Motorcycle design is a field that has many pretenders but few true practitioners. There are plenty of motorcycle stylists, men and women who draw forms on paper and then outsource the headaches of realization to a team of engineers and technicians. But people who can craft a machine from start to finish, from notepad to road, are virtually nonexistent. These are true designers who can conceive, sketch, fabricate and build a motorcycle from start to finish. J.T. Nesbitt is one of these few true designers. The Bienville Legacy is the much-anticipated follow up to Nesbitt’s seminal Confederate Wraith.
More than a mere motorcycle, the Legacy is the culmination of two distinct philosophies coming together – the uncompromising design ideas of J.T. Nesbitt, and the sustainable social principles put forward by The American Design and Master Craft Initiative (ADMCi). The Legacy has an important role to play in the future of American design that may not be apparent at first glance.
Nesbitt is a man who is well respected in the motorcycle industry, but who remains enigmatic and well outside the traditional hierarchies. Many reference his work but almost no one is capable of continuing the framework he established. His opinions are either highly respected or vehemently attacked – both good signs that you are doing something right. He has had an indelible influence on modern motorcycle design.
After 2005 he was serving drinks, waiting tables, and cleaning toilets, his life and promising career swept away by the floodwaters of hurricane Katrina. Not long after his whirlwind rise to prominence with Confederate Motorcycles he was back to tending bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, his life ravaged by the storm that had forever scarred the city.
Nesbitt is a formidable figure in American motorcycling, not simply for his contributions to the industry but also for his philosophies. He has an intense disdain for those who have compromised their principles and isn’t afraid to take them to task. He is opinionated and vociferous, never hesitating to speak out, but always willing to praise what he believes is deserving of admiration.
Nesbitt is complex, contradictory and frighteningly intelligent. Summarizing him with a few words on a page is wholly inadequate – you must sit down with J.T. and discuss life and bikes over the course of several beers to even begin to understand where he comes from and what he believes in.
While we must not become mired in the glory of past successes, it is impossible to understand Nesbitt’s design philosophy without referencing his work at Confederate. Without the opportunity that was presented to him by Confederate founder Matt Chambers he would have remained unknown, just a man with a degree in Fine Arts serving drinks in New Orleans who was attempting to start his life from scratch.
Chambers gave Nesbitt the outlet for his creativity and their symbiotic partnership was one that is difficult for an outsider to understand. Nesbitt met Chambers while working for Iron Horse, during the magazine’s glory days under David Snow’s editorship. Following Nesbitt’s review of the company’s Hellcat, Chambers offered him a position with Confederate in New Orleans. When Nesbitt’s talents and vision became clear, Chambers offered him a chance to redesign the company’s iconic flagship: the brutally raw G2 Hellcat was the result, which proved to be a well-received warmup act from a man who already had bigger ideas brewing.
To Nesbitt the essential problem with modern motorcycle design is that we haven’t progressed much beyond conceiving of a motorcycle as anything more than a bicycle with a motor attached. Virtually every motorcycle, no matter how advanced or technologically dazzling it may be, is still designed and built within this framework. Nesbitt’s solution and design touchstone is what he calls “circles and lines”. It is a sort of blueprint structured around a series of six interlocking circles – the two wheels with the motor set between them, and the proportions of the components that bind them together. The core of this idea is that instead of fitting the motor into the chassis, we must design the chassis around the motor – more importantly, the motor dictates the design. You start with the engine and build the bike around that, rather than trying to figure out how to hang the motor on the proverbial bicycle.
The first machine that applied the circles and lines concept was the Wraith, which began as a styling exercise built around a Harley-Davidson XR750 engine. So strong was the response to the mockup that Nesbitt essentially forced Chambers to hire budding designer Brian Case and allow them to build a running prototype. XP1 was the result of Nesbitt’s vision and featured a monocoque chassis wrapped around a Sportster-patterned S&S Pro Stock motor, with a girder front fork incorporating modern materials. It was circles and lines made real. Nesbitt insisted his machine be run on the Bonneville Salt Flats to prove its mettle, thereby establishing a long-running Confederate tradition of testing their designs at the Flats. Nesbitt’s friend Chris Roberts rode XP1 across the salt at 139 mph before the bike was sold to a collector and work began on a more advanced pre-production prototype. With that, Nesbitt’s talents were established and the world took notice. The Wraith was a design that was so unlike anything seen before that it forever altered motorcycle design and custom culture, and showed the world that Americans could still build a world-class machine - right in the heart of New Orleans.
