The Buell Blast Was An Innovative Failure That Cost Harley-Davidson A Ton Of Money

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In 2000, Buell Motorcycle Company started production of a little motorcycle with big promises. The Blast was a lightweight beginner motorcycle with a few clever Buell-tricks up its sleeve. It was supposed to bring more people into motorcycling and Harley-Davidson (which owned Buell at the time), but ended up running an incredible amount over budget and ultimately maligned by riders.

Things Were Good At Harley In The 1990s

The 1990s were a bountiful time to be the Bar and Shield. Harley had spent the 1980s getting reinvigorated, and it was paying off. The company was no longer owned by American Machine and Foundry, it launched the Evolution engine, and the Wisconsin-based bike maker begged the government to stem the flow of cheap Japanese motorcycle imports. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the Memorandum on Heavyweight Motorcycle Imports and imposed a 45 percent tariff on imports with greater than 700cc capacities.

These changes, as well product development that leaned in on building new bikes that looked and felt old, helped Harley-Davidson experienced a downright roaring decade. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2002, the Motor Company spent the decade posting annual compound earnings growth of 31 percent since 1986. The Clinton White House noted that in part thanks to the tariff, Harley sold so many motorcycles that it controlled 56 percent of the large motorcycle market. (The weird thing is that, as RevZilla notes, Japan’s imports weren’t even competing with Harley. The site quotes the New York Times as having said “But, motorcycle aficionados note, most of those bikes were so-called ‘touring’ bikes that appealed to riders who were unlikely to have bought the huge, mean-looking Harleys in the first place.” ).

Harley Boss Calls For A Small Beginner Bike, Buell Gets Tapped For The Job

Anyway, then Harley-Davidson CEO Jeff Bleustein wanted to keep the good times rolling into the new Millennium. His plan was to get new people into motorcycling, then get those people on a Harley. The Motor Company would do that with the Rider’s Edge riding school, but the training course needed a small motorcycle. As reported by Cycle World, Bleustein wanted a whole lineup of inexpensive small motorcycles for the riders coming out of the riding school. But he found that Harley-Davidson itself was unable to give him the small bikes he wanted. As luck would have it, Harley did own a company that could get it done.

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Buell

Former Harley-Davidson engineer and motorcycle racer Erik Buell opened the Buell Motorcycle Company in 1983. The first Buell, the RW750, was a race-only machine intended to undercut the price of the competition while still offering high performance. It was powered by a two-stroke “square” four (and by “square” we don’t mean the bore and stroke are the same size — we mean there were literally four upright parallel cylinders) from defunct race-engine builder Barton Engineering. A rule change meant that the RW750 never got its chance to shine, but Buell learned a lesson or two and got right back into making fast motorcycles. This time, they would have surplus Harley-Davidson XR1000 engines. The RR1000 Battletwin–produced from 1987 to 1988–proved to be popular with riders. The RS1200 came next in 1989, and by 1993 Buell was in need of money. Harley-Davidson purchased 49 percent of the company. The Motor Company bought the rest of Buell in 2003.

By the time the order for the Blast came down, Buell was known for its high performance sportbikes. The company hadn’t entered the market of small displacement motorcycles. But Erik and his team were up to the challenge.

A Look At The Buell Blast

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Working with Harley Powertrain engineer Gary Stippich, Buell constructed a prototype for the new 500cc motorcycle. This motorcycle featured a Sportster engine with a cylinder lobbed off, mounted into a shortened frame of a Buell Lightning. It was crude–as these types of prototype vehicles tend to be–but it worked. The team stuck with the idea of using a Sportster engine as a base. The Evolution engine had by that time proven itself to be a reliable unit and made decent enough power.

Besides, using an existing engine as a base should save money.

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As noted by a review by Cycle World, one of the design goals for the Blast was to attract a younger buyer. Harley’s core customer wasn’t getting any younger, so Buell’s goal was to breathe youthful life into the bar and shield.

