LaMerrill Motorcycles: The next American sportbike?

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It doesn’t take a master’s degree to see why the motorcycle industry has been hurting lately: It’s the economy, stupid. But as many are still tightening their belts, there are some people who aren’t afraid to aim high. Engineer/fabricator/builder Dave LaMerrill wants to create the next American sportbike company and his goal is a lot bigger than just building good motorbikes around someone else’s power plant. He wants to build his own complete motorcycle.

LaMerrill, 42, isn’t crazy. He’s spent 25 years learning exactly what it takes to build a competitive product on a shoestring budget. A longtime motorcycle technician and fabricator, LaMerrill has been refining his project builds for nearly a decade. His first prototype racebike, based around the Triumph 955cc triple, was built in 2003 and took home a WERA championship in 2004. His latest featured machine, the Stratus, is built around the Yamaha R1 motor and shows the high level of detail that LaMerrill Motorcycles USA offers from their Edison, N.J., studio. Instead of modifying an R1, the Stratus is a custom trackbike boasting hand-built chassis parts around a proven engine and suspension components.

If that sounds like a familiar concept, it is. Bimota built a name for itself by using its own chassis with the best Japanese motors to make high-end exotics for customers looking for something extra. “There are so many lessons out there, and Bimota is a great example,” LaMerrill says. “Bimota tried to do something different, but they didn’t do it themselves.” LaMerrill says that managing overhead is imperative in a tight economy. “If my parts supplier or subcontractor fails, I’m left high and dry. So, if you can do it yourself, do it!” Everything that comes out of LaMerrill’s workshop (excluding name-brand components like Marzocchi suspension and Carrozzeria wheels) was designed and built in-house.

Readers of our sister publication 2Wheel Tuner may recognize the LaMerrill Stratus as the cover bike of the August 2008 magazine, the annual MotoGP issue. The Stratus combined true superbike performance (370 pounds wet, 175 rear wheel horsepower) with the fit and finish of a high-end showbike. Unlike most racing bikes, the Stratus is designed like a high-end musical instrument rather than a simple tool to go faster. “I’m a musician and I also design and build guitars,” LaMerrill says. “I wanted to bring that level of craftsmanship and uniqueness to my bikes.”

Each production LaMerrill motorcycle is unique, with each frame and bodywork set boasting its own touches to separate it from another. “Each bike will be built to the same specs, but I might change the look of the swingarm bracing or the shape of the air intake along with a customer’s request for a specific frame finish. I expect that I will have a filing cabinet dedicated to the individual differences of each bike,” admits LaMerrill. Because each bike is hand-built, such differences will be easily managed as each major component doesn’t have to be sent out to a supplier. The end result is a personal machine for each owner, all at a more affordable cost.

While saving money on overhead is an obvious benefit to any business owner, LaMerrill has used the latest economic pressures to focus on what is most important. Anything that wasn’t a necessity was put on hold. “Pay your people, get your product built, everything else is secondary,” LaMerrill expains. By cutting back on its racing program and using track days for development, the company has saved about $15,000 per year. Still, saving money only went so far. Says LaMerrill, “of course it’s not a good thing to be losing money, but yet it is, in a way. I had to ask myself: even if we know we can’t make money now, what can we do that will pay off later? The answer was to forget about big profits and get my name out there.” But within reason. It’s always good advice to not be greedy, but LaMerrill also points out how it’s also important to keep ego out of the equation. “Less talk. More effort. Forget about hype and fancy 18-wheelers. Focus on creating something you can deliver,” LaMerrill says. He believes that marketing is important, but your customers can’t take home the image you’re selling, only your actual product. “That’s exactly what happened in 2004 with our 955 [Triumph] project. We showed up with our bike in the back of an F-150 pickup and beat the guys racing out of the expensive trailers.”

LaMerrill Motorcycles came into being after the racing success of the Triumph-based project. In 2007, the paperwork was filed to officially create LaMerrill Motorcycles USA. Instead of racing to build a race bike, LaMerrill keeps a “laser focus” on his core customer group of trackday aficionados by using the track to work with potential buyers directly while building his product. “My customers will get a fantastic trackbike designed for exactly that. Each bike I build is built to its intended purpose,” he says. Retaining flexibility has helped keep LaMerrill Motorcycles going despite the lean times.

