by Dave Sonsky
photos courtesy of Buell
It's something we rarely consider, but just where did our shiny sportbike out in the garage come from? Santa's helpers didn't just snap their fingers, you know. We paid a visit to the legendary Eric Buell to discover just how a motorcycle comes to life.
There have only been a few men who've dared to go against the grain and create a motorcycle that breaks every traditional notion of what a bike should be and how it should function. John Britten had a vision, but it was cut short with his tragic death. Closer to home we find a man that desired something more from a motorcycle and didn't give a damn what anybody said about it.
Eric Buell began working at Harley-Davidson in 1979 as a Junior Test Engineer. Motorcycles were his passion, and the job helped to fund his racing career. Over the next few years Eric continued his racing endeavors as well as his move up the corporate ladder to eventually become Senior Project Engineer in 1983. It was at this time that Eric decided to pursue his true love.
Racing in the AMA Formula 1 class had brought a load of frustrations on Eric. The bikes he was racing were a chore to ride and rather expensive to fix when they were down. The Yamaha TZ750 and Suzuki RG500 simply left a sour taste in his mouth, but they did however get his juices flowing to come up with an alternative for the other F1 racers in the paddock. It was at this time that an English one-off model called the Barton came into his possession. The idea was to improve on the Barton and make it an affordable (yet competitive) racebike.
“The chassis was unrideable, simply a piece of junk, “ recalled Eric, “The engine wasn't much better because the components were so weak and didn't accept much tuning.”
To worsen the situation, the AMA had decided to make Superbike the premier class, which left the F1 series in the dark. Buell was now left with a junk prototype, and no market to develop it for. As disconcerting as this was, he decided to continue pursuing his dream and build a fantastic streetbike instead of a race model.
By now it was 1987 and Eric was beginning to reconsider his choice of leaving Harley to pursue this project. As luck would have it, the Harley-Davidson company had just scrapped a project and had fifty XR1000 engines left over. Buell approached Harley with the idea for a radically new design in which he'd use the Harley powerplant as the heart. It was agreed on, and the Buell motorcycle company took form.
Looking back, Eric philosophizes to justify his decision, “I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into, but I did have a good idea. Business is a lot like racing-when in doubt, gas it.”
This rather bold approach eventually panned out for the budding company of three. “Our shop was at my farm. We had two sheds that we worked out of,” recalled Eric, “I can't believe those guys stuck with me.”
Stick they did, which helped the Buell company establish itself as an important part of the motorcycle industry. So important, in fact, that Harley-Davidson approached Buell in 1993 and purchased 49 percent of the company. Just five years later Harley-Davidson returned with another check in hand which gave them 98 percent shareholding of the Buell Motorcycle Company. Eric stayed on as Chairman and Chief Technical Officer because he still had ideas that he felt could help push his (now Harley's) company forward.
Many of these new innovations that were bubbling in Eric's head finally made it to fruition with the introduction of the XB models. The XB9R Firebolt is the first motorcycle from Buell that reached out across the board and grabbed not only loyal Harley enthusiasts' eye, but also the attention of the otherwise “sportbike only” type magazines and riders. A bold new look and incredible feats of engineering set this bike apart from the previous Buell models, and it's here that we pick up on how the thing actually made it from Eric's mind to become a rideable machine.
Eric's days of racing made him rethink what it actually was that he was trying to accomplish with the new Buell. He remembered the two-stroke racers as being difficult and even scary at times, whereas his Ducati 900SS was pleasant and forgiving. “Instead of focusing on more and more horsepower, I decided to look at having more fun on the bike. Anybody can get on one of these things and blast it wide open in a straight line, but what happens when you get to the corner? That, for me, is where the fun starts. People criticize the engine sometimes, but for this application it really works best. It's got a nice, smooth power delivery that lets you enjoy the bike instead of worrying about some wild power delivery kicking in.”
