Talking with Erik Buell

Posted 7/17/00, from a phone interview 5/3/00


Erik Buell's only 49, but he's accomplished much in motorcycling, and come a long way - from his first ride, a 50 cc Honda, to racing a Ducati 900SS in the Superbike class at Daytona, to creating his own original motorcycles and a successful company. He says he's been "very fortunate" - but luck favors the well prepared, and success is usually the result of dedicated effort. For instance, in the late '70s, he was actively racing, working as a motorcycle mechanic, and going to night school at the University of Pittsburgh for a degree in mechanical engineering. As he tells it:

My history is I dropped out of college and went to play music for a number of years, and then started, for my day job, working on bikes, and I really went back to engineering school because of motorcycling. So it was really strongly in my mind that I wanted to do that. I didn't know how, because every sport bike was from overseas, and I didn't want to go overseas, and I was not a big Harley type rider.

But when I graduated college, that's the job I took. It was the lowest paying offer and it was in the worst place in the country. But I thought, boy, I need to take a shot. I can't go anywhere but Harley. I wanted to participate, I wanted to design. Cause I had been designing my own, you know, I had been working as a mechanic so I knew a lot about design. I built my own racebikes, I was racing as a nationally ranked roadracer, riding Yamahas, Ducatis. I was really interested in motorcycle design, so when I graduated I went to work for Harley. I laughed because I was offered 50% more money to go work in West Palm Beach, at Pratt & Whitney, on jet engines. I picked to go to work for Harley.

I flew up to the job interviews like a week apart, and the one flew me down to West Palm Beach - and it's gorgeous, you know, they take you down to the beach....And the other one I had to buy my own ticket cause Harley wasn't hiring people, you know they didn't do recruiting, so I bought my own ticket and I flew into Wisconsin in the snow, my luggage never made it because of the weather, I had to go buy some clothes and it was like 40 inches of snow on the ground, I'm like "What the hell am I doing, I must be out of my mind!" But that's the job I took. And I haven't regretted it.

Erik worked at the Motor Company for three and a half years, putting time in on chassis design and testing, and earning five promotions. But those were hard times at H-D.
You know I came in going "Yeah, well, I'm gonna turn Harley around" - but luckily I listened a lot more than I talked, so I learned that there were a lot of good engineers there, so I learned a lot. And you build friendships. I actually resigned from Harley when things were really tough - they'd had two big lay-offs, and it was pretty tough to be there... when you see people getting fired, and let out the door when times were tough, which had happened. I literally, one day, when I resigned, I looked around and I said, "You know, I can make a living somewhere else. And I love sport bikes. So I'm gonna go do that. If I leave, somebody else might have a job".

I have a tremendous loyalty to Harley, and a love of the company, but they weren't my style of bikes. I was working here going, "Ahh, if I have to work on another Softail -!" I knew there were a lot of people out there like me, so that's why I had to start my own company.

So I left, and then I said "One of the things I want to do is I'd like to put people back to work". Because at Harley I'd watched how people loved their jobs, and how killer it was to lose their jobs. It hurts for anybody to lose a job, but when you work in that kind of a product line, it's really tough. And I said, "Dammit, I want to put people back to work in this industry if I can".

I'll never be either one, but if I had to choose between being an Enzo Ferrari or a Soichiro Honda, which one would I rather be?... the answer was Soichiro Honda - not because Hondas are the greatest bikes in the world, but just thinking - do I want to be famous for building low-volume, really cool stuff? Or would I like to do something in bigger volume, do I want to sell more of what I did, would you like to have more employees, would you like - you know, what motivates you? And that's what came back to me was, what really motivates me is seeing people having fun building bikes, more people working on them, more people riding them.

Erik left Harley-Davidson in 1983. He ran a performance-parts distribution company to bring in cash, and his first motorcycle project was a Formula One racebike, with a 750 cc Square-Four two-stroke engine. He'd sold only one when the AMA ended Formula One racing in '84. His investment in the Square-Four was lost, and he decided his next project would be based on a streetable design. For various reasons, his engine of choice was Harley's hot-rod XR1000.

Buell's XR-powered RR1000 Battletwin appeared in December '85. When his supply of XR motors ran out, he used the Evolution Sportster engine to build the RR1200. Harley-Davidson bought 49% of Buell Motor Company in '93, and brought their share up to 98% a few years later. Erik became chairman and chief technical officer of Buell Motorcycle Company. The combination of Harley tradition and Buell innovation created unique, exciting motorcycles - bikes that had the potential to open up whole new markets. They were eager to go for it, and they started working on ideas.