“In 2008 and 2009, jobs just weren’t coming in. We saw less complete bikes, more fabrication work,” he says. These orders came from unusual sources for a motorcycle builder, including custom car and helicopter parts. In-house design and fabrication allowed LaMerrill Motorcycles to offer customized parts and products for nearly any application. LaMerrril also turned his focus to R&D, a decision that allowed him to make a better product rather than simply making do with what was available. In addition to R&D, LaMerrill saw an opportunity to increase his presence in the market and showcase his creations. “In late 2008, initial orders for the Stratus came and went as customers examined their financial situations,” he says. “I didn’t make the mistake of building a business on the prospects of orders, but on orders themselves. I didn’t want to get stuck with a huge business loan for a fancy shop that I couldn’t support. If you are nimble enough, you’ll still be around in 50 years,” LaMerrill explains. “So we went to car shows, boat shows, you name it. We started showing up at HSR (Historic Sportscar Racing) events and going out between races. We also got a lot of attention when the Stratus was featured in 2Wheel Tuner magazine and at the Indianapolis GP.”

LaMerrill is quick to point out that while flexibility can help exploit opportunities, creativity can find new ones. The latest MotoGP rule-set introduced both the 600cc Moto2 class as well as production-based 1000cc class. Under the proposed rules, the existing 1000cc Stratus now qualifies as a customer-ready MotoGP contender. And, LaMerrill’s current project is based around a middleweight engine — a possibility for the 600cc class. A competitive Moto2 chassis will weigh close to the 298 pound minimum and cost more than $50,000. LaMerrill expects to get within a couple of pounds of this and be significantly less costly. “I never would’ve thought about aiming for MotoGP or building helicopter parts,” LaMerrill says. “MotoGP means more money and sponsors, even if it is more technically challenging. But I already have inquires coming from Barcelona about building two bikes for a Moto2 team. I’d like to be the first fully American team building bikes for Moto2.”

Of course, LaMerrill’s ultimate goal is the design and production of his own engine, to power his own complete motorcycle.

LaMerrill’s core belief is that you can’t rush through the learning curve of a project this ambitious, explaining how he has traded time and hard work for the usual business solution of throwing money at a problem. “I figure that if I have to learn engine and chassis development through my own experience, then I don’t have to pay someone to build those parts for me. I don’t see people making the effort, because everyone wants to do it the quick and easy way,” he explains. “The problem with instant success is that you don’t learn a damn thing. I don’t believe that failure sets you back. Failure is evolution that teaches you what you need to learn.” Every time he was forced to reengineer a part from someone else’s engine, LaMerrill was in essence developing an all-new part for his own engine design. With plans for his own engine, LaMerrill begins to draw comparison to the late John Britton, whom LaMerrill holds in high regard. “He’s definitely worth emulating, but he had a lot more money to work with than I do,” LaMerrill notes.

At the end of the day, LaMerrill emphasizes that traditional business values are still very important in a struggling economy, adding that while people want high quality, they don’t necessarily want to pay for it. Besides reliability and easily accessed parts, this is one of the reasons he uses a Yamaha motor.

LaMerrill Motorcycles also offer high levels of fit and finish such as multilayer carbon bodywork and built-in chassis protectors and offers potential buyers several unique options. Each bike is custom built to the customer’s specifications, includes the owner’s name in the VIN, and includes track delivery and custom set-up. (“Providing testing and tuning is simply what we do for our racers…. Try getting that with a Desmosedici,” he says.) These special touches add value without significant impact to the bottom line. “Even at around $30,000, the Stratus is vastly under priced, especially against the Italian competition,” LaMerrill notes. “Each new production model I’ve built is the end result of several models, basically a rough draft, then a final prototype and finally a customer-ready model. With an already developed motor like the R1, each bike still represents about $60,000 of work.”

However one might feel about the prospect of starting a new motorcycle brand from scratch, LaMerrill is clear on what he believes is the most important lesson for those trying to thrive in the motorcycle business. “I had several people ask me, ‘You really think you can do this? It’s going to cost way too much,’ but I’m trading time for money because I’m willing to learn [to do] all I need for myself because it makes a better product and saves money. Don’t forget what got you into this business,” he says. “Enthusiasm and passion will keep a business alive. Call it karma, but you get what you put out there. You can’t afford to lose a single customer, and you won’t if you make them feel wanted and included in what you offer.” Countless times LaMerrill has considered giving up his quest in the face of another grenaded engine or another cored piston, but he never lost sight of his ultimate goals. “Make sure that what you need to be is what you want to be,” he recommends. “If not, take a close look at what you’re doing.”

Dave LaMerrill concedes that attitude alone won’t put food on the table, but tries not to let the nickels and dimes drag him down along the way. “The ultimate goal is what really matters,” he says, “and you must be willing to take a long-term view even if things are tough now. I believe we still aren’t close to the end of this financial storm and several things will need to change before things can get better.”