Monday, 6 October 2014

Confederate Wraith Part I - American Iconoclast

Confederate B91 Wraith Black Bike
Photo Courtesy Brian Case

Part I of the Confederate Wraith story. Click here for Part II

There are rare instances in the realm of motorcycle design when there emerges an icon. These are machines so radical that they serve as a clean break from the standards of the past, thereby setting a new template and pushing the high-water mark up the wall a few extra feet. To truly be an icon, they must influence subsequent processes and inspire a new thread in motorcycle design; one-off machines that immediately fade into obscurity won’t do. They can be new standards of beauty, or of performance, or of chassis design, or templates for hitherto untried categories (or some combination of all four). These motorcycles are often the product of years of research and countless design hours, produced by multi-billion dollar corporations that can afford to take a risk once and a rare while. They are not often produced by a tiny boutique manufacturer that has built less than a thousand machines, conceptualized by men who were not classically trained “designers” with decades of experience under their belts.

Confederate Wraith XP-1 Motorcycle
Image courtesy Brian Case
The Confederate Wraith was one such icon of that emerged from Southern Louisiana like a thundering slap in the face to all that the motorcycle industry held dear. It was an absolute break with tradition, a bold insult to the long-held standards of a conservative industry, and a new way of conceiving of the motorcycle that was unlike anything that had preceded it. It was a product of looking forward while respecting history, a curious mixture of old and new ideas blended into a stunning machine that was as brutal as it was intelligent.



Confederate Chassis Patent
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The story of the Wraith must begin, inevitably, with the story of Confederate. Founded in 1991 by H. Matthew Chambers, Confederate was as much a product of Chambers’ ideology and uncompromising principles as it was the result of a desire to introduce a new concept in American motorcycle manufacturing. A long time motorcyclist and passionate student of Southern history, Chambers was far from the prototypical entrepreneur. After a series of career changes he earned a law degree and practiced as a trial lawyer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He established a successful practice and earned a tidy income, but dreamed of contributing something greater to the world. After winning a particularly grievous personal injury case in 1990 and earning a considerable fee, he sold his share of the practice to his partner and with a million dollars of his own money set out to start his dream project: an American motorcycle that would eschew the stagnant design and commercialization of the American market in favour of an heirloom-quality machine that would have dominating performance. His plan would spark the renewal of an industry that had not existed in the Southern United States since Simplex had faded into history. In conception and execution it would prove to be a labour of love born of high-minded ideals and a desire to renew craftsmanship in an industry that had become driven by profit margin.

Confederate Chassis Patent
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Chambers’ ideas were as esoteric as they were inspiring, a lone voice in the wilderness calling for a conceptual shift in the way motorcycles were designed and built in America. Design and construction would be unhindered by considerations of profits. Individualism would be emphasized, as would mechanical detail and craftsmanship. Nothing ancillary or unnecessary would be present. The machines would be raw and would command respect from their riders, channelling their uncompromised nature through their performance. Chambers’ tenets called for a renewal of what he called “The American Way” and the abandonment of “The American System”: at its core the idea is to bring back quality, pride and craftsmanship in American manufacturing instead of promoting materialism, stagnant design, and marketing falsehoods. This rhetoric continues to inspire confusion among the masses who have been weaned on cheap mass-produced motorcycles fluffed up with contrived links to a mythos cooked up in the boardrooms of multi-billion dollar corporations.      

The name Confederate, often a source of controversy in the early years of the company, was a product of Chambers’ appreciation of Southern history and his unapologetic bucking of convention. Much to the chagrin of politically-correct followers and “Yankee” interviewers Chambers celebrated the exploits of Southern heroes, citing them as the inspiration for the company’s rebellious spirit. Racial implications were never a part of the program but were often brought up by media members who focussed on the negative aspects of Chambers’ heroes, rather than accepting the philosophical implication of his celebration of the South and a pure spirit of rebellion against an overwhelming adversary. In Chambers’ idealized view the South was railing against the Northern corruption of American ideals brought on by the imposition of centralized government, a parallel to how Confederate was fighting the stagnation and materialism that had enveloped the motorcycle industry. He pointed to the lack of industrial development in the South as a result of the history that followed the Civil War, a situation he aimed to correct by promoting manufacturing in the region. In recent years this rhetoric has been softened somewhat in Confederate’s marketing material, but the basic principles still linger.    
Confederate Chassis Patent
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Chambers approached drag-racing specialist Kosman Specialties in California to develop a chassis for his motorcycle. A stiff, well-engineered frame would be needed to ensure the good handling that most American motorcycles seemed to lack. While ideas for a chassis using a unitized engine as a stressed member were fielded, in the end the choice of a non-unit Harley-pattern big twin for motivation led to the development of a steel cradle frame with a massive three-inch backbone. A two-inch front downtube doubled as the oil tank for the dry sump engine. A triangulated rear swingarm operated a straight-rate rear suspension supported by a pair of shocks operating on a single pivot, ala HRD Vincent. Ceriani forks supported the front, with twin Performance Machine rotors and calipers providing meaningful stopping power.  A five-speed gearbox developed in conjunction with Kosman and Sputhe rotated the gear shafts 90 degrees, then flipped the countershaft to the right side of the bike, to create a vertically-stacked transmission that aided packaging and created a structure stiff enough to support the swingarm pivot - an innovation that would become a Confederate signature.

