almost twice the engineering staff it had in the Harley days. In the main design and engineering offices and out on the metic­ulously clean assembly line floor things are crackling with activity. There’s no sign that Erik Buell’s energy and vision were ever a candle that temporarily flickered in the winds of commerce. Quite heartening and a far cry from the dark silent building I saw during the liquidation sale.

Now if we could just turn Erik Buell & Co. loose on GM. Maybe our Wisconsin Chevy plant in Janesville could reopen. We’ve still got the Harleys, the airplanes, the beer, and the sportbikes.