Motus Motorcycles: Q&A with co-founders Brian Case and Lee Conn

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Brian Case and Lee Conn are the co-founders of Motus Motorcycles, the first purpose-built American sportbike to come to market in more than a decade. Dealernews conducted a lengthy Q&A with them about the development of the MST-01 and MST-R from conception through road testing. This is the first half of that interview.

Given that Case and Conn have their eyes on establishing a network of dealers to retail the Motus models, we wanted to get some more details about their plans. Click here to read about Motus' dealer network plans.

Dealernews: What are your backgrounds?

Lee Conn, president and co-founder of Motus: I grew up in my parent's factory in North Carolina manufacturing niche, luxury aircraft and selling them through dealers all over the world. Having been involved in several successful start-ups, I have worked on both sides of the manufacturer/dealer relationship.

Brian Case, VP and design director of Motus: Prior to becoming co-founder at Motus, I was in charge of design for the boutique American cruiser manufacturer, Confederate Motorcycles. While there, I was responsible for the design and production of the Wraith motorcycle. Before joining Confederate, I had been heading up a small industrial design firm in Pittsburgh for five years, a company which I started with a few friends right after design school. The firm specialized in new product development, working with a variety of clientele and taking ideas from concept to manufacture. It wasn't until my firm was approached by a motorcycle manufacturer to design a new bike that I realized the opportunity to combine my business with a life-long passion. Falling into motorcycle design for me was highly accidental, and I do not intend on doing anything else for a long time.

DN: What is the company's origin?

LC: Motus was started in 2008, in very counter-intuitive times, when the economy was unstable and there was a huge pull back in R&D. Brian and I were friends and spent a lot of time on two wheels, traveling and trying to identify the big opportunities and challenges that uncertain times can create. We simply asked ourselves, "What would our ultimate motorcycle be like and was there a business case to support it anticipating the eventual upswing in the economy?" For the kind of riding we enjoy most, what would the ideal feature set of the machine be? When the dust settled, we had the basic concept down of a hot rod, American sportbike with long distance ergonomics/amenities. We realized that nothing like that was being made domestically and that the downturn may be the exact lever needed to find partners and vendors willing to take on a project like Motus. Now that we are riding and testing the MST's, it is striking how similar they are to the original concepts.

DN: Can you explain the meaning of the name, Motus?

LC: Motus means motion in Latin. But, it refers to a movement of people or even a rebellion moved into action. So, we ask people: What is your Motus? What moves you?

DN: What is the development timeline for these motorcycles?

BC: March 2008, Lee and I formed the business, wrote a business plan, and began planning the type of motorcycle we would built. I drew hundreds upon hundreds of sketches, narrowing in on what would ultimately become the Motus form. We decided very early on that we needed to design our own engine. We found an engine builder, gave them our requirements and we were underway by fall of 2008. By Summer of 2009, our V4 engine design was complete and ready to begin prototyping. In January 2010, the first Motus V4 with GDI fired up in the load cell and testing commenced. By that point, we had already engaged our engineering partner, Pratt & Miller, to begin work on developing our chassis design and gearbox. Since then, our scope with Pratt & Miller has grown significantly to encompass full Design Verification, including the complete body system, electrical/mechanical system, cooling system, prototype fabrication, and data acquisition. The DV program will span throughout 2011 and involve various forms of real-world testing on closed courses and public roads representative of the most extreme conditions the production motorcycles will endure. This advanced test plan will ensure our motorcycles will be safe, reliable and easy to maintain. Our goal is to set up an initial production run of motorcycles by the end of 2011.

DN: How much and what kind of market research did you conduct before launching development of the Motus motorcycle?

LC: Brian and I initially developed our “ideal feature set” for a hot-rod American sportbike designed for long distance canyon carving, but we validated and refined that feature set by interviewing and polling over 500 enthusiasts. We learned a lot from the process about what riders are looking for in areas such as curb weight, displacement, fuel capacity, seat height, maintenance, components, etc and we incorporated many of our findings into the MST series.

DN: Why did you go with the two models currently in testing stages (MST-01 and MST-R)?

BC: The two models we have introduced, the base model MST and the premium MST-R, represent our desire to not only create the ultimate American sport touring bike with high-end premium components, but also our commitment as a new American motorcycle brand to offer a standard model that can be priced in the same ballpark as other premium touring motorcycles, many of which are imported into the United States.

DN: Why did you opt for building a motorcycle from the ground up?

LC: We had to build the MST’s from the ground up, starting with the engine, because the MST concept hinged on specific performance goals unavailable in other existing American engines. If we wanted to be true to the idea of a purpose built, modern American sportbike, we had to start from scratch with no compromises to develop an exciting new engine, gearbox, chassis- everything.

DN: Could you explain a couple of the technical features of a Motus motorcycle — GDI, V-4, etc. — and why you opted to go with these specifications?

