GRAND RAPIDS — The executives behind an iconic American superbike brand are breathing new life into the company and relaunching “boutique” motorcycle production in West Michigan.
By establishing low-volume production of EBR Motorcycles in Grand Rapids, owner Bill Melvin hopes to bring sustainability to the company founded by famed motorcycle racer Erik Buell some 35 years ago.
The shift away from a high-volume business keeps EBR Motorcycles in the market and allows the brand to maintain its “panache” as a limited-run specialty manufacturer, Melvin said.
“They’re the only superbike built in the U.S., a 185-horsepower, street-to-track bike that you can go right out on the racetrack and compete head-to-head with a Ducati,” he said.
Melvin’s Liquid Asset Partners LLC, a Grand Rapids firm specializing in liquidation, auctions and appraisals, acquired the assets of East Troy, Wis.-based Erik Buell Racing LLC in 2016 for a reported $2 million after the company fell into receivership.
Former parent company Harley-Davidson Inc. had designed the East Troy factory for high-volume production of around 10,000 units per year. After operating the business for about year after the purchase, Melvin realized the company needed to downsize.
“We made a big effort in Wisconsin, we gave it the old college try and went with the full factory and trying to shoot up production volumes,” said Melvin, who shut down production and in the fall of 2017 shifted to an e-commerce model based in Grand Rapids to support motorcycle parts orders.
“The high-volume factory is a big proposition,” he said, noting the company now is taking a page from bespoke supercar manufacturers including Lotus or Koenigsegg with hand-built, limited-run motorcycle production. “What we’ve done now is something that’s more sustainable and also special — and now they’re built in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
Starting at the end of 2018, the company built three EBR 1190 superbikes that retail for around $20,000 and are capable of more than 185 mph in race trim. As word started to trickle out about the new production run, the company had a list of more than 30 people interested in buying a motorcycle, according to Melvin, who expects demand will continue to exceed production.
“There’s a huge following for Erik Buell and his designs,” he said. “With the volumes that we’re doing, they’re going to fly out.”
EBR Motorcycles serves a tiny high-end niche market in an industry that continues to be dominated by heavyweight touring motorcycles. Harley-Davidson, which discontinued the Buell Motorcycle line in 2009, remains the market leader in the U.S., where it accounts for 46 percent of all motorcycle sales.
In recent years, however, the company’s sales have slipped as customers shifted away from heavy motorcycles to smaller, more affordable models, according to analysts. As a result, sales for Harley-Davidson dipped 10 percent year-over-year through the first nine months of 2018, the most recent data available.
Meanwhile, sales of motorcycles with smaller than 600-cc engines are up, according to a report from the U.S. International Trade Commission, a reflection of more Millennials coming of age and seeking out entry-level models and of Baby Boomers aging out of the market.
For the initial three-unit production run late last year in Grand Rapids, EBR worked with a team of eight people, including two former builders from Wisconsin, to make each motorcycle.
“We start right from the crank. Everything gets assembled and put together right in town,” Melvin said.
The superbikes all feature a hand-built 1190-cc V-twin engine capable of 10,600 rpm and top speeds rivaling the “fastest production vehicles in the U.S.,” according to Melvin.
The company sources parts globally from its legacy suppliers, but uses a custom paint shop in Grand Rapids, which will allow the company to fulfill specialty paint orders to meet customers’ needs, he said.
By moving the production to Grand Rapids, Melvin said the company now has better visibility and cost control over the manufacturing process.
“We’re from here, so we have more oversight, a more manageable cost structure,” he said. “We’ve got a great team here that can help support the brand.”
For 2019, the company plans to continue to introduce various upgrades to the EBR models, which still use Buell’s unique race-bred design, such as a fuel tank embedded in the motorcycle’s aluminum frame to help lower the center of gravity and improve handling.
Melvin expects production in Grand Rapids to grow, albeit at a manageable level for the company.
“I think it’s really cool that we’re doing it in Grand Rapids. I think it’s exciting for Michigan to have a superbike being built in Michigan,” Melvin said. “It’s an iconic brand and the design is super exotic. You put it on a racetrack next to the fastest production vehicles built and it’s going to beat them.”