Working for Confederate gave Nesbitt the opportunity to create without dealing with the pragmatic concerns that stymie most designers. In any other company he would have been forced to deal with concerns of mass production, emissions and noise laws, headlight and turn signal placement, and any of the myriad manufacturing and legal nonsense that conspires to dilute the original vision of a designer. Confederate was always the brand of “Rebellion”. It was a place where Chambers allowed creativity and uncompromising values to take priority over practical matters. It was here that Nesbitt could and did flourish.
Hurricane Katrina changed everything. The Confederate factory was destroyed just as production of the Wraith was being finalized. Following the destruction of their New Orleans factory, Chambers chose to move Confederate to Alabama. Nesbitt insisted on staying in his beloved city. It proved to be the end of his tenure with Confederate.
Bienville Studios emerged during the tumultuous period following Katrina. After leaving Confederate Nesbitt began working independently while tending bar at Flanagan’s Pub in the French Quarter. A short-lived partnership with a Chinese firm required the setup of a design studio, which Nesbitt established in a gallery space on Esplanade Avenue. After the deal with the Chinese fell through the studio remained.
Named after Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville, the founder of the city of New Orleans and early governor of the Louisiana territory, Bienville Studios was the site of Nesbitt’s renewal following Katrina. It is fitting that it was here that he and a team of friends resurrected a flood-damaged Lincoln Mark VIII, dubbed the Stinkin Linkin, which he then drove 2000 miles with friend Andy Overslaugh to the Bonneville Salt Flats to attempt to break the 200 mph mark. More recently he built the Magnolia Special here, a stunning hand-built automobile powered by a Jaguar XK6 converted to run on natural gas. Both projects were exercises that sunk him deeply into debt. Nesbitt continued to operate as he had while working for Chambers – freely and without compromise, but also without significant income.
It is a shock to learn that Nesbitt has been so committed to his principles that he often works without salary simply so he could continue to design. He is content to eek out a modest living as long as it enables him to continue his work. Despite all the rock star status and cover spreads his work with Confederate had earned him, it was never about the money. It still isn’t. Nesbitt does not draw a salary for his work on The Legacy Motorcycle Commission.
Following Katrina Nesbitt took a seven-year hiatus from motorcycle design. But the idea of building a new machine that refined the philosophies he introduced with the Wraith continued to occupy his mind and fill the pages of his sketchbook while he was “crosstraining” with projects in the automotive realm.
In 2012 Nesbitt was approached by Jim Jacoby, founder of The American Design and Master Craft Initiative, about continuing his work in motorcycle design. Jacoby approached Nesbitt innocently enough, coming to him as a fellow motorcycle enthusiast who was interested in his work. He met Nesbitt in New Orleans, unsure of what to expect. They ended up going out for a beer and discussing motorcycles, design and life. With the ice properly broken, it was then that Jacoby asked Nesbitt “What would you design if you could design anything at all?” Nesbitt showed Jacoby the sketches he had been collecting over the previous seven years. His answer became the genesis of the Legacy Motorcycle Commission: “I would design the bike that answered all the questions the Wraith asked.”
ADMCi is a non-profit organization based in Chicago, Illinois with a mandate to promote sustainable user-centred design in all its forms, be it art, music, craft, or design, physical or digital. The goals of ADMCi are varied but follows two main lines of thinking: that artisans come first in the creative process, operating independently and in a sustainable manner, and that master-craftsmanship should be preserved and promoted in a digital era when people are becoming increasingly detached from the things they produce.
You may simplify this as the promotion of craftsmanship, but it is much more than that. Jacoby believes that artisans, designers and master-craftspeople are kept to the fringe and exploited by our current efficiency- and profit-driven system. ADMCi wishes to put the artisan back at the centre of the system. The idea is that placing production and profit ahead of design/outcome makes for a broken process, so ADMCi promotes the opposite while offering benefits to the artists themselves.
Jacoby started ADMCi as a philanthropic foundation that operates in two ways – commissions to discover and develop knowledge, and education to transfer and apply that knowledge. The Bienville Legacy project is one such commission, with Nesbitt operating as an artisan in residence. His work is not simply towards a single end product (a motorcycle), it has sustainable value: eight patents have been filed as a result of Nesbitt’s work on the Legacy. Any royalties earned from those patents will be used to sustain the ADMCi.
