Tuesday 25 November 2014

Confederate Wraith Part II - American Iconoclast

Confederate Wraith B120

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

It is late 2005 and Confederate Motors is in shambles. Fresh from the epic high of securing a high-profile investor in the Middle East, the company’s president Matt Chambers and lead designer JT Nesbitt returned to their New Orleans base of operations to discover that their factory has been destroyed by the winds and flooding brought on by Hurricane Katrina. With their facilities in ruins and their insurance company bankrupted by the claims in the aftermath of the storm, it looks like the infamous purveyor of brutal, radical and rebellious motorcycles is no more. Katrina has seemingly crushed the hopes of bringing Nesbitt’s iconoclastic Wraith design to production.

Confederate Wraith B120 Motocycle

The situation appeared dire and the circumstances were debilitating, particularly for a tiny boutique manufacturer that had constantly fought with debt, flirted with bankruptcy, and struggled to meet the demand for their two-wheeled anti-establishment icons. A few frames and components were salvaged from the ruined factory, as were most of the computer files and company books, but the operation was a long way away from building bikes - particularly when New Orleans was still wracked with instability, crime and resource shortages in the wake of flooding. In spite of the literal collapse of their New Orleans factory, Confederate’s anonymous investor/saviour had maintained his end of the agreement and would provide the capital needed to renew the company. The question remained: with the factory gone and New Orleans in shambles, where would Confederate build its bikes?

The unstable period following Katrina led to a great deal of internal turmoil and emotional conflicts within the company. Former employees of Confederate often liken their time at the company as being part of a “family”, a tight-knit and sometimes conflicted group of misfits who loved each other as much as they believed in the machines they were helping create. Many suffered long hours and paltry (or nonexistent) wages to help support the company in times of financial trouble, their contributions a true labour of love that spoke to the passion they felt for what they were building and the charismatic nature of the philosophy that Chambers espoused.

Confederate Wraith B120 Engine

It was not a surprise, then, that following the horror of Katrina and the destruction of the factory many intense emotions would come to fore. The period following the hurricane is rife with conflicting stories, disagreements, and defensive statements that need not be repeated here. All that is important for the telling of this story was that the ultimate outcome was that Chambers made a decision to leave New Orleans and start the company anew in a more favourable location, and JT Nesbitt made the decision to leave the company and remain in Louisiana.

Confederate Wraith B120 CAD
Image courtesy Brian Case.

Brian Case continued to work as a consultant for Confederate through his Pittsburgh-based company, Foraxis. In addition to helping Nesbitt design and build the Wraith XP1 and B91 prototypes, Case had a team of CAD modellers working on digitizing the components and blueprints for the G2 Hellcat into ThinkId files to streamline production. Following Katrina it seemed that Foraxis would lose its biggest and highest profile client, but Chambers saw a place for Case in the post-Katrina re-organization of the company and began discussing the possibility of bringing him on board. It would prove to be a difficult but momentous moment in Cases’ career – here was the possibility of leaving his stable business to join one of the most innovative and adventurous motorcycle companies in the world. Case felt that there was nothing else that could be as fulfilling as working for Confederate. It seemed like a dream opportunity, and in spite of the destruction wrought by Katrina there appeared to be promising opportunities on the horizon.

Confederate Wraith B120 Front Wheel

After canvassing locations across the United States an offer was extended for Chambers to visit Birmingham, Alabama in December 2005. The offer was made by local magnate and motorcycling icon George Barber. A wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in the dairy industry and local real estate, Barber was renowned for building the finest collection of motorcycles in the world: the world-class Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is home to largest and most thorough catalogue of rare, significant, and historically important production and racing motorcycles anywhere in the world.

George Barber is an imposing but well respected figure in the Birmingham area, a powerhouse business maven who balances his acumen with a friendly, cordial attitude that has earned him a great deal of respect in the local community. So when George Barber makes you an offer, you pay attention. Chambers was invited to the Barber Motorsports Park to discuss the possibility of moving to Birmingham, and made a point to bring Case along. Barber made a strong case for the move with some significant incentives, including a year's free rent in an 8,500 square foot downtown warehouse on Fifth Avenue South to get the operation back on its feet. An agreement was made and after several months of insecurity Confederate was set to move to Birmingham.

Confederate Wraith B120 CAD
Image courtesy Brian Case.

