The news this week that Eric Buell Racing as a business entity has filed for receivership—Chapter 128 bankruptcy— in Walworth County Wisconsin Circuit Court is hard to take.
Not only does it mean the loss of 126 existing jobs in Wisconsin, with the potential for many more in the future as the company may have grown, but it also means the end of the line for production of one of the industry’s most innovative products.
Eric Buell’s name has become synonymous with design innovations that began with the creation of his Buell namesake bikes, continued with acquisition of 49 percent interest in Buell by Harley-Davidson in 1993 and continued on with the creation of the Eric Buell Racing brand and its forward-leaning, high-performance machines. Buell bikes gave new meaning to the terms “mass centralization” and “lowered center of gravity” with designs that made the bikes cut corners with the precision of a scalpel.
Buell launched his production enterprise in 1988 and from the beginning, his Sportster-motored sportbikes were something else. They had power, grunt, handling, style and advanced design; what they didn’t have was a big footprint in the marketplace in terms of dealerships for sales and service.
When Harley-Davidson bought in, with its huge distribution capabilities, it seemed those problems were solved. Five years later, H-D became majority stock owner and the fuse seemed surely to have been lit for the long-term future of the brand.
In October 2009, Harley-Davidson had some tough decisions to make, facing a 21.3 percent drop in sales compared to the same period in 2008. In response, the Motor Company decided to focus on development of the H-D brand alone and shuttered Buell and put its recently-acquired interest in MV Agusta up for sale. Ironically, it was in 2009 that Danny Eslick rode a Buell 1125R to the AMA Daytona Sportbike title.
But Eric Buell is a never-say-die type of guy. The ink was barely dry on the press release from H-D announcing the end of its Buell operations when Eric Buell announced the creation of Erik Buell Racing in November 2009. The first issue out of the new EBR operation was the 1190RR track bike, which saw some significant racing success. By 2011, EBR launched the 1190RS street-legal bike, though only in small quantities.
In 2013, Hero MotoCorp of India acquired 49.2 percent interest in EBR for $25 million USD. For Hero, the acquisition was a strategic step to keep the company’s technological capabilities on the cutting edge after the end of its joint venture with Honda. Hero and EBR had already joined forces for certain technology development services in 2012, so the financial commitment to EBR seems like a well-thought out next step.
What this all means for Hero is unclear at this point and what steps it will take have not been announced. Conceivably, Hero could consider options to help with restructuring EBR’s $20 million debt and refloat the boat. On the other hand, it could step away; only time will tell.
As I sat here ruminating about the loss of EBR, I got to thinking what the options might be for yet another re-launch of Eric Buell’s dream.
That brought me to the successful rebirth of the Indian Motorcycle brand under Polaris ownership. Polaris is on a roll of expansion, acquisition and soaring sales revenue in world-wide, cross-cutting enterprises. In the past few years, it has acquired interest in Brammo e-bikes, Klim and others.
Photo by Jesse Kiser
With Indian and Victory, Polaris has two great products for the V-twin cruiser crowd, but the high-performance sport, sport-touring and road racing niche is vacant.
Now, I’m just spitballin’ here, but wouldn’t it be great if another great Midwestern powersports entity with both financial and engineering resources, extensive dealer network and customer support were to step up and pull off yet another turn-around such as that by Polaris with the Indian brand—if Hero does not?
I’m just saying’.