We had the chance to view a press screener of “The Ragged Edge” and in light of the recent closure of EBR, it’s one of the most inadvertently sad motorcycle documentaries we’ve seen. Filming of the documentary wrapped just after Hero announced its 25 million dollar investment in EBR in 2013, so there’s no mention of the latest turn of events. Nevertheless, “The Ragged Edge” is a fascinating look at the tumultuous period in which Buell lost everything, then built up a new company that was on the racetrack within two years. Within the timeframe of the documentary, the subtitle ‘An American Comeback Story,’ is entirely appropriate. With the hindsight we now have, it’s depressingly ironic.
First, to the film itself. The opening sequence is enough to make any supporter of American innovation, manufacturing or Buell himself get a little choked-up. Footage of bikes and parts being thrown into dumpsters are pieced between the 2009 video Buell released where he emotionally announces the end of Buell Motorcycles. This is followed by a look at the history of the company, which Buell founded in 1983. In 1998 Harley-Davidson acquired a stake in Buell Motorcycles and all appeared well for the next 11 years. The film provides insight from former Buell Motorcycle employees and it’s made clear that the 2009 shutdown came as a complete shock. The race team had just won the AMA Pro Daytona SportBike title with Danny Eslick at the helm of an 1125R, new products were in development, and being linked to Harley gave people confidence in their job security. Then the recession hit and overnight 200 employees were out of work.
Buell continues to chase his dream though, immediately setting out to start EBR and develop a race bike. The film remains focused at this point on the lives of workers dedicated to the new EBR effort, and of Erik Buell’s dogged determination to see the 1190RS brought to life and put to the test on the racetrack. We then follow the EBR team to Mid-Ohio in 2011, where Geoff May turns the first professional laps aboard the new machine.
The subsequent growth of EBR then takes center-stage, of Buell expanding his factory, rehiring many of his former employees and touching briefly on future projects in the works as a result of the partnership with Hero. The documentary ends on a positive note, with employees relieved to have stable work back and Buell thrilled to see his motorcycle visions coming to life.
Of course, every second of the documentary is now pregnant with unintended meaning. We were particularly heartbroken to see how thankful former employees were to be back working for EBR, knowing that, once again, a surprise end to operations is looming just a few years ahead. And while we absolutely wish that EBR were still pushing forward full-steam, its closure makes the documentary a remarkably poignant artifact. The period of growth, optimism and hope captured on camera is truly an inspiring ‘American Comeback Story.’ But now that the tables have turned once again, that exuberance is an unnerving reminder of just how fickle existence can be for the small business owner and employee in America today.
Buell himself is presented as a near perfect manifestation of the incessantly driven American dreamer, whose singular goal is to produce an American motorcycle company that can rival the world while providing stable, lucrative jobs in his hometown. With the knowledge of the subsequent closure of EBR, we are again reminded that drive and determination are just not enough to guarantee success in the current business climate, that the struggle isn’t just keeping an EBR 1190RS from winning a Superbike title here or abroad, but that it’s keeping families from being able pay the bills. The continually unfolding fortunes of EBR are perfect fodder for a sequel, which we sincerely hope the filmmakers pursue.
If you get the chance, we absolutely recommend watching “The Ragged Edge.” Wisconsin residents can check their local PBS listings for air times, or for direct digital streaming follow this link.