Zen and the art of Making Motorcycles

Confederate Motors designs machines with a soul.

Written by Tom Wofford

Photography by Marc Bondarenko

The brick structure in Lakeview is nondescript, but what’s being built behind the darkened glass façade is anything but.

One vehicle at a time, a handful of engineers and craftsmen make road machines so visually striking, some have been bought for the sole purpose of displaying them.

Inside a former flower shop, this team creates kinetic art, metal sculptures of museum quality that are also capable of moving more than 160 miles an hour. Critics have called the fruits of their labor “stunning,” “startling,” “sexy,” “unapologetic” and “astounding.”

The Wall Street Journal actually called their new product “perfect.”

This handful of people manufactures their products in the original sense of the word — by hand — building what Confederate motorcycle enthusiast and repeat customer James Hoegh describes as “machines with a soul.” It’s “the anti-thesis of mass production,” according to Confederate Motors’ newly redesigned website.

In a world where many ordinary things are described as such, the people at Confederate Motors actually make something that is unique, one of a kind. “Every Confederate motorcycle has its own personality,” Hoegh said.

Unlike television reality shows about custom motorcycle shops, where chaos and conflict dominate the narrative, the atmosphere at Confederate’s smallish factory is absolutely tranquil, even in the midst of press visits and last-minute adjustments leading up to the launch of the company’s hot, and important, new cycle.

“It feels good to have a hand in making something of this quality,” Confederate’s welder Josh Coker said. “The best thing is after we’ve been working on a prototype, to watch Jason ride it down that cobblestone alley [behind the factory] and then see him coming down the street.”

“Our employees are fully engaged in the product and in the mission,” said Clay Morrison, Confederate’s director of marketing.

Either despite the odds, or in delayed fulfillment of them, six years after relocating to Birmingham, Confederate Motors is poised to reach a new benchmark, to raise a high bar a bit higher. Since Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the company in 2005, Confederate has struggled to regain its balance, but word on the street indicates Confederate now has the perfect vehicle it needs to turn a new corner onto a long, fast straightaway.

Last month’s debut of the third-generation Hellcat—the latest and greatest incarnation of the bike that made Confederate the center of a cultish fanbase— more than returns the company to top form. The X132 Hellcat is yet another example of Confederate’s bleeding-edge design, engineering ingenuity and obsession with extreme quality, all available for a drastically lower price than the original machine.

Judging by early industry reaction, the X132 Hellcat looks like the kind of game changer for Confederate the original Hellcat was. “The new bike is the best bike,” founder and CEO H. Matthew Chambers said, reflecting on the long line of ground-breaking motorcycles his company has brought to the market over the last two decades.

With an introductory price of only $45,000, the new Hellcat opens up a big new piece of the market for Confederate. (Adjusted for inflation, the original Hellcat would cost almost $85,000 today.) Before production even began, Confederate had orders for almost 50 of them, meaning almost half of the original production run sold out in advance.

“I have every confidence that we have delivered all we ever dreamed of giving,” Chambers said.

Chambers dreamed about giving motorcycle fanatics a lot since 1991 when he decided to reinvent the American road bike. A successful plaintiff’s attorney in Baton Rouge for 13 years, Chambers quit practicing law to found a company that would produce the motorcycles of his dreams, uniquely American machines of uncompromised quality that would express his personal philosophy of minimalism, innovation and a holistic approach to product development and construction.

Chambers wanted to build a company that was ideologically and philosophy-driven, and that was committed to quality without compromise. Chambers was greatly influenced by an anecdote concerning General Motors in the 1950s. “They decided that instead of trying to make the best possible product they could, they would focus on how they could make the most money,” Chambers said. “And that’s when America got into trouble.”

Inherently, riding a motorcycle is an act of rebellion,

“For an expression of principled individuality, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the Great American road bike,” Chambers said. “And nothing is more American than a Confederate Hellcat.”

After an early corporate detour to San Francisco to team up with a company at the forefront of drag-race technologies, Confederate returned south to Louisiana in 1993, and the first Hellcat rolled out of the company’s New Orleans workshop in late 1994.

The first-generation Hellcat put Confederate squarely in the spotlight.

With their $55,000 price tags (in 1996 dollars), Confederate Hellcats in the 1990s became the next big thing for movie stars, celebrity athletes and other powerful men who enjoy the best toys money can buy.

Confederate’s staff is discrete when asked about the company’s more famous customers, but press reports provide a list worthy of gawking: Bruce Springsteen, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, David Beckham, John Travolta, Nicholas Cage, Eddie Van Halen, Tim McGraw and Abdullah II, King of Jordan. A British tabloid reported Cruise and Beckham had formed the “Midnight Boys Bike Club,” a group of celebrity Confederate owners who “take cruises through the Hollywood Hills in the dead of night.”