The Legacy Motorcycle Commission is funded and studied by ADMCi with the goal of translating Nesbitt’s knowledge and methodology into a framework that can be shared and applied elsewhere. The irony, of course, is that despite being explicitly not intended for mass production, the Legacy is a design that is well suited for streamlined manufacturing. It uses standardized components that are shared between several elements of the bike. The suspension design is remarkably simple. It only uses two types of bearings. It uses but a few types of fasteners and can be worked on with a literal handful of proprietary tools. It speaks to the pure vision of a man who is able to intelligently design a machine in its totality. It is the product of a single mind, which gives it a simplicity that is often lacking in designs completed by committee or beholden to a profit-driven ecosystem.
Beyond the social implications of the Legacy project, the machine occupies an important position in American motorcycle design – it picks up a thread that was lost sometime during the Great Depression. Nesbitt points to what he calls the “American super bike”. It is important to note he doesn’t mean the ‘Superbike’ of modern parlance, that amorphous category of 750cc-plus sporting bikes, but a super bike: a superlative machine from a time when American manufacturers were producing some of the finest vehicles in the world. These were multi-cylinder motorcycles that were without peer, designed and built by people who had no concerns for profit margins or market share.
Nesbitt references machines produced by Pierce, Henderson, Ace, Cleveland and Indian – advanced, highly refined, fast, and powered by longitudinal four-cylinder engines. Exceptional motorcycles like these were the products of a golden era of American motorcycle design that flourished during the optimistic days of the 1920s. They were machines built by men who were looking forward, not over their shoulders at what came before - an important point that Nesbitt is quick to stress. It is a heritage that was lost after the Great Depression, when dozens of manufacturers collapsed or were absorbed, and design took a decidedly conservative turn that established the path of modern American motorcycles – nostalgic V-twin models produced by men who were too busy looking backwards. Nesbitt calls it “The Great Gap”, the period between the last Indian Four rolling off the line in 1941 and today.
The Legacy is set to pick up the lineage of the American longitudinal four-cylinder super bike and renew it by producing “what has to be the fastest fucking motorcycle ever built in this country”. While Nesbitt references the past, he doesn’t let nostalgia influence his work. He simply looks forward while respecting what came before.
There is, however, an element of the old world in his design process that bears noting. Nesbitt believes that the aesthetic appeal of vintage machines is a product of their conception – in the mind of a person. A person can conceive of an object in their mind, designing it in three dimensions within their mind’s eye. If each component on the machine is designed this way it lends a human element to the device, as no part is beyond the comprehension of a human mind. Introduce computer modelling and suddenly you have elements that are so complex that they alienate the viewer. To respect this human factor, Nesbitt designed each and every component of the Legacy with pencil on paper. He sketched every nut, bolt, fixture, linkage and accessory. A computer was only introduced after the component was designed, when the sketches were adapted into Solidworks files by volunteers David Czarnecki, Austin Porter and David McMahon. The files were then sent to Scott Tudury at Apex CNC in Morgan City, Louisiana. Scott worked as the design engineer and lead machinist, translating the sketches and files into metal and performing final milling of the components.
Motivation for the Legacy will come courtesy of the new Motus MV4 designed by Brian Case, the same man who helped Nesbitt design the Wraith. It was no accident that the pre-production prototype of the Legacy was previewed at the Motus factory in downtown Birmingham, Alabama in October. In design the Motus V4 is a quintessentially American motor, developed as a two-wheeled equivalent of (half) a small-block Chevrolet V8 complete with pushrod-operated overhead valves. Like the Legacy it references and respects American heritage, but it isn’t a slave to the past. The engine design might seem quaintly antiquated by modern motorcycle standards, but several generations of small-block tuning and know-how have been distilled into a compact package that produces 185hp from 1650cc in its base tune while remaining remarkably simple and stout. And that is before Nesbitt slaps a chain-driven Rotrex centrifugal supercharger onto it. With forced induction power is anticipated to be over 300 hp. Nesbitt will need every ounce of power he can extract from the mill to accomplish another of the project’s goals: of securing three land speed records. Just like the Wraith, the first destination for the completed Legacy will be Bonneville where the machine will prove itself on the Salt Flats.
The chassis design picks up some of the principles Nesbitt began to explore with the Wraith. The front uses symmetrical carbon-fibre blades, produced in CNC-milled moulds by BlackStone Tek, in a girder fork arrangement suspended on a rising rate linkage composed of milled alloy and titanium rockers. The rear suspension uses the same blades laid flat and suspended by another rising rate linkage that shares most of its components with the front assembly. Almost all the individual components are interchangeable between the front and rear. As the composite blades preclude the use of pinch bolts, the axles are locked together with titanium conical nuts on each end. Eccentric adjusters on the blade caps allow fine-tuning of the trail on the front and chain tension at the back. The headlight angle, seat height, and rear ride height are also adjustable via the same process: every eccentric is adjustable with a single Allen key. Just loosen one pinch bolt, and then rotate the adjuster via a worm gear. It is simple and clever, and beautifully executed.