Tentative plans were made to build a 25,000 square foot state-of-the-art production facility adjoined to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum two years after Confederate relocated, with production facilities and offices being setup at the downtown location in the interim. The partnership between Barber, Confederate and the city of Birmingham became big news in the local media, with an official announcement made at the museum and a high-profile photo op that saw Alabama governor Bob Riley riding a G2 Hellcat around the Motorsport Park track. Much ado was made about the economic benefits that the company could offer the region, with jobs for as many as 250 employees and tens of millions of dollars of investment going into the local economy. Chambers announced an intention to build 150 machines in 2006, with double that expected in 2007, ultimately reaching a target of a lofty 900 examples in 2008.

Confederate Wraith B120 Dash

Confederate seemed to be a part of a series of economic windfalls that were benefiting the Birmingham area, an explosion in growth and culture that was spearheaded by a gentrification of the industrial areas of the city’s core. Confederate was among dozens of trendy businesses, restaurants and breweries that were popping up in the city and spurring on the growth of some interesting progressive cultural development within the region. Press releases made it seem like Confederate was part of some hipster gentrification movement, the motorcycle manufacturer to the stars - conveniently located across the street from an independent theatre venue. The media oversimplified the purveyors of the Art of Rebellion into a cute boutique/craft manufacturer making curious-looking bikes for wealthy clients. It was in line with Chambers’ ideals of promoting uncompromising design and craftsmanship, and the construction of “heirloom quality” machines... But it marked a noticeable softening of the abrasive damn-the-North ideology that inspired Chambers to adorn his G1 Hellcats with a decal that stated the Confederate States of America as their place of origin and to name one of his motorcycles after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Once plans were made to relocate to Birmingham, Chambers made Case a formal offer to join the company with the ultimate goal of finishing development of the Wraith. His colleague Ed Jacobs would be tasked with the proposed Renovatio project, a radical machine that would represent the rebirth of the company (but would, unfortunately, never reach production). Case left his partner in charge of Foraxis and moved to Birmingham to become Confederate’s head of operations. Enthusiastic about the prospect of helping resurrect the company, Case also hoped to fulfil a personal promise he had made to Nesbitt several months prior – he intended to see the Wraith project through to completion and put Nesbitt's design into production, albeit in a form that would be quite distinct from the two prototype machines.

Case, Chambers and Jacobs were the first and only employees of the new Confederate. The immediate goal was to resume production of the G2 Hellcat as soon as possible, and for the first six months Case coordinated vendor relations and supply chain management. What few parts were salvaged from the New Orleans factory were put to use in the new series of machines, including the first Hellcat produced after Katrina - built for Ryan Reynolds, who had placed his order before the hurricane. Chris Roberts soon joined the company once again to continue his work as Confederate’s electrical engineer.

Confederate Wraith B120 Primary Belt

With production of the Hellcat underway, Chambers asked Case to continue on the Wraith project. A chance phone call from an unlikely champion helped give impetus to the project. One day Case happened to answer the phone when Eddie Van Halen called to inquire about a motorcycle he had seen featured in a two-page spread in a certain lifestyle magazine. That machine was the B91 Wraith - the Black Bike that was now in private hands, the property of a wealthy enthusiast who kept it displayed in the living room of his Trump Tower apartment. As a youth growing up in the 1980s Case had idolized Van Halen, and made a promise to Eddie that he would build him a Wraith. Van Halen, attempting to reassure Case that he was indeed THE Van Halen, sent him a surreal email – several photos to prove who he was, accompanied by a solid block of text with written without spaces because his spacebar was broken.

Confederate Wraith B120 Primary Drive

In early 2006 Alan Cathcart pulled some strings and earned Confederate an offer to participate in the prestigious Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England. Exhibition at the Festival of Speed is by invitation only, so this was an offer that was not to be taken lightly. Case planned to have a Wraith built in time for Cathcart to ride on the Goodwood House grounds; no mean feat considering the event was in July and there had not been a Wraith built since the B91, and the bike would have to be shipped a month in advance to make it to the event on time.

Confederate Wraith B120 Detail

To add to the challenge the only motor available on short notice was a 131 cubic inch (2147 CC) R&R Cycle billet Evolution-clone big twin that was intended for the 2006 F131 Hellcat, which featured completely different architecture compared to the Sportster-based engines used in the prototype Wraiths. With a deadline looming and problems with mounting the big-twin engine into a chassis intended for a Sportster architecture not fully addressed, the Goodwood bike, dubbed B131, was built as a non-running prototype. The machine was completed in June and crated up for shipment to the UK a month in advance of the Festival. Case flew to overseas to setup for the event and await the arrival of the B131.