The Buell with do it with some neat tricks up its sleeve. Inexperienced riders are likely to drop their motorcycles, often causing the machine’s plastics to crack or break. They would then have to buy an expensive panel and possibly have it painted. Or, they’ll just leave their bike with a broken body. Buell’s solution for this was two-fold. The plastic pieces would be made out of Surlyn, a plastic material created by DuPont for use as golf balls. It was also used by Chrysler for the bumpers of the Plymouth/Dodge Neon. The neat thing about the material is that it was molded in color, not painted. So when a Blast owner dropped their bike not only would the plastic resist breaking, but scratches would be hidden by the fact that color goes all of the way through.

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Mercedes Streeter

Today, you can find plastic like this being used in cars like the Smart Fortwo. And yep, you could key the plastic and the damage wouldn’t look nearly as bad as a painted piece.

Buell also wanted to make the Blast easy to operate and maintain. A Gates belt runs the final drive, meaning the Blast owner never needs to lubricate or adjust a chain. And they don’t have to worry about the complexity of a shaft-driven system, either. Adding to the ease of operation is an automatic choke for the carburetor, something that was a bit more novel back then. Instead of having to pull a choke knob you just let the engine sort itself out. This is more common today, where if you buy a carbureted scooter you’ll likely find an electronic automatic choke. The Blast even simplified suspension. There’s a 37mm Showa fork and a Showa compression shock out back. And unlike many motorcycles you can’t adjust them at all. Again, this was meant to make motorcycle ownership less stressful.

The Blast Is Nice To Ride, But Slow And Shaky

And the Blast is easy to ride, too, of course!

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Mercedes Streeter

I owned a Blast for a short time during the summer of 2018 and found it such a nice commuter bike that I have the itch to buy another, four years later. The transmission’s shift lever was light and precise. There was no guessing which gear you were in. The clutch lever was similarly light. And the riding position–at least for my 5-foot, 6-inch frame–split the difference between a standard and a sportbike. The seating position was great for riding at hours on end, but the cushion itself wasn’t that comfortable to be on for more than a few hours at a time.

The Blast was designed for as many people to ride as possible–it was a training bike, after all–and for me, it was one of the few of my more than 20 motorcycles that I could flat-foot both feet at a stop. And just because it was a cheaper Buell doesn’t mean that it missed out on Buell’s quirks. The Blast still had Buell’s floating brakes, and they, along with the final drive pulley, bolted right into the wheels.

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Mercedes Streeter

This simpler design was also a form of Buell cost-cutting. A lot of the motorcycle was designed so that one part could perform duties normally done by multiple parts. Another example of this is the swingarm, which not only supported the rear but also held the engine’s oil.

At a price of $4,395 , the bike was cheaper than even the cheapest Sportster by more than $1,000.

Despite being Buell’s smallest motorcycle, it would actually be the marque’s largest project. That Sportster-sliced-in-half engine has a 492cc displacement and makes 34 horsepower. It’s connected to a transmission using the gears from the sporty Buell X1 Lightning. And the case of the engine was designed using finite-element analysis, a computerized process that predicts how something can react to the stresses of the environment it’ll be operating in. (This is used on all modern vehicles to understand loading).

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You’d think slicing an engine in half would be cheap–after all, that was the goal of the Blast–but as Cycle World reported, the engine came 80 percent over budget. And worse, the expensive engine was hundreds of dollars more than the more advanced engines from Rotax. The Blast became Buell’s most expensive project just for the end result to get mocked by all kinds of riders.

And the Blast would become known for having some reliability problems such as an exhaust that shook itself apart. The Blast had engine mounts that reduced vibration, but in my experience it still vibrated significantly more than the Sportster its single was birthed from. Look at a used Blast and you’ll often find that the factory exhaust shears itself off at the header due to vibration. This is why so many secondhand Blasts have complete custom exhausts.

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Mercedes Streeter

They also have a tendency to chew through rear tires about twice as fast as the typical 250cc motorcycle. Harley-Davidson told me that this is because at lower RPM the engine will actually cause the rear tire to skip. If you ride it at a high RPM all of the time the rear tire should last longer.

And mine developed a problem where second gear didn’t work anymore, necessitating that I shifted from first to third.