Confederate Chassis Patent
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The first prototype hit the road in 1994. Dubbed the Grey Ghost, this machine set the basic template of subsequent Confederates – a long, low chassis with top quality suspension and brakes, with minimal bodywork surrounding a hulking “radial” twin, Confederate’s term for the 45-degree layout that references the history of the V-twin as a slice-of-a-radial-engine arrangement. Power for the first machine came from a 93 cubic inch (1525cc) S&S-produced big-twin clone; production machines would use a variety of powerplants from S&S and Merch, and specifications varied considerably over the course of production. Customers could customize most elements of their Confederates, and chose from a variety of engine, suspension, wheel, and brake combinations - an American cruiser with 17-inch Marchesini wheels, fully floating Brembo cast iron rotors, and adjustable WP forks? While these first generation machines might seem relatively conventional by our current standards, what with the proliferation of factory “customs” and “muscle” cruisers in recent years, but in the mid-1990s there truly was nothing like a Confederate on the road. It was the prototypical brutish sport cruiser, a distinctly American machine that could go, turn, and stop, while looking mighty badass in the process.

Production of customer motorcycles began in Baton Rouge in 1996, later moving production to Abita Springs, with prices starting in the high $20,000 USD range, easily clearing $30,000 if you checked signed off on a few of the options. The machines bore names that drew inspiration from American history; the Hellcat, standard bearer of the Confederate line, was named after the Grumman F6F Hellcat that served as one of the United States Navy’s most successful carrier-based fighter aircraft in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. The emblem on the hand-built fuel tanks bore the inscription that served as the company letterhead and the final throwdown to anyone who might have missed the Southern Cross engravings on some of the components: “Confederate Motors, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sovereign, C.S.A.”

JT Nesbitt with G1 Confederate Hellcat
Image courtesy Brian Case
         
Like many American motorcyclists who desired something that would challenge The Motor Company’s hegemony of the market, JT Nesbitt was smitten by the Hellcat. While working as a freelance journalist for Iron Horse, during the magazine’s golden years under Editor David Snow’s leadership, Nesbitt had the opportunity to ride a Hellcat Roadster for two days in Daytona Beach, Florida. At the time the magazine was a bastion for the sort of honest, irreverent, and intellectual writing that has long been absent from the mainstream motorcycle press, making it a favourite for misfits and writers with actual opinions who desired more freedom than any meddling advertiser would allow. Iron Horse in the mid 1990s was a gold mine for creativity and honesty, and helped kindle the legitimate do-it-yourself chopper culture that has since been bastardized by the hipster set.    

Iron Horse Magazine Confederate Motorcycle Review
Image courtesy JT Nesbitt

Nesbitt had briefly met with Matt Chambers in 1995 and again in 1997 prior to testing the Hellcat, a series of encounters that would signal the beginning of a partnership that would end up redefining what constituted the American motorcycle.

At the time Nesbitt was freelancing as a writer while waiting tables, a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art under his belt. Nesbitt had dabbled in motorcycles as part of his sculptural projects and had a keen interest in their design and construction, but was not trained in industrial design through the traditional avenues – a background that would prove to be an asset.

The original Confederate went bankrupt in 2000 and closed the Abita Springs factory after producing between 300 and 500 machines, depending on who you ask. Chambers regrouped and restarted the company in New Orleans in 2001, and it was around this time that Nesbitt reached out to Chambers to ask for a job. Chambers agreed and Nesbitt began his tenure with Confederate by hitting a home run in the redesign of the Hellcat dubbed the G2.