Confederate Wraith B120 Clutch Cylinder

The machine never arrived. A problem with the customs paperwork meant that the B131 remained in the crate in a holding facility in the USA while Case was getting prepared for the big reveal at Goodwood. The Confederate stand was still put up, featuring exactly zero machines, with labelled plinths sitting empty. It was an embarrassing moment for the company, but one that would be rectified the following year when a Wraith and a G2 Hellcat would successfully complete the transatlantic journey to Goodwood.  

Confederate Wraith and Hellcat at Goodwood Festival of Speed 2007
Confederate Wraith and Hellcat at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2007.
Image Source

Upon his return to Birmingham Case sat down to re-evaluate the big twin Wraith idea and refine the concept. He decided that the Evolution-pattern R&R engine would not work, particularly due to the transmission mount shared with the Hellcat that would preclude using the engine cases as a stressed member within the monocoque structure.

The solution was found in a series of clone motors produced by JIMS USA under license from Harley-Davidson. Based on the Twin Cam architecture introduced by Harley in 1998, the JIMS Beta series twin features a counterbalancing system as found on Twin Cam B series engines used in Softail models from MY2000 onward. Dual counter-rotating balance shafts, placed fore and aft of the crankshaft and driven by a single chain geared off the primary side flywheel, ensured a smooth engine devoid of the usual paint-shaker primary vibration inherent in a massive 45-degree twin. This makes solid mounting possible without having the engine conspiring to rattle the chassis (and the rider) to pieces. More importantly for the Wraith, the Twin Cam engine featured direct mounting points for the transmission case at the rear of the crankcase, allowing the gearbox to be bolted rigidly to the engine to create a semi-unit structure that could be used as a stressed member. The Evolution series and all prior big twin designs have had completely separate gearboxes that needed to be mounted independently from the engine, precluding the possibility of using the powertrain as a chassis member.

Confederate Wraith B120 JIMS 120 Cubic Inch Engine

Case designed a proprietary gearbox support that would bolt to the Twin Cam crankcase and house Confederate’s signature vertically stacked five-speed transmission. With this unitized design, the JIMS powertrain was a mere ½ inch longer than a Sportster unit. A "not street legal" (cough) 120 CI 4.125 x 4.5 inch undersquare (approximately 104.8mm x 114mm, 1973 CC) engine was selected, an off-the-shelf counterbalanced JIMS mill intended for use in Softail applications. Aside from a set of Screaming Eagle cams, pushrods, and valve springs, most of the components were produced in-house by JIMS, including the conrods, pistons, tappets, rockers, crankcases and crankshaft. With a 10:1 compression ratio and running premium pump gas, claimed power was 125 HP and 121 LB/FT at the rear wheel (some sources claimed 131 LB/FT - in either case it could probably be deemed adequate). In a bike that would weigh less than 450 LBS ready to ride, this would be sufficient to give some sparkling performance – without any of the retina-detaching vibration that would normally be expected from a highly-tuned big-inch Harley-clone motor.

Confederate Wraith B120 Fuselage

The chassis was similar to the previous prototypes, sharing the same hollow carbon-fibre backbone used on the XP1 and the Black Bike – close inspection will reveal that the curve of the spine doesn't quite match the radius of the big twin cylinder heads, as the spine was originally drawn around Sportster dimensions. The suspension contained within the steering neck used on the Black Bike was abandoned in favour of the XP1 multilink girder setup with an external Penske coilover shock mounted in parallel to the steering axis, using a titanium shock spring to reduce steered mass. Rake was 27 degrees, with 4 inches of trail - wheelbase was 58.5 inches. Another key difference compared to the earlier prototypes was the splitting of the monocoque fuselage into five pieces. The spine and bulkhead panels supported the motor and served as the load-bearing structure, while the belly pan became an unstressed panel that could be unbolted from the rest of the chassis. As before the backbone served as an oil tank for the dry sump motor, while the belly pan contained the fuel cell, exhaust silencer, and battery. An automotive pump was needed to move fuel against gravity from the underslung tank, fed through a regulator to reduce pressure enough to feed a single 51mm Keihin carburettor.

Confederate Wraith B120 Bulkhead

By December 2006 Case had completed a running (but not yet rideable) “B120” Wraith prototype. Plans were made to deliver the bike to Southern California where Alan Cathcart would get some seat time and write a review for Motorcyclist magazine. Case himself would make the trip across the country with several bikes in tow – he would take the opportunity to personally deliver Ryan Reynolds’ now completed Hellcat as well as bring the Wraith to Cathcart.