My Blast lived up to the expectation of being slow. That chunky single cylinder thumper sounded like the hellspawn of a dirt bike and a Harley. At best, I got the 360-lb machine to go 95 mph with me fully tucked. A 250cc motorcycle built in the same era could go faster.

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Mercedes Streeter

In fact, the Kawasaki Ninja 250 could be had for a similar price and despite about half of the engine displacement it made two more horsepower and had a higher top speed.

Still, I think the Blast had far more character than the competition. Sure, it was slow, it vibrated your fillings (and its own exhaust) out, and any large rider looked like a circus bear on it. But you got a motorcycle that looked, sounded, and rode like nothing else in its class. Sadly, the Blast could never outrun its own unpopularity.

Erik Buell Didn’t Think The Buell Fit His Brand. But I Dig The Little Bike

To show you how much Buell founder and namesake Erik himself felt the Blast didn’t really fit his company’s goals, the very last ones weren’t functional motorcycles, but Blasts crushed into cubes and personally signed by the man himself.

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In 2009, he launched a humorous website for the occasion, noting:

“The Buell Blast was a cute little motorcycle. It just never made much of a sportbike. But, as luck would have it, it makes a killer ottoman. Or end table. Or art piece. Through an innovative process known as crushing, we’ve turned a limited number of Blasts into colorful metal cubes, each numbered and signed by Erik Buell himself. Hey, there’s no denying the Blast’s aforementioned cuteness. But there’s nothing cute about racing or riding a sportbike the way it was meant to be ridden.”

The last of the new bikes meeting the business end of a crusher is a sad, but probably fitting end. Buell was able to sell 22,785 Blasts, but the damage was already done. The company’s beginner bike was innovative, but a massive failure that may have tarnished Buell Motorcycle Company’s image. Not long after, Harley-Davidson killed off Buell entirely. Then new Harley CEO Keith Wandell hadn’t even ridden a Harley-Davidson before taking control of the company. Worse, he openly wondered why anyone would bother to ride a sportbike.

In the present day I’ve found Blasts with under 1,000 miles selling for as low as $1,000. That’s how unpopular and forgotten that these bikes are. But I think that they deserve a chance in your stable. Don’t get one if you’re expecting to win races. But if you’re looking for a cheap grocery getter or commuter I think you’d be satisfied with the little Blast.

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37 Responses

  1. They also only really catered to one spectrum of rider. Sport bike markets already shunned Harley and Buell to an extent, so not making a cafe style and a sprint style standard that used that extra space where the second lung should be to lower the seat dramatically was a major flaw in the HD thinking.

    1. I was looking at these at one point as a starter bike since I’m short. I read a review that said if you left it idling it would sometimes shake itself off of it’s kickstand. That was when I started looking for other options.

  2. I had an XB12 Super TT for a couple of years, and have mixed feelings about it. I never quite trusted it, as it liked to drop itself into limp mode randomly. I did everything I could to improve the cooling (oil cooler fans, extra side scoop, upgraded ventilation fan…) and it still hated Oklahoma summers.

    I always wanted one of the Rotax-powered ones that came after, though. Those looked great.

    1. Those bikes were da bomb. I was so intrigued, and loved the supermoto race bike styling. So unique and cool.

      But I eventually decided on a Suzuki, and have to say, I’m glad I did…everything is so straightforward, parts are effortlessly easy to acquire, she’s been a joy. Whereas I kinda feel if I’d bought a Lightning, I’d be spending more time fixing than riding it.

  3. Buell was such an innovative engineer that was so handcuffed. Imagine if the Blast had a small modern twin. Given the final cost of the half-a-sporty, it likely could have been developed for similar $. This would have been a better lead-in to getting new riders into their larger bikes.

      1. I think (this could just be hearsay) that Harley wanted to keep this as in-house as possible and thus the engine choice, using very few new parts for the engine. Rotax engines happened a couple years later, when Buell and Harley distanced themselves from one another a bit more than at this time, which was still, relatively speaking, a honeymoon period.

  4. Marketing: ‘ We need a starter bike Harley and it must be cheap.’
    Management: ‘Use half a Harley engine to save costs.’
    Engineering: ‘That’s a terrible idea, it will be shaky, slow, and uncompetitive.’
    Management: ‘We already sold the idea, make it work’.
    Sales: ‘Everyone hates it. It’s shaky, slow, and uncompetitive.’
    Management: ‘What a terrible engineering job.’

