Buell RW 750
Road Warrior. A 2-stroke square four originally designed by Barton in North
Wales, but with the engine and chassis redeveloped by Buell to create a pure
race bike for use in the AMA F1 Class ... just before they abandoned it for
Just what the heck is a Buell RR1000 anyway?
The year is 1985. A young ambitious engineer has recently quit
a nice job at Harley Davidson to launch a company building AMA formula 750 race
bikes. He mortgages the house and hocks everything he has to produce the first
one. Cycle Magazine does a major feature on the bike, all the other bike
magazines run nice pieces on it. He is off and running.
Then the AMA drops the class. Overnight there
is no market for these bikes. The engineer goes broke. And therein hangs a tale.
The engineer was of course Erik Buell and the
bike was the RW750. A wicked siren of a bike it has its own tale but this
is not the place for that.
The magazine stories on the RW750 caught the
eye of Rex Marsee. He had the commission to come up with a motorcycle
celebrating 100 years of American Motorcycling for the Great American
Motorcycle Show. He asked Erik for a street version of the RW750 to
represented the latest in American motorcycle design.
Erik had two reasons for talking Marsee out of
The one he used was that it was a pure race
bike impossible to translate to the street. He argued that he could design a
bike that was just as wild using the Harley XR-1000 engine. This bike would be
street legal and for sale to the public. Marsee bought it.
The second, the one he did not mention to
Marsee, was that he had been in contact with the Harley Owners Group about
designing a replacement for the aging Lucifer’s Hammer. This was Harley’s
championship Battle of the Twins race bike. It had plenty of power but the
superior handling of the Ducati’s was making it tougher to win races.
If he could combine the two jobs, essentially
designing one bike for two uses he might actually make the whole deal work.
Behind the whole deal was Erik’s belief that
if he could get a prototype and a race bike done he could talk HD into selling
him the 50 XR-1000 engines gathering dust in the Parts and Accessories
warehouse. Then all he had to do was build and sell 50 bikes.
Lets pause here and think about what this
meant. Not only was this flat broke unemployed individual going to a talk HD
into supplying him engines and other parts (on credit no less) he was going to
go into series production with the resulting bike. This would make him the first
American to start a street motorcycle manufacturing company since the 1920’s. Of
all the companies started before that only one was left standing (staggering
might be a more appropriate term) in 1985 and that was HD. And the bike would
need to meet ALL Federal noise, smog and safety regulations. (The book these
regs are in is 6 inches thick.) Long odds indeed.
But before he got to the hard part he had to
tackle the easy task (said with tongue firmly in cheek) and design a bike.
Erik’s idea was, typically for him, ambitious. An XR motor in flashy bodywork
would have made Marsee happy. A bike fast enough to beat the Ducati’s, this is
before Ducati started notching up world championships remember, would have
satisfied HOG. None of this was good enough for Erik Buell.
This was going to be an American superbike.
Superbikes of the time were big 750cc 4 cylinder Japanese street bikes. Brutally
fast with powerful engines their street bike origins were revealed by suspect
handling, extra weight and size. These things were large. The also ran in the
premier AMA racing class and competed in the world’s most celebrated race the
Daytona 200. To Erik a superbike needed to compete with these bikes, not just
Ducati’s, BMW’s and Moto Guzzi’s. That is what Erik set out to do, build a bike
that could win the Daytona 200.
Erik had at his disposal a heavy engine that
didn’t make nearly enough power. It was large and shook like a paint mixer. Erik
of course saw the positives; you could get pretty good power out of it with some
work, it made a whole lot of torque with a wide powerband, it was relatively
short for a V-twin, it had a lot of possible dealers, and most importantly he
could get 50 so it would qualify as a production bike by AMA standards and most
brilliantly it only shook in one plane.
With access to a high speed cad package Erik
entered the engines dimensions, drew a wire frame of a chassis, modeled the
stresses and …wait, wait, I must have fallen asleep and been dreaming. Erik had
a Mac Plus and a dot matrix printer. He had to figure this stuff out in his
head. Erik’s cad package consisted of setting an engine on a workbench, tacking
a couple of tubes around it and than staring at it for hours. Literally. You
would find Erik out in his garage staring a pile of tubing and an XR motor. He
wouldn’t move for 20 minutes, then he would shift a tube and stare some more.