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times called Confederate “the motorcycle equivalent to a Hollywood ‘It’ boy,” piling on the glamour by saying, “About the only time you see a Confederate is with a celebrity on top.”

Underneath the glamour, however, Confederate motorcycles were the real deal, bikes a motorcycling purist could fall completely in love with. Confederate motorcycles were clearly built by people passionate about cycles, and Confederate developed a passionate following.

“We have bikes in 23 countries on six continents,” Morrison said. Recent orders include those from Moscow and Australia.

Confederate’s mission, as well, is to treat every customer like a celebrity. A Confederate customer comes in contact with every person at the company, including Chambers. They are updated on their motorcycle’s production status and sent pictures via email as the bike is being built, before the bike is personally delivered to their home by someone uniquely qualified.

Paul Adams delivers, shows and sometimes services Confederate products, but he was first hired to build them. “I bring a unique authenticity to the client experience,” Adams said with a smile. There isn’t much routine about Adams’ job. His recent deliveries have included trips to Arkansas, Paris, and Dubai.

Despite its image as a celebrity motorcycle, Confederate has plenty of customers who consider themselves “regular guys,” like James Hoegh of Sunbury, Penn. A physical therapist who grew up in a big, hard-working family, Hoegh first chanced upon a Confederate bike on a visit to Utah. He will take delivery next spring of the first of the new Hellcats built, his eighth Confederate motorcycle.

While some customers visit the factory before making their purchase, Hoegh has not felt the need. “I think I’ve bought every one of my motorcycles sight unseen,” Hoegh said. “I have absolute trust in Confederate.”

With the success of the first Hellcat, Chambers became recognized as an industry visionary, although he demurs when asked if he is the Steve Jobs of motorcycles. He has an enthusiasm and charisma reminiscent of Jobs.

Still, Chambers’ aesthetic concepts for Confederate bikes reimagined what motorcycles should look like. As new bikes were conceived and produced, Confederate’s approach to design remained constant; Confederate motorcycles are minimal, skeletal even, primitive and raw.

“The design of every Confederate model has illustrated the idea of performance,” Chambers said.

“We have taken on a responsibility of moving industrial design forward in America,” Morrison said.

There is simplicity and purity in the design and engineering. “Everything has to do more than one thing,” said engineer Chris Callahan. “That’s how you achieve such a clean, uncluttered look.”

While other motorcycle companies might try to hide a bike’s welds behind purely cosmetic elements, the welding work on a Confederate machine is front and center because it is so beautiful. For Confederate’s welder Josh Coker, his work is as much art as craft.

The welding on Confederate products is “extremely fine work, very detailed,” Coker said. Not every welder can do work of this type, “but this is the kind of welding that gives you the most control, allows you to do welds that look this good,” Coker said. It’s also surprisingly clean work. “You could do it in a suit,” he said.

“There are no fairings, no chrome covering up inferior parts,” Morrison said proudly. “You won’t see panels hiding anything. There’s nothing to hide.”

Confederate motorcycles are engineered to over-deliver on their visual promise, to provide a primal energy that is sublimely in control and offers immediate and effortless power on demand

“A machine has to ride like she looks,” Chambers said.

All Confederate models have looked aggressive and blistering fast, seemingly capable of flight, so Chambers gave them the names of military aircraft: Hellcat, Fighter, Wraith.

It’s fitting then, that Reddick, who has built every Confederate motorcycle since April 2007, spent four years in the Air Force as a mechanic on F-15 and F-16 fighters.

Reddick enjoys his test rides around Southside when he’s fine-turning a bike nearing completion. “People lose their mind when they see me coming down the street,” Reddick said. “Some people will yell, ‘Hey, that’s a Confederate,’ but sometimes people just stare, sort of amazed.”

Reddick, who knows “exactly what each bike is supposed to feel like,” is not only an expert among experts, he has used a Confederate motorcycle to capture a land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats, clocking in at 164.459 miles per hour. Confederate fans can buy a poster featuring Reddick’s ride.

“I build them all the same way,” Reddick said, “but every one of them has its own story. They are all unique.” Reddick signs his work with his initials, “JR,” on the transmission.

Just as motorcycle enthusiasts think of their vehicles in terms of personal expression, and just as Confederate’s products are personal expressions of his visual ideals, Chambers built Confederate as a company to express his other personal philosophies, including sustainability and minimalism

Chambers finds no dichotomy in his embrace of minimalism even as he sells $45,000 motorcycles. “Everyone should own a few good things,” Chambers said. “It’s minimalist to buy a few things that are all of great quality and are of great value, rather than tons and tons of plastic crap,” Chambers said.

