Confederate FA-13 Fighter Bomber road test
First road test by any journalist of the last-ever Confederate motorcycle model
All good things must come to an end, and after practicing the Art of Rebellion for a quarter of a century in manufacturing a total of 1,300 outrageously unconventional, totally uncompromising V-twin American maxi-cruisers since it was founded in 1992 by former trial lawyer Matt Chambers, Confederate Motors Inc. will shortly be building its last-ever such bike, thus marking an end to 23 years of iconoclastic innovation ever since the first Confederate Hellcat rolled out of the company’s Louisiana factory on November 11th, 1994.
That’s because from January 2018 onwards this maker of literally unique motorcycles is changing its name, while also abandoning the use of internal combustion engines in its products. The company which today is based in Birmingham, Alabama, after being expelled from its New Orleans home by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and is still headed by Matt Chambers as President/CEO, will henceforth be known as the Curtiss Motorcycle Co., named after the legendary American motorcycling and aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss. His most notable achievement on two wheels was to set a Land Speed Record of 136.36 mph (219.45 km/h) in January 1907 at Ormond Beach, Florida on a 40bhp 269ci/4,410cc V8-powered motorcycle which Curtiss had designed and built himself, before thereafter totally transferring his attention to airplanes, and to emulating the feats of the Wright Brothers. His record would stand for another 23 years before it was beaten.
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But whereas Confederate’s various models have hitherto all featured muscular engines that were as loud in action as they looked likely to be at rest, the born-again Curtiss brand’s debut model, the Hercules that’s scheduled to be unveiled this coming May, will waft along to the sound of silence. It’ll be powered by two electric motors made by California’s Zero Motorcycles, linked together in a patented modular system to deliver massive torque and vivid acceleration. Curtiss Motorcycle Company will focus exclusively on producing a range of electric-powered two-wheelers which Matt Chambers says will “fit every pocketbook.” He intends this should translate into a sub-$30K sticker price, which contrasts still further with Confederate’s status as the mucho expensivo boutique brand of two-wheeled choice for America’s rich and famous. Serial celebrities ranging from Hollywood A-listers Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Nicholas Cage, through to rock idols Bruce Springsteen and Steven Tyler, and country music star Tim McGraw, are to be found in Confederate’s roster of high-profile owners, often with more than one of these exquisitely crafted and consequently costly two-wheeled works of art in their garages, while Ralph Lauren has used Confederate bikes to decorate the window displays of its company’s flagship New York clothing store. It’s a two-wheeled status symbol.
The move to terminate use of the Confederate nametag comes amidst the current widespread American re-evaluation of symbols linked to the Civil War Confederacy, although Chambers’ preparations to ditch the name preceded that, having been in the planning for the past two years and more. “We’d come to recognise that the Confederate brand was no longer viable in the current political atmosphere,” he says. “It may well have caused us to lose a lot of business, and because of it we’ve surely missed out on various retail and other publicity opportunities. So it’s time to retire it – while at the same time striking out in a completely new direction with innovative new products. Because suddenly it’s 1970 again - the era of the great American muscle bike is coming to an end, and we need to move with that.”
Company will be transformed into Curtiss Motorcycle Co., exclusively manufacturing electric motorcycles together with Zero which will provide batteries, motors and controllers
So, it’s goodbye to Confederate and hello to Curtiss – but the Art of Rebellion ain’t going quietly. For ever since that first Hellcat, Confederate models have all been named after USAF warplanes, and the final limited edition series of thirteen motorcycles carries the name of the biggest such bird yet, the FA-13 Combat Bomber. Reflecting this, as well as their rarity, these are also the costliest Confederates yet to be built, retailing for $155,000 each, plus tax – though this does also include a bespoke couture leather jacket, made from the same horsehide as the machine's seat! Ten of the thirteen have already been sold – including three overseas, one each to Germany, Malaysia and China - leaving just three still available, so hurry, hurry… The monocoque-framed motorcycle’s chassis, suspension and engine crankcases have all been carved from solid aircraft-spec 6061 aluminium billet, covered with a distinctive matte finish worthy of a Stealth Bomber. This may indeed be the last-ever Confederate model to be built, but it’s quite a way to exit the stage.