Confederate B120 Prototype at Schwartzkopf Exclusive Customs
Image courtesy Brian Case.

While the B120 was more or less complete, some detail work remained before Cathcart would be able to ride it. Case took the bike to Eric Schwartzkopf’s Exclusive Customs shop (now DC Custom Designs in Marina Del Rey), then a Beverly Hills-based Confederate partner located just off Santa Monica boulevard. Schwartzkopf had served as an unofficial Confederate service centre and had a favourable relationship with the company, performing repairs, maintenance and warranty work for local owners (read: celebrities), despite the fact that there was no official Confederate dealer or service network at the time.

Confederate Wraith B120 Logo
The Confederate Wraith logo, a stylized W designed by Case so he could paint it on the road with a burnout.
Matt Chambers wasn't amused.

Schwartzkopf opened his shop to Case to allow him to finish the B120. With the bike running and a quick shakedown complete, it was hastily delivered to Susan Carpenter from the LA Times for a review. Carpenter discovered a few issues, including a leaking backbone which dripped oil onto the exhaust pipes and rear wheel, and a wonky fuel pump which caused the bike to die on her first ride. The resulting review was a bit disappointing and it seemed like the test had been unnecessarily rushed, but Carpenter was still charitable to the machine and could not deny the appeal of the Wraith, despite the teething issues and a riding experience that taxed the rider. She noted the smoothness of the counterbalanced engine and the compliance of the unusual front suspension, and the massive amount of attention that riding the Wraith around Los Angeles attracted.

Confederate Wraith B120 Carbon-Fibre Rear Wheel

After Carpenter’s ride, Case made some last-minute fixes, such as sealing the leaky oil reservoir in the backbone with Kreem. Before delivering the bike to Cathcart, Case took the opportunity to take the B120 on some shakedown rides around Malibu and the surrounding backroads, including a trip to the famous Rock Store where he encountered Jay Leno (who expressed enthusiasm for the wild design). Case had to deal with an unstoppable amount of interest lavished upon the alien-looking machine on every route and at every stop. As Carpenter had discovered the sight of a Confederate of any sort on the road was cause for investigation, and the awesome-looking Wraith garnered even more attention than usual.

Confederate Wraith B120 Rear Suspension

With the major bugs ironed out the B120 was passed to Cathcart. His review noted much improved riding characteristics compared to the Black Bike he had ridden in 2005. He praised the smoothness and power of the JIMS engine, particularly compared to the Revolution Performance powerplant used in the B91.  He also noted the good handling, commendable stability (without the need for a steering damper, though production models were fitted with one), and excellent feedback offered by the girder front suspension. Soft springing and controlled damping allowed the bike ride to absorb rough roads without feeling undersprung – it rode comfortably, even if the ergonomics would injure the rider before the suspension harshness ever would.

Confederate Wraith B120 Primary Drive

At this point a retail price of 55,000$ was set for the B120, undercutting the F131 Hellcat which remained the flagship of the line at 67,500$. Chambers claimed that 35 pre-orders were in hand for the Wraith, and that there were plans to build as many as 250 examples with production starting in early 2007. Plans were made for a return to Bonneville in 2007 to prove the mettle of the new Wraith. Case hoped to lead the effort and field his baby on the Salt Flats, just as Nesbitt had done with XP1. However Chambers was pushing Case further away from design and testing and more into production logistics for the company. A Haas CNC mill and CNC lathe were purchased on Case's recommendation to bring more manufacturing in-house and he was placed in charge of setting up and programming the units - once the machines arrived on site it was clear that a suite of CAM software was needed to convert the company's Solidworks files into real objects, an expensive oversight that angered Chambers. He made Case responsible for getting the critical CNC equipment running, while Ed Jacobs was gradually increasingly billed as Confederate’s star designer. Case was being pulled from the front line and relegated to daily operations, and he began to feel slighted as a result.

Alan Cathcart Brian Case Confederate Wraith Prototype
Alan Cathcart and Brian Case with the B120 prototype. Image courtesy Brian Case.

Period articles seem to corroborate the shift, with mention of Case’s contributions to the Wraith project steadily disappearing as time went on.* Despite the high-profile nature of the design and the favourable attention the B120 was garnering, it seemed that Chambers preferred to shift focus onto Jacobs’ work, which were more industrial, clean-sheet designs that represented a break from the pre-Katrina machines.

