Why the Next Confederate Bike Matters


Confederate Motorcycles, makers of high-priced, high-performance, hand-made road jewelry, have released a teaser for their next model, the C2 P-51 Fighter, which will be available “circa 2015.”  The bike’s web-page has the tagline, “What are you rebelling against?” an overt allusion to The Wild One, but it is not the Johnny Strablers of this world who will be riding the P-51.  Thirty-one very wealthy, very lucky individuals will have the singular opportunity to purchase this piece of rolling art.

Perhaps you imagine Confederate Motorcycles as a few mad artisans inveighing against normalcy, forging exquisite monstrosities out of unobtainium and phlogiston on Thor’s anvil, wreathed in toxic bayou vapors.  (They actually moved to Birmingham after Hurricane Katrina, but their brand still has a voodoo funk.)  Maybe you think of them as makers of status-bikes for the mythical “1%” (never to be confused with “1%ers”!) to show off at their clubs – not “real” bikes for “real” bikers.

Maybe you just don’t think of them at all.  After all, schmucks like you and I are never going to ride these Bugatti-bikes.  What really does it matter what kind of toys these people buy?  Especially at a time when we’re seeing smaller-displacement, less-expensive bikes hitting the market, and we’re trying to broaden the base of riders, who cares?  I recently made the case that OCC is absolutely irrelevant.  Isn’t the same true for Confederate?  No.

Confederate matters because this is the avant-garde.  It matters for the same reason that it mattered what Picasso was doing in 1910, or what Beethoven was doing in 1810.  This is not design for the mainstream.  It is design as exploration and experimentation.  Terra incognita.

Picasso mattered because other artists were looking at what he was doing.  They didn’t just follow his lead, they took inspiration from his work and expanded in new directions of abstraction.  (Of course, it wasn’t just Picasso, but he’s the most memorable example today.)  Similarly, some would argue that all of 19th-century music is a response to Beethoven.

The P-51 is particularly significant because it is Pierre Terblanche’s first design with Confederate.  If there is a Beethoven of modern motorcycle design, it is Terblanche.  His Ducati MH900e is a MoMA-worthy pinnacle of Postmodernism, and his 749/999 is one of the most elegant sportbike designs ever realized, both of them designs almost without precedent.  Now his exceptional talent has been turned from tailored refinement to guts-out brutalism.  You can be assured that designers in Munich, Bologna, and Tokyo (maybe even in Milwaukee) will be looking hard at the P-51.  That doesn’t mean you will see imitations of it, but that it will expand the visual language.

And just like the boundary-breaking composers, painters, sculptors, and designers of the past, avant-garde motorcycles need a few wealthy patrons to make it happen.  Michelangelo needed Pope Julius II, even if they didn’t always get along.  We Americans, especially bikers, have a deep native anti-elitism.  We bristle at the merest whiff of snobbery.  This is a great thing about our culture.  We don’t tolerate phonies and do not equate class with cool.  We should encourage this egalitarianism in our children and ourselves.  At the same time, we should acknowledge that design innovation is risky and costly.  It requires some people of means to make big, irrational purchasing decisions.  It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it for status, self-gratification, or just a thrill.  What matters is that they are making new ideas possible.

Avant-garde design will not appeal to everyone.  When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debuted in 1913 in Paris, it caused a riot.  Bucky Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion Car is still a little out-there for most people’s taste.  Terblanche referred to Confederate’s designs as “outlandish industrial sculpture.”  They are paragons of xenomorphic excess.  You would never hang them over your sofa.  It is obsessive, manic design for design’s sake.

These bikes are indeed about rebellion, but not the greasy angst of a 50s teen.  The rebel here is not the angry young man – he is riding an old CB750.  The rebel in this case is not the client at all.  It is the designers and makers themselves, who create something from the flesh of metal and carbon fiber, then allow the patrons to come to them.  In every sense, these are the opposite of the built-for-advertisers OCC choppers.

Let us not be too keen to dismiss these oddities as “mere” sculpture or playthings for an elite few.  If we care about design, we should delight in this design experimentation, even design rebellion.  I hold with Jefferson that “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”

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