What separates the Buell company from other manufacturers is that the motorcycle starts as an idea, as opposed to a criterion of improvements to be made on an existing model. This essentially means that there aren't teams of designers who are given guidelines about what to create. Instead, Eric approaches his team in the “Proof of Concept” stage and goes over his goals. For the XB line he knew he wanted a short wheelbase with a steep head angle so that the bike would perform exceptionally well in the corners. He also knew he wanted lightweight and a larger airbox to accommodate the larger engine.
With these goals in mind the product planners and design team go to the task, but the early stages see nothing more than a frame and two wheels. The frame design was also of the tube design that had been on earlier Buell models, and this presented a problem. “As we tried to incorporate a larger airbox, we found that we also needed a larger muffler space requirement.
It starts to become a complex puzzle of design, because as soon as we get one goal achieved in the design phase it presents another obstacle. Compromising one for the next doesn't really work, so we were forced to rethink the entire project. I came back and told the team about an old project I'd built where the fuel was housed in the frame and the oil in the sub-frame. With this idea introduced it opened up a new path for us because we could incorporate the other elements we wanted to without compromising other aspects.”
It was back in his race days that Eric actually found the idea for housing the fuel in the frame. “I was on the TZ750 doing the Daytona 200. At my first pit stop I was topped off with fuel and I set off down pit lane. Well, at the first corner I nearly crashed because the extra fuel made the bike react so differently. I had been in a zone, but at the end of the first leg the bike was light from no fuel. Adding all of that additional weight to the top of the bike raised the center of gravity up high, so I had to get used to it all over again. By putting the fuel down low in the frame it helps lower the center of gravity drastically, and the effect of gas sloshing around (like when in a traditional top of the bike tank) isn't so dramatic.”
This changed the design from a tube to a beam frame, and in the process also gave the bike its distinct appearance. “Once we had the puzzle put together we set out to create the early models. With these we moved then from the “Proof of Concept” stage to the “Concept Durability” phase. At this point each element of the bike undergoes testing from three different aspects. For the frame, for instance, there is a Design Engineer, a Quality Engineer, and a Purchasing Engineer. What they do is determine how well the item functions, how well it will hold up, and how cost effective it will be to produce. Small changes sometimes enter the design phase here, but typically by this point the bike is moving along in its development quickly. This same process holds true for each component, be it the brakes, the swingarm, whatever.”
Once the first test models arrive there are three development riders who help test for any major problems in function. Eric Buell, Shawn Higbee, and Jon Bunne do extensive track and road riding to find any problems with the bike's mechanicals. At this point in the development any major problems would have been already addressed during the “Concept Durability” testing phase. They're looking for things such as parts that might rattle loose, a seat latch that doesn't hold over bumps, or possibly a different choice of tires.
The bike may have already become a rideable machine, but the development and testing still aren't finished. At this point there may only be a dozen or so bikes in existence, and five will be sacrificed for crash testing. By now the XB would have been as close to the production model as possible, because any data collected here would need to be directly applicable to the actual showroom bike. This “Validation” stage is verifying to the inspecting engineers that the bike is ready for mass production and all of the parts are as they will be on the finished showroom floor.
Once the machine has made it this far it's essentially a done deal. In the case of the new XB, however, some unhappy glares were being cast from both Harley loyalists as well as even Harley employees. “We totally broke the mold with this bike. It didn't look or act like anything we'd done in the past, and that's something we're able to do because we don't have the rich tradition that Harley-Davidson does. We were able to go out on a limb with a wild design and didn't need to worry about the repercussions. We knew we'd made something special in the XB, and we'd stand behind it.”
As riders and enthusiasts we can only admire people like Eric Buell. He's gone that one step beyond what most of us take pleasure in out in the garage, sometimes until all hours. We can't count the number of stories about the wives, girlfriends or even neighbors that have come out yelling about revving the bike so late at night. But then, when you're just so close to having it dialed you can't possibly walk away just then.
Buell went the extra mile and decided that because he was frustrated with the bikes he was working on he'd just build his own. It's that attitude that pushes our bikes further each year in terms of handling, horsepower and lightness. Be it from Eric Buell or his Japanese or Italian counterpart, we need to be thankful for these innovators.