Considering Harley-Davidson controls more than 50 percent of the U.S. market for motorcycles with engines of greater than 600 cc, I think Belfer is wise to follow the same strategy. There seems to be a consensus amongst the keyboard quarterbacks that too much focus on racing is the thing in particular that “distracted” EBR into failure.
Erik Buell has always loved racing, considerably more than the overwhelming majority of American motorcyclists. The feeling is that his dedication to the former resulted in his being unable to deliver a desirable product to the latter.
In a July interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Buell effectively denies this, saying that racing “didn’t cut too deeply” into EBR’s revenue. Which, of course, means that it did. If it was cutting into EBR’s revenue at all, and EBR’s revenue was such that the company found itself being walloped more by than $20 million in liabilities, it was inherently cutting too deep.
Lest there be too much grey for you in that statement, Belfer clarifies his position by saying: “A racing program is one of the most expensive things a company can undertake, and I will not sacrifice the core business for a racing program… [Racing] is a huge part of the brand. But for me it has to be about business. For EBR and its employees, it has to be about business.”
Superbike racing is pretty niche in the United States. By extension, so, too, are supersport motorcycles. EBR’s opening shots at the motorcycling market were via the supersport 1190RS and 1190RX. In their very existence, these bikes asked the question: Is there room in the market for another expensive supersport that is as good but not significantly better than existing supersports?
In the United States the answer to that question was (and, I suspect, always will be) “no.” Arguably, you’ll get the same answer on a global scale. Name one company on the planet that is successfully staying afloat selling only sport bikes. EBR eventually produced the 1190SX but I think that came too late.
So, Belfer’s strategy of focusing on the core is, in my opinion, a good one. The question from there is: who is the core?
If Belfer (rightly) believes there is no need for another cruiser company, if he believes, as Victory Motorcycles Head of External Relations Robert Pandya told me in an interview a few months ago, that “there are spaces where American bikes are not currently present,” and that some of these spaces can be successfully filled, who does Belfer think he’ll be selling to?
It won’t be the same “core” that Harley-Davidson are chasing. It won’t be the too-small-to-be-relevant core of American superbike enthusiasts. Look to interviews Belfer has given and he’s admittedly somewhat vague on defining the core, but he offers a few hints on who he thinks it is.
At one point in his Motorcycle.com interview he says the reborn EBR’s first order of business will be “to reward the faithful.” At another point in the interview he lets slip this fact: “I originally tried to reach out to Erik Buell when the Harley situation came apart for him, being a lifetime fan.”
Belfer is the faithful.
So, who is the core? People like Belfer. And from what I can pick up, Belfer is one of those folks who didn’t so much love EBR as admire it because of what it had come from: Buell Motorcycle Company. Indeed, check out the EBR Facebook page or pay close attention to internet comments from EBR fans and you’ll note that a whole lot of them don’t actually own EBR bikes. They have Buell machines.
So, I sense that the EBR that Belfer wants to build is the Buell Motorcycle Co. that he believes could have been had Harley-Davidson not derailed the whole thing with its lack of faith. Buell Motorcycle Co. made sportbikes, yes, but it also produced naked/standard motorcycles, the infamous Buell Blast, and the ahead-of-its-time adventure-sport Ulysses model.
In a broader sense, then, the core that Belfer is hoping to reach is also someone like me: someone who wants an American-made motorcycle that isn’t a cruiser and that isn’t hyper-niche/hyper-expensive. I want a motorcycle that isn’t painful to sit on for more than 45 minutes, a motorcycle that isn’t ridiculously low to the ground, and a motorcycle that can be put to use in a number of different scenarios. I want an American motorcycle that is like so many other motorcycles made by BMW, Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Moto Guzzi, Suzuki, Triumph, and Yamaha.
Cynics might say that this core rider doesn’t exist in great enough numbers. If it did, why did Buell Motorcycle Co. tank? Why did Harley-Davidson lose faith in it and drop it like a burrito filled with pubic hair?
Well, firstly, I think Harley-Davidson was too focused on its own core to be able to see any other kind of rider. But, I also go back to a post I wrote a while back that everyone totally misinterpreted, in which I suggested that for many years Harley-Davidson skewed the motorcycling landscape. They defined what an American motorcycle was and, by extension, what it was supposed to be.
But you will notice that in the last few years Harley-Davidson has been changing far more rapidly than it had in the decades before. Why? Why are they changing and why would Buell Motorcycle Co. now succeed?
Simplifying things somewhat, the answer comes in the pervasiveness of the internet. Specifically the fact that social media is everywhere. In the short time since Buell Motorcycle Co. was scrapped social media has spread beyond the phones of college kids into everyone’s lives everywhere. And in so doing, it has given everyone a voice.
Meanwhile, motorcycle publications have all but left store shelves and now reside primarily on the internet. There is no hardcopy version of RideApart or Bike EXIF, for example. And by existing in such a fluid and vocal space these publications have discovered that there are a lot more motorcyclists –– and potential motorcyclists –– out there than we thought who want something other than a cruiser, who don’t think certain technologies (e.g., anti-lock brakes) are an affront to their manhood, or who, indeed, are not even men.
The Harley-Davidson vision of motorcycling no longer suppresses other interpretations. If this environment had existed 10 years ago, Harley-Davidson might never have pulled the plug on Buell Motorcycle Co. Now that the environment does exist, I think Belfer’s EBR might have a chance.
Well, in theory it might.
In an article I wrote for RideApart recently I identified a number of issues that make me cynical about EBR’s future. My biggest concern is how EBR handles its old debt. If I understand the rules of receivership, Belfer’s EBR doesn’t have to pay its old debts. But it seems to me it will want to make some sort of peace with the holders of those liabilities if it wants to be able to move forward. I mean, the motorcycling world can’t be so big that you can go around burning bridges with suppliers and dealerships.
For his part, Belfer is again saying all the right things.
“Our first order of business at EBR is to reconnect with our dealerships to figure out who’s still on board,” he told Motorcycle.com. “There may be some attrition, it wouldn’t surprise me, but I’m hoping it will be minimal, and that the best players stay in the game.
“I can’t speak for them. I can speak to what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do right by our dealers. And we’re going to do right by our clients. The first thing we have to do is step up.”
I also like how Belfer plans to “step up.” He says he’s a strong believer in American manufacturing, in creating American jobs for American workers.
“I feel very strongly that the only way for this country to return to its glory is to make things,” he said. “The only way for the U.S. to get back on its feet… is by being productive.”
Which brings us back to my illogical and totally unfair gut reaction to Belfer. On paper, based on what he’s saying, I love this guy.
I want to believe that he has a genuine grasp of the challenges EBR faces and that he equally possesses the skills, drive and business acumen to overcome them. I want to believe that the 1190AX adventure sport that was rumored to be just around the corner will be resurrected and that I’ll be riding one within three years. I want to believe that EBR will slowly, steadily grow and that its success will force America’s other manufacturers to diversify their models, and in some glorious future people will be talking about the dominance of motorcycling’s Big Four and they will be talking about American machines. I want to believe. I want so much to believe.
But I don’t. I don’t believe it at all. I expect EBR to flounder for a while, promise things it can’t deliver, maybe take the Motus route of offering an out-of-date motorcycle with Givi luggage and an astronomical price, then collapse before 2020.
Maybe the reason I don’t believe it is because the 8-year-old in me sees a man who is just trying to connive his way into winning the heavyweight title. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe I’ve lost faith in the American Dream.
I don’t believe Bruce Belfer. But I hope I’m wrong. I very sincerely hope that Belfer will make me eat my words.