A chassis engineer at Harley-Davidson during the day and a passionate road racer at his spare time, Erik Buell set out to build an American motorcycle. The first race bike carrying the BUELL name, the RW 750, was finished in 1982, and eventually was succeeded by the most collectible BUELLs of all time: the Sportster-powered RR1000 Battletwin (1987-'89) and the RR1200 Battletwin (1988-'90).
The knowledge acquired in building race bikes served Erik to create a street bike: the Westwind. Produced as a 2-seater in form of the RS1200 (1989-'90), later as a single seater in form of the RSS1200 (1989-'93), it would mark the end of BUELL's early, independent era, with a mere 382 bikes produced in 7 years.
In 1993 the BUELL Motorcycle Company was founded, with Harley-Davidson acquiring 49% ownership, while Erik Buell held 51%. The injection of corporate capital allowed Buell to use H-D's resources and create a pivotal model that many cognescenti today regard as the best all-around BUELL of all time: the S2 Thunderbolt (1994-'96), featuring carbon fiber components and a beautiful body of hand-laid fiberglass body panels -- prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to make.
A touring variant, the S2T Thunderbolt, was added for 1996 (only), as well as the very agressive, single seater S1 Lightning (1996-'98). The year 1997 brought the S3 as a replacement of the S2 and added the M2 Cyclone (1997-'02) -- basically an S1 for two in a no frills package -- as an attractive, yet affordable base model.
In 1999, the radical X1 Lightning (1999-'02) replaced the S1 Lightning.
2002 would mark the end of the classic, or tube frame era.
Incidentially, this is when things started to go south, as Harley by that time had exercised its option and bought another 49% of the BUELL Motorcycle company, now owning 98% total, thus leaving Erik Buell with only 2%. Effectively being the boss in the house from now on, Harley executives consequently could make all of the decisions as they pleased, no matter how narrow-minded.
In order to increase sales, the big wigs at Harley-Davidson wanted to to move toward the mainstream Japanese customer base. Gone were the beautiful, artisan-like tube frames, only to be replaced by aluminum cast frames that looked like any other "modern" frame coming from Asia. The bodywork got pushed toward the bizzare, and in the end even the Harley Sportster engine was replaced with a Rotax from Austria, introduced 2009 in the BUELL 1125, arguably the ugliest BUELL that has ever seen the light of day.
None of that helped sales to a point to make the Harley gods happy, so they killed BUELL late in 2009 and offered their dealers a $5,000-per bike cash incentive to dump any and all unsold BUELLs as quickly and cheaply as possible. They didn't sell BUELL, mind you; they killed and buried it as quickly as possible!
So what did go wrong?
It's so simple, really. BUELL attempted to mix the Harley biker culture with that of the sportbike crowd. Yet a Budwiser-gulping, bandana-wearing 1%er would not ride anything sport bike ever, not even one that had the Harley-Davidson logo imprinted in every single body part, whereas a kid, wearing skin-tight, multi-colored leather coveralls and riding a Japanese sports bike with a 15,500 rpm redline wouldn't buy a pricey bike with a 50 year-old tractor engine with a 6,000 rpm redline ever, no matter how pretty.
Hence, BUELLs are niche bikes, targeting people who love the rumble of a Harley twin, but are motorcycle enthusiasts first, instead of bikers who dress up in their bad boy costumes on the weekends. People like me.
When I first rode my S2 Thunderbolt, it was a revelation: the synthesis of two opposite worlds, something I secretely was lusting for without even knowing it, and without realizing it already existed!
But eclectic taste is inherently exlusive, so BUELL could -- and should -- have followed the path of creating beautiful, tube-framed and Harley-powered bikes for the affluent, at a price. Trying to water down its genius concept in order to attract the mainstream buyers was set up for failure right from the start, and everybody smarter than a 5th grader knew it.
Another problem was to mandate Harley-Davidson dealers to sell sport bikes. Many of them simply didn't like it and delegated the BUELLs to the back of their showrooms. When the Austrian Rotax engine in 2008 finally replaced the coveted Harley heart, it added insult to injury and initiated corporate suicide, and everybody a 5th grader knew that as well, the only exception being the blissfully ignorant H-D executives.
Since contractual restraints will prevent Erik Buell to engage in motorcycle building for a long time, not only the name BUELL, but BUELL, the make, is dead for good.
And ironically this will help to firmly establish the tube-framed BUELLs as hot collectibles of the future. They have low production numbers (the earlier the better), and are the only Harley-Davidson powered sport bikes in American history. Like a Vincent, Crocket, or Münch, ten or twenty years from now an early BUELL in unmolested, stock condition will command serious money, and deservedly so.