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Buell’s Future Uncertain?

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Since Kieth Wandell took over from Jim Ziemer as the CEO of Harley-Davidson, analyst expectections have been that Wandell, an outsider bought in as CEO from Milwaukee-based automotive supplier Johnson Controls, would be a strong, take-charge leader who is well-suited to address the MoCo’s current challenges. One of those challenges may be Erik Buell, and Buell Motorcycles division.  A confidential source with high-level contacts inside Harley-Davidson informs me that a number of H-D executives will be pushing to have the company divest itself of Buell Motorcycles, and that a decision to sell or shut down Buell may come in the near future.

The word is that both Buell and Harley-Davidson have found the relationship unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, including the company’s refusal to allow Buell to outsource anything but Evolution V-Twins for several years, and Erik Buell’s strained personal relations with a number of MoCo executives. With a company outsider who has no particular vested interest taking over the helm as CEO, and devastatingly bad sales results due to the current recession, some Harley executives believe that this would be the perfect time to kill the Buell division.  If so, it would be a sad close to an overall sad chapter at Harley-Davidson.

In my view, Harley’s stewardship of Buell Motorcycles has been a classic case of a missed opportunity. The acquisition of Buell was a great opportunity for the MoCo to develop a line of race-bred sportbikes that could have made Harley a serious contender in that market.  But, Harley-Davidson blew it.

The company’s refusal to allow Buell to use any engine but the air-cooled, V-Twin, Sportster-derived Evolution engine effectively throttled Buell from the very beginning.  Whatever advantages may have accrued from implementing the Buell “trilogy of tech” in a sporting motorcycle were largely negated by the use of the underpowered Evolution powerplant.  Harley seems not to have understood that creating a technically sophisticated sportbike that would get its lunch eaten by any 600cc sportbike produced by the Big Four was nothing but a recipe for failure.

Ironically, elements of the Buell “trilogy of tech”, especially mass centralization and low unsprung weight have shown up in competing sportbikes.  For instance, the 2010 BMW S1000RR utilizes an under-body muffler arrangement very similar to Buell’s.  So, clearly, the problem isn’t Buell’s technology, but rather the use to which it was put, prior to the release of the 1125R in 2008.

Harley also alienated its dealers by forcing them to accept consignments of Buell motorcycles that they didn’t want to sell, and, in many cases, knew they couldn’t sell.  Not only were they being required to sell a sportbike that almost no one wanted–as Buell’s 2% market share of sportbike sales indicates–the MoCo never adequately invested in dealer training, in either the sales or service departments.

This is not to say that Erik Buell has been blameless either.  He is reputed to be abrasive and difficult to work with by many H-D executives.  This has resulted in bad feelings among executives that has made them less likely to give Mr. Buell’s opinions about the direction of Buell Motorcycles any serious consideration.

Moreover, Buell’s  marketing and public relations have been marked by avoidable mistakes.  For instance, the press reveal of the 2008 1125R–the only bike with Buell makes with a non-Sportster powerplant–was a disaster.  Buell used pre-production bikes with faulty fuel management and suspension issues for the demonstrations given to the international motorcycling press.  As a result, the general impression given by the media was of a mediocre bike with poor fueling, wallowy suspension, and quality control issues.   Rather than waiting until the company had ironed out those issues satisfactorily, Buell went ahead with the reveal, which resulted in doing more harm than good to the bike’s image.  Most recently, Buell’s callous dismissal of the Blast model for the 2010 model year, replete with disparaging comments about the bike, alienated many observers–not only in the press, but among Buell’s customer base as well.

If the anti-Buell Harley execs get their way, this long litany of failure will come to an end by pushing Buell out the door.

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