Milwaukee has long been known as a motorcycle town.
The city’s history is tied to Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, one of the most celebrated brands in the world. However, there is another motorcycle company based in the metro area.
Buell Motorcycle Co., owned by Harley-Davidson Inc. but operated as a separate company, is tiny compared to its parent corporation. But recent events in the racing world are positioning Buell for significant future growth.
Buell’s motorcycles are designed for performance, either on city streets, highways or the race track. The company, founded by Erik Buell in 1983, makes motorcycles in three main categories – sport bikes, touring, and street bikes.
Buell’s sport bike lineup includes the 1125R, which has achieved several high-placing races in the American Motorcycle Association Pro Racing series. Several riders who use Buell motorcycles have won races this year, gaining the company increased visibility.
Most of Buell’s motorcycles are based on two basic designs. The 1125 series, which includes the 1125R sport bike and 1125CR street bikes, are based on race-inspired designs. Both bikes feature 146 horsepower at 9,800 rpm and 82 feet pound of torque at 8,000 rpm.
The other basic design is Buell’s XB12 series, which includes the XB12R sport bike, XB12X and XB12XT touring motorcycles, and XB12s and XB12scg street bikes.
Buell also makes several additional models, including a police motorcycle based on the XB12 platform and the Blast, an entry-level model.
The 1125 series features several of Buell’s design innovations, including its Zero Torsional Load (ZTL) front brake system.
“All high performance motorcycles except ours have double front brake disc – two front brake discs and two brake calipers,” said Buell, the company’s president. “We didn’t see how that made any sense.”
Instead of just removing one brake disc and caliper, Buell redesigned the front brake system, effectively turning it inside out.
“We have one rotor, but instead of being bolted to a carrier that goes down to the wheel hub and back out, the disc is inside out so the rotor actually bolts to the wheel rim and the caliper goes from the inside out,” he said. “That allows us to have a much bigger diameter wheel brake rotor, but only one of them, which saves us a bunch of wheel weight.”
The 1125 bikes also use a Buell-designed fuel storage system, in which fuel is actually stored inside the motorcycle’s frame instead of a separate fuel tank. The frame-based fuel storage lowers the bike’s center of gravity and gives it more secure storage in the event of an accident.
Because some of its designs are significantly different than those used by much larger, established performance motorcycle manufacturers such as Yamaha, Honda, Ducati and others, Buell’s motorcycles have not historically been looked at as strong racing bikes.
But recent events are changing that perception.
Buell riders have secured wins and high place finishes in several of the most recent American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Pro Series. At the Barber, Atlanta races held earlier this month, Buell riders finished in third and eighth places.
Danny Eslick, a Geico-sponsored racer who rides a Buell motorcycle, grabbed first and third place at the early April AMA races at Road Atlanta. Eslick also won both races at the March AMA races in Fontana, Calif.
“The win in California was actually the first major win for an American (motorcycle) company since 1972,” Buell said.
While it is too early to tell if the race results have turned into increased sales, there are encouraging signs, Buell said.
“What we have heard from the dealers is that there has been a significant change in the floor traffic, of younger people who are coming in for sport bikes,” he said. “We’re a tiny company compared to a Yamaha, but we really do have some pretty dramatic innovations that are patented, and we’re trying to get a piece of mind of the sport bike customers who, even if most of them don’t race, follow racing. It’s giving a chance for us (to show) that these innovations can work. And that’s what’s happening here.”
Most of Buell’s manufacturing is done in East Troy, where it employs about 200 workers. Its employment levels have remained relatively flat over the last two years as Buell focuses on efficiency and lean manufacturing.
“What we try to do is make the most use of everybody’s brain,” Buell said. “That’s an American thing, having the guys on the assembly line help design the line itself rather than going to some consulting firm. Productivity is going up per person, but they’re not working stupid hours. They’re just working smarter.”
Buell has had lower sales levels over the past year. It believes sales will rise this year because of race-related exposure and the recent financing secured by Harley Davidson Financial Services.
“Harley-Davidson has been very smart about getting the financials put together, which for younger customers without a lot of credit is very important,” Buell said. “That’s something where the Japanese and other manufacturers have an issue. They don’t have that available for younger customers.”
Buell Motorcycle Co.
2799 Buell Dr., East Troy
Industry: performance sport, touring and street motorcycles