Buell: The Underdog American Motorcycle

By Andrew Court

When you think about American Motorcycles, odds are you think about Harley. They’re loud and languorous cruisers, more about taking-in life than racing past it.

Nested inside the ubiquitous Milwaukee manufacturer’s identity are a whole bunch of cultural tropes. First among them is the outlaw, the menacing son of anarchy hell-bent on instilling terror. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “In a nation of frightened dullards there is a sorry shortage of outlaws, and those few who make the grade are always welcome…”.

This, however, has become a tired cliche. Harley riders are more often the local boomer dentist than a Folsom Prison escapee. Thus we have the second biggest trope, the “Wild Hog”. Is it any wonder sales are down?

Since 1983 Buell Motorcycles has been turning this narrative on its head. A track-ready Buell is more at home on Sebring’s Turn 17 than at Sarasota’s sidewalk cafes. It is the American sport bike which asks the question: Why can’t a bike be rebellious and fast?

The story begins with Erik Buell, a former Harley-Davidson engineer with a passion for racing. In the early 1980s, Buell founded his eponymous company with one mission: to build high-performance racing bikes that could hang with Honda, Yamaha, and even Ducati. And compete they did, with Buell winning championships including the AMA Formula 1 road racing series.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the company continued to push the envelope with new technologies and innovative designs. The most iconic is their use of the engine as a structural component of the frame, allowing for a lighter and more agile bike. They also were one of the first to integrate the gas tank into the frame, lowering the center of gravity to improve handling. These innovations helped set Buell bikes apart from the competition and established the brand as an alternative leader on the American motorcycle scene.

Buell Motorcycles shifted its focus to street bikes and was even acquired by Harley in 1998. And while the brand’s racing heritage was still evident, the new bikes were designed to be more practical and accessible to a wide audience. It says a lot about Erik Buell’s talents that he did this without losing the motorcycle’s character. 

The XB series of bikes really put Buell on the map. The XB12R Firebolt and XB9S Lightning were high-performance street bikes featuring fuel injection and a unique underslung exhaust system. I remember seeing the Firebolt in a magazine for the first time and wishing I was older so I could go out and get one. These bikes solidified Buell’s reputation as a manufacturer of badass street bikes.

Unfortunately despite their success as a cult classic, Buell struggled to turn a profit. Many felt the street bikes’ reliance on Harley-based engines held the designs back. In 2009 Harley-Davidson announced that it was shutting down the brand as part of a restructuring effort triggered by the financial crisis. Erik Buell went on to found EBR, Erik Buell Racing, but it never really took off and eventually went bankrupt. 

This is not the story’s end, but the flip the script moment. A company called Liquid Asset Partners, LAP, was brought in to sell off Buell’s assets. The thing is, their CEO, Bill Melvin, is a huge bike nut and couldn’t stand to see the brand go extinct. He resurrected it in 2016 and it’s now bringing serious bikes to market. 

LAP’s strategy, like the history of Buell, is bold. Create a wide range of products that can compete with major manufactures, a true Michigander David taking on Goliaths from Torino to Tokyo. For the performance-minded they made the track weapon Hammerhead and the hot rod naked bike, the 1190SX. At this year’s Daytona Bike Week they released the Super Cruiser, a Roland Sands take on what a modern Harley really should be. 

The model I am really excited about is the 2025 Super Touring. I am so excited, in fact, that I have put down a deposit to get one of my own. Why did I do that? The Super Touring has a monstrous 185hp, A modular design that allows it to easily convert from a tourer to a track toy, and all the quirky-yet-effective technology that makes a Buell a Buell. I even like the controversial body work which critics say makes it look like Bender from Futerama. 

More than all this, I like that it’s American-made by a group of upstarts taking on the challenge of building a motorcycling brand in a power sports industry that appears to be in decline. It’s something unique in a world that’s increasingly homogenized. 

Fuck, I really hope that they mean early 2025.

Editor’s note: The lead image is hand-drawn because the folks at Buell were being bitches about sending over a photo.

Updated editor’s note: The owner of Buell, Bill Melvin, reached out after this story ran and, though he subsequently provided several photos for us to use, requested we keep the hand-drawn image as the lead because he likes it so much. He also informed us that he made Buell a wholly owned company, meaning that Liquid Asset Partners doesn’t own Buell.

Buell SuperTouring

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