Erik Buell’s first foray into motorcycle manufacturing came as much by accident as by design. When Barton Engineering, a manufacturer of racing motorcycles based in Pontrug, Wales, went bankrupt, Buell struck a deal to buy their inventory and tooling. Initially, this was to ensure a supply of spares for his own Barton, but later, Buell sensed an opportunity to build a modified variant, under his own name, for AMA Formula One competition. Just two Buell RW750s (RW denoting Road Warrior) were built, including Erik’s prototype, and on October 6 the 1984 Buell RW750 delivered to the American Machinists Union Racing Team will cross the block at the Bonhams Barber Motorsports Museum sale, taking place in Leeds, Alabama.
Buell’s two-wheel racing career began during his childhood in Pennsylvania, where he rode dirt bikes in motocross competition. His first street-legal transportation was a 90cc Parilla moped, but this was soon replaced by a basket-cast ’57 Harley-Davidson Panhead, which Buell rebuilt and returned to the road (explaining, perhaps, his lifelong affinity for Harley-Davidson motorcycles). Road racing came next, but by then Buell was in his 20s, working as a motorcycle mechanic by day and attending engineering classes at the University of Pittsburgh in the evening.
Buell graduated in 1979, reportedly turning down local job offers to seek employment with Harley-Davidson. Flying to Milwaukee at his own expense, Buell — as he explained to the American Motorcycle Association Museum — “beat my way in the door,” landing a job with Harley-Davidson as a chassis engineer.
His background as a road racer gave Buell a sense for how to fine-tune a bike to improve handling, while his newly minted engineering degree gave him familiarity with the latest electronic instrumentation and testing methods. By all accounts, Buell made a significant contribution towards improving the handling of Harley-Davidson’s motorcycles, most notably the FXR series, which debuted in 1982.
While at the Motor Company, Buell campaigned an XR1000-powered Harley-Davidson in the Battle of the Twins series but wanted more seat time as a racer. During the early 1980s, Harley-Davidson was losing market share to competitors from Japan and Europe, which left Buell hesitant to campaign a Yamaha, Honda, or Ducati (relief for Harley-Davidson, in the form of tariffs on large-displacement imported motorcycles, wouldn’t arrive until 1983). When he learned about the UK’s Barton Engineering, he wasted no time in ordering a Barton 750 to race in AMA’s Formula One class.
As Buell soon learned, the Barton was a work in progress, unsuitable for competition in its as-delivered form. The company’s two-stroke, square-four Phoenix 750cc engine made plenty of power (163.5-hp and 83.6 lb-ft of torque), but at the expense of reliability. The chassis proved incapable of handling the engine’s output, so Buell designed a frame of his own and did what he could to increase reliability of the high-strung powerplant. With the changes, the Phoenix 750 was essentially a new bike, prompting Buell to adopt the Road Warrior name.
Circa 1982, Buell learned that Barton had entered insolvency. With so much development time spent on his own example, he bid on the parts and tooling to ensure a reliable supply of spares, and not — at first — with any thoughts of building RW750s for a living. Even in its improved state, the bike was a handful, and as Buell described it to the AMA:
There were places in the powerband where it would pick up 40 horsepower in 500 rpm! You couldn’t ride it. The only way to ride it was to ride it around the corner completely out of the powerband, get it completely straightened out, turn on the thing and have it wheelie. Or, you had to ride it with the wheel spinning, because you couldn’t deal with it coming on the pipe in the corner — it would just crash. The bike was incredibly hard to ride. The power was like a light switch. This thing was a monster. It was terrifying to ride.
Despite its shortcomings, the RW750 was fast, with Buell recording a top speed of 178 mph during testing at Talladega. About the time he was getting his own RW750 dialed in, a perfect storm was brewing in the AMA Formula One class: The out-of-production Yamaha TZ was becoming scarce, and Honda’s offering for the class carried a price tag of $30,000. Buell did the math: with what he’d paid for the Barton parts and tooling, he could offer turnkey RW750 race bikes for about $16,000 and still turn a reasonable profit.
Believing he could make a go of it on his own, Buell resigned from Harley-Davidson and founded the Buell Motorcycle company, with the RW750 as its first commercial offering. One example, the bike to be sold in Alabama next month, was completed and delivered before the AMA changed its competition classes ahead of the 1986 season, eliminating Formula One and replacing it with Superbike. Unlike Formula One, which allowed exotic and purpose-built racing motorcycles, Superbike was a production-based class, lowering the cost to participate and helping manufacturers to promote the same models found in dealer showrooms.
With the sudden rule change, Buell found himself unemployed and without a market to sell the sole bike his company produced. On a positive note, the entrepreneur now had a better understanding of the mechanics behind building motorcycles, coupled with a Rolodex full of contacts. Once again, Buell turned to Harley-Davidson, striking a deal to purchase its 50 remaining XR1000 engines on credit. These went into a chassis of his own design (featuring his Uniplanar rubber mounting system to smooth vibrations), clad with aerodynamic fiberglass body panels, to create the RR1000 Battletwin. Variations of this design, with newer Harley-Davidson engines, would carry the company into the 1990s, establishing Buell as a legitimate — if small — American motorcycle brand.
The restored RW750 to be offered in Alabama represents Buell’s first production motorcycle, and Bonhams is predicting a selling price between $90,000 and $120,000. For more on the Barber Motorsports Museum sale, visit Bonhams.com.