by Aaron Frank
EAST TROY, WI – January 29, 2010 – (Motor Sports Newswire) – The first sign appears a few miles away, stuck into the frozen grass alongside I-43. “Motorcycle Liquidation” it reads, black letters on a yellow background, with an arrow pointing right. I exit at East Troy and head north toward Buell Drive, and the soon-to-be-vacant Buell Motorcycle factory.
It’s a clear, sunny, bitter-cold January morning in Wisconsin, barely above zero. Still, a line at least 500 people long snakes single-file the length of the factory parking lot and stretches well out onto Buell Drive, waiting for the sale to open.
I recognize lots of faces—friends, racers, former Buell employees, staff from dealerships in nearby Milwaukee, Madison and Janesville. Some are looking for good deals on tools and shop fixtures. Some are looking for an authentic Buell souvenir. Some have no connection or affection at all, and have just come to witness the dissolution of this proud—and occasionally puzzling—American motorcycle brand.
The doors open at 10 am, and the mob descends on the factory’s steel and concrete carcass like vultures. “Rape and pillage” is how one Harley-Davidson employee describes the scene. Like the sign says, EVERYTHING MUST GO NOW. Bike lifts. Engine stands. CNC mills. Floor scrubbers. Air compressors. MAKE AN OFFER. Hundreds of rechargeable DeWalt tool batteries. Neatly stacked plastic bins holding thousands of hand tools, priced $4 each. Office chairs: $40 for cloth, $70 for executive-grade leather. “Look at all these computers—no wonder this company went out of business,” I overheard one attendee, clearly ignorant of the demands of producing and selling 136,923 world-class motorcycles, say.
There were vehicles, too. The Freightliner FL60 crew-cab that pulled Buell’s demo trailer around the country. The 2004 Ford Econoline van that was a familiar—make that iconic—sight at racetracks around the Midwest, where it was driven by Henry Duga, Buell Racing Manager and Buell employee #1. Even competitive-model motorcycles, including a KTM 640 Adventure and 990 Super Duke, a BMW R 1000 RT and a roulette-green Triumph Speed Triple.
One dollar bought your choice of posters—including a signed action shot of Pascal Picotte on the Harley-Davidson VR1000 Superbike—that looked like they had just come from some employee’s cubicle wall, complete with tack holes in the corners. Boxes of rubber bands. Bundles of zip ties. Packets of staples. Open cans of paint. When the merchandise is gone, they’ll likely roll up the carpets and sell those, too.
Deals were few and far between, at least on the first day of this month-long sale. Trucks and bikes were priced at Blue Book value. A tired-looking enclosed trailer, covered in Harley-Davidson graphics, was marked $2300. You can probably buy a brand-new Craftsman box-end wrench at Sears for $4. That didn’t stop the shoppers. A large Buell dealer sign, $400, was gone in the first sixty seconds. A $60 Firebolt airbox cover, signed in kanji by Japanese Buell fans, was also quick to sell. A friend waited in the checkout line for over an hour to buy for a multi-meter, a few ratchets and a large roll of “Not For Production” stickers.
There were also some ghosts at this funeral. A back corner of the warehouse was roped off with caution tape, protecting a lone forklift operator who quietly loaded crated Buell motorcycles onto a semi. Behind another ribbon of tape sat 30-odd 1125CRs, partially disassembled. These were the last remaining Buells, one of the last remaining Buell employees told me. Originally intended for the Brazilian market, they were now being converted back to American-specs to be delivered to U.S. dealers. Eight air-cooled Buells, mostly Ulysses adventure-tourers and all marked sold, sat in a fenced in cage at the back of the building. Across a dry erase board inside the cage someone had scrawled, in blue magic marker, “Harley Davidson (sic) sucks.”
Speaking of ghosts, I recognized former Buell President and COO Jon Flickinger also walking the sale floor. After giving me a few non-answers about details surrounding the “discontinuation” of Buell, Jon asked if I wanted to speak with Erik Buell. The headquarters of the newly founded Erik Buell Racing remain on the Buell grounds in East Troy, in a small office and race shop adjacent to the former factory. Erik happened to be in the office that day.
Honestly, Erik was the last person I wanted to see on what I only imagined was an emotionally charged day. This was a man who has taken incalculable risks and made untold sacrifices over the past 27 years to build a motorcycle company from the ground up. A man whose two-wheeled legacy was largely being liquidated at that very moment, just fifty yards away. I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling that day. Or that he’d be in the mood for any light conversation.
The meeting went pretty much as I expected. Erik was cordial, as always. But with little to lose and no brand to protect anymore, he told me with extreme candor exactly how he felt about Buell Motorcycles’ unceremonious end. Then he went on for some minutes—many minutes, in fact—about his frustration with the motorcycle media. Buell has had a notoriously prickly history with the motorcycle press. Some of the stories written recently, especially those regarding Buell’s controversial Daytona Sportbike championship, have profoundly upset him, and he let me know why and how. We also talked about his occasionally prickly history with Harley-Davidson, and also about the fate of the recently leaked Buell Barracuda prototype. That we’ll likely never see this particular motorcycle enter production is unquestionably heartbreaking to Buell.
I have no intention of going further with any of this. It was a difficult conversation—probably the most difficult of my career—and one that in some ways I’d like to forget. Be assured this isn’t the last we’ve heard from Erik Buell, however. Buell is renowned for his resilience. Through his career he has faced many obstacles, everything from racing injuries to bankruptcies to massive product recalls, and has always clawed back stronger than ever. Though his pride might be wounded, he remains as passionate about performance motorcycles as ever, and every bit as committed building world-class, American-made sportbikes. I can’t imagine he’ll go back to Harley-Davidson, but he’s certainly not going away. He’s got too much unfinished business—and too many critics still to silence—to just leave now.
The Buell Motorcycle Factory Liquidation sale is happening now at the former Buell manufacturing facility in East Troy, Wisconsin. The sale will run through February 28th or until everything is sold, whichever comes first. Details about the sale can be found here.