It’s always a sad day when an American business goes under, and unfortunately, the motorcycle world has lost one of its own. Erik Buell Racing, builder of the only American superbikes, has filed for bankruptcy, leaving a disappointing void in the market. Where Erik Buell goes from here is still up in the air, but at least he sounds optimistic.
Posting on the company’s Facebook page, he said: “No doubt, it was an incredible ride, feeling like the longest qualifying lap ever. And, then, just when we knew we were about to set an all-time record, we tossed it in the last corner… Keeping with racing analogies, now we need to get back on the track and look ahead remembering all the things we were doing right around so many turns.”
Despite a $25 million investment by Indian motorcycle manufacturer Hero, Erik Buell Racing was reportedly facing $20 million in debt before it filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 128. Unfortunately, that means the company’s 126 employees are out of a job. Slow sales of Buell’s commercial bikes, the 1190 RX and 1190 SX, are probably part of the problem, but Buell’s Facebook statement hints that the high costs associated with attempting to develop too many new models at the same time is partly to blame as well:
Unfortunately, in the end, we tried to do too much with too little funding, but it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments. We introduced the world class American super bikes of 1190RS, 1190RX and 1190SX, while at the same time doing revolutionary work for Hero on the HX250R, Leap, SimplEcity, iON, RnT and many others, plus concepts never publicly seen. It was great EBR innovation and design, and introduced new technology to Hero and its suppliers to provide a real kick start for them. But in the end all of this simply overwhelmed us, and for that we are sorry and saddened.
This bankruptcy isn’t the first major setback Buell has faced in his quest to build world-beating American superbikes. From 2003 to 2008, his namesake, Buell Motorcycle Company, was wholly owned by Harley-Davidson and operated as the company’s sport bike division. When the motorcycle market tanked in 2008, Harley closed the doors on Buell. With nowhere else to go, the man whose company had just been shut down was forced to start a new company, Erik Buell Racing.
In the beginning, Erik Buell Racing wasn’t a motorcycle manufacturer. It was a racing team, and while it was small, it at least managed to pay the bills and give its founder something to do. A few years later, in 2011, Buell met an executive from Hero. While Hero had huge sales, it only sold bikes designed by Honda, and it was interested in contracting with EBR to get help developing its own designs. In 2013, Hero invested $25 million in exchange for a 49% stake in the company.
Two years later, it wasn’t enough to keep EBR afloat. Perhaps the bankruptcy was caused by slow sales. Perhaps it was caused by investing too much in research and development. So far, the only statement from the Indian investor has been, “Hero MotoCorp, with strong in-house R&D capabilities, remains confident that its future product line-up would not be affected despite EBR ceasing operations.”
While it’s certainly a setback, we likely haven’t seen the last of Buell’s superbikes. The employees are all out of jobs, and even the website is already shut down, but Chapter 128 isn’t exactly bankruptcy. It appears that Buell is working to repay his debts and reorganize in a way that allows him to start selling bikes again “I will make every possible effort to get the new organization to where it can support the dealers and customers first, and then help find investment to get back to full throttle,” he said.
Hopefully he can do just that. If anyone in the motorcycle world deserves to succeed, it’s Buell. His bikes might not be what everyone is looking for aesthetically, but he’s a spectacular engineer, and the motorcycle world is better off when he’s building and selling bikes. The deal with Hero looked like it was going to be the chance he needed to get back on his feet after Harley-Davidson shut him down, but it wasn’t.
What’s equally disappointing is the fact that with the death of Erik Buell Racing, the American superbike dies with it. Cruisers are great bikes, and I’ve owned two myself, but it’s sad that America doesn’t offer a real superbike for the people who want to buy one anymore. There are plenty of options from foreign manufacturers, but if you want to buy an American bike, your options are pretty much either Victory or Harley-Davidson. That’s not exactly a lot of choices.
The one bright spot — other than the possibility of Buell returning in the future — is that American companies are on the forefront of electric motorcycle technology. Electric motors might remove the auditory experience from riding, and that truly is a shame, but as people’s transportation needs and priorities change, it looks like electric bikes are going to be an important part of the future. Even better, despite the limitations of recharging an electric motorcycle, they still have some serious performance potential.
Take the Lightning LS-218 for example. In 2013, it won the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb against all other motorcycles, both gasoline and electric. The next-closest bike was a Ducati Multistrada that ended up being 20 seconds slower. As its name suggests, the LS-218 also has a claimed top speed of 218 miles per hour. It might not sound like a Ducati, but that’s the kind of performance that even electric motorcycle critics have to respect. Its biggest limitation, though, is still its range. With a range of maybe 150 miles of mixed riding, it would work for quick jaunts in the mountains or around town, but on the highway, that range drops to 100 miles, meaning gasoline is still the best way to see the country.
Perhaps combining the best of both worlds, before the company shut down, Erik Buell Racing was reportedly working on a hybrid motorcycle that would use a gasoline engine as an electric generator, much like the Chevrolet Volt’s system. Theoretically, the setup would provide almost all of the benefits of an electric bike while eliminating the need to recharge every 100 miles. Sadly, unless EBR can reorganize and find a way to come back from the dead, the bike that would be America’s only hybrid superbike will never be. But if Buell can find a way to come back, it would be amazing. Until then, the motorcycle community is going to miss one of its greats.