The Bomber is based on the company’s previous limited-edition model, the P51 Combat Fighter, all 61 of which found owners at a price of $130,000 each. This means that its successor is also dominated by the same seven-inch (178mm) diameter aluminium tube comprising its spine frame, with the model’s title, emblem and identity no. carved into the upper face. This fuselage is CNC-machined from solid billets duly bolted together to create a monocoque chassis holding the V-twin motor that’s rigidly mounted as a fully-stressed frame component. It’s a true monocoque because it indeed also comprises the fuel tank, carrying 4.0 US gallons/16-litres of gas in a receptacle within the fuselage that extends downwards under the seat. There are five sight glasses incorporated in the chassis, with the upper trio allowing you to peer into the airbox incorporated into its upper section, while the lower pair permits you to monitor the level in the fuel cell. Imagine the legendary Isle of Man TT-winning John Player Norton racer’s aluminium monocoque chassis, but CNC-machined from solid then bolted together, rather than fabricated via a TIG-welder, as the Norton was. That’s what the FA-13 Bomber represents, albeit carrying a very different kind of twin-cylinder ohv engine than the Norton’s relatively puny 75bhp 750cc parallel-twin.
Just 13 examples will be made, each costing $155,000, with ten already sold and my test on No.7 taking place the day before it was shipped to its new owner – with new tyres!
For like the P51 Fighter, the Bomber is powered by an air/oil-cooled 132ci (2,163cc) triple-camshaft S&S X-Wedge ohv 56.25º V-twin motor with two valves per cylinder, a forged one-piece crank, and hefty flywheels. The engine’s architecture has been specifically tailored for this motorcycle by the Wisconsin-based company, with its crankcases also carved from solid 6061 aluminium billet featuring dedicated attachment points to suit the Bomber’s monocoque frame design. S&S has also incorporated Confederate’s own trademark cassette-style stacked-shaft five-speed gearbox (a format which Confederate was the first to employ 23 years ago, before Yamaha supposedly invented it on the R1), mounted in a fully-machined transmission housing bolted directly to the back of the X-Wedge motor to create a tight unit-construction package. A short 1¾ in/44mm-wide belt primary drive is mounted on the left, matched to a multiplate Bandit dry clutch, and with chain final drive on the right rather than by belt, because of the massive amount of torque on tap. For like the Fighter, the Bomber’s version of the motor has been tuned to deliver serious horsepower and immense grunt in a fully street-legal package – and then some, for according to Matt Chambers it features a little more performance than before in the Fighter, in a subtly revamped package.
“This is the ultimate Act of Rebellion, that’s also the product of Confederate as a company,” he says. “Everyone at Confederate had a hand in it. We all sat down as a group and we all worked on creating this bike. Together, we came up with the whole kind of militaristic look that’s kind of tough, and aggressive. It’s a definite ‘f***k you’ motorcycle! Instead of anodising the frame like on the handful of black Fighters we made, we bead blasted this one, so that’s why it has this really mad, kind of scratchy surface to it - it really matted out the finish dramatically, to add to the tough looks of it all.”
S&S X-Wedge engine has special milled-from-billet aluminium crankcases allowing solid mounting to create a very strong frame package
But the step up from the Fighter which the Bomber represents isn’t restricted to form, but also embraces function. “The weight is a little bit less, around 30 pounds,” says Chambers, “but we’ve also tweaked the engine for extra horsepower. So now it’s actually very much like the motorcycle we took to the Salt Flats - the changes that we made to the Fighter’s engine to break the record are the changes contained in the Bomber. It’s basically the same motor.” That record was set in August 2014, when Confederate customer Jim Hoegh (he has five of the beasts!) established a new Land Speed Record on the Bonneville Salt Flats at 172.211 mph (277.146 km/h) in the APF-3000 category for unstreamlined, naturally aspirated, pushrod V-twin engines above 2000cc, with a one-way pass of 176.458 mph, making his S&S-powered Confederate the fastest big block V-twin in the world, ahead of anything Harley or Indian (or Victory) had to offer. So the 150 bhp at 5,100 rpm produced at the wheel by the Bomber’s X-Wedge engine is derived from Hoegh’s Salt Flats record-breaker, 5 bhp up on the Fighter’s tune, plus there’s 7Nm/5ft-lb more torque at 2,000 rpm, where a truly humungous 224Nm/165ft-lb is on tap. The era of the great American muscle bikes may be ending, but they won’t be forgotten – especially not by anyone fortunate enough to have ridden one.
