The Economics of Riding: Buell Motorcycles

Riding a motorcycle is generally an escape—from your worries, from your bills, from whatever you left behind after hitting the starter button. But lately, it's been getting harder to avoid bad news about the economic downturn and how it's affecting our particular lifestyle niche. Just as this issue of Handlebars went to press on Oct. 15, Harley-Davidson announced it was pulling the plug on Buell Motorcycles.

This is a heartbreaker for motorcyclists of all stripes. No matter what style or brand of bike you prefer, it's difficult not to admire what Erik Buell was able to accomplish with his uniquely American motorcycle company. Started in a barn in Mukwonago, Wis. 26 years ago, Buell Motorcycles tackled motorcycle design and engineering its own way, creating bikes that were truly like no other. They might be described as having "quirky" styling, but Buells were shaped around interesting technology: fuel-filled frames, underslung mufflers, perimeter brake systems. And, even more unusual, Buell utilized Sportster V-twins to power America's sport bike (until Buell came up with its own Helicon V-twin in 2007, built by Rotax).

When Harley-Davidson bought Buell Motorcycles outright in 2003, it was making an investment in its future, hoping to capture a more youthful demographic. And it might have succeeded in a different economic climate. In September, Buell won its first professional AMA road racing championship when rider Danny Eslick clinched the 2009 AMA Pro Road Racing Daytona SportBike championship at New Jersey Motorsports Park. With the right marketing (and perhaps some evolution in styling), Buell could've finally been positioned where it needed to be to grab some sport bike riders who prefer individuality.

But when a company sheds 84 percent of its income compared to the same quarter last year, it's time to focus on the core business.

This is sad for Buell, its employees, its dealerships, and for riders. Without crazy innovators like Erik Buell making unique bikes, the whole industry suffers. Here's hoping he gets a second chance.