“A Confederate motorcycle is an heirloom,” Morrison said.

Despite Confederate’s short-term hiccups during the worst of the recession, the relentless pursuit of excellence paid off as the company teamed up with S&S Cycles to develop Confederate’s first proprietary engine.

“While all of our motorcycles have been exceptional, this Hellcat is actually the first Confederate purebred,” Chambers said.

The next chapter in Confederate’s story is going to catch a lot of people by surprise. While the road Confederate has traveled over the last 21 years has allowed the company periods of breathtaking achievement, it’s had its rough patches, too, many of them recent.

Consumed with exceptional product quality and concierge-level customer service more than economies of scale and fat margins, Confederate found itself short on cash and filed for bankruptcy in 2001. The company emerged two years later with a bang and a second-generation Hellcat that sold well.

But Hurricane Katrina struck the same destructive blow to Confederate that it did to the city of New Orleans. Chambers was in the Middle East negotiating with a new investor when the hurricane hit New Orleans. Ten days later, he still didn’t have word on the fate of the Confederate workshop. When it came, the news was horrible. One wall of the factory was blown down, which brought the entire roof down. The company’s insurance company went out of business. Confederate had a full year of orders in house, but Confederate was without a home.

It was nevertheless a coup for Birmingham when George Barber offered refuge to Confederate after Katrina. Even hurricane-battered and homeless, Confederate was a star, a hip, high-profile company that made sexy, celebrity-magnet cycles known for being expensive and worth every penny. There were standing orders for the second-generation Hellcat, and Confederate was poised to introduce its new Wraith motorcycle.

A perfect complement to the Barber Motorsports Park, Confederate came to Birmingham. Barber provided free space while Confederate got back on its feet, and the Birmingham City Center got an exotic new company. Former governor Bob Riley burned rubber at the track in a photo op. Talk of expansion ensued, a new production facility adjacent to the Barber Motorsports Park.

But by the time the company was settled into its new digs, Confederate found itself facing an economic storm almost as debilitating to the company as Katrina. As the economy faltered, sales slowed for the entire motorcycle industry. A special-edition all-titanium Confederate Fighter offered through the Neiman-Marcus catalog, and priced at $110,000, fell short of sales projections. According to the Birmingham News, Confederate lost more than $2 million in 2009. Confederate went public to raise new capital, yet for most of the next year, the Birmingham business community expected the company to accept a $750,000 loan offer from New Orleans in exchange for returning to the Crescent City.

From the outside, it appeared Confederate was suffering a period of uncertainty, perhaps even an identity crisis. Instead, the company remained calm and focused, making motorcycles, hiring new talent, developing new partnerships and doggedly developing the next big thing in motorcycles.

Confederate ultimately declined New Orleans’ offer, and Chambers is emphatic that Birmingham is the company’s permanent home. He plans two new hires within the next few months and, if all goes as planned, more new employees by the end of the year.

“We will stay small by design, but we still have plenty of room to grow beyond where we are,” Chambers said.

With a lot riding on the new Hellcat, it’s by Confederate’s design that the new bike is prepared to carry the load. This innovative design and S&S-inspired engine will make the X132 Hellcat the lightest and fastest Hellcat the company has ever made.

Dan Neil, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Wall Street Journal, wrote last month about the new Hellcat, “You hope that you will find in life things that are perfect—that are examples of craftsmanship, care, and deep thought—and that’s what this motorcyle is….The pride of ownership is off the scale.”

Having been featured in more than 70  magazines in 36 countries, Alan Cathcart is considered one of the world’s most widely read motorcycle journalists. He called the new Hellcat “a huge step forward. It’s powerful and potent, but also relaxing to ride, which is a unique combination. It gives the rider plenty of enjoyment and thrills in a safe environment. You don’t need to go 150 miles per hour on this motorcycle to get a thrill.”

Still, the new Hellcat’s unprecedented combination of quality and price doesn’t tempt Chambers to make bold sales predictions. The first-year production schedule calls for two X132 Hellcats to be built each week, a respectable first run of 100 vehicles. With the first six months of production already sold, Chambers modestly admits that if demand continues to grow at the current pace, Confederate is prepared to accelerate the production schedule, possibly to as many as one Hellcat per day.

Carthcart is more bullish on the new Hellcat’s potential. “The high-end customer is really coming back,” Cathcart said. “Matt [Chambers] was very astute in his restructuring of the company, and the repositioning of this model is also very astute.”

“This is the motorcycle we were conceived to execute when I founded the company 21 years ago,” Chambers said modestly, serenely even.

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