Wraith: The Art of Rebellion

Confederate Motorcycles and its radical new Wraith--minimalist magic with a touch of gris-gris--are changing the very nature of motorcycle design

Photography by Kevin Wing

If you think America is one vast, homogeneous country overrun by Wal-Marts and peopled by latte-slurping, cell-phone-obsessed SUV drivers, think again. In the highly spiced melting pot of New Orleans, Cajun culture intertwines with Creole to produce a fascinating and distinct human counterpoint to the wider population. The original Cajuns were country-dwellers descended from a French-speaking community known as the Acadians; say it quickly and you'll get Cajun.

Thrown out of Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century, the Cajuns made their way to Louisiana, as far south as they could go in continental North America to escape Anglo-Saxon culture. But they encountered the Creoles, heirs to the original French and Spanish settlers, and faced with the Creoles' resentment, the Cajuns settled in 'gator-infested bayou country west of New Orleans. There they built the state capital of Baton Rouge, 60 miles upriver from the Creoles' French Quarter enclave. Since then the two cultures have led an uneasy coexistence, though the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought American settlers, new outsiders for the Creoles to shun.

You might also think American-made motorcycles are almost exclusively pushrod big-twin cruisers with retro styling and archaic engineering values, right? A paradigm developed by one dominant company to be copied by others, each intent on delivering a lifestyle product as much as a dynamic experience or technical tour de force? Think again.

That same New Orleans cauldron of nonconformity is home to the only motorcycle manufacturer south of the Mason-Dixon line--Confederate Motorcycles, which has already proved its capacity to do things very differently, starting with its established F124 Hellcat supercruiser. Confederate's forthcoming bike, the Wraith, likewise echoes the maker's motto, The Art of Rebellion. Even by the Hellcat's standards, the Wraith--with its carbon-fiber girder fork and bursting with new technology--is an astonishing example of alternative design, one that brings a uniquely special brand of minimalist magic to the American V-twin power-cruiser genre.

Like the Creole and Cajun cultural mantle under which it was conceived, the Wraith's creation came about in part thanks to influences outside North America, which sets it apart from the established American way of building bikes. Its linchpin feature is a massive carbon-fiber girder fork, which Wraith creator J.T. Nesbitt, 33, a fine-arts graduate and sculptor, says is a tribute to visionary Kiwi bike builder John Britten. Britten utilized a similar design on his V1000 racebike in `91 for the same reasons as Nesbitt on the Wraith: to place the V-twin engine as far forward as possible to increase frontal weight bias in pursuit of extra grip and enhanced handling without fouling the front wheel under hard braking. Yet the Wraith's overriding minimalist design concept is a direct tribute to older handcrafted Italian racing bicycles, as well as the American boardtrack racers of almost a century ago, says Nesbitt, an avowed student of the historical strands comprising the worldwide evolution of art, whether representational, abstract or mechanical.

"I've been building bikes since I was in art school," Nesbitt says with a reflective smile. "In my sophomore year at Louisiana Tech I started thinking about bikes, which my father had specifically forbidden me to ride. Partly in the spirit of rebellion against that, I of course got interested in them and started building motorcycles as part of my sculpture class. I almost got kicked out of school when I failed some classes, though maybe assembling a motorcycle in the art faculty studio and riding it up and down the second floor of the building wasn't such a smart idea.

"But I've come to realize what I was yearning for was to study vehicle design, which they didn't have in the curriculum and I didn't know to ask. But I'm so fortunate I didn't find out it existed because if I'd run through the mill like everyone else I'd wind up doing stuff like everyone else's, too. My design approach is much more art-form-based, more inspirational."

OK, but it's a long way from a postgraduate thesis in pre-Columbian art to designing radical alternatives to American two-wheel culture. How'd it happen? "After I graduated I ended up waiting tables and tending bar to make a living, and working for Iron Horse magazine in my free time, which was a great incubator of ideas and was undoubtedly responsible for launching the modern chopper craze. Just think of that next time you watch them on the Discovery Channel--Jesse James, Indian Larry, the Gasoline Alley guys, they all got their start there. In `96 or so I tested the first Confederate Hellcat for the magazine. And I was so overwhelmed by what the bike stood for, so intrigued and mystified by Matt Chambers' alternative vision for building motorcycles, that I couldn't let it go. Plus the fact it came from right here in Louisiana gave it extra mystique, I guess.

"[Chambers] and I kept in touch, but I didn't see any way he could hire me for anything because I felt essentially worthless in the context of what he was aiming to do. I was just about to turn 30 and figured I had to do something with my life before it was too late. So I called him and he said, `Come on down. We've got a job we need you to do.' I gave a rebel yell and headed for New Orleans to do exactly what I've always wanted to do, make motorcycles. And that's even more the case with the Wraith. I feel I've been allowed to express myself as an artist and as a motorcyclist in creating the bike that's been floating around in my head for the past 10 years."

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