JT Nesbitt riding the Confederate G2 Hellcat
Image courtesy JT Nesbitt

The G2, also called the F113/F124, served as a template for Confederate’s subsequent design language. While the G1 Hellcat had been a relatively conventional-looking machine supported by high-quality components and excellent attention to detail, the G2 was a mean, vicious son of a bitch that soon drew the attention of the public and the motorcycle industry, making Confederate the darling of celebrities and well-heeled riders looking for the ultimate in performance and exclusivity. The big twin and cradle frame were still present, as was the Confederate vertical gearbox, but all the details were reworked into a package that was completely unlike any other production machine on the market.

Confederate F124 Hellcat Motorcycle
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Everything that wasn’t billet aluminum or titanium was made of carbon fibre, including the fuel tank. The G2 was ugly in the best possible way, elemental and a bit rough with no extraneous baubles distracting from the purpose of going fucking fast. It looked “purposeful”, if we can forgive a hackneyed motojournalist cliché.

Confederate F124 Hellcat seat
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Nesbitt devised a way of using the swingarm as the exhaust, by way of a triple-layer Inconel bellows connecting the headers to the curved, hollow swingarm tube. Thus far the G2 Hellcat is the only motorcycle design to route the exhaust in this manner; the Riedel Imme R100 used the exhaust pipe as a swinging arm, but the powerplant was rigidly attached to the arm/pipe and moved in tandem with the rear wheel. Twin Penske shocks supported the rear. Adjustable 50mm Marzocchi forks and six-piston radial mounted brakes up front suggested a sporting machine, but a 240mm width rear tire and a carbon-fibre tractor saddle said something else before being drowned out by the fury of a too-much-is-just-enough 124 cubic inch S&S mill which thumped out 130hp and arm-wrenching 140 lb/ft torque at the rear wheel. These massive engines and obscene power figures proved to be more than enough to fling the 530 LB brute down the road with the sort of immediacy and drama that made motojournalists wax poetic about the capabilities of what was supposedly an “antiquated” 45-degree twin - when they weren’t busy pointing out the astonishing $60,000-plus price tag, anyway. It performed like it looked – brutal, uncompromising, and awe-inspiring.

Confederate F124 G2 Hellcat Motorbike

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After years of operating in relative obscurity, Confederate and Nesbitt were suddenly on the radar with a design that had made them the bad boys of the boutique/custom motorcycle world. While other builders were busy hacking together damn-near unrideable, chrome-addled, over-commercialized odes to the chopper scene, Nesbitt had perfected a new breed of machine that created a new category overnight. The new aesthetic was not flawless chrome and airbrush paint jobs tarting up ridiculous machines with absurd chassis geometry: it was the intelligent application of functional, mechanical art that respected heritage without being a slave to tradition. It was raw materials arranged around a taut core, a big-ass motor barely contained within a modern chassis supported by the best components and no frivolous parts distracting from the singular purpose of the machine.  It had a few subtle nods to bygone designs, but applied in a way that didn’t look like anything but a vision of the future. In a way the G2 Hellcat was a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to countless imitators and more than a few Confederate wannabes who emerged to fill the newly discovered market for a modern but distinctly American custom.

Confederate G2 Hellcat chassis
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But the G2 wasn’t what Nesbitt truly desired to create. Despite the genre-defying elements and radical styling, the Hellcat was still a relatively conventional motorcycle: engine in the middle surrounded by a steel cradle frame, telescopic forks up front, and a swinging arm at the back. It wasn’t that far removed from the G1 in terms of chassis design despite the marked difference in styling.

Image courtesy JT Nesbitt.

Nesbitt had been mulling over a new conception of the motorcycle that would represent a break from previous design language. At its core, his idea is to reverse the accepted order of the machine: build the bike around the engine. While it sounds like an obvious statement, it isn’t the way motorcycles have been conceived in the past. The basic structure of a motorcycle is a bicycle with an engine clipped on – a motor added to an existing chassis. Most supposedly modern motorcycles aren’t far removed from that original formula; pull the powerplant out and remove the bodywork and the rolling chassis of a lot of machines still look like an overgrown bicycle with fancy suspensions bits. The engine almost seems like an afterthought, bolted into place wherever it will fit. Nesbitt’s idea was to start from zero and design the entire motorcycle around the engine in an effort to create a coherent whole.