Confederate Wraith B120 Gauge

In March 2007 Case was sent to the Daytona Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida with two Wraith prototypes. Neale Bayly was invited to ride and review the B120, with Case joining him on the second machine for a friendly blast around the event. Bayly noted some ergonomic issues and clunky clutch and shifting, but was favourable in his assessment. When he rode the newer of the two prototypes he noted some noticeable improvements, what he saw as a sure sign of meaningful progress towards a polished production machine from the tiny company. Retail price was now quoted at 62,500$.

Confederate Wraith B120 Headlamps

During the fall of 2007 a team consisting of Denis McCarthy, Jason Reddick and Joe Brutton was preparing a B120 for a record attempt at the BUB Speed Trials in September of that year in the Altered – Pushrod Gasoline class (A-PG 2000CC). Case had been helping the crew prepare Bonnie, the Wraith registered as entry 96 in the BUB trials, but was removed from the team by Chambers in August. He was tasked with taking a B120 and a F131 Hellcat to take to Sturgis, North Dakota to participate in the American Motorcycle Dealer World Championship of Custom Bike Building. The AMD championship is an annual showcase of all that is wild and wonderful in custom motorcycles, with entries from all over the world competing in several categories - but despite their worthiness as entries, Case failed to see how competing in the championship would play into Confederate’s brand image. The AMD championship was a showcase for over-the-top unrideable choppers and candy-coloured styling exercises that represented the sort of ridiculous excess that didn't jive with Confederate's ideology. He felt that the trip was a way of pushing him out of the limelight while his coworkers were working on the Bonneville entry. The two Confederates were entered in the Production Manufacturer Class, with the requirement that the “entry must be based on a production motorcycle with over 50 units of the model produced annually”; a definition that was probably stretched a bit for the Wraith, which at that point existed only in pre-production form. Regardless of the letter of the rules the two entries swept the class, with the Wraith taking first and the Hellcat second.

Confederate Wraith B120 Girder Front Suspension

The results served as a bit of vindication for Case, but it didn't help his position with Chambers. Upon Case's return to Alabama, the two had a vicious argument. Chambers proceeded to suspend Case from work for two weeks. Frustrated by his increasingly marginalized position within Confederate, Case spent the time off work mulling over his options. He made the decision to leave the company and tendered his resignation upon his return.

Confederate Wraith B120 Seat Logo

With regards to the Wraith, Case felt the design was finished and he had seen it through to production. He felt that he had accomplished what he set out to do, and in so doing had kept his personal promise to Nesbitt (and, to a lesser degree, to Van Halen, who eventually took delivery of a B120 for himself and a Hellcat for his wife).

Brian Case Confederate Wraith B120 Sturgis 2007
Image courtesy Brian Case.

The Bonneville run went ahead as planned in September, with Bonnie taking to the Flats with Jason Reddick aboard. Featuring a pair of board-tracker style reverse bend handlebars to allow Reddick to tuck in, entry 96 averaged 137.152 mph in the flying mile on their first outing, then 154.778 mph on their second runs. Despite the impressive performance from a naked, air-cooled V-twin powered “production” machine, their trap speeds weren't enough to secure a record in A-PG 2000CC. The team noted that the bike was running out of gearing at the top end; a subsequent attempt in December 2008 with a revised Wraith, again with Reddick aboard, netted a two-way average of 166.459 mph. With that Confederate earned their first FIM land speed record in the Altered - Pushrod Fuel class (A-PF 2000CC).

Confederate Wraith B120 Bonneville Motorcycle
Denis McCarthy aboard Bonnie. Image courtesy Denis McCarthy.

Series production of the Wraith was underway by mid-2007, with a retail price that had now inflated to 92,500$. Given the hand-crafted nature of the machines, no two B120s are exactly the same. Some have single front brakes instead of a dual disc setup, some have stainless brake rotors while others have carbon composite, some have BST carbon fibre wheels instead of forged Marchesini items, some have open headers while others route the exhaust through the belly pan. Small detail differences and specification changes abound throughout the production run. Some complaints were addressed, particularly an extremely heavy clutch pull and clunky shifting, as well as some ergonomic tweaks that made the seating position a bit more bearable (but still far from appropriate for long rides).

Alan Cathcart Confederate Wraith B120 Prototype
Image courtesy Brian Case.

