AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: Erik Buell Racing

Riding the red, white blue.

Erik Buell portrait

We are country-of-origin agnostic here at CW. As long as it's got two wheels and an engine, let's ride. But we have to admit a bit of national pride, nonetheless.

America has been in the motorcycle business pretty much since an engine met two wheels. We’ve had our ups and downs but generally have shown that American craft and ingenuity is world-class.

If there's any complaint about made-in-USA bikes in more recent times, it's that we've lacked diversity. That's not a knock against Harley-Davidson, the only manufacturer to keep a continual relationship with the American rider since the dawn of motorcycling, opening its famed shed doors in 1903 and never closing them since. We have to give H-D credit for the fact that the American motorcycle industry exists at all.

That said, things have never been better or more promising in the US than right now. Victory has settled in after 15 years of bike building and delivers a great cruiser product. Parent company Polaris made the purchase of the new century and has relaunched Indian with the technology and performance the storied nameplate deserves. To get an idea of just how good and right the machines are, check out the American Experience bagger comparison test by Peter Egan. The fact that we have viable, competing brands in the cruiser sector is nothing but good.

But why shouldn’t America build a cost-competitive superbike, something slightly cheaper than the limited-production $40K EBR 1190RS? A Corvette of motorcycles, if you will, a machine that can crush more exotic competition. Say hello to the Erik Buell Racing 1190RX and a return to the greater diversity we both deserve and need here.

That the bike even exists is a miracle of Erik Buell’s tenacity, and it’s at his core, as this is the statement he made at the start of our conversation: “I love motorcycles.”

EBR is in the same East Troy, Wisconsin, HQ as when Harley-Davidson shut Buell Motorcycle Company down in late 2009. I wondered aloud how many employees there were at work the first day EBR was in business. “One,” he said. “Me! I rented a little bitty corner of the building Harley was emptying as Buell was closing. It was a small space where we had clay-modeled the bikes, about 200 square feet. Now, we have about 100 employees and the whole building. What’s fun is we have quite a few more engineers now than we ever had at Buell.”

A $25 million investment from India’s motorcycle giant Hero set the wheels truly rolling again. After doing design work for them initially, Buell said they found a surprising number of synergies.

Hero was very impressed with EBR’s work and grew to believe that, “we’d be able to pull off this American sportbike, where most people were just rolling their eyes and saying this can’t be done,” Buell said. “I shopped this thing from coast to coast in the US for years and, man, I got nowhere. One manufacturing guy invested in the business along the way, and he was key. He was a guy who got it and understood what we were doing.”

A key element of the deal with Hero is that Buell retains majority ownership. This is both a lesson from his Harley-Davidson days but also very important to the soul of the company. “I said it’s got to be a minority investment because I really want to keep the direction of the business going where I want it to go, and I want it to be an American-owned business,” Buell said. “They completely understood that and said to me, ̒That’s what makes you special and will make you successful.’ ”

That’s the kind of vision you have to respect. We should all be thankful that true motorcycle enthusiasm has no one flag. But I suspect I’ll still be proud to wear the red, white, and blue on my first test ride of the new RX.