Rebel Yell

The motorcycle fanatics at Confederate Motor Co. build high-performance, handmade $62,000 bikes -- fewer than 100 a year. Should Harley worry?

Memo to: The top hogs at Harley-Davidson Inc.
Re: The new look of motorcycling

For Harley-Davidson, 2004 was a breakout ride. You streaked to your best and most profitable year ever, and you're well on your way to shipping an astounding 400,000 bikes a year by 2007. The numbers don't lie: You are indeed the Fat Boy of the motorcycle industry.

No doubt, a flea-sized outfit called Confederate Motor Co., which turns out fewer than 100 bikes a year, hasn't even appeared in your rearview mirror. But this small band of rebels with a cause is determined to get you to change lanes, for they have dared to reimagine motorcycle design itself -- and many of your peers are taking notice. One leading reviewer called Confederate's newest bike, the shockingly minimalist B91 Wraith, the "rolling antithesis to market-driven conformity." Confederate's blue-chip F113 Hellcat is likewise garnering rave reviews in the motorcycling press. This year, it won Germany's prestigious iF Gold Award for outstanding design. Other winners included such industry heavyweights as BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, and Virgin Atlantic. As for Harley, you guys were missing in action.

Now don't get me wrong. Confederate, which is based in a begrimed factory tucked into New Orleans's funky Warehouse District, will never compete with you for market share. Its Hellcat sells for an eye-popping $62,000; Confederate, at most, might someday manage to produce 1,000 bikes annually. But that's not the point. Just as Ferrari's design innovations inform Corvette, Confederate's goal is to influence you -- to get you to adapt some of its breakthroughs and bring them to a wider market at lower prices. The outfit's design chief, 33-year-old J.T. Nesbitt, puts it this way: "We don't want to beat Harley; we want to teach Harley."

Before you give these brash zealots the brush-off, check out their blueprint for creating a whole new notion of the American motorcycle. It might inspire you to build something better.

Confederate's founder, Matt Chambers, 51, is a former lawyer who calls motorcycling his "personal truth -- the one thing that most exemplifies who I am." He believes that at some point during the 1980s, as you started to become a commercial juggernaut, you lost the passion necessary to make a world-class bike. Chambers is obsessed with making a "fiercely American" motorcycle. "I want to create something that I can show to my German and Japanese friends and say, 'Here is what America is capable of.' " In 1991, Chambers sold his law partnership for $1 million and founded Confederate on a set of "Iron Laws": "Never compromise passion, intensity, time, or money. . . . Invest absolute faith. . . . Maximize and evolve individual craftsmanship. Relish the challenge. Persist eternally."

Chambers deliberately kept Confederate small. He argues that since you Harley honchos must nail increasingly ambitious sales goals, you can't take big design risks. At Confederate, the priority is excellence, not profit. "The more we diminish money as our chief goal, the more passion we can put into our efforts," Chambers says. "Passion gives the motorcycle its life force. You can literally feel it coming off of the machine."

At first, Confederate put little thought into how the bike would look. The chief concern was to create a super-strong, super-responsive riding machine. Chambers hit upon a way to tie the engine directly into the motorcycle's swing-arm pivot, where the rear suspension meets the bike's foundation. In effect, the engine became a load-bearing member, making the frame ultraresistant to fatigue and flux. "This is one of those rare instances in vehicle design when the engine and chassis weren't designed separately," says Nesbitt. "They're part of a married whole."

Other innovations followed. To reduce drag, Nesbitt and his crew eliminated the muffler. The Hellcat's exhaust system drops down through the rear suspension. The backbone, which curves over the motor, doubles as an oil line and an electrical route. The result: The Hellcat's exhaust and wiring are hidden. And the bike is devoid of any ornamentation. Its raw steel and cast aluminum parts are exposed; there's little color, except for a sprinkling of blue alloy. A single Hellcat takes nearly a week to assemble -- by hand. Which is not to suggest that Confederate spurns technology. Its new B91 Wraith is largely a digital machine: Much of it was designed on think3's thinkiD software, which helped trim six months from the production schedule and cut the parts count by half.

Now, I don't know if you guys will pack any of Confederate's principles into your saddlebags. When I called your Milwaukee headquarters, your top spokesperson politely declined to comment. Fair enough. But if, in a couple of years, we begin to see some hints of Confederate's design innovations showing up in your Fat Boys, don't worry. I'm keeping this memo confidential.