Not only are no two Wraiths alike in specification, it would also appear that no two Wraiths ride alike. Each reviewer that had the good fortune to swing a leg over the B120 had a very different opinion of the handling. Most praised the smoothness and power of the JIMS engine, and universally noted the awkward ergonomics, but each noted different characteristics from the girder front suspension. This ranged from the commendable stability and feedback that Cathcart noted in Motorcyclist in 2007 to flighty nervousness that required a maxed-out steering damper described by Mark Hoyer in a 2009 Cycle World review. In a 2008 review for The Telegraph the late Kevin Ash described the steering as vague and slightly unstable until you pushed it hard (which he was reluctant to do on a borrowed machine that retailed for £52,560)  and lamented that the multilink front end wasn't tuned for anti-dive properties like a BMW Duolever (Hossack) suspension.

Alan Cathcart riding the Confederate Wraith B120 Prototype
Image courtesy Brian Case.

The reason for this variety in handling impressions is unclear. It may have something to do with aberrations in the front girder geometry - either intentional due to tweaking by Confederate over the years, or due to improper suspension setup, or due to minor variations in production. Girder forks tend to have odd dynamic characteristics, with consistent trail for the first few inches of travel followed by a significant change at longer strokes which can lead to odd handling under certain conditions - they work better with very short (and thereby harsh) amounts of suspension travel. The reason is the fork is moving independently of the steering axis of the frame, causing loss of trail under compression when the steering offset changes. This can be tuned to acceptable levels on the street, but is not so great if you plan on racing with a traditional girder - for that you need a Hossack or Fior fork, which links the steering axis to the fork.    

Confederate Wraith B120 Front Suspension

Seeing a Wraith in person you are struck by how utterly alien it looks. Like any Confederate it is stupendously well made, with the finest components liberally strewn around a massive motor. The machine is tied together with highest quality CNC milled billet, titanium and matte-finish carbon-fibre. Every fastener and fitting is of the highest quality, if not made specifically for the machine. The carbon-fibre girder blades dominate the aesthetics, but somehow look right. Time has softened the impact of the Wraith's awe-inspiring design, but not by much – these are still amazing looking machines that are unlike anything else on two wheels.

Confederate Wraith B120 Rear

A Wraith is smaller and narrower than you imagined it would be, a 9/10ths scale replica of what you pictured in your head. The weight is carried low and the seat height is barely over 30 inches. While seated on the bike it seems to disappear beneath you. The B120 is slightly larger than the XP1 and B91 but it is still a physically tiny machine that seems like little more than a giant motor with some running gear shrink wrapped around it. You don't realize how compact it really is until you see it in person, sit on it, or witness it in motion with a rider aboard. It is little wonder that the completed B120 weighed in the neighbourhood of 410 LBS dry (some sources claimed 385 LBS), despite packing a near-as-damnit 2000 CC engine with an ungodly amount of torque on tap. The Wraith was billed as Confederate's "sport" machine - considerably lighter and more oriented towards sharp handling than the Hellcat, with a leaned-forward seating position, 120/70-17 and 190/50-17 Pirelli Diablo tires, and a compact chassis. It's hardly a sport bike by any traditional definition but it makes sense when compared to other Confederates.

Confederate Wraith B120 Seat

The proportions of the Wraith look even stranger when a human is perched precariously over it, the minimal saddle disappearing beneath their butts, their legs set back in a semi-rearset position with arms outstretched to meet the flat streetfighter bend of the bars. The ergonomics are, to put it lightly, awkward. Without a fuel tank to grip with your knees the air-cooled engine threatens to alternately roast or shred your legs, with the rear cylinder head and open belt-driven primary drive respectively. You need to keep your knees splayed to keep your jeans intact, and be mindful of the exhaust exit on the right side (if the bike is fitted with open headers) which will likely melt the toe of your boot.

Confederate Wraith B120 Monocoque

Production continued at a slow rate with steady refinements. Each Confederate is hand assembled by a team of craftsmen, and for most of the company’s history they have only built one machine at a time, with the next order starting only when the current machine is finished and ready for delivery. As a buyer, you put down your deposit and wait your turn for your machine to be built. Each machine is tested for 200 miles by Confederate staff before delivery to the customer; former Confederate engineer Denis McCarthy noted that every ride home was a non-stop barrage of dumbstruck onlookers and 20 minute fuel stops, and he had to build a ramp on his front porch to roll whichever priceless machine he was testing into his home for safekeeping.