JT Nesbitt's Wraith Sketches

The genesis of the project began as a conversation between Nesbitt and Chambers on a long cross-country drive just as the G2 was being readied for production. Nesbitt had his own peculiar formula laid out, what he called “circles and lines”. To summarize Nesbitt’s idea in the simplest, most unjust fashion: the engine and wheels are the circles, and the horizontal planes connecting them together are the lines. The 45-degree twin favoured by Confederate worked well as a slice of a pie, a fraction of a radial engine, whose form Nesbitt would complete by closing the imaginary circle around the engine with a chassis and suspension of his own devising.

JT Nesbitt's Circles and Lines

These ideas were first fleshed out with endless sketches and a scale model, progressing in late 2003 when Nesbitt built a full-sized (but non-running) concept around a Harley-Davidson XR750 powerplant. The machine was utterly alien in appearance. A rolled aluminum backbone served as the frame, with the rear shock mounted inside the spine at the rear supporting a single-sided swingarm. A multilink girder fork with carbon-fibre blades, inspired by the Britten V1000, was suspended by a coilover shock set in parallel with the steering head. A simple leather saddle was perched on the frame with no subframe, the old-world seating contrasted by narrow sporting clip-ons on the front end. There were hints of stripped down board track racers and, by Nesbitt’s own admission, Italian racing bicycles.  The result was an radical mixture of old and new elements applied in a completely distinct fashion that referenced the past without attempting to recreate it.

Image courtesy JT Nesbitt.

Bodywork was limited to a scoop-shaped bellypan wrapped around the sump of the engine and tightly-fitted fenders on the wheels. The engine took centre stage, exposed and menacing within the otherwise graceful curves of the chassis, fed by a pair of open carburettors and vented through a shapely heat-wrapped two-into-one header. It looked like an elemental, stripped down motherfucker of a machine, little more than a motor with a seat attached. As Nesbitt intended, the engine dictated the design in spectacular fashion.

Robb Report Motorcycling Confederate Wraith
Image courtesy JT Nesbitt
Despite being nothing more than a visual experiment that was patched together from parts bin leftovers and Bondo, Nesbitt’s creation caused an immediate sensation in the motorcycle industry. Featured on the cover of the premiere issue of Robb Report Motorcycling in Spring 2004, the newly-christened “Wraith”. The machine was named after the Scottish colloquialism for ghost, described by Chambers as “a name derived to echo man’s notional denial of and rebellion against death”, while Nesbitt elaborated “A wraith is a willowy image of your future dead self coming back from the hoary netherworld to portend your imminent doom.” The concept sparked a flood of inquiries from parties interested in this creation that had been cobbled together in the back of the Confederate factory. In December 2004 the jury of the Motorcycle Design Association of France awarded the Wraith second place in that year’s Concept Bike Category.  Despite the interest there were no immediate plans to put the Wraith into production, or even produce a functional prototype. Nesbitt and Chambers didn’t even know how to put the design into production, as the chassis had not been developed beyond what was effectively a three-dimensional sketch.

JT Nesbitt Wraith sketch

In light of the success and innovation of his designs, Nesbitt and Confederate Creative Director Grant Ray were invited to make a presentation at the 2004 Industrial Designers Society of America Eastern conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Nesbitt and Ray took to the stage in front of a group of design students, accompanied by a bottle of Maker’s Mark. While Nesbitt was wheeling a G2 Hellcat into the room in front of the crowd, a man in the audience whispered to him: “start the bike.” Nesbitt paused, then obliged, sending a thundering racket throughout the building and enthralling the audience by unleashing all the fury of his creation in an enclosed hotel conference room. With their appropriate introduction completed, Nesbitt and Ray proceeded to get properly drunk during the presentation. They showcased the G2 and shared Confederate’s modus operandi, finishing up by informing the bright-eyed students they “had wonderful futures flipping burgers at McDonalds”. In the closing minutes of the slideshow they flashed images of the Wraith mockup on the screen, hinting at the possibility of a future design in spite of Chamber’s insistence that production wasn’t feasible.