This thing did start with gut feel, between myself and Jeff Bleustein (H-D Chairman and CEO), but of course, working for a big corporation, we have to follow up our gut feel with real discipline. So we had to go out and do all our market research. We did a lot of surveys. It was just amazing how many people were interested in motorcycles, but not in the products that were out there. It was the most encouraging thing we had ever imagined. There are millions of people out there who say, "Yeah! We'd like to go motorcycling, but -".

Just think of the things that are out there to ride. The first bike I ever owned was a step-through Honda 50. There are some stages to go through that really aren't out there now...So that was one of my big challenges, when we did this...I said, "I'm not gonna even look at any other product out there - cause they're all wrong. Start from the ground up". I really had to take my head and just turn it around...It was a matter of just saying, "Forget everything you've ever thought about. Think like this person". What we wanted to do was make something that was right for the people starting out.

The way we did it, we spent a lot of time working on the characteristics of the engine, to make it so that it was really easy for a beginning rider to ride. Our gearing selection, the crankshaft inertia, the compression ratio, the cams, everything was tailored around the characteristics we wanted the bike to do. With 30 hp, it's quicker than traffic. It does just fine, without terrorizing people.

The engine itself is a pretty hefty engine. Which was okay with us, because we said we wanted the engine to be super-durable, and be able to be hopped-up, and just run forever...

We really feel we're state of the art in air-cooled engines. The team at Harley on this engine, they really know their stuff. We built an accelerated durability course that just really beats up these things, and we ran competitive vehicles on it. We just recently ran the latest Blast against a couple of competitive, in a sense, smaller import products - and they broke and we didn't.We think this engine's gonna be one of the most bulletproof engines of all time. We expect to see them, in the Harley-Davidson tradition, 50 years from now.

g9: Yeah, I rode it hard, and it felt like it could keep going forever - but I did run into some detonation below sea level in Death Valley.
Interesting! That's real interesting. Boy, I'd love to know why that happened. We did most of our testing - (laughing) well you know where we did most of our testing - our deal was we're gonna test this where it's really hot. We also tested them real heavily loaded, and I'm surprised that it did that. I wonder if your timing was off or something. Could be a bad load of fuel, could be a number of things.
g9: Well, I blew off the first two scheduled service checks, so slightly-off ignition timing is a likely suspect. I think it was a combination of things adding up, timing, cheap fuel, with the greater air density below sea level being the last straw.
Yep, more air per fuel, more molecules of air per molecule of fuel - made it leaner...but this engine should've been able to cover that. We were close to 25%, but we're under 30% of the California standards, so we easily could've richened it up, we just, in all our tests, we didn't need to. We even shipped them off to Australia to run them when it was wintertime here, and we wanted to get more high-temperature out in the desert in Australia. So we really drove this thing to be detonation-proof. I'm suspecting your timing was a little bit off...there's something there that's pushing it over the edge that isn't set right.
g9: Did you consider water-cooling the Blast engine?
Yeah. Absolutely. We considered it. But at the core physics level, it doesn't make as much sense. Because when you want to get rid of heat...the bigger the difference in temperature between two things, the faster the transfer of heat. Say you've got an engine that's gonna run at 180 degrees Centigrade, and you're running 100 degree water, you only have an 80 degree "delta t" (difference in temp) to get rid of heat. So you're gonna have to circulate tons of water past it to get that transition. Then when you've got that water heated up, now you take it out, you stick it in a radiator, and you expose it to 25 degree air. Again you don't have any delta t. Well if you run that 25 degree air right past your 180 degree cylinder, you're gonna get rid of more heat.

You know, during WW II they were building a lot of tank engines. They had battles going on in the desert. And they had water-cooling versus air-cooling back then. And they dropped all water-cooleds. Because you cannot get rid of the heat. They all went to air-cooled engines - the U.S., the Germans, everybody. An air-cooled engine gets rid of heat better when the temperature's high - a lot better. It's actually why the Volkswagen...became such a successful product - that, and the Citroen 2CV. That was air-cooled. That was the first car to cross the Sahara Desert - cause it was air-cooled! Nothing had ever been able to make it before.

Now, like you ran into, probably your timing's a little off or something like that, you get detonation. It's not an air-cooled situation, it's a matter of the timing's wrong. But you'd probably get that in your water-cooled and just wouldn't've heard it because of the water jacket....

The only thing we can't compete with as well is sound deadening - but man, from every other standpoint there's an advantage.

