Special Feature: 2009 Confederate Wraith

The name may be another word for ‘ghost,’ but this Confederate is no apparition. Just ask your eardrums...

Special Feature: 2009 Confederate Wraith
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Confederate Motorcycles deserves credit for a lot of things. Surviving is one of them. The company has over the years gone on hiatus for both financial reasons and "Wrath of God" reasons, the latter when Hurricane Katrina flattened its former New Orleans headquarters in 2005. It also deserves credit for designing almost ceaselessly interesting motorcycles, which probably is the real reason Confederate deserves credit: No motorcycle maker has gotten so much press and built so few motorcycles.

Since company principal Matt Chambers first set up shop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1991, Confederate has built and delivered all of an estimated 640 units. Over that time, the machines have evolved quite a lot while staying true to the initial vision of an American-style cruiser with a performance edge. Still, looking back at our May, 2000, road test of the America GT, that bike's design seems almost quaint in comparison to the freely thought, high industrial art of the Wraith, sort of like comparing the special effects of the firstStar Warsmovie with those of the last. In fact, the Wraith does look a bit like the bike you would ride to the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina if Star Wars IV had a Mad Max-inspired segment.

I was the man who crawled into the Confederate van in 2004 when Chambers and original Wraith designer J.T. Nesbitt brought the concept bike to our office to show it to us for the first time. Much has changed since that XR1000-powered, alloy-backboned Wraith first saw our photo studio ("Cutting Edge,"CW, April, 2004). But the essential background, the Alexander Calder-inspired "kinetic sculpture" core that Nesbitt—who elected to stay in New Orleans post-Katrina rather than move to Birmingham, Alabama, with the company—was after not only survives, but flourishes in its refinement and execution as an actual working motorcycle.

This time around, the now-in-production Wraith was delivered by current designer Ed Jacobs and Paul Adams, Confederate's roaming sales/marketing/product support man.Jacobs has been with the company since 2005 and is largely responsible for the Wraith's current producibility and functionality. He is enthused about design projects currently in process for future models and explained the fundamental approach at Confederate.

"The core idea is Honesty," he says. "That is, the structure becomes an embodiment of the idea. This is a naked bike, heart on its sleeve, with a skeletal, elemental ethos that is in all our bikes. Everything is what it is."If nothing else, the freedom this thinking represents is a rare opportunity for a motorcycle designer. In the mass-production, corporate environment of major manufacturing, the concerns faced by a designer are heavily influenced by many non-artful factors, and decisions can be influenced by—no lie—a half-cent difference in parts cost. Confederate is certainly trying to operate as a business, but the boundaries are far wider because of the low production and, especially, the Wraith's $92,500 MSRP. For that kind of money, it has to stand out!

As an aesthetic exercise, the Wraith—as with past Confederates—really can't be qualified as "pretty." The description I used for the riding impression of the 2000 Hellcat also applies here: "The bike looks sinister, purposeful and weapon-like, sort of the .357 Magnum of two-wheelers." Senior Editor Paul Dean looked at the Wraith and commented that he didn't think he'd ever seen a more illegal, less practical "production" motorcycle, but that he just couldn't stop looking at it and taking in all the cool details. The major parts, such as the winged carbon-fiber backbone frame and its alloy engine-mounting plates, engage the eye with their contours and material contrast. The finer bits—like the ISR clutch and brake controls, the aluminum linkages in the c-f girder fork and the detailing on the carbureted JIMS 120-cubic-inch Twin Cam-style counterbalanced engine and proprietary Confederate "short" primary drive/gearbox—carry the industrial edge to a finer level.

And, as Mr. Dean pointed out, there certainly is a degree of practicality and legality sacrificed. Lighting is minimal, the tiny LED turnsignals (integrated into the taillight and tucked into the mirror bases) are laughable in their lack of visibility, while the absence of fenders assures a certain outcome if you happen to be caught in rain or simply ride through puddles. After a quick spin on the bike, Paul added, "If you tuck in your legs tight, the cylinder head will burn your right leg and the coil may zap your left.

"Too true, but all I can say is, suck it up, because operating the Wraith is a positive experience, even with its flaws. Yes, riding this barely muffled oddity is a bit like putting a handle on dynamite, but you learn to enjoy it. Starting begins with pushing the individual compression releases on the 41/8 x 4-inch cylinders, making sure the unmarked handlebar kill switch is in the correct position and thumbing the starter button, also unmarked. The engine booms to life, barking deeply through the short headers and tiny silencer, while the large dry clutch and exposed belt primary clatter and whir.

On the road, the Wraith is actually quite satisfying. The strangely padded seat and its quarter-inch-thick alloy-plate base is almost comfortable and much better than the bare carbon-fiber tractor saddles used on some of Confederate's past models. Reach to the tubular handlebar is long, while the pegs are sportily mounted under the rider. The riding position is a bit unusual while being tolerably comfortable.

Weight is carried low, making side-to-side motions easy to initiate. Fuel and battery are located under the engine, which accounts for the strange-looking clear tubing and side-mounted fuel filler. Putting those masses down there brings a remarkably agile feeling to this motorcycle. With the damping setup and chassis geometry (27-degree rake, 4.0-inch trail), the Wraith finally delivers a Confederate capable of sporty riding. It also helps that the lightweight BST carbon-fiber wheels are mounted with Pirelli Diablo Corsa III tires in sensible widths (120/70ZR17 front and 190/55ZR17 rear), rather than the "size-matters" custom-influenced pairings with the overly wide rears used in the past. That said, trackdays are beyond the scope of this bike and its design, even with the fancy, fully adjustable Penske shocks and good rubber. There is, in fact, a surprising degree of nervousness in the chassis, which makes the adjustable Öhlins steering damper a good thing to have; we set it at maximum.

Controls are all high-effort, from shifting the five-speed gearbox to pulling the clutch and brake levers. The ISR masters not only adjust for reach but also the degree of leverage. On the brake side, however, this setting was maxed out, and the single Braking carbon-composite rotor and its four-piston caliper still gave a numb feel with too little stopping power. What it feels like is needed here is an additional caliper and disc to make the hydraulic ratio fall within normal bounds, or a change in master-cylinder bore to suit the single caliper.

Engine counterbalancers are like a gift from beyond. Vibration is present on the Wraith, to be sure, for completely suppressing the effects of combustion in this very large two-cylinder engine would be both very difficult and undesirable in this application. The rider needs to know great big things are happening in the engine room; and he does, because from 2000 to 3500 rpm, the engine's claimed 120 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of torque run deep, like an ocean filled with liquid thunder. Off-idle response is clean, flywheel effect considerable and clutch action decent, so moving from stops is unerringly forceful and straightforward. The counterbalancers keep things just civil enough, even at higher revs.

In the range of Confederate motorcycles I have ridden over the years, this bike is many steps ahead on the usability chart and definitely the most interesting of designs. That being said, the Wraith is far from being the best motorcycle I've ever ridden, but certainly it is one of the most pleasurable, and even strangely life-affirming. Consider the Wraith as Art for Riding's Sake, an emotional movement of body and mind. There can be no other justification for its existence or its purchase. And none is needed.

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