Confederate’s spirit of rebellion was flaunted in dramatic fashion, with a degree of honesty and reckless bravado that made a significant impression on many present. The man who had encouraged Nesbitt to light up the G2 against all considerations of fire codes was one of them. His name was Brian Case, a local industrial designer who ran Foraxis Design Solutions in Pittsburgh, and this was his introduction to Confederate. He vaguely recalled the relatively conventional machines the company had produced in the 1990s, and was absolutely floored by the design of this new generation of machines that Nesbitt had conjured up. Case desperately wanted to know more about who was behind this new machine that was so unlike anything else. The images of the Wraith shared during the presentation left a deep impression on him, and he wanted to be a part of the project. He approached the duo after the presentation and called them “true rebels”. He gave Nesbitt his business card, telling him he would be happy to offer his skills in CAD design to help put the Wraith into production.

JT Nesbitt Wraith sketch

Nesbitt added the card to the pile that he had amassed from eager audience members following the presentation. It might have been forgotten among the dozens of other offers to join the Rebellion, had it not been for a chance encounter later that night.

Case was invited through a friend to join a penthouse party following the IDSA conference. He arrived to find the room packed and everyone well and truly drunk. After some mingling he bumped into Nesbitt and Ray and began chatting with them, in the traditional way motorcycle guys tend to gravitate together and swap war stories no matter what the venue may be.

After some time Nesbitt addressed the elephant in the room. “What the fuck happened to your hand?” Case lamented that he had mangled his left hand in a CNC mill accident, and the resulting surgeries had left him with a fused finger. He hadn’t been able to ride a motorcycle for the past four years due to the injury, as it prevented him from operating the clutch lever. Nesbitt had a simple solution: “Dude, you've got to cut that thing off.”

Two weeks later Case had his left ring finger amputated. Ecstatic at the prospect of riding once again, he called Nesbitt just to inform him that he had done the deed. Nesbitt immediately asked him if he would like to work for Confederate.

JT Nesbitt Wraith sketch

Case was a skilled designer in his own right and particularly adept at Solidworks and CAD modelling, a skill set that would serve the company well in subsequent years. But there were still no plans to put the Wraith into production, and Chambers was adamant that the project was not feasible.

S&S Super Stock engine
Image courtesy Brian Case
Nesbitt formulated a plan. On a Friday afternoon, one week after Case had called him, he loaded a 100ci S&S Super Stock Sportster-clone engine from the company shop in New Orleans into a van and drove to Pittsburgh without Chamber’s knowledge. In Pittsburgh Nesbitt met with Case to sit down for a beer and cigarette -fueled marathon session to finalize the chassis design of the Wraith around the engine Nesbitt had “borrowed”.

Brian Case and JT Nesbitt design the Wraith chassis
Image courtesy Brian Case

When Chambers discovered that his designer, the S&S mill, and the company van were missing, he contacted Nesbitt. He informed Chambers that he could fire him, but in four days he would return and re-apply for his position. When he returned from Pittsburgh he presented a series of CAD files detailing a monocoque chassis that he and Case had developed for the Wraith. Chambers was so impressed with the progress the pair had made in such a short period of time, and the innovation of their solution for a strong but easy-to-manufacture frame, that he greenlit the project and allowed development to continue - after re-hiring Nesbitt.

Wraith CAD image
Image courtesy Brian Case

Nesbitt and Cases’ solution was to use a U-shaped formed aluminum shell that wrapped around the bottom of the engine, which was held together with fore and aft bulkheads that were fastened with shoulder bolts that penetrated through the shell and served as locating pins into the bulkhead – positively locking the skin into the bulkheads. This featherweight 14 pound carbon-fibre backbone would double as an oil tank for the dry-sump engine. Wings moulded into each end of the backbone would be bolted to the shell, which cradled the 1640cc motor as a stressed member. This monocoque “fuselage” (folded around the engine “like a taco” as Nesbitt likes to put it) required a unit construction Sportster clone – while the Sportster has a separate transmission and external primary case like a traditional Harley big twin, it is held in unit with the engine crankcases by a casing that allows the power unit to be used as a stressed member. This marked a significant departure for Confederate, who had hitherto relied on big-twin powerplants mated to their proprietary gearbox design, which necessitated a traditional (albeit strong) steel cradle frame.