So we really couldn't find a reason to make it water-cooled. Everything said, make it air-cooled. Now, maybe under optimum situations, you design an engine for racing, to work at a certain temperature, to get the peak efficiency out of it, yeah...but for all-around-use engines? Air-cooleds are wonderful.

g9: Won't water-cooling and fuel injection eventually be needed to meet emissions limits?
The air-cooled engine seems to be fine. Again, the emissions tests are a true measure of what everyday life is like, the way the governments have set them up, so they measure start-up and all these kind of get the vaporization of fuel to get clean burn, you need a warm combustion chamber. Particularly in cold start...we were gonna build a bike that people were gonna use for transportation, for jumping around the city. We expect a lot of short trips, and in fact most motorcycle use is for a lot of short trips. Air-cooled engines heat up almost instantly. Whereas in a water-cooled engine you've got to heat all that water up before the temperature stabilizes. The big deal is, the fuel dumps into the cylinder, is it truly vaporized yet or not - and oh by the way, I've got a choke on, so I'm dumping in extra fuel. An air-cooled motor just kills water-cooleds in the first bag of the three-bag test. The first bag is the start-up bag.

That bike right there, the Blast...our average emissions, and I'm just taking an average number - if you just take hydrocarbons, CO (carbon monoxide), and NOx (nitrogen oxides), the three key ingredients, averaged together, we're under 30% of the California standard. Less than 30%.

We'll probably do water-cooling, cause some customers want it, and there may be some advantages; but, to have to do it across the board? It's gonna be a long time before that has to happen.

g9: Did the Uniplanar engine mounts allow you to use a lighter frame?
Oh, definitely. Vibration is a real enemy. Even Singles with a primary balancer still have secondary shaking, and it's just really tough on parts. So the only thing you can do is always make 'em a little heavier and a little beefier...Being able to use the Uniplanar-type isolation system, we were able to make the chassis really quite light...barely 200 pounds, which is a very light chassis. If you took an 80-pound engine, that bike would weigh about 280 pounds - really light, as a full street bike, lights and everything.
g9: How did you decide on the gearing? 90's a good top for a 500 Single, but the Blast is geared high enough for a top speed around 103.
Yeah! And if you got a tailwind and you tuck in enough you might get there! But yeah, we geared it tall, and for a couple of reasons - I don't know, we might even change that. But our real goal on the first bike was, again, on this beginning rider, we wanted to do several things: one is we wanted to have the mileage number really high, and the thing will get 70 mpg...and you get tremendous in the city, so we geared it kind of tall for that. Another thing that we had, we were trying to balance out the beginning rider. If you gear the bike short, so you can pull away easily, it also jerks around a lot when you do that hesitating with the know what I mean, you let the clutch out and you turn the throttle on, the bike just leaps forward...Then you turn off the gas too much, cause you don't have that coordination yet, and your face smacks off the gas tank? So gearing it tall, a little taller, helped us with that, and it helped us with the fuel mileage.

Our goal was to be able to hit 90, and to be able to cruise at 75 to 80 all day. The idea, again, if you go out with your friends with big Harleys or whatever - no, if they want to go run at 120, well forget it, ya know - but if they want to go run through the Western states, hard, right on the upper end of where you'd normally go cruising, then you'll be able to ride right along with them. We succeeded at that.

g9: Yeah you did - my regular cruising speed on that bike was 75 - and as nimble as the Blast is, it's also amazingly stable at speed or in challenging conditions.
That's what we tried to do. We worked really hard on the three "moments of inertia": roll, pitch, and yaw. We think that really makes a difference. You spend a bunch of time backing off and thinking about the motorcycle's entire package when you're designing it, instead of getting focused in on any one component - keep backing away and say, "Okay, how's this going to work in this?" And you know, you can have a lighter bike, that doesn't have that stuff right, and it won't handle. On a spec sheet, you can look at it and go, "Well, gee, this is lighter, it's gonna handle better", but uh-uh! If you don't have the combination right, that's what makes a big difference.
g9: Looking at your motorcycles, it seems like you approach a design challenge with a clean sheet of paper and good basic principles, rather than relying on the old standard solutions.
You're right. It's not that we look at anything out there and say, "Do it differently". We really do focus on what customers want... like you were saying, basic principles: basic principles of customer plus physics equals the motorcycle.

The first thing we did when we designed it is, after we realized we were gonna start over, was make what we call a "features and specs" list. If we were making a performance bike, the features and specs list might have down on it some quarter-mile times - we didn't have any of that. We had, "Must sound good. Must sound big. Must look like a motorcycle" was real emotional.

g9: For a so-called "entry-level bike", the Blast feels like it has motorcycling in it - rather than being just a "product".
I think probably the reason is that we designed it as riders, not by specifications. The specifications came after the list of "what does this bike have to do, what does it have to feel like".

When we were looking at things the beginning riders might want, and we solved some of them, we started looking at each other and going, "You know what? I kinda like it that way too!"

