Motus Motorcycles: Rise of the American sportbike?

Publish Date: 
Apr 24, 2012
By Dennis Johnson

WHEN TIM AND NAN WOODSOME of Springfield, Mo.’s Cruisin’ 66 lost their Big Dog Motorcycles franchise, they started the search for a brand that not only fit the theme of their store, but would also complement their Victory lineup.

It had to be a motorcycle line, because that’s the sole focus of this Top 100 dealership — from the vehicles and PG&A they carry to the atmosphere they try to foster. They wanted a sportbike line but weren’t interested in any OEM that operated in multiple vehicle segments. Not even Polaris’ roster of four-wheelers sounded interesting. They wanted something with a high-end ‘Euro’ flavored vibe.

Enter Motus Motorcycles its two new, American-made, sport touring models. “We’ve really looked at the big picture and saw that there was an opportunity for an American brand, something that’s a high-end quality product that might attract the person who wasn’t looking for a Victory, but also the person who wouldn’t look at a chopper,” says Tim Woodsome. “The Motus really has that element. You have the bags. You have the sport. It’s something that’s very timely. They’ve taken these wonderful components and put them together in a package that you can’t help but know would be fun.”

The Woodsomes — along with seven other dealers — make up the initial list of authorized Motus dealers. The Birmingham, Ala.-based manufacturer announced its initial dealer network, MSRPs and standard and optional equipment in March during Daytona Bike Week.

Motus now moves into the next chapter in a story that is now three years old. In 2009 founders Brian Case and Lee Conn announced they were developing a “revolutionary,” V4-powered sport touring motorcycle. The narrative played out in a series of YouTube videos documenting development of the company’s proprietary 1650cc, 165hp motor, a cross-country tour showing off early prototypes, and then a Daytona press event unveiling of the MST and MST-R.

The first stores, along with others that will be added throughout the year, will begin receiving their first shipments of 2013 MSTs in the fall. The Woodsomes are anxious to get going.

“We have a situation here where we have a high-end, somewhat expensive, exclusive motorcycle. The average young man who’s going to go out and get a Gixxer or R6 is not the customer,” Tim Woodsome says. “There’s something about [the Motus] that’s going to appeal to a lot of people who want to have that exclusive motorcycles. We’ve already been contacted by several people who want to be on the list.”

Motus bikes present the opportunity to recapture some of the luster of an American-made sportbike lost since Harley-Davidson closed the Buell line. The most recent launch of motorcycles under the Erik Buell Racing marquee now gives the market two homegrown options.

Only a handful of motorcycle journalists were able to preview the prototype bikes that Case and Conn toured around the country, but the initial reviews came back rosy. After giving allowances for the inherent issues of reviewing a prototype, Cycle World’s Blake Conner reported in July 2011 that once the kinks are fixed it should be “one hell of a fun motorcycle.”

Conner did note, however, that there were several obstacles to overcome in establishing a new bike brand and new motorcycle, but added that given Motus by-design niche market and low production numbers, it had a chance.

At Battley Cycles in Gaithersburg, Md., Motus is expected to be a natural fit. The dealership’s namesake owner, Devin Battley, is a lifetime racer who was involved with Erik Buell from the beginning. He even owns the Buell RR1000 with VIN No. 1 stamped on it. Battley didn’t know the owners of Motus, but “was very much interested in the American boutique-built performance motorcycle,” says John Hardison, the store’s marketing and events coordinator. “He got in contact with them, and Lee Conn came up here with his prototype and let him ride it. Devin came back from the ride and said, ‘I want to sell this motorcycle.’”

The 27-year-old dealership has always carried premium vehicle brands, currently stocking BMW, Ducati, Harley-Davidson and Yamaha, but has been a Buell and Bimota dealer as well. Battley also focuses on higher end aftermarket gear brands such as Arai, Rev’it, Schuberth and Sidi. “Now here comes this bike out of Alabama that’s an American-made, handcrafted bike,” Hardison says. “They set out to make this fantastic sport touring motorcycle, and it fits in perfectly with what we’re trying to convey to the enthusiast who walks in here, which is, ride the best.”

Launching such a unique new motorcycle brand and network is not without risk, especially given the number of quirky, high-tech marques that have come and gone from the market, says Tom Hicks, owner of Top 100 dealer Southern California Motorcycles in Brea, Calif.

Hicks says he stays away from start-ups and is taking a wait-and-see approach with Motus. An industry veteran both as a retailer and as an OEM employee, Hicks says he knows the logistical nightmare that goes into manufacturing and testing a new bike and building an adequate dealer network that meets the demands of dealers and customers alike — from parts supplies to warranty support. If none of it works out, it’s always the customer who loses out in the end, Hicks says.

The retail price of the MST and MST-R — $30,975 and $36,975 — definitely put the bikes in rarified company, but the sticker number isn’t that far out of line. And while the economic woes of the last few years have put the smack down on sales, those bikes in the premium price range still had a steady stream of eager buyers.

Motus’ Lee Conn says the prices accurately reflect the quality and value of an “heirloom quality” motorcycle. The company will be hand-building, in small production numbers, bikes aimed at a very specific buyer, he says, and will carry a two-year, limited warranty.

In creating the boutique model, Motus says it knew that its dealer network wouldn’t trend toward high-volume, big brand dealerships. So the owners searched out stores that where everyone is a diehard enthusiast committed to selling a premium brand.

“This is not a high-volume opportunity,” Conn says. “This is a low-volume, high-margin opportunity.”

Conn says the company set out to make things easier on its dealer network by creating a motorcycle that is reportedly easy to service and building what he claims is a common-sense ordering, stocking and marketing program. “It’s a very simple opportunity where we tried to remove as many barriers as possible for dealers,” he says. “We figured out what would make sense for a dealer taking on a small, luxury brand that nobody’s every heard of and cooked a few things into it.”

Motus dealers will be required to stock one of each of the two models on their floor at any time. They won’t be required to dedicate any certain square footage to the brand or have any certain size or type of signage. The company will work with dealers on a case-by-case basis to determine what makes sense so that good margins are generated, Conn adds.

Most of the charter dealers are on the east side of the country; however, Conn says there will be a march westward, and he anticipates California becoming the brand’s biggest market. Motus plans to bring another half-dozen dealers online by the time production begins.

The company has lined up floorplan and consumer financing, but would not reveal its lenders to Dealernews. Conn also indicated that the company is collaborating with some “high-end” manufacturers on a line of riding gear.

At RPM Cycle in Farmers Branch, Texas, store manager Boris Loera says Motus will fit into the dealership’s all-European lineup. He adds that RPM Cycle should have no problem selling the pricey bikes, given they already sell many premium-priced motorcycles — more than a couple $24,000 KTM RC8s — into the Dallas/Fort Worth market.

“When you start getting into that price range, you have fewer customers, but you have a more discriminating customer,” Loera says.

RPM in early April had already presold one Motus, and Loera says they have a number of curious customers. “When Motus was doing its nationwide tour, we had about 10 days to prepare for them to be here and show their bike. It was on a weekday, during lunch, not usually a busy time, and we had 50 customers in here looking at the bike,” he says. “This is going to be a neat product. The fact that it’s American-made makes it that much better.”

This is the complete version of a story that originally appeared in the Dealernews May 2012 issue.