Confederate Wraith CAD image
Image courtesy Brian Case

The chassis was remarkably simple despite its radical appearance. All that would be required to manufacture the monocoque skin would be a flat sheet of aluminum, cut to shape with countersunk holes drilled for the mounting points, folded into the final shape by a hydraulic press. One piece, no welding, no jigs - the result would be a strong and extremely light frame that would allow the Wraith to be produced with a relatively quick turnaround by the tiny manufacturer. Fuel would be carried in a cell hidden in the hollow space below the sump of the engine, at the base of the “taco”, lowering the centre of gravity and eliminating the need for an unsightly tank up above. The exhaust collector would also be placed within the taco, fed by a pair of wrapped header pipes that snaked around the cylinders into the cavity below - this in the days before heat wrap became de rigeur for any hack builder trying to dress up their XS650. Two ports cut into the left side of the shell served as the exits. Mass centralization and simplicity was the aim, but the resulting appearance was that of the bastard lovechild of a piston-engine fighter aircraft and a board tracker. It looked impossibly badass, compact and tightly packaged, stripped down to only the barest functional elements wrapped around a massive engine.

Confederate Wraith CAD image
Image courtesy Brian Case

The rear suspension would be relatively conventional, with a straight-rate monoshock mounted within the hollow backbone acting on a single-sided swingarm. The front end was what really set the Wraith apart. The basic girder layout presented on the concept machine would be refined with milled alloy rocker links and an adjustable coilover shock mounted ahead of the steering head, but would retain the carbon-fibre fork blades. It looked wild at first glance but was quite simple in execution, with far fewer components than a telescopic fork.

Confederate Wraith XP-1 prototype monocoque
Image courtesy Brian Case

Girder designs are nothing new, though they are quite uncommon in modern designs: the technology has existed for a century, debuting as the Druid fork, a solid fork supported by a spring on a parallelogram linkage, introduced in the 1910s. In the early days of motorcycling when suspensions of any sort were in their infancy girder designs of various configurations were favoured for their strength and stable geometry, and their ability to separate braking and steering forces from the suspension action. Hydraulically-damped girder forks became a signature of Vincent twins, which used Brampton items before developing their own forged-blade Girdraulic design in the late 1940s as a more rigid alternative to the era’s highly flexible telescopic forks.

Confederate Wraith XP-1 at Bonneville
Image courtesy Brian Case

Nesbitt and Case set about building a running prototype, dubbed the XP-1, in mid-2004. Early on Nesbitt expressed a desire to field the completed machine at the speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats, scheduled a scant four months later. At the time Confederate didn't have the resources to participate in the trials. To ensure that his creation would get a proper baptism at the Flats Nesbitt “resigned” from the company while continuing to work on the XP-1, asking Chambers to withhold his salary so the company could afford to run the machine at Bonneville.  Case also worked without pay during this period, abandoning his Pittsburgh studio to work in New Orleans - completing the Wraith would be a labour of love for both of them, and both men paid expenses out of their own pockets to see it through. Seeing their passion for the project, Chambers relented and agreed to take the completed machine to the Flats.

Christ Roberts on the Confederate Wraith XP-1 prototype
Image courtesy Brian Case

XP-1 was completed in time to be entered into the first annual BUB Speed Trials in August, 2004. Confederate electrician Chris Roberts volunteered to ride the prototype across the salt, rising to the challenge in a stunning moment of bravery. Roberts, who had hand built the electrical system on the XP-1 (as well as all production Confederates), was a man with no experience at Bonneville who was expected to ride a priceless (and unproven) contraption, put together in a few months by a pair of iconoclastic designers, as fast as he possible could across the Flats. Testing had been limited to a few blasts along the Interstate near the Confederate factory before loading the machine into the van and heading for Utah. To add to the pressure XP-1 was earmarked for delivery as soon as the trials were over. XP-1 became known as the McKenna bike, destined to be installed as a piece of sculpture in the home of a prominent California automobile dealer owner after it had proven itself at Bonneville.

Confederate team at the BUB speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats, August 2004
Image courtesy Brian Case

The trial was ultimately successful, but not without drama.

After several days of rain, the Flats were slicked with a thin layer of water and runs had to be delayed while the surface dried. The salt remained damp when XP-1 was scheduled to run, reducing the top speed and adding to the challenge. Bonneville’s surface is notoriously slippery even in the dry, as you might expect when you are driving a high-powered vehicle across a bed of powdery, abrasive material at ludicrous speed.

Chris Roberts riding the Wraith XP-1 at Bonneville
Image courtesy Brian Case

As per FIM and AMA regulations all competitors must complete a two-way pass through the course to earn their official time, their final speed calculated from the average of these two runs through the markers. Roberts and the XP-1, entry number 99, were on the course at the same time as a streamliner with entry number 999. Roberts had finished his first run and was waiting to begin his second pass in the other direction. Meanwhile 999 was waiting to begin its run at the opposite end of the course. When the call was made for 99 to complete its second pass through the markers, the driver of 999 misunderstood and took off – on a collision course with Roberts. Disaster was averted but the incident nearly had the upstarts from Confederate ejected from the trials. Video proof was presented to show that the call was made for 99 and it was the streamliner driver was at fault, not Roberts.