You could ask him a direct question and he would not hear you, or he would
answer ten minutes after the question was asked.
Truth be told Erik’s head was packed with data
from the testing he had done on the FXR chassis package. His knowledge of
motorcycle chassis behavior would rival anyone’s in the world. And he had a
little help. H-D provided computer time to do calculations. He was able to model
different tube materials and do some stress analysis. Mostly this just confirmed
that Erik was right.
The frame he came up with is not much
different than the one in use on Buell’s today. Sure the high tech stress
analysis stuff and 3 dimensional modeling have resulted in a frame that is a
little cheaper to produce with some improvements to serviceability and rider
comfort but in terms of stiffness to weight; 5 will get you 10 that the original
The key to the whole package was the Uniplaner
® mounting system. (I am attached to that name as it was one of the better ideas
that came out frequent late night phone calls with Erik. Not that I had anything
to do with dreaming it up, that was all Erik, I just agreed it was a good idea
and encouraged him to use it.) Using it made the bike light enough to be
competitive and the chassis stiff enough to make the handling work properly
without beating the crap out of the rider. (You need to remember that back in
1985 it was still widely believed that a really stiff chassis was a bad thing.
We have since gone through a stiffer is better phase with GP bikes finally
reaching the point that they really did get too stiff . But we can talk about
that over a beer some night.)
Then the bodywork was developed. Maximum top
speed and fuel economy were the goals. A really good understanding of
aerodynamics plus access to some Caltech wind tunnel research lead to the huge
body work. Every detail of the flow was attended to. A 5’10" rider is needed to
complete the package. Airflow over the riders back and legs keeps the boundary
layer intact from the point of first penetration to the end of the tail. It is
still the slipperiest production motorcycle ever produced.
The result was the RR1000. A tiny bike the
wheel base is only 53.5 inches with a very steep 25 degree steering head angle
and only 4.6 inches of trail. The wheels are 16" with dual 320 mm rotors in the
front. The maximum lean angle is 55 degrees with a dry weight of only 395 pounds
(the engine weighed 200 pounds!). The dimensions are much closer to contemporary
GP numbers than the superbikes of the time. The bike proved to be a superb
handler and the aerodynamics were spot on.
The looks attracted crowds at the bike shows
and when Don Tilley and Gene Church arrived at Daytona it was hugely fast.
Unfortunately the bike was not ready for the early practice sessions and Church
only got a few laps in never really nailing a full fast lap. This would prove
the end of his career. When race day arrived the bike was ready and Church was
pumped. It jumped out to a huge lead on lap one, it’s 178 mph through the speed
trap pretty much put all the Ducati’s on the trailer (hell that number was as
fast as the superbikes ran just a few years ago) but when Church hit his brake
marker for turn one he was going about 30 mph faster than the old Lucifer’s
Hammer had ever gone. Tucked in behind the big windscreen there is little wind
noise and his perception of how fast he was going was way, way wrong. To
compound his problems as turn one blasted toward him the gearbox, a very trick,
one-off, close-ratio 5 speed, picked that moment to do it's favorite trick, a
false neutral. Church never had a chance. He slammed into the hay bales
somersaulting the bike and badly breaking his wrist. The chassis was so strong
that it was undamaged.
Church would make a return to racing in June
Road America but crashed again re-injuring the wrist. He retired. Tilley did
not have a back up rider and was not real interested in racing without Church.
While all this was going on Erik had been
smuggled on board the annual H-D dealer cruise and taken orders for 25 bikes. He
talked H-D into extending him credit and supplying him with all the XR motors
left on as needed basis. Bikes began rolling out the doors of the shop in
Mukwonago at a rate of about two a month.
Unfortunately most of them were snapped up by
collectors. Only a handful ever raced. A bike in New Zealand won the BEARS
championship there in 1989, one in Japan won some races there, while the London
based H-D dealer John Warr campaigned one in Europe with some success. Here in
the US Clark Ohstrom ran one in C.C.S races, winning several and eventually
taking third in the 1990 championship. That year Scott Zampach won that
championship, run at Road Atlanta, so easily that the AMA changed the rules
effectively outlawing the bike.
While the bike never really got a fair shot at
the race track and never even entered the Daytona 200, the race that Erik
dreamed about, they did show that they had the ability to run with some of the
fastest bikes in the world.