The Buell Effect : In hindsight, was shutting the Buell factory Harley-Davidson’s EV1 moment?
Move forward or get left behind. This is the nature of progress. As we discussed in our August/September issue, Harley-Davidson’s plans for the future can be summed up in a word, diversification. An adventure touring machine, a sportbike and electric motorcycle are the first items on the list. But this wasn’t the first plan for diversification. While there is no advantage in crying over spilt milk, what about Buell? Much of what Buell Motorcycles brought to Harley-Davidson is now returning to the stable.
As a reference, the sad history and demise of Buell is reminiscent of General Motors and its EV1 electric car introduced in 1996. Before pundits proclaimed electric cars the future, GM was in front of the curve being the first major manufacturer to market an all-electric car. By many accounts the EV1 was a fine car and those that leased the vehicle – the only way you could get your hands on one – liked the little electric ovoid. It may well have been the best electric car on the market, but then the EV1 vanished. The vast majority of cars were crushed. A few were given to universities with the promise they would never be run again. The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? suggests various culprits: oil companies, GM, rules regarding spare parts, a consortium of automobile manufacturers.
There is little doubt GM would be better off today in the electric/hybrid segment if they hadn’t killed the EV1. A few short years later Toyota introduced the Prius and ate everyone’s lunch. A lot of progress and development could have occurred between the 1999 EV1 and GM’s next electric car, the Volt and subsequent Bolt.
Was Buell Harley-Davidson’s iteration of the EV1 program? An attempt at diversification that came too early? Or were the bikes too quirky? Slow sales? Too much established competition in their segment? Bad timing? An argument can be made for the latter contributing to the demise. Buell Motorcycles was a subsidiary when Harley was riding a monster wave of success through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Sales of bikes and clothing were booming, money was flowing and things were good. But 95 per cent of people walking into a Harley dealer had nothing on their wish list but a beautiful new cruiser or dresser. Anything else was almost a non-starter because cruisers were where it was at—on the street, on the highway and perhaps most significantly, on TV.
Buell’s short wheelbase, somewhat uncomfortable sportbikes and the beefy faux ADV Ulysses didn’t appeal—and especially not to the average person shopping in a Harley-Davidson showroom. Here was not the place to look for a sportbike or an adventure-touring machine.
Then came 2008 and the market took a sudden and dramatic double downshift. Everything was tighter and the taps got turned off as a huge volume of motorcycle sales vanished. It was tough to spend money freely and return on investment became a crucial element.
For Buell, down trending events culminated in 2009 with a seemingly morose and even disoriented Erik Buell appearing in a now famous video to announce the shuttering of the brand. Slightly before, was an equally controversial video from the Buell factory that showed the lowly Blast being crushed into a cube of rubber and steel and mockingly sent to the curb. The little Blast wasn’t the future for this edgy company.
That video proved a poignant foreshadowing of coming events.
Looking back, would it have turned out differently had the Harley-Davidson badge been affixed to Buell models from the outset? Early-model Buells left little doubt they featured Harley-Davidson components in prominent roles.
But with a different name and a different style the machines were too unlike traditional Harley-Davidsons. Even though sales went well beyond 100,000 units the return wasn’t there on a comparatively small run of sportbikes when greater profit was available building big expensive cruisers and selling the accompanying parts and accessories.
Times change. It’s debatable whether Harley-Davidson would now be further ahead if production had continued on the Buell line or if the brand only represented good money after bad. Diversification was always in the background—the old Italian sourced SX250 was an idea long before the Buell demise.
Perhaps Buell would have provided the outlet for radically different projects leading to successful diversification. The market has changed since those days and so have the opportunities for future growth.
It’s always 20/20.
• John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #340