Note: A previous version of this story mis-identified this machine as an EBR, not Buell.
Back when I started reading motorcycle magazines, I remember plenty of chatter about the Great American Sportbike. American riders were unhappy that they couldn’t buy a domestically-built superbike. For years, the closest thing was a Buell powered by Harley-Davidson. Those bikes were fun, but they weren’t high-revving, and there were always complaints about quality.
And then, in 2009, Harley-Davidson axed its Buell subsidiary; in the coming months, we got the new, independent Erik Buell Racing. EBR reportedly sold the 1125R superbike for track-only use, at least in the US market. It was followed by the 1190 platform, the updated Rotax engine that EBR still uses today.
Despite its Rotax engine, the 1125R actually came into the Buell lineup while it was still part of the Harley-Davidson empire.
Thinking outside the box
For decades, Erik Buell had a reputation for building bikes with outside-the-box engineering. He’d worked with Harley-Davidson in the early 1980s, then went into business for himself, building sporty bikes based around Harley’s engines. Eventually the MoCo brought him back, and Buell Motorcycles became part of the Harley-Davidson empire. The idea was, cruiser riders would saunter into a dealership and buy a Harley-Davidson; sportbike riders would hobble in (their lower back still aching from a day’s ride on their latest made-in-Japan 600) and buy an US-made Buell sportbike, built for American-sized riders.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Many Harley-Davidson dealers hated the Buell brand, and even Buell fans admitted the bikes would be much better if powered by more modern engines. Read magazine reviews of the Harley-powered Buells in the ’90s and early ’00s, and the writers inevitably talk about how stodgy the V-twin engines are, when compared to triples or inline fours from Europe and Japan (many owners were perfectly happy with them, though!).
So, when Buell started building superbikes with liquid-cooled engines from Rotax, surely everything would be better? Buell’s chassis design mixed with a modern 72-degree V-twin, with claimed max output of 146 horsepower at 9,800 rpm (82 pound-feet of torque at 8,000 rpm)—what could go wrong?
Alas, stuff still went wrong—most notably, Buell was shut down, and then EBR just didn’t sell enough of these bikes.
The triple-counterbalanced Helicon V-twin engine (with slipper clutch and belt final drive) was different, but not tooooo far away from standard superbike formulas. The fuel-in-frame design was definitely different, though. Same for the ZTL brakes, which used a perimeter brake rotor system instead of a smaller-diameter dual brake disc (with the intention of creating Zero Torsional Load and lightening the hub and spokes). The ZTL brakes used an eight-piston caliper, and the disc was actually mounted to the rim itself.
The 1125R was mostly aimed towards one main goal: Mass centralization, for improved handling.
The right formula goes wrong
It kind of worked. Most reviewers thought the 1125R was an improvement over previous Buell models. The engine was better than the air-cooled V-twins. But, contemporary magazine tests generally agreed: The 1125R just wasn’t as good as the competition. In particular, reviewers disliked those ZTL brakes. As Erik Buell refined his designs over the years, the reviews got better and better, but there was one big problem: EBR’s bikes lacked electronics.
These days, traction control/wheelie control/leaning ABS/adjustable engine braking/etc. is standard superbike equipment. Manufacturers can pretty much order that tech off the shelf, but they’ve still got to make it work with their bike. In the early 2010s, this electro-trickery was rare. Aprilia broke the ice, followed by the other Euro OEMs and the Japanese manufacturers. Buell, and then EBR, didn’t have any of this tech.
Could Erik Buell have adapted to the change, and moved towards increased electronic safety gadgetry? If Harley-Davidson had kept the brand going, certainly; we see this tech on H-Ds now. Could EBR have done the same? We never found out, because in 2015, Erik Buell Racing went out of business as it started to go down this road. After months of backroom drama between potential buyers, Bill Melvin bought the company. These days, Buell is back in business, manufacturing hand-built machines that you can still buy.
The trouble is, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Many riders are turned off by the drama that’s surrounded the Buell brand over the years, and they’re wary of buying one for that reason. Without a massive demand, what motivation is there for Buell to build a new cutting-edge superbike? What motivation is there for the competition to make their own US-built sportbike, if customers are shying away? The reality is, the 1125R and subsequent Buell-branded superbikes have made it harder for American competitors.
Still, Buell has plenty of fans. If you want an American-built sportbike, you could head to Toronto (Americans can travel to Canada now, remember) and buy this 1125R from 2009. There’s a long list of upgrades in the autoTRADER ad, including:
– Harley harness fix removed
– Oberon clutch slave cylinder upgrade
– Heated handgrips
– PIAA Extreme White headlights
– Corbin seat
– Clear LED tail light
– Buell Firebolt passenger touring seat
– Buell Deluxe tank bag ( Perfectly usable, but after 10 years of use, is showing its age )
– Cortech Sport saddlebags
– Motomaster 2A trickle charger
– Mroinge SAE plugin USB charger
– Buell XXL heavy leather riding jacket ( never used )
– Buell XXL light riding jacket ( never used )