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."

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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