BC: The most important technical feature of the Motus V4 engine is the Gasoline Direct Injection system. This system was developed specifically and exclusively for our engine, and currently exists as the only production-intent 4-stroke motorcycle engine with GDI. Our system employs the use of a cam-driven fuel pump which pressurizes fuel through the dual common rails in excess of 2,000 psi. From there, specially designed GDI injectors spray highly atomized fuel after the intake valve and directly into the combustion chamber where it is mixed with a cool charge of 100 percent air. The benefit of this fuel system is reduced emissions on start-up and the ability to increase compression using lower octane fuels. An unintended benefit we have witnessed is the effect of very precise and stable fueling at partial throttle opening, something we feel riders will notice immediately in the turns. We feel the GDI technology is a perfect modern compliment to the simple, hot rod nature of our single-cam, pushrod, V4 with hydraulic lifters, and liquid cooling ensures the Motus V4 will meet the ever-increasing emissions regulations.

DN: You mentioned in a past interview with Dealernews that while this is the first American motorcycle in many years, you wanted to be careful not to wrap the brand in the American flag. What did you mean by this?

LC: For Motus to be successful, our motorcycles will have to stand on their own and attract riders because of their quality and unique character, not just their place of origin. We are proud of the American craftsmanship and innovation going into the MST’s, of course, but “buy American” marketing only takes us so far — the bikes have to be bullet-proof and bad ass for us to be successful in the long term. We are using the best components we can source, most fabricated in Michigan and others to be fabricated here in Alabama.

DN: The U.S. powersports market has seen an obvious downturn. Why did you choose to move forward with developing the Motus?

LC: It is counter-intuitive to start a new company in an economic downturn, but we saw it as an opportunity to quietly develop a new line of modern motorcycles while others were withdrawing from R&D. Most companies listed on the S&P/Dow Jones were started during recessions and, similarly, Motus found some doors open that would have been closed to start-ups otherwise. If history is a guide, and this is our big gamble, the economy will rebound in the next few years and we will be sitting with a great product line, a small group of loyal, high quality dealers and a lot of pent up demand for exciting, distinct motorcycles.

DN: Save for Erik Buell, launching a new motorcycle brand in the U.S. has been historically very difficult. What kind of lessons have you learned from those who came before and how do you apply them to your business model?

BC: One of the main reasons for locating the Motus headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., was due to the fact that the city is home to the world's largest collection of historic motorcycles at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The place is in our backyard, and has become our inspiration, our research library, and sort of a motorcycle mecca for studying in great detail every aspect of almost every motorcycle ever made since they were first invented. It's hard to explain what it's like to sit there in a chair, overlooking five floors of 1,100-plus immaculately restored works of motorcycle art, armed with a sketchpad and a pencil and pondering all of the triumphant stories, accolades, clever inventions and hopes and dreams, as well as all the unsuccessful stories, broken dreams, failed designs, and ghosts of machines that were never meant to be. It can be a little overwhelming when viewed through such a focused lens. I think, though, that has helped give Motus perspective, and to not be unrealistic in what we set out to achieve. We can't make a motorcycle that fits every need and taste. But, we can make a very unique motorcycle that does several things very well, and provides an experience we know will appeal to a select number of discerning enthusiasts.

DN: What other OEMs do you see as your direct competitor?

BC: At the moment, there are no other sport-touring motorcycles made in America, they are all imported. We feel the Motus will be a motorcycle that can sit in American dealerships of all types, along side many different types of motorcycles, and still offer a unique experience that no other manufacturer is currently offering. We know Americans like buying American bikes, as evident by the market leader Harley-Davidson. We know some of those customers may have explored other types of sportier, performance-oriented riding styles over the years, only to find out their choice was limited almost exclusively to imported brands. There are many different types of motorcycles out there and we love them all. It's not like we are saying our product is so unique that we will have no real competitors. The market is only so big and the customers have to come from somewhere. We believe motorcycles are still recreational vehicles, and people's tastes and interests can change in an instant. Although we haven't identified any real direct competition yet, our motorcycle will more likely compete with the imported premium motorcycle brands than any existing American motorcycle brand.

DN: What steps is Motus taking to make sure the MST’s are bullet-proof, quality bikes?

LC: The MST’s are undergoing an extensive validation and durability program very comparable to that of much larger manufacturers. So it is important for us to explain that Motus is not a few guys banging wrenches together and building a bike out of catalogue parts and planning to sell it without proper testing and revision prior to production. The bikes are being tested and iterated using full data logging, telemetry and engineering support to bring them up to the highest level possible and it will show in the production bikes. Our primary partner at Motus is Pratt & Miller Engineering, among the most sophisticated engineering firms in the world generally known for operating the factory Corvette and factory Cadillac race programs but who also runs validation programs for a lot of OEMs. With six class wins at the 24 Hours of LeMans and dozens of other championships in endurance racing, Pratt & Miller knows a thing or two about durability and all that technology and knowledge transfers directly to programs like ours.

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