My chance to become the first person outside Confederate other than a customer to ride the new Bomber came by fronting up at Confederate’s 25,000ft² factory in downtown Birmingham – a renovated 1940s brick warehouse building that it moved to in October 2013 – to collect the keys of the seventh of the final 13 Confederates ever to be built, before it headed to its new owner the following day nicely run in, and with a new set of tyres fitted! So no pressure, then, in keeping it upright while riding along the switchback, swoopy Alabama hill country roads in something approaching anger on a bike that, like the Fighter I tested a couple of years ago in California, is improbably good-handling by Cruiser standards, and positively urges you to ride it hard. Well, I’m easily led…
Soon as you straddle the Bomber you realise it has a subtly different stance than its Fighter cousin, with a slightly lower riding position to help you be more aerodynamic, and your feet slightly further forward, quite close to where the crank is. Still, it’s not as extreme a stance as on Pierre Terblanche’s feet-forward Speedster version of the Hellcat he produced back in 2014 before he left Alabama for India and Royal Enfield, which was frankly uncomfortable to ride at almost any speed. That had a radically different riding position thanks to footpegs that were 18in/460mm further forward than the previous Hellcat variant’s rearsets straight out of any café racer catalogue. The compromised stance this resulted in made you feel detached from the bike, perched unnaturally atop it with your legs straightened out in front of you - it was hard to ride the Speedster in anything approaching anger, as Confederate riders certainly relish doing.
Hefty 261 kg/575 lb weight doesn’t detract from impressive acceleration, while Beringer radial brakes bring it to a halt fast and effectively, no longer with a snatchy initial take-up
The Bomber’s stance is completely different and much more rational, with a flat drag-style handlebar which dictates that you lean forward slightly to grab the grips, with your feet easily finding the still relatively rearset rests. It’s a comfortable stance aided by the improbably comfy, plushly-padded throne of a seat that’s 736mm/29in high, and is well-nigh ideal by Sportcruiser standards. For that’s what the Bomber undoubtedly is – it’s about as close to emulating one of the classic Bobber-style motorcycles that are all the rage right now, as a Confederate could ever get. Because the whole motorcycle is essentially no wider than the rear tyre, it feels improbably agile – nimble, even, with the reduced gyroscopic effect of the BST carbon front wheel and downsized quartet of Beringer brakes helping speed up the steering, so that you don’t need to give the flat ‘bar more than a light tug to make it switch direction easily from side to side. It’s light-steering, albeit lazily so thanks to the long 1588mm wheelbase and conservative steering geometry, with a 27.5º rake to the machine-hewn girder fork, and 106mm of trail. Even though you can’t grip the spine frame between your knees, you feel at one with a bike which steers and handles very capably. It felt super-stable when braking downhill into a bend, as the girder-style fork of the type favoured by John Britten, here machined from solid aluminium to hold down the unsprung weight and offering 114mm/4.35in front wheel travel, keeps right on working at damping out road rash as I trailbraked into the turn. The RaceTech shocks fitted front and rear had been set up to give optimum damping and excellent ride quality for a person of my weight, and the Bomber felt pretty confidence inspiring in the way it steered.
That was despite the massive 240/45-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso II rear tyre, which didn’t heavy up the Bomber’s steering as much as I expected. At the other end the skinnier 19-inch front Pirelli Night Dragon encourages you to keep up turn speed, especially as there’s more ground clearance than on the Fighter, thanks to the trio of exit pipes on each side of the redesigned exhaust canister beneath the engine being raised on the Bomber for extra clearance. The fact that the fat rear tyre is mounted on a slightly wider-than-usual 8.5-inch BST carbon rim spreads the rubber out more, resulting in a flatter profile delivering a more progressive feel – you don’t sense the Bomber is eager to flop into the apex of a turn once you reach the shoulder of the tyre, as on some other bikes wearing such a wide rear design statement. This is mechanical eye candy that functions a whole lot better than you might expect, especially in terms of handling.
Firing up the X-Wedge powerplant is instant, after turning the ignition key down by your right knee and flicking the tiny, delicate kill switch on the right switchbox that seems disproportionately dainty for such a meaty musclebike. Just thumb the starter button and it cranks immediately into life first time, every time – though you must be ready for the earth to move under the sustained thunder emitted by those six bright red exhaust canister exit pipes beneath your feet. That easy start-up by Big Twin standards comes because S&S has fitted the motor with its Easy Start cams, which reduce cranking compression via an innovative feature. Each of the two exhaust cam lobes is equipped with a spring loaded compression release lobe on the heel of the cam, at the point where the valve would normally be fully closed. This lobe holds the exhaust valve slightly open at cranking speed, which releases some of the compression, making the engine much easier to turn. Once it starts firing, revs increase until at 800rpm the compression release lobe is centrifugally retracted, and the exhaust valve closes fully as part of the normal engine cycle. The engine now runs normally, with full compression. Clever!