Well those of us who were really into the program - it was a small kind of group working on it - realized this pretty early on, how neat it was. And you really couldn't convince people - they're like, "Yeah-yeah, you're building an entry-level bike, go away." And then when we started getting them in quantity and putting people on them, people'd come back and go, "Damn! That's really a nice motorcycle!" We just kinda laughed. "I never expected it to be like this!" "I don't know! That might be quicker than an 883!" Sheee...! (laughing).

g9: Will you be coming up with performance parts for the Blast?
There's nothing immediately planned, but probably. It's selling very well, and our real focus is just on producing them right now. We definitely will have accessories for it, of different kinds. Harley-Davidson's kind of taken over the parts and accessories end of things. They've got a "Buell Division" now, which is pretty cool because it frees us up to just focus on what we're doing. They've got some stuff, and of course we've always had a really good independent aftermarket, and those folks are coming up with stuff, I know.
You can build yourself a pretty seriously bad Blast right now. You can go out and buy pieces because this has so many similarities to the XL (Sportster). I'm just sitting there waiting for the articles, waiting for the pictures on the web: "Look what I did with this one!"
g9: Are you coming out with another Single, like a hopped up Blast, an "M1"?
We'll do derivatives of this bike, but we're not sure which one we're gonna do first. At the moment we're focused very much on this, and getting some accessories and things out for the core bike. Maybe even a little bit to the frustration of some of the guys here - they're like "Cool, we finished that, let's do it!" and I'm like, "Ehh, we're not quite finished yet". We want to be there to respond if anything goes awry, we want to make sure that this bike is just a seamless ownership experience for people. It's good for the company and we owe it to these new customers. So we're really keeping the team available if anything goes wrong.
The wonderful news is we did a huge amount of testing on this bike and everything about it, and it is, by every measure we've ever invented of testing, by far the most durable thing that we've ever done. Even compared to Harleys. It really works, so we're pretty confident. We've got all kinds of quality measures going on here, from getting the field data back, to all kinds of measures we have right on the assembly line, and inspection checks, and all that kind of stuff. It looks really good. It's great. But that's what we're hanging in there for.
g9: What about an enduro, like an XT?
That's a possibility, that's one of the possibilities that we're looking at. It's unlikely we'd build a real enduro, long travel suspension, that kind of stuff, a tall bike - cause the engine's a little heavy for that. A little more suspension travel, and a little more tire, a little knobbier kind of gnarlier tire maybe. That's probably one of the possibilities that's pretty high on the list.
g9: It looks like Buell and Harley have made a major commitment to this bike, and to turning people on to motorcycling.
It's been important for us. It was a lot of fun to do this project, and we hope it's a huge success - 'cause I absolutely love motorcycling. I'd love to see 30% of the people in the country riding motorcycles. I'll never see that in my lifetime, but every percent I can get I'm going to fight for. It's a great sport - morally I believe in it, I believe if you're gonna climb on a motorcycle you've got a better attitude. Climb on a motorcycle instead of an SUV, it says something about you.

It gives you all that maneuverability, the ability to get around. If you just think about tailpipe emissions, and those kinds of things, motorcycles are environmentally good. They're clean - people think about "I got this car with electric batteries and all this stuff" - and it'll get 75 mpg, yeah, but it's 4,000 pounds of materials that had to be processed to haul your butt down the road. What do you think that cost?

g9: Right, all those industrial processes behind it.
The bottom line is, we're now intelligent enough, we have enough information available to us, that we don't have to wait for times to be tough to predict that we shouldn't be wasting resources... And by the way, it's fun! Guess what? That's the best thing of all.
g9: It sounds like you're in a massively good position right now. It seems to me that Harley is going to broaden itself beyond the Big Twins and that particular market, and if they're looking to do that, and they're gonna do it through Buell, you're gonna have a lot of fun, filling the gaps and coming up with good motorcycle designs to fill different roles.
Well I hope so. I've got a fantastic team working with me with Harley - they have some brilliant executives down there, in many areas, so it's really a cool company to be working for. They're very forward thinking - although they built their history on making classic bikes, they've done it with forward thinking - thinking about "why am I doing classic bikes, and how do we do it better?" People say, "Well, Harley succeeded cause they have 100 years of history, or 95 years of history." Well I was there when they had 80 years of history, around 1983, and things didn't look real good. So it ain't just the history - it's what you do with it that counts.
g9: I'm really glad to see American motorcycles with new designs - your Twins, and something new like the Blast is really terrific. Seeing bikes like you're building is exciting - I can't wait to see what you all come up with next.
Good. It's nice to know there are people out there who are enjoying them and riding them a lot - that motivates us to to do 'em.

Related Links

The RR1000: A happy crew of Buell owners calling themselves "Team Elves" is prepping an RR1000 for a land speed record attempt at the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 2000. It's an all-volunteer effort with a privately-owned motorcycle, supported in part by the sale of commemorative souvenirs. Included on their website is an excellent article on the history of the bike, and the early days of the Buell Motor Company, written by one who was there - Dave Gess.

Past Interviews with Erik Buell currently available on-line: Motorcycle Online, '95;, '97; and Roadracing World, '00.

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