JT Nesbitt working on the Wraith XP-1 at Bonneville
Image courtesy Brian Case

Roberts ran over 139 MPH across the salt and the crew shared a moment of triumph before delivering the bike to its new owner. The Confederate legacy had been established at the Flats, and all subsequent machines produced by the company would be fielded at Bonneville as a test of their performance and the company’s resolve in producing the fastest American production motorcycles. Nesbitt returned to the National IDSA conference with Case and Chambers where they showcased the results of the Wraith endeavour and screened a video of XP-1 running at Bonneville.  



With XP-1 delivered to its new owner, work began on a pre-production prototype that refined the chassis design and prepared the Wraith for (limited) series production.  While outwardly similar to the McKenna bike, aside from the liberal application of black hard anodizing, a number of notable improvements were implemented in what would become known as the Black Bike. Changes were made in the hopes of creating a more streetable (but still awe inspiring) machine - something more suitable for public consumption than the XP-1, which had been built with Bonneville in mind.

Wraith B91 Black Bike suspension
Image courtesy Brian Case

The monocoque, carbon fibre backbone, and Sportster-pattern engine would remain, but the front suspension was reworked. Instead of a coilover shock mounted ahead of the steering head, Nesbitt envisioned a spring enclosed within the steering neck, damped with a cartridge contained in a cavity filled with hydraulic fluid. It was essentially a rearranging of the internals of a telescopic fork applied in a unique way, with the suspension centred along the steering axis. The spring would be connected to the forks by a pullrod mounted to a rising-rate linkage, pulling down from the bottom of the steering head to compress the spring via a plunger cap mounted above.

Confederate Wraith Black Bike in Motorcyclist April 2005
Image courtesy JT Nesbitt

While the XP-1 had used a highly-tuned 100ci Super Stock engine, the Black Bike used a more “docile” 101.6x92.1mm 91ci (1490cc) powerplant built for Confederate by Revolution Performance. Fitted with two massive 48mm Super G carburettors, a reversed rear cylinder head, and Confederate’s signature vertically stacked six-speed transmission, this was not your typical Sportster mill. Power was a claimed 125hp at a screaming 7400 rpm with 104 lb/ft of torque – at the rear wheel. Semi-wet weight, without fuel, was 425lbs.

Confederate B91 Wraith Black Bike
Image Source

Performance from this combination of light weight and massive torque was impressive, but the chassis also shined. Wheelbase was 58.5 inches with a rake of 27 degrees, fitted with 17 inch wheels that could accommodate sportbike-sized rubber – no slow-turning 240 rear ala Hellcat here, instead the Wraith used a 5.5 inch width Marchesini forged alloy rear wheel shod with 180mm Metzeler rubber. Traxxion Dynamics supplied the suspension units, a modified Penske shock at the rear and a custom damper for the unique front end.

Alan Cathcart was given the opportunity to ride the Black Bike in an early state of completion in 2005. His impressions were favourable, noting a very compliant ride and excellent handling. His only gripes were the odd seating position and the lack of a tank to grip with your knees when cornering (the white hot rear cylinder serving as a poor substitute), and some fueling issues from the Revolution engine that were addressed, but not fully sorted, during his test. Remarkably, the Black Bike was assembled shortly before Cathcart rode it and was not complete finished. Though he did not reveal the fact in the review the front suspension did not have any damping mechanism installed, making the tidy handling all the more impressive and serving as a testament to the stability of Nesbitt’s fork design.

Confederate B91 Wraith motorcycle
Image Source

Development of the Wraith continued, with production anticipated to begin in the Fall of 2005. A target retail price of $47,500 (later revised to $55,000) was proposed – making it considerably less expensive than the existing Hellcat and reflecting the simplicity of the chassis’ production. A release party for the first production Wraith was scheduled for Halloween eve, with a procession of bikes meeting at the Confederate factory before touring the warehouse district of New Orleans. In late August Chambers and Nesbitt were invited to the Middle East to discuss a business arrangement with an undisclosed funder somewhere near the Persian Gulf, described as a prominent figure who was an existing Confederate customer and enthusiastic supporter of the company.