  5. I remember loving that an old Windows Phone (RIP) I had, a Nokia I believe, was molded plastic in the same color like mentioned for this bike. I didn’t need a case because if I dropped it, I literally just grabbed some sandpaper and smoothed out the roughed edges and you could barely tell. It was fantastic.

  6. The Buell Be-Last
    A buddy of mine bought one new. The tail lights stopped working on the ride home and again right in the middle of his license test. He took off work to take the motorcycle test on the one day of the week that the local DMV offered it. When the lights went out, he was told to come back in 3 weeks. I think he owned that bike for about 2 months.

  7. I remember the Blast as interesting and Buell’s 1200 twi s provided an excellent lesson in turning since they made 30% more power than a Sportster just by having large volume airboxes and mufflers.
    The Blast would have worked much better with Rotax, and a 650 option. Ducati did a much better job with the Super Mono that used an 888 engine with a balance weight in place of the rear cylinder.
    Offhand the only “half a twin” that was really successful was the old BMW R27 that was basically an R50/2 with one cylinder set vertically. It helped that it was only 250cc and designed and marketed as a daily rider rather than a sportbike.
    Buell was always interesting in design even when execution failed. As a side note, Erik Buell and dirt track racer Mert Lawwill designed Schwinn’s pre-2000 mountain bike suspension.

  8. It seems that whenever Harley wants to get into the market for younger riders, they get across a small bump on the road, then abandon the idea altogether and double down on their aging demographic.

  9. “By the time the order for the Blast came down, Buell was known for its high performance sportbikes.”

    Nobody except for a Harley rider would describe the air-cooled Buells as high performance. Fun bikes but the Japanese or European competition would run away from them.

  10. It was and is an interesting beginner bike, while I’ve ridden 100s of bikes as a professional motorcycle mechanic, I’ve never got a chance on one of these, which I regret.

    A couple of technical corrections:

    “There’s a 37mm Showa fork and a Showa compression shock out back. And unlike many motorcycles you can’t adjust them at all.”

    This wasn’t atypical simplification for the time; apart from bikes designed for some sort of racing (sports bikes, mx, etc.), non-adjustable suspension was typical at the time, and is still defacto for Harleys.

    “The Blast still had Buell’s floating brakes, and they, along with the final drive pulley, bolted right into the wheels.”

    While the ZTL brakes were innovative, brakes and drive pulleys (for those that had drive pulleys) that bolted directly to the wheel weren’t innovative, those two things are standard, as a belt takes up a certain amount of drivetrain slack, if you will, eliminating the need for a cushion drive like would be used in many other chain drive applications. Also, the pulley bolted directly to the wheel is typical bar and shield, again.

  11. Mercedes, your excellent writing here did the trick – after I got home from work tonight, I geared up and went for a ride. And I bet I’m not the only one here.

    Where I live (mid-Atlantic), the weather is definitely heading fast to peak nasty summer. Even with my summer stuff (I’m ATGATT), it just gets too hot to be anywhere near comfortable/non-heat stroke-y most of the time.

    But not quite yet…so please keep inspiring us with more of your wonderful motorcycle pieces!

  12. I can possibly see an attachment to these from a fogged nostalgia perspective, but that’s it.
    I only had the chance to ride one once and it had nothing going for it.
    Performance wise I think it would have been mid-pack or worse even in the 1970’s commuter bike segment.
    H-D didn’t get it, Buell couldn’t get it and people who bought the hype soon wished they hadn’t.

    Harley Davidson actually did better eventually with Street 500 and 750, but that’s not a great yard stick either, another chapter maybe.

  13. Buell produced some innovative and quirky cycles. Some were great, some not so much. My prespective is that they were often held back by Harley and they management / bean counters.

    But this was also following the time when Harley was getting rich selling relics. They were better relics than what they made during their AMF days- the evolution engines were a big step forward. But Harley’s buyers wanted relics. And would pay for them.