When that happens, the Bomber’s engine bursts into life with a satisfyingly meaty peal of thunder from the exhaust, settling to a 900rpm idle that’s devoid of the clackety rattles and shakes of some other American air-cooled V-twins, and it’s also relatively quiet in terms of decibels, too. Really, the whole bike exudes quality and togetherness – like the Fighter, it no longer feels like a collection of parts, but a more homogeneous, more refined whole. Even though S&S declines to fit any vibration-sapping counterblancers to it, the triple-camshaft X-Wedge motor is pretty smooth by air-cooled V-twin standards, with no undue vibration at any revs, in spite of being solid-mounted for extra chassis stiffness. Thanks to the refined fuelling delivered by the Delphi EFI, it’ll pull cleanly off idle with acres of grunt, and very satisfying acceleration. Just crack the throttle open in almost any gear you care to throw at it, and the Confederate surges forward irresistibly, but controllably. Engine mapping is ideal, without too vivid a throttle response, and wheelies aren’t an issue because of the long wheelbase. The impressive acceleration comes thanks to the huge amount of torque on tap at almost any engine speed, which peaks at just 2,000 rpm, but holds hard and strong all the way through to the 5,800rpm revlimiter which you have no business ever approaching.
The X-Wedge motor’s happy zone is between 2,000-3,500 rpm, so you’re best off shifting up at around 4,000 rpm as shown on the bike’s only instrument, a round black-faced Motogadget analogue tacho behind the steering head that’s very café racer, containing a small digital panel showing road speed and the fuel level, with a red ignition light, green N-for-Neutral, and – that’s all. Doing so will let you surf that so-strong torque curve, but you must remember that while 3,000 rpm in top/fifth gear is already 100mph/160kmh, it takes you very little time to get there thanks to those substantial reserves of muscle. Though the surprisingly light-action hydraulically operated Bandit clutch (surprising, because of all the torque it has to handle) barely needs to be troubled accelerating out of even the tightest turn from little more than walking pace, you’re best off keeping the revs dialled up above 2.000 rpm where peak torque is delivered to avoid any trace of transmission snatch. But there’s a plateau in the torque curve from there on up to the 5,100 rpm power peak, where the 2,136cc motor delivers that 150 bhp at the rear wheel.
The shift action of the Bomber’s five-speed Confederate gearbox with Andrews gears is quite positive, swapping ratios more smoothly than on the Fighter I rode previously, which made a clunk when downshifting each time you went from second to first through neutral. But with so much torque on tap, two of those five ratios remain completely superfluous – you can start off from rest in third gear without slipping the clutch very much, and the Bomber will go almost anywhere in top gear, with hugely impressive roll-on performance from any revs. This is a great bike for close quarters traffic combat, using the S&S engine’s meaty response to zap past cars or trucks as you carve your way past them. But while you might expect all that from such a big-cube motor, the fact that this level of performance is delivered with such extra refinement and so little vibration, is really impressive.
The Bomber’s brakes remain the same quartet of leading edge Beringer 230mm aluminum-ceramic composite floating front discs as on the Fighter, doubled up in two pairs gripped by four-piston radial one-piece calipers employing special sintered metal pads to stop a bike weighing slightly less than the Fighter ready to roll, at 247 kg/545 lb with oil and 3.75 US gal/4lt of fuel, with a balanced 48/52% weight distribution. They work brilliantly well in stopping the bike from the high speeds it’s so fully capable of reaching, especially as Confederate has addressed the issue I had when riding the Fighter with the same brake package. The initial take-up was way too fierce even with the bike’s substantial weight, enough to cause concerns about locking up the front wheel on a bike devoid of ABS on a road surface made slippery by rain or traffic residue. But on the Bomber I rode it felt much improved - probably via a different choice of pads. But, why no ABS? “As a lame duck model, there was no point in making the investment to develop a system for the Bomber,” says Chambers. “But we’ll have a full ABS brake package on the Curtiss models by the time they start production.”
No question about it, Confederate has saved the best till last. Few bikes ever built by another manufacturer deliver the same kind of visceral thrill you get from riding the FA-13 Bomber hard, as it invites you to do each time you stick the key in the ignition. It’s the best bike yet from the Dixie manufacturer – an ideal way to bid a fond farewell to the Art of Rebellion – well, with a combustion engine, at least. Expensive and classy, yet muscular and substantial – this is industrial art with a focused purpose. Confederate motorcycles may soon be gone, but for sure they won’t be forgotten.
“These Bombers we’re making now are going to be the last Confederates,” says Matt Chambers, “so I think of them as the last rebels, ready to go out with a bang. [American poet] e.e.cummings had it right: ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.’ That struggle for the cause of anti-conformity is what we’ve been doing for the past 25 years with Confederate - but now that battle is over, and we must turn our attention to a new war that’s just beginning.”
Last of the line is also the best – Confederate is gone but won’t be forgotten
Indeed so, but one fought with new-gen electrical charge, rather than the old-style but current combustion…