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

Nesbitt's first task was reinventing Confederate's established Hellcat in a way that would relaunch the company as a high-end producer of two-wheel art forms. His success is measured by the back-ordered line of F124 Hellcats. "When I saw the first motorcycle I'd been responsible for concocting being collected for shipment to the guy who'd bought it, I thought I'd hung the moon," Nesbitt says, blushing with satisfaction at the memory. "Stick a fork in me, I'm done! You gotta realize, for a country boy like me who only ever dreamed of this moment as I'd be wiping up a table someone had spilled their food all over, I honestly thought I'd died and gone to heaven. But then, same as always happens when I've got `em where I want with one project, I get an idea for another bike that becomes an all-encompassing obsession. And that was the Wraith."

What drove the inspiration? "I began thinking about the integration of design and engineering," Nesbitt says with a gleam in his eye. "I started getting inside the engine itself, letting it dictate what the motorcycle was. Motorcycles today are the same things they've always been--a bicycle frame with a motor clipped onto it. But the engine and the chassis don't speak the same design language. A bike like [Yamaha's] R1 has great engineering, but in terms of visual design it's a collection of short stories, not one long novel, and one of the things people do to disguise that is put bodywork on their bike. That's OK, and I understand why sometimes it's a necessity for certain bikes to have it for aerodynamic or styling reasons.

"But for many of them it's just a piece of Band-Aid to cover up that mismatch. And to move design forward, sometimes you have to break things down. That's why in designing the Wraith I wanted to throw away all the extra hardware motorcycles have gathered around them in the past 100 years and reduce it to its bare, minimalist structure. The reason it looks like a 1915 boardtrack racer, like an Italian racing bicycle from the turn of the century, is that I'm tapping into the energy from when motorcycles were in their infancy, when people were trying to figure out what one should be like.

"That's when they played around with so many different ideas and concepts, before the pattern got locked in. They were re-engineering each successive model rather than entirely rethinking them each time they started something new. Does that make sense? It's hard to explain something you just feel instinctively, which you end up putting into what you do. I just want people to look at the Wraith and see it as something standing on its own, which they can form an opinion about, not as a bike that must be judged in comparison to other motorcycles."

First, Nesbitt had to get it past his boss, though with Confederate boss Matt Chambers' predilection for the unusual that wasn't such a big hurdle. "I have a tremendous respect for J.T's talents, and I wanted to showcase his ideas in a way that would get them recognized," Chambers says. "The guy's a genius, plus he has that rare capacity for blue-sky thinking that actually works, like the Hellcat's swingarm exhaust, for example. And he's not just a damn fine artist; he makes the bike with his own hands, too. He can weld and machine as well as anyone. After he drew the Wraith up, he and another of our guys just went into the shop and built it, and what he's created is a streamlined, modern design that brings us to a whole new place.

"Alongside the more conventional Hellcat, I wanted a product in the Confederate portfolio that represented a modern use of exotic materials such as carbon fiber. I like the idea of having what are essentially two distinct forms of motorcycle architecture in our catalog expressed in a modern context. One is a kind of '30s/'40s bobtail from the golden age of American motorcycling recreated as a thoroughly modern Southern machine. But I also desperately wanted to mount a classic American V-twin in a lightweight modern chassis with optimized handling and proper weight distribution."

Nesbitt started work on the project in `02, first producing a 9-inch-long scale model, then a full-size proof-of-concept bike before creating the first running prototype, powered by a 100-cubic-inch S&S V-twin. It first fired up in September `04, was ridden once up and down the local interstate to make sure it shifted properly, then loaded into a truck headed for the Bonneville Salt Flats. There its second 10 miles of R&D testing consisted of a brave blast across the salts by Confederate's Electrical Engineer Chris Roberts at 131 mph; not bad for a motorcycle still being broken in! Fresh off the salt, the unpainted prototype was spirited to its new owner, a Los Angeles-area car dealer who, according to Chambers, just wants to look at it, not ride it. It will never run again.

The preproduction Wraith pictured here, which is significantly different and improved from that first rough prototype, was assembled in one week in late January and has the exact specifications folks the world over will be able to buy later this year. Motorcyclist staffers were there to watch Wraith number 001 come together, and we found the entire Confederate team bubbling with the same positive energy Chambers and Nesbitt are so buoyed by.

Because our exclusive riding impression of this first production-spec Wraith won't happen for another month or so, we're left to consider the Wraith on its other merits, and how it relates to motorcycling as we know it. Ultimately, the Wraith's measurable levels of performance are mostly irrelevant. A V-twin of its displacement virtually guarantees broad power and exceptionally satisfying thrust. As for claims of its handling--"like the dickens" or "holds nice lines"--we're sure that as long as the bike doesn't Immelmann through corners, it's golden. Gauging its worth as a nonpareil road-burner against existing superbikes misses the point, just as visually comparing it to anything else misses the point.

What matters most is how the Wraith's beauty is judged in the eye of the beholder and whether it lives up to its creators' design. Readers will have to answer the first concern on their own. As for the second--the Wraith most emphatically does. It remains a jaw-dropping example of alternative motorcycle design in part because it successfully brings together the disparate elements of motorcycling's past, present and future in a strikingly unique way. It forces the viewer to rethink the way they perceive something that's become comfortably familiar--motorcycle design, with its mix of lines, curves and ruthlessly minimalist aesthetic.

As inimitable, eccentric and eclectic as the city of New Orleans itself, the Wraith is an amalgam of art and science. It is what the American V-twin was in the very beginning: the pure, honest soul of two-wheel travel. As the rolling antithesis of market-driven conformity, the Wraith proves American ingenuity is alive and well. It lives at 845 Carondelet St. in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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