Plans were made to pay the debts of the company and fund the construction of three new models without compromising the American ownership of the company. A deal was struck and Chambers and Nesbitt spent the night celebrating before retiring early on the morning of August 28th. Upon their return to their private residence they tuned into CNN and watched in horror as reports were broadcast of a category four hurricane making its way straight for New Orleans. The epic high of their salvation at the hands of a wealthy patron was immediately crushed by the realization that their friends, family and business were now at the mercy of the wrath of God and nature, and they could do nothing but watch from the sidelines on the other side of the world.

Destroyed Confederate factory
Image courtesy Brian Case

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29th. Chambers approached his backer and offered to annul the deal in light of the possibility that the factory might be destroyed. The backer refused to go back on his word and assured Chambers and Nesbitt that the agreement would stand no matter what the outcome of the storm.

Confederate factory following Hurricane Katrina
Image courtesy Dave Hargreaves

Katrina would prove to be one of the single most destructive storms in United States history, and one of the deadliest hurricanes on record. In addition to the destruction wrought by the hurricane winds, New Orleans was devastated when the levee system failed and flood waters blanketed 80% of the city. Nesbitt returned to Louisiana and established his parent’s home in Shreveport as a safe haven for the company employees and families, all of whom were fortunate to have survived the nightmare that Katrina and its aftermath had wrought upon the city. Some preparations had been made at the Confederate factory in anticipation of possible flooding, but nothing prepared the employees for what they would encounter when they returned to the site. The West wall and the roof had collapsed, and the building that had served as the company’s factory and headquarters since 2001 was completely destroyed. The Black Bike had been on exhibition in New York at the time and was spared, eventually finding a permanent home in the Trump Tower, but the heart of Confederate was in ruins. Some frames and most of the company files were recovered but it was clear that that Confederate as it had been was no more, and another complete renewal of the company would be needed.

Confederate factory following Hurricane Katrina
Image courtesy Dave Hargreaves

Chambers made the decision to relocate the factory to a new location, a move that led to a great deal of turmoil for Nesbitt. Nesbitt remained fiercely loyal to the city he loved and refused to leave, thereby parting ways with Chambers and Confederate. Nesbitt had promoted a sincere desire to inspire a renewable and sustainable industry in the region, an industry driven by skilled labour that would manufacture commodities for export in a place which had hitherto relied on cultural exports and oil money to keep the coffers filled. It was a philosophy that had endeared him to Confederate and Chamber’s desire for a renewed industrial presence in the South.  These ideals would drive Nesbitt to found Bienville Studios alongside Dave Hargreaves, another refugee from the Confederate Family, where he would continue his own peculiar brand of uncompromising industrial design in the heart of the French Quarter.

Confederate factory following Hurricane Katrina
Image courtesy Dave Hargreaves

Meanwhile at the renewed Confederate Motor Company Brian Case and Nesbitt’s protégé, Edward Jacobs, were tasked with taking over the Wraith project. After a period of canvassing for locations and favourable economic conditions, the decision was made to move the company to a new facility in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Under Case and Jacob’s direction the Wraith would be reborn along with Confederate, taking on a form that was distinct from Nesbitt’s original vision but no less iconoclastic in its execution.        

Christ Roberts and JT Nesbitt at Bonneville, 2004
Image courtesy Brian Case.
Nesbitt speaks with Chris Roberts at Bonneville in 2004.
Roberts, who worked for Confederate until 2006, was murdered at his New Orleans home in 2007 while trying to stop a robbery.

Interesting Links

Confederate website
Confederate chassis patent
Ultimate Motorcycling (nee Robb Report Motorcycling) report on the XP1 running at Bonneville
Inc. profile of Matt Chambers and Confederate circa 2000
Review of the Confederate Grey Ghost
Review of the Confederate America GT
Announcement of the CSA line of entry level models circa 1999
Neale Bayly's review of the G2 Hellcat
Alan Cathcart's review of the G2 Hellcat
The Kneeslider details and discusses John Burn's disastrous review of the Hellcat in Cycle World
New York Times on the Wraith and Katrina
Bloomberg Business Week interview with Matt Chambers circa 2012
Alan Cathcart's review of the Black Bike
Motorcyclist interview with Matt Chambers following Katrina
Scale model recreation of the Black Bike
Matt Chamber's tribute to Chris Roberts


Confederate Wraith XP-1
Image courtesy Brian Case

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