Nesbitt wished to experiment with multiple trail value curves to make the best use of the multi-link suspension arrangement, and in so doing patented a unique method of measuring dynamic trail across suspension travel and generate real-time trail graphs. The resulting trail curve aims for straight-line stability combined with quick steering and neutral feedback while cornering.
Where the Legacy really breaks new ground is how it suspends both ends: via a single longitudinally mounted composite leaf spring. Nesbitt references the bow, the simplest form of spring that has been used by humanity for thousands of years. By using a composite polymer spring, it is free of the long-term fatigue that would wear out a metal item. It is a technology that is familiar in American motorsports: the Chevrolet Corvette continues to use transverse leaf springs quite effectively, and it is a common suspension system on circle track racers.
The suspension linkages work in reverse, pulling down on either end of the spring through pullrods. The only points of stress on the chassis are the swingarm pivot and the central mount of the spring, which doubles as the subframe support. This creates a chassis that is under compression. Moving the suspension components inboard achieves two important goals: centralizing the mass, and de-coupling suspension and braking from the steering forces. Damping is provided by a set of mountain bike units, which in testing proved to be more than capable of handing the forces at work in this application. They are in fact virtually impossible to bottom out, with near-infinitely progressive damping that is necessary for landing the massive jumps common in downhill mountain biking.
The frame is a chromoly steel trellis design that Nesbitt built himself, with final welding performed by Ace Breaux and powdercoating done by Alan Kirkfield, from a single one-inch diameter of tubing bent with a single seven-inch radius. As the spring mount is the only significant source of force in the frame (the swingarm pivot is supported by the transmission case), the frame flows away from the mount organically into the mounts of the longitudinally mounted V4, which is carried as a stressed member.
The only conventional off-the-shelf components used on the Legacy are the batteries, ISR radial-mount brakes, and ISR master cylinders. The BST carbon fibre wheels might appear conventional at first glance but have custom-made hubs that are unique to the Legacy. Everything else is designed by Nesbitt and made solely for this machine.
The complete machine is visceral in appearance – it is a muscular mass centred on the engine with a visual tension that suggests hidden power and agility. It isn’t pretty in the traditional sense, and you would never mistake it for a European or Asian design. It is visually brutal. It looks American, mean and gritty but built to a standard that would shame even the best boutique brands. While this example is mostly complete a few rough edges and missing components expose it as a pre-production machine. The missing details fail to detract from the overall sense of quality and the craftsmanship that has been poured into this bike. Every fastener and fitting is custom made, every component is unique and finely crafted and won’t be found anywhere else. The fenders and taillight surround are made of hand-beaten and rolled aluminium. Elements that won’t even be visible on the completed machine are built to extraordinary standards – just look at the skeletal seat support structure, comprised of blades of milled titanium, which will be hidden under a bespoke leather saddle.
Nesbitt asks: “What is the motorcycle equivalent of a Pagani?”
The Legacy is his answer.
Once the prototype is finished it will be run at Bonneville, one of three machines to be built as a result of the Commission. Nesbitt is quick to note that there is no rush on the Legacy. He has no one to answer to but himself, and no one is setting release dates or deadlines. It will be done when it is done.
Once the three machines are completed the project will end. Nesbitt will have accomplished his goal. He isn’t churning out designs for a manufacturer, and has no intention of producing more than three examples. He isn’t working for a paycheque, corrupting his designs to suit the higher ups and bean counters. He is simply building his ultimate motorcycle his way, fulfilling the design that haunted him for much of his career, and once it is done he will move on. He will have pushed the goalpost forward and once again put American motorcycle design back on the world stage. After that, he will keep moving forward and looking to the future.
Nesbitt’s work with ADMCi will promote a framework of understanding and education, a process that will benefit future designers, artisans and craftspeople. That will be the Bienville Legacy – a leap forward in design, in American motorcycling, and in establishing a sustainable educational and social framework the puts the creator back at the centre of the process.
Bienville Legacy website
Bienville Studios website
"Salt Dreams" documentary, following the story of the Stinkin Linkin
Bienville Legacy Commission proposal video
Preview of the Legacy during the Barber Vintage Festival