Confederate Wraith B120 Rearset

After the year of free rent expired at their Fifth Avenue location, the much-touted plan to move Confederate to a larger facility adjoined to the Barber museum quietly fell through. The economic catastrophe in 2008 hit Confederate hard – the ultra-exclusive nature and high prices of their machines killed sales in the wake of a general sobering up of the market. Flash and conspicuous consumption had been building to a crescendo before the downturn, supporting boutique brands and a luxury market that existed in a bubble – in motorcycles as much as in cars, watches, art, boats, booze and anything else that might have graced the pages of the Robb Report. When that bubble inevitably burst the trend was towards far more discreet displays of wealth and a general shrinking of demand in the luxury market. There were still wealthy clients buying luxury goods, but they now wanted more tasteful, more understated products with solid fundamentals and better resale. Fly-by-night manufacturers of trendy, expensive and flashy goods disappeared, while more established brands like Confederate suffered greatly reduced sales. In 2008 the company produced a mere 37 machines, nowhere near the several hundred units they anticipated before the recession hit. A total of approximately 25 B120s were built, a mere tenth of the originally planned production run.

Confederate Wraith B120 Confederate Factory
Two B120s on display at the current Confederate factory showroom in Birmingham, Alabama. The assembly area is visible to the right.

In Spring 2010 it appeared the Confederate would abandon its operations in Birmingham to return to New Orleans. A 750,000$ loan was offered by the city to entice Confederate to return to Louisiana and develop a lower-priced entry level model (which would ultimately materialize as the sub-50,000$ X132 Hellcat). Opposition from a member of the board of directors created a rift within the company and delayed acceptance of the loan. A lawsuit was taken out against the board member with the accusation that he was attempting to “deadlock” the company. Meanwhile Confederate’s benefactors in Alabama were not impressed with the about-face after the company had promised tens of millions of dollars in investment and the creation of several hundred local jobs. Ultimately the loan from New Orleans fell through and Confederate remained in Birmingham, moving to their current location on Second Avenue South in 2013.

Confederate Wraith R135 Combat
Image Source

The B120 evolved into the R135 Wraith Combat, the last hurrah for a platform which had been gradually overshadowed by the introduction of Ed JacobsP120 Fighter in 2009 and third-generation X132 Hellcat in 2010. The R135 was announced in early 2013 as a limited edition of seven examples retailing for 135,000$. The most obvious difference, aside from black anodizing on all the metal surfaces, is the fitting of a JIMS 135 CI 4.3125 x 4.625 inch (110 x 117mm, 2212 CC) Twin Cam engine. Based on the architecture of the 120 CI mill, the 135 boasted detail improvements across the board, including CNC milled heads, higher lift Screaming Eagle camshafts, and a welded crank pin. JIMS claimed power was up to 136 HP and 135 LB/FT at the wheel with 10.67:1 compression. According to JIMS the 135, like the 120, is a “race only” not-street-legal engine - but no one told Confederate that.

Confederate P120 Fighter Motorcycle
One of Ed Jacobs' Confederate Fighters in for servicing at the Confederate factory. The Fighter succeeded the Wraith as the company's flagship model. It uses a girder front suspension similar to the B120, but with alloy rather than carbon fibre blades.

After leaving Confederate in 2007, Brian Case set about canvassing for positions. Foraxis had closed a year after he left, leaving him without a fall-back position. In the winter of 2007 Case travelled to East Troy, Wisconsin to be interviewed by Buell for a design position on the upcoming 1125R superbike project. Erik Buell interviewed Case personally, and at the conclusion of the interview informed him that he wasn't suited for the position: not because he wasn't qualified, but because he wouldn't be satisfied with the job. Buell told Case that he would be relegated to focusing on some tiny subset of the design of the bike, a far cry from creating a radical machine out of whole cloth and running a production facility as he had at Confederate. It simply wasn't a job for him.

Case accepted the outcome with a positive outlook: here he was being interviewed by Erik Buell himself, who told him that he was too good for the job. It snapped him out of the funk that followed his resignation from Confederate. After visiting Buell he was convinced that he too could produce a new all-American motorcycle. That and the miserable, bitter desolation of winter in small-town Wisconsin didn’t impress him much after he had grown accustomed to the year-round riding season in Alabama.

Motus MST Motorcycle

Upon his return to Birmingham Case sat down with friend Lee Conn and drafted a business plan. Initial plans and sketches were for an air-cooled V-twin sportbike, but the concept eventually evolved into a longitudinally-mounted 1650 CC V4 based loosely on a small-block Chevrolet pushrod V8 powering a modern all-American sport tourer. Motus was officially born, and Case never looked back.

