EBR we hardly knew ye


By now you will have heard the news that EBR is no more. Out of the blue this week, the company announced it was shutting its doors, laying off all 126 employees and selling off assets to try to cover a $20 million debt.

That's a damned shame. And it's really surprising. OK, when I was at Motorcycle Live last November I did note a certain dearth of interest in the bikes (as I wrote at the time: "I probably could have wheeled one out of the hall without being noticed"), but overall I felt things were moving in a positive direction for the company. I really imagined that within 5 years or so, Erik Buell Racing could be a legitimate player and that it could be a source of pride for motorcyclists in the United States.

There were all sorts of reasons to believe such a thing. The 1190RX (introduced in 2013) and the 1190SX (introduced in 2014) had both received critical acclaim. Sure, there were some first-effort quibbles but no one really held that against EBR. A lot of motorcycle publications chose to pit the 1190RX against the Ducati 1199 Panigale in comparisons and found it to be a solid, viable contender. Cycle World said: "If you have one molecule of national pride, now is the time to be proud that we finally produce a motorcycle like the 1190RX."

In competitive racing, EBR was holding its own against far larger, better-funded and more-experienced teams. Last year, it had established a base in Europe. And in 2013 it had partnered with India-based Hero MotoCorp, giving it access to better funding and distribution.

People like me were starting to look forward to seeing what EBR could do. True fact: The day before I learned of EBR's collapse, I was planning to write a post about how eager I was to see EBR produce the adventure-styled 1190AX. I was planning to declare: "When they make it I will buy it."

Now I won't get that chance. The bottom has fallen out.

We don't really know why. One gets the sense that it has something to do with the fact that being good at designing motorcycles doesn't inherently mean you are good at selling them. EBR bikes still needed a little bit of work -- they hadn't truly arrived in terms of aesthetics and features -- and it's difficult to get someone to fork over $20,000 for a bike that isn't perfect.


Add to this the fact the brand had not had any time to develop a personality. I mean, not too long ago I was lamenting that 17-year-old Victory lacks a true identity. EBR had been producing street bikes for less than two years.

Then there was the partnership with Hero. I think a lot of people might have misinterpreted it to think that EBR had effectively become a foreign company, or that EBR bikes were being manufactured in India. That perception wouldn't have helped. But also there's the fact that Hero is a gigantic corporation and Erik Buell doesn't seem to know how to protect himself from getting screwed over by gigantic corporations.

Americans hate a failure and a lot of the reaction I've seen to EBR's shutting its doors has been, in my opinion, unnecessarily mean-spirited. I guess some American riders would prefer we not try, rather than look silly trying to catch up. For me, I take the news with a feeling of sadness.

EBR seemed like America's best hope of producing a bike that isn't a cruiser. This is a common lament for me. I like cruisers -- I like them a lot -- but it irks me that cruisers are the only thing American businesses seem willing to manufacture. See, because I am one of those people who likes to say that America is awesome. But I'm also one of those people who doesn't like to be full of shit. And where motorcycles are concerned it is presently impossible for me to be both things at once.

Cruisers we've nailed. Harley-Davidson, Indian and Victory are unquestionably better at making a gigantic rumbling torque beast than anyone else. The fellas at Triumph definitely get it, but the Yanks are still better. Everything else, though? We don't even try. We should be kicking ass in every genre, because that's how you earn the right to go around telling everyone you're the best -- you be the best -- but we won't even throw our hat in the ring (a).

I had thought that with big corporate funding EBR was going to change things. They were able to compete in the rarefied air of supersport machines. I really believed that with a little time they'd be able to stand on top. Equally, I pictured the 1190AX as one day being good enough that Japanese manufacturers would start trying to copy it, in the way they're currently chasing after the Ducati Multistrada. Or, at least good enough to encourage Polaris to live up to its potential and produce the best adventure bike in the world.

Indeed, that was my main hope for EBR: that it would encourage America's other manufacturers to come out of their cruiser caves. Harley-Davidson isn't staffed by idiots; it could produce a standard or a sport or an ADV bike if it wanted to (Ever heard of the Nova Project?). Polaris definitely could. Hell, the Indian Scout is almost there already.

But for the time being it seems unlikely that American manufacturers will try to do such a thing. Especially when there's no home-grown competition to spur them on. And I find that upsetting.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the fate of Erik Buell. He's 65 years old now. Perhaps it's time to call it a day and retire. A few comments I've seen insist he'll bounce back, and that's certainly the suggestion made in the statement he released about EBR's closure.

"While this is a sad ending, I personally hope for a new and better beginning," he said.

But who's going to believe in Buell now? If in a year or two there were a bike with some new permutation  of Buell's name on the tank, would you have any faith in it? I wouldn't. I'd think: "No thanks. Any parts/dealer support for this bike will disappear within a few years."

So, another motorcycle manufacturers disappears in a poof of disappointment and thoughts of what might have been...



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(a) Some of you may respond to this by saying: "Chris, what about Motus?" Yeah, I've given up on them. They still haven't actually put a bike out and the bike they plan to release costs thousands and thousands of dollars more than any competitor whilst being decades behind in certain technical aspects (e.g., no ABS, traction control, electronic suspension or other features that are increasingly standard on other sport tourers). To me, they've become an embarrassing joke. Though, having said that, I would absolutely love for Motus to make me eat my words. If anyone at Motus is reading this, please, please, please make me look like an ass for criticising you and put out a truly awesome bike. If it costs what a sport tourer actually should cost, I will find a way to buy one and I will say a little apology to each and every one of you every time I press the starter.

Comments

  1. People often decry HD. I myself ride a 1200 Sportster and it's a blast but I digress. One of the big talking points that motorcycle forum denizens love to pontificate about as a means to illustrate HD's evil, evil policies was their decision to shutdown Buell. This is almost always accompanied by a praising of Erik Buell's designs and a declaration that they would love to ride/purchase an Erik Buell motorcycle, if only they had the means to do so.

    Oh how the tides have changed.

    Post-shutdown announcement, all of the major online motorcycle sites are riddled with comments by people who seem to have Nostradamus-like powers that "saw this coming a mile away". "The whole situation was inevitable", they say, "because of...", and then list a bevy of reasons why Erik's bikes weren't really that good to begin with.

    I'm not necessarily claiming that the two vastly different opinions are being espoused by the same people, I'm just saying that it's interesting to see how the mood towards EBR and Erik Buell personally seems to have shifted from adoration to denunciation in such a short amount of time.

    As an American citizen, I'd love to see an American company make a successful sport bike if for no other reason than to be able to work on it using imperial-sized socket wrenches instead of *shudder* metric ones.

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