Motus: In Person

July 29, 2011

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The average age of the American motorcyclist is creeping ever upwards, and because of that, our needs are changing. We still appreciate good handling and lots of power, but we want our bikes to be all-day rideable.

So did the brains behind Motus Motorcycles, Lee Conn and Brian Case. They wanted to build an all-day comfortable sport-tourer that could, in the parlance of their Alabama home, haul ass. You’ve seen the press-kit photos of the resulting product, but you can make anything look good in a photography studio, right? What’s the bike like up close?

I heard the Motus and its creators would be riding through my Bay Area backyard on the Monday after the Laguna Seca MotoGP round. Right on time, as we were eating ice cream on the porch at Alice’s Restaurant in Sky Londa, we heard the barely muffled roar of V-Four motorcycles.

Riding on the two bikes were Motus President Lee Conn and MD contributor/TV Superstar/Action Hero Neale Bayly. Bayly somehow managed to convince Lee and Design Director Brian Case that letting him ride the bike from California to Colorado would be a good idea. I asked for a quick ride on the bike—impossible, said Conn and Case. But Neale let me climb on the back and ride two-up with him for a quick jaunt down the hill towards La Honda.

We’ll have to wait for more riding impressions from Neale, but I can tell you what it’s like to ride shotgun. The bike is reasonably roomy for a passenger, much better than a sportbike, but I’m not sure it’s a good long-distance two-up mount; but then again, I don’t really like riding on the back of any bike. But the pegs were reasonably low, the seat felt (for 10 minutes, anyway) reasonably sized and cushy, and there was a decent grab-handle. The motor wasn’t exactly smooth, especially by inline-Four standards. You could really feel it through the pegs and seat, but it was a good feeling, transmitting the kind of mellow power lumps you’d expect from a pushrod V-Twin. It was also very torquey—if Neale shifted I didn’t notice, and we went through a lot of turns in the two or so miles each way. I think he just stuck it in third and smoothly rolled on and off the throttle. The suspension seemed very settled and composed, helping Neale keep me from getting motion sickness.

Even though the Two Brothers Racing-badged exhaust cans snarled out a very racy-sounding note—think the antisocial bastard child of a VFR and a Harley V-Rod—it was a very pleasant experience. We never bumped helmets (let’s keep the “bumping helmets” jokes to a minimum, please?) and I didn’t feel terrified, the way I was the last time I did a two-up ride. Granted, that was on a KTM SuperDuke R behind Dave Stanton at Laguna Seca, but still, the Motus was very civilized. Of course, we didn’t open it up—I’d probably have a different opinion if that was the case.

After my ride, I hung out with Lee and Brian to hear what they had to say about the bike. They’re taking their “American Sport Tour” to test and develop the Motus as well as  show the bike off to the media, public and prospective dealers. The current bikes are third generation, built to test components and gather data—the fourth-gen examples will be for homologation and certification, and the fifth (or fifth and a half) gens will go to the 25 dealers Motus hopes will be offering its products. They say it will happen next year, and from what I saw, there’s little reason to doubt their word.

That’s because these were some pretty well-developed prototypes. Some of the 1000-odd bits needed to make one of these are still clearly one-off items, like the body panels and tanks, but I saw plenty of items that looked much like what you find on a mass-produced bike, like the brakes, instruments, suspension and even footpegs. I also saw the lavishly appointed Motus chase van, a new-looking Dodge Sprinter with custom interior (complete with “Motus” logos stitched into the passenger seats). There is some money behind this effort along with lots of confidence.

But why are they building these bikes? The sport-touring market is a tiny slice of the motorcycle pie, so why not put this gem of a powerplant into something Americans buy, like cruisers or jet-skis?  Lee could care less about what the market is like for sport-tourers. “I have no idea what the market for sport-touring bikes is,” he said, pointing out that since nobody else sells an American-built sport-tourer, “nobody knows what the market is,” and in any case, “we’re not trying to sell tens of thousands of bikes.” The business model is much smaller, around 200 units a year. No, Case and Conn are just building the kinds of motorcycles they want to ride—comfy enough for the interstate and fun in the twisties.

And that explains the minimalistic nature of the bikes. Not much instrumentation, and there’s no ABS, electronic suspension, heads-up displays or other farklage. Just a seat, motor, luggage and windscreen. Conn told me that every component was evaluated to see if it did one of three things. If it didn’t either increase performance, increase comfort, or increase range it was redesigned. “Everything else is just a gimmick,” according to Conn. I mentioned to Conn that in my last Motus story I wrote, “it’s the kind of motorcycle I’d imagine airline pilots would ride,” and he chuckled—he’s a pilot himself: “We’ll take airplane pilots.”

That commitment to performance has paid off. Conn claims his laptimes on the MST are the same as on his CBR600 trackbike at the Barber Motorsports complex where they do much of their testing and development. But he wants economy, too; Lee says the benchmark is 50 mpg, which would give the bike a 300-mile maximum range. The standard MST weighs in at 530 pounds wet, and with a claimed 161 horsepower (and 122 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4500 rpm) it should go fast—really fast.

That motor, so prominently displayed, is the star of the show. Case says he started the project with the engine, a 1660cc, pushrod 90-degree V-Four. The cam is chain-driven, and the valve actuation is hydraulic, which promises low maintenance. The longitudinal placement makes servicing easy, and Case tells me the perpendicular gearbox lessens the torque effect longitudinal crankshafts have. The bike’s chain final drive may not be what some serious long-distance guys want, but Lee says it’s essential for a sportbike—“all sportbikes have chains and there’s a reason for that”—and modern O and X-ring chains aren’t that dirty or so much trouble to maintain.

Listen to the exhaust note in these videos we’ve embedded and tell me you don’t want to ride a Motus. That’s why the Motus draws a crowd when it stops, with throngs of curious gearheads asking esoteric questions. Unlike other American moto-startups, it doesn’t trade on “heritage,” “character” or “tradition,” instead depending on performance and good design to provide a class (of one)-leading product—its only baggage is the included locking hard bags. Will 200 or more riders pony up the $30,000 or more to get what may be the most desirable sport-tourer on the market? Nobody knows, but one thing is certain—it’s impossible to dismiss the Motus if you see it up close.

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