Bill Breen is Fast Company's senior projects editor.

Memo to: The top hogs at Harley-Davidson Inc.
Re: The new look of motorcycling

For Harley-Davidson, 2004 was a breakout ride. You streaked to your best and most profitable year ever, and you're well on your way to shipping an astounding 400,000 bikes a year by 2007. The numbers don't lie: You are indeed the Fat Boy of the motorcycle industry.

No doubt, a flea-sized outfit called Confederate Motor Co., which turns out fewer than 100 bikes a year, hasn't even appeared in your rearview mirror. But this small band of rebels with a cause is determined to get you to change lanes, for they have dared to reimagine motorcycle design itself -- and many of your peers are taking notice. One leading reviewer called Confederate's newest bike, the shockingly minimalist B91 Wraith, the "rolling antithesis to market-driven conformity." Confederate's blue-chip F113 Hellcat is likewise garnering rave reviews in the motorcycling press. This year, it won Germany's prestigious iF Gold Award for outstanding design. Other winners included such industry heavyweights as BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, and Virgin Atlantic. As for Harley, you guys were missing in action.

Now don't get me wrong. Confederate, which is based in a begrimed factory tucked into New Orleans's funky Warehouse District, will never compete with you for market share. Its Hellcat sells for an eye-popping $62,000; Confederate, at most, might someday manage to produce 1,000 bikes annually. But that's not the point. Just as Ferrari's design innovations inform Corvette, Confederate's goal is to influence you -- to get you to adapt some of its breakthroughs and bring them to a wider market at lower prices. The outfit's design chief, 33-year-old J.T. Nesbitt, puts it this way: "We don't want to beat Harley; we want to teach Harley."

Before you give these brash zealots the brush-off, check out their blueprint for creating a whole new notion of the American motorcycle. It might inspire you to build something better.

Confederate's founder, Matt Chambers, 51, is a former lawyer who calls motorcycling his "personal truth -- the one thing that most exemplifies who I am." He believes that at some point during the 1980s, as you started to become a commercial juggernaut, you lost the passion necessary to make a world-class bike. Chambers is obsessed with making a "fiercely American" motorcycle. "I want to create something that I can show to my German and Japanese friends and say, 'Here is what America is capable of.' " In 1991, Chambers sold his law partnership for $1 million and founded Confederate on a set of "Iron Laws": "Never compromise passion, intensity, time, or money. . . . Invest absolute faith. . . . Maximize and evolve individual craftsmanship. Relish the challenge. Persist eternally."

Chambers deliberately kept Confederate small. He argues that since you Harley honchos must nail increasingly ambitious sales goals, you can't take big design risks. At Confederate, the priority is excellence, not profit. "The more we diminish money as our chief goal, the more passion we can put into our efforts," Chambers says. "Passion gives the motorcycle its life force. You can literally feel it coming off of the machine."

At first, Confederate put little thought into how the bike would look. The chief concern was to create a super-strong, super-responsive riding machine. Chambers hit upon a way to tie the engine directly into the motorcycle's swing-arm pivot, where the rear suspension meets the bike's foundation. In effect, the engine became a load-bearing member, making the frame ultraresistant to fatigue and flux. "This is one of those rare instances in vehicle design when the engine and chassis weren't designed separately," says Nesbitt. "They're part of a married whole."

Other innovations followed. To reduce drag, Nesbitt and his crew eliminated the muffler. The Hellcat's exhaust system drops down through the rear suspension. The backbone, which curves over the motor, doubles as an oil line and an electrical route. The result: The Hellcat's exhaust and wiring are hidden. And the bike is devoid of any ornamentation. Its raw steel and cast aluminum parts are exposed; there's little color, except for a sprinkling of blue alloy. A single Hellcat takes nearly a week to assemble -- by hand. Which is not to suggest that Confederate spurns technology. Its new B91 Wraith is largely a digital machine: Much of it was designed on think3's thinkiD software, which helped trim six months from the production schedule and cut the parts count by half.

Now, I don't know if you guys will pack any of Confederate's principles into your saddlebags. When I called your Milwaukee headquarters, your top spokesperson politely declined to comment. Fair enough. But if, in a couple of years, we begin to see some hints of Confederate's design innovations showing up in your Fat Boys, don't worry. I'm keeping this memo confidential.

Bill Breen is Fast Company's senior projects editor.

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