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle
Image courtesy ADMCi 

In 2010 Case and Nesbitt once again collaborated on a motorcycle, when Nesbitt approached Case to provide the powertrain for his Bienville Legacy. To Case working with Nesbitt on the Legacy felt like a continuation of their work together on the Wraith, as if their collaboration had never been interrupted. Pre-production of the Legacy began in 2013, and the prototype was unveiled at the Motus factory in downtown Birmingham in October of that year. Three complete Legacies were rolled out of Nesbitt’s studio a year later in October 2014 and were proudly exhibited in the lobby of the Motus headquarters, just over ten years after Nesbitt and Case had first teamed up to work on the Wraith XP1.

JT Nesbitt (left) and Brian Case (right) working on one of the three Bienville Legacy motorcycles at the Motus factory in Birmingham, Alabama. 

There is a certain symbiosis to their work together, a pairing that seems incongruous but somehow works. Nesbitt is the consumate dreamer, a master craftsman with high-minded ideals that often ruffle the tendencies of more “conventional” (i.e. boring) designers. He is an artist by training, but refuses to identify as one. He is brilliant, perceptive, occasionally blunt and sometimes a bit arrogant, and he refuses to compromise his principles. Case is more grounded, more technically minded, and has a background in industrial design. He is reserved, intelligent, calm and perceptive. Despite the differences in their personalities, Case and Nesbitt mesh and work together remarkably well. It is one of those odd yin/yang pairings that seems too cliched to be true, but their collaborations have produced some of the most interesting motorcycles of the 21st century -  the Wraith and the Legacy are proof enough of that.    

JT Nesbitt and Brian Case in the Motus Factory

* Following Case's resignation, Ed Jacobs was presented as the man who had made the Wraith a production reality and all mention of Case's contributions disappeared: a 2009 Cycle World review said Jacobs "is largely responsible for the Wraith’s current producibility and functionality." 

Interesting Links

Business Wire's announcement of Confederate's move to Alabama
Susan Carpenter's LA Times review of the B120 Wraith prototype
Alan Cathcart's review of the B120 prototype in Motorcyclist
Neale Bayly's review of the B120 prototypes in Motorcycle Mojo
Motorcycle.com details of the 2007 Bonneville trials
The late Kevin Ash's review of the 2008 B120 Wraith
Cycle World review of the 2009 B120 Wraith
Motorcyclist on the 2009 Wraith and Fighter
Ultimate Motorcycling review of the 2010 B120 Wraith
Bonhams' auction of a 2007 B120 Wraith
B-Metro magazine on Chambers and Confederate
Matt Chambers' TEDx talk on the "American System vs the American Way" and the philosophy behind Confederate
Matt Chambers speaks about the aftermath of Katrina
The Wall Street Journal profiles Ed Jacobs
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum website
Motus Motorcycles website
Bienville Studios Website
OddBike profile of the Bienville Legacy
ADMCi Website

Confederate Wraith B120s in the Confederate Factory in Birmingham, Alabama


  1. I really like the look of the front section of the Fighter. The hard stainless tubing, chunky aluminum support structures, smooth machined surfaces, flush fasteners... That industrial-robot-slash-aerospace look definitely appeals to me. The flat sides of the Wraith's girder, on the other hand, I dunno. I don't dislike the look, but I don't think they fit the style of the rest of the bike.

    Anyway, I can't help but bring this up: "Confederate States of America?" A bike named after the first KKK Grand Wizard? I'd be surprised if these guys were into empty "edginess," but if it's not that... yikes. I mentioned the bizarre theme to a friend, and he quipped "try our sports model and dominate the races." Snort.

  2. The Wraith is special. None of the bikes in its family tree measure up- has the unquantifiable "rightness" that eludes so many designs. Like "What's Going On" or the Farnsworth House, the Wraith is a piece of work that shouldn't be criticized. If you don't think it's perfect, fine, but you're wrong. It couldn't be anything other than what it is.

    Confederate may get lucky again- but probably not. Single-minded assholes make masterpieces, not companies. JT Nesbitt should be in much higher demand.

  3. Yet another outstanding and detailed writing on the subject of these particular Odd Bikes Jason. Thank you for writing this one. I greatly enjoyed reading it, as I enjoyed being on Confederate's emailing list for many years and reading with great delight each of their product offerings.

  4. You should try OddBike as a podcast.

  5. Great story. Would make a wonderful book, actually.