    When I finished grad school I bought myself an 883 sportster as a graduation gift. From me to me. I remember my first ride: slow, vibrated, but “it wasa Harley”. Kept it several years, put on 1200 jugs, but finally sold it when I wanted more: power and comfort. Harley didn’t have an answer for me.

  14. About 15 years ago, I was browsing a motorcycling forum, thinking about getting myself a starter bike. I found a thread where another beginner asked about getting a Blast, and the first response was, “I’d rather have the clap than a Buell Blast.”

  15. I appreciate this article…

    …even if the extent of my riding was buying a $400 1980 Yamaha SR250 40 miles home on the back roads (and, dangerously, a bit through main street) with just a learner’s permit. Sure, the gas tank need a cleaning, the petcock leaked, and the tires were past their best-by date. The owner actually taught me how to operate the manual transmission and I managed to make it home without laying down the bike or killing it.

    It was an experience and a hell of a lot of fun, but as a father now, with two kids, I can’t help but shake my head at how dumb 25 year old me was. At least I wore a helmet and gloves.

  16. First off caption on the pic. Money Pit. What motorcycle isnt a money pit? You ride it too much over 10k a year and parts get worn out. you ride it too little the rubber and plastic parts break down and fail, batteries stop working oh and the most dreaded thing gummed up carburetors.
    My brother had a Blast. I had the Ninja 250. I preferred the 250 easier to ride less noise. We knew then end of the buell was near in the late 2000s when my brother took it to get serviced for an oil change. The Harley Dealership refused. Not sure if its because it was a Buell Blast or if it was because he bought the bike 3rd party. That HD dealership closed up a year or two later, good riddance.

    1. Yeah, my experiences with HD dealers were similar – I had to find a fairly far away one that sold Buells, as the local one wouldn’t touch it.

      And then that one took down the big blue Buell sign outside…so I went in to check and “sorry, we don’t service them anymore.”

      Fortunately, I’d found a good local independent by that time.

      (Those Ninjas are great bikes for sure though)

  17. I’ve had a few of these. The exhaust broke because the front motor mount bolts fell out. They are hard to see, you have to remove the tank. The right side has a spacer and that will be gone, too.
    That automatic choke used a wax pellet heated electrically. It got really hot and ethanol fuel gummed up the carburetor. Actually an enrichener, it could be converted to cable operation.

  18. I had a Suzuki GS500 racebike. Same design intent at the blast. 38HP stock , mine was 47HP, bored 1MM, with a pipe. No idea how many miles was on it when I bought it or sold it. No idea how many times it had been crashed. It had a switch instead of a key. It loved front brake pads. Changed the oil every weekend. I had it dynoed and it got new intake manifold boots, and a carb rebuild. It had been run so long at high RPM the needles were heavily worn and it ran rich. It also got a new balance shaft after that. Every shift other than in the pits was at 10K RPM.

    Nothing ever fell off, always started, always ran.

  19. Great piece, and I didn’t know that about the Lighting-derivation frame – cool!

    As I mentioned yesterday, I was sad when Erik Buell dismissed the Blast so easily, instead of lauding it more for what it was – a great attempt to make what you have available work but with a good dash of style and innovation. Almost Lotus-like maybe.

    And esp. when you look at what EBR produced afterward, supposedly free to make its platonic ideal motorcycles. They were fast, cool, unique…and about 3x as expensive as bikes that would perform better with less work.

    (though Danny Eslick did win a AMA Road Racing championship on an 1190RS)

    1. EBRs were selling for $17k-$19k when they were new. What bike could you get new for $6k at that time that would perform better? If you are referring to the early 1190RS then I agree but that was just a limited run of 100 at $40k. Once the RX and SX launched they were price competitive. I’m glad you mentioned Eslick. One of the best road racing battles is between him and Blake Young on a GSXR1000 in 2012. Everyone reading this comment should watch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FRE_HZnI9c&ab_channel=xristoseamb

      I scored a great deal on a 1190sx at the liquidation auction so Im into one for way less but its still a very capable bike. 200hp (crank) after an exhaust and ecu with over 100ft lbs of torque. The handling is great. Some of the high end bikes are past it in power now but its still very competitive.

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