Alabama-made machines want to be the ‘Rolls Royce’ of motorcycles
By David Haynes
Confederate motorcycles are not for the casual rider. Everything about these Alabama-built bikes screams performance. They look like they’re breaking at least one traffic law just sitting in the parking lot.
Neither are they for the rider with limited financial resources. With a price range from $55,000 to more than $100,000, Confederates are aimed at a niche market of well-to-do riders who appreciate and can afford the premium for the company’s uncompromising approach to motorcycles.
The most popular Confederate model – the X132 Hellcat – projects a unique, all business, no nonsense persona. No plastic covers or fairings dilute the rebellious soul of a bike that appears at first glimpse to be nothing more than a gigantic engine shoe-horned between two wheels and a gas tank. The tiny solo seat looks to be an afterthought jutting out from behind the fuel tank, hovering like a porch just above the rear wheel. No passengers on this ride. When the big V-twin roars to life, windows on each side of the massive engine’s casings allow a partial view of the spinning, throbbing mechanical innards of the beast. This is not your grandpa’s Harley.
A closer inspection reveals that everything about the Hellcat is at the extreme bleeding edge of design, performance and functionality. Nothing is present without a reason. Clutter is kept to an absolute minimum. Many components do double duty. For example, the front turn indicators are brilliant LEDs imbedded in the tops of the fork tubes and the tail light/rear turn indicators are condensed to a horizontal row of LEDs across the rear of the seat. Neither is visible until needed.
According to Confederate founder Matt Chambers, from the beginning the company’s philosophy has been to build the best motorcycles with no compromise whatsoever. Everything about the bikes is designed to put function and absolute performance over styling and other considerations.
“I believe we are building the Rolls Royce of American motorcycles,” Chambers told me, adding that his machines offer the “longest stroke and highest torque-to-weight ratio you can buy.”
The Hellcat engine, at 132 cubic inches of displacement, is the largest of its type available in a production motorcycle. Its output of 132 horsepower and 150 foot pounds of torque pushes a motorcycle that weighs in at a mere 500 pounds. That’s about one horsepower for every 3.8 pounds of weight or one foot pound of torque for every 3.3 pounds of motorcycle.
To achieve this amazing power to weight ratio Confederate uses the lightest and strongest materials available for each part, including wheels and other components made of carbon fiber, custom machined aircraft aluminum for many engine and structural components, state-of-the-art braking and suspension systems, and their own patented transmission and drive system evolved from motorcycle drag racing. Anchoring the gigantic engine is a very hefty flywheel that weighs 50 pounds and is unique to Confederate bikes.
Tying it all together is an extremely rigid frame that’s hand fabricated and shaped like an arch that resembles a cat bowing up for mortal combat.
Describing the appeal of riding a Confederate, Chambers said his bikes are the ultimate refinement of the “American Way” of road bikes, while retaining the “rebel” mystique of freedom and thumbing your nose at the status quo.
“I can roll the throttle on in fourth gear at 1,800 rpm and there’s no hesitation, no stutter, just raw, smooth, infinite acceleration that feels like a tiger clawing at the road beneath me.”
Confederate bikes are fast, too. In August 2012 one of their motorcycles set the world land speed record of 172.211 mph for unfaired, naturally aspirated, pushrod V-twins over 2000cc at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Chambers, who had a previous career as an attorney in Baton Rouge, La., began his love affair with motorcycles as a teenager and has since ridden or owned nearly every kind of motorcycle made. He started out on British bikes, then while in law school got his first Harley Davidson, which he said gave him his first appreciation for the big American road bike. Later he sampled various Japanese high performance sport bikes and paid attention as their technological evolution surged through the 1970s. Chambers went through a period of riding European BMWs and Moto Guzzis before returning to the big American Harley V-twins in the mid-1980s.
He started Confederate in 1991 in Baton Rouge after making enough money in his law practice to pursue what he saw as a unique business opportunity.
Chambers explained that Harley’s evolution after World War II had taken that company from being the “rebel” brand to the status quo motorcycle choice for Baby Boomers. Design and performance priorities for Harley were being driven by marketing appeal with more emphasis on the Harley brand than the nuts and bolts guts of the motorcycles.
His goal was to build a “no compromise” machine in which every aspect of the bike was the best he could make it. He wanted to have the strongest, most rigid, frame; largest, most powerful engine; most robust drive train. In short, he wanted to build a bike that represented the best that current technology could produce, using the skills of the best design and engineering team he could assemble.
“I sought out the best designers of drag racing motorcycles,” he explained, and that led him to Sandy Cosman and Martin Windmill in San Francisco, Ca., where he moved his company for 18 months. From that collaboration came the first Confederate motorcycle – the first generation Hellcat – named for the WWII Navy fighter plane.
The company returned to Baton Rouge until 1998, then briefly in Abita Springs, La., and later to New Orleans until their building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Chambers said he chose Birmingham in 2007 as the location for Confederate mostly because of George Barber and the Barber Motorcycle Museum that’s known throughout the motorcycling world as one of the best, if not the best, collection of motorcycles and motorcycling history in the world.
He initially wanted, and still hopes to, locate his production facilities near the Barber Museum. To date, however, the right site has not become available. The company is presently located on Birmingham’s Southside in a building that Chambers says they are rapidly outgrowing. Most of the work done there is design and prototype testing and assembly of the bikes from components that are custom fabricated or machined to their specifications from suppliers around the country.
He said 60 percent of Confederate buyers are from outside the United States at present, which Chambers thinks is much too high. “I’d like to see it around 25 percent,” he said. Confederate’s dealer network has now grown to about 20 “Distribution/Service Partners” around the United States and six other countries.
To learn more about Confederate motorcycles visit confederate.com.