BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Motus Motorcycles founders Lee Conn and Brian Case spent nearly six years developing a dream bike that shredded speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in August. Now, they’re ready to power through a production ramp-up that will prompt the company to expand its Birmingham operations.
But first, Motus’ Bike No. 1 needs a special home.
The first hand-crafted sport-touring motorcycle off the company’s assembly line – a white Motus MSTR, known as MSTR #0001 — is lined up for a spot in the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of vintage and contemporary motorcycles.
Conn, the company’s president, and Case, its design director, presented the motorcycle to museum founder George Barber during a brief ceremony today at Barber’s facility, a Birmingham area landmark that stands as a shrine to the artistry of motorcycle design.
“It’s beautiful. It’s exquisite,” Barber said after a cover was pulled from the bike during the ceremony.
For the Motus founders, it’s another dream come true. Barber has been a key supporter of Motus from the early days. Plus, Motus today is housed in the original downtown location of Barber’s motorcycle museum, a frequent destination for Conn back in the day.
“This is a huge honor for us,” Case said. “He’s been a great ally, and we have an enormous amount of respect for him and his organization. The museum is really an archive of bikes, and once a bike gets locked in the museum’s vaults, it’s kind of perpetual.”
Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield, who attended today’s event, said the work done by Conn and Case at Motus squares nicely with Alabama’s emergence as an auto-producing powerhouse and with its racing heritage, exemplified by the world-class Barber track and the storied Talladega Superspeedway.
“The Motus motorcycle is another impressive ‘Made in Alabama’ product, showcasing the innovation and the expertise that exists in a state where talented people know how to design and build great vehicles,” Canfield said.
ASSEMBLING THE BIKES
Inside the Motus facility on Fifth Avenue South in Birmingham, the assembly work is painstaking. Each bike has 1,200 components, including parts fashioned from carbon fiber and titanium, along with premium equipment from top suppliers.
Conn said Motus aims to produce between 250 and 300 bikes in the first year, roughly one motorcycle each working day to supply a network of 19 dealers across the nation.
The company’s initial line-up consists of two models – the MST, priced around $31,000, and the MSTR, priced around $37,000. The MST’s liquid-cooled V-4 “Baby Block” engine produces 165 horsepower, while the MSTR gets a 180 horsepower version.
“The core of everything we do is the engine,” Conn said.
With that in mind, Motus is moving production of the engine to its Birmingham base, creating several jobs to add to the company’s current total of eight. The Motus “Baby Block” engine is based on the architecture and philosophy of the famed Chevrolet small block V-8, scaled back to four cylinders. Producing it in Birmingham will streamline the assembly process.
“By the end of the year, we are shifting all of the manufacturing of the engines to Birmingham,” Conn said. “We have had a partner in Texas building them for us, but all of that will be done in-house.”
The Motus engine is generating demand on its own. Conn said inquiries have been received from people wanting it to power sawmill equipment and use it as an airplane engine. An inventor wanted one for a “flying” car. Motus itself has installed it in a replica Ferrari race car and an all-terrain vehicle as a way to demonstrate the engine’s capabilities.
“Motus is kind of two companies – a motorcycle company and a powertrain company,” Conn said.
HOW IT STARTED
The production launch has been a long time coming for Motus, which sprang from an idea that Conn and Case had in 2008.
“We started with this concept of building a comfortable American sport bike, which is something that has never really existed,” Conn said. “All the big European and Asian manufacturers make a bike in this segment, but there is really no American analog. Essentially, these bikes are designed to be comfortable for long stretches on the highway but also offer high performance when you get to what all motorcycle people love the most – the ‘twisties,’ or making turns.”
At the time, Conn had sold a health care company he had started in Birmingham in 1994. Case had been working as a designer for another motorcycle maker in the city but had moved on. The two riding buddies sensed the timing was right for a new venture.
“When the economy went down, we saw this great opportunity to leverage this time when we knew we would have to be in the woodshed – developing, designing, and testing the bike,” Conn said. “We hoped when the economy came back, we’d be ready with a fully developed bike.”
Conn and Case spent the first two years planning strategy and performing design work. Along the way, Conn said Motus was able to tap into the “mothership of American performance” — Pratt & Miller Engineering, a Detroit-based engineering firm that works with General Motors racing and Nascar teams. The firm came on board as a partner.
By 2010, Motus was testing engines for the bike. The next year the company unveiled a prototype at the Barber track and showed it off at Bike Week at Daytona Beach. After that, Conn and Case began the long process of refining and perfecting the motorcycle.
As the production launch neared, the partners decided to take the bikes to the 2014 Bonneville Speed Trials, knowing that, for a century, the salt flats in the Utah desert have been the ultimate proving ground for a machine.
“Our bikes are not really racing bikes,” Conn said. “We just wanted to produce a high-performance bike that happened to be comfortable for street use. But because the bike does have those capabilities, we decided to go out to Bonneville and see what it could do.”
Conn and Case came away with two speed records. Conn recorded a speed of 165.8 mph, shattering the American Motorcyclist Association record of 127 mph in the 1650 cc production pushrod class. Case recorded 163.9 mph in the 1650 cc production pushrod gas category, topping the previous high of 132 mph.
“We hold the fastest two production land-speed records for any American bike,” Conn said.
They celebrated by bolting on rearview mirrors and driving the bikes back to Birmingham, a 1,900-mile trek that included one marathon, 29-hour driving session.
“We really had to get home — we’ve all got kids. We said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Conn recalled. “From basically Nevada to Birmingham, the only place we stopped was in Kansas City for lunch. It was awesome. We went out there and got these records, and then we had this glorious ride home on the bikes.”
‘MADE IN ALABAMA’
At Bonneville, the record-setting bikes both sported one special detail – “Made in Alabama” decals.
While neither of the founders is an Alabama native, Conn said they like to acknowledge the support the company has received over the years from Birmingham and Alabama officials.
In 2012, the City of Birmingham provided a tax rebate package that helped with the move to the old Barber museum. Conn said Former Alabama Governor Bob Riley and current Governor Robert Bentley have both showed support for the company, and the Alabama Department of Commerce has been a backer.
Conn said he believes Alabama is the ideal spot for the company to produce high-end bikes. For starters, the state has a good business environment and a strong manufacturing heritage, he said. Plus, Birmingham’s location in the center of the South’s automotive corridor allows Motus to tap into a skilled talent pool.
There’s also the Barber museum, which has provided so much inspiration to the Motus founders.
“We love Alabama, and I can’t see why we would want to go anywhere else,” Conn said.