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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.