The Best of Both Worlds

The Best of Both Worlds

Two local entrepreneurs are building motorcycles suited to both long-distance riding and high-speed performance.

May 13, 2010

I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed,” Howlin’ Wolf once sang. Motus Motorcycles founders Lee Conn and Brian Case have developed a motorcycle that might prompt comfort-seekers such as Wolf to embrace acceleration as well. “The MST (Motus Sport Tourer) is designed to be comfortable on the interstate, but when you hit the backroads, you’re not restrained by limited power or a heavy bike,” says Conn. “It’s designed to go long distances but you can still ride relatively aggressively. When you get to somewhere like Chattanooga after riding five or six hours, you still have the ability to hit the backroads without needing to seek a chiropractor later.” Conn (age 37, president) and Case (age 33, vice president and design director) started Motus two years ago, working in virtual secrecy. Having operated a successful healthcare enterprise, Conn was searching for a career change, preferably one that indulged his passion for motorcycles. Case, who had a decade of experience as an industrial designer, had worked on a motorcycle project in Pittsburgh. The two joined forces to produce their dream bike. Manufacturing will be outsourced. “Motus is more like a design and engineering company,” Case explains. “That means we don’t need millions of dollars worth of our own equipment to fabricate things in-house.”

“The Barber track is why we’re here. Birmingham is slowly becoming a motorcycle mecca.”

Currently located at Innovation Depot, a downtown business incubator affiliated with UAB, Motus plans to have prototypes built late this year. “We’ll be riding the prototype all over the country. We’ll be testing it in every kind of environment and condition, and we’ll be showing it to enthusiasts,” Conn says. “We want all the opinion-shapers in the motorcycle world to ride it. We’re gonna be shaking hands with everybody that’s interested in a new American motorcycle.”

The sport touring market is dominated by European and Asian motorcycles that include BMW, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Honda. Conn explains the differences in motorcycles built on different continents. “American bikes tend to be large, really beautiful, and haven’t changed much since the post-World War II era, like Harleys, or choppers from the 1970s. They tend to be less focused on technology. European bikes tend to have a lot of technology and precision, good performance. Asian bikes are really focused on racing and are super high-tech.”

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Motus (Latin for “motion”) will offer two models, the MST-01 and the more expensive, premium MST-R bike. The motorcycles won’t be constructed exclusively from American parts. “We’re sourcing the best stuff from wherever we can,” says Conn. “The suspension is Swedish. The MST-R offers either magnesium wheels from Italy or carbon fiber wheels from South Africa.”

What makes Motus bikes unique is the engine that Conn and Case developed with Michigan-based Katech Engines. It will be the first V4 to power a production motorcycle built in America. “The V4 is a derivative of a V8 engine,” says Case. “The V8 name is synonymous with an American muscle car. Our V4 is a direct descendant of that. It will feature a very familiar sound, a throwback to the 1980s muscle car.”

The chassis will initially be manufactured by Pratt & Miller Engineering near Detroit, but Motus will likely transition much of the fabrication to automotive suppliers in Alabama as their volume permits, Conn explains.

Setting up Motus headquarters in a city that offers the Barber Motorsports Park was a given. “The Barber track is why we’re here. Birmingham is slowly becoming a motorcycle mecca,” Conn says. “Brian and I will go to the [Barber] museum and breathe in all those bikes and get up under them and examine them—but we don’t touch them. [laughs] Brian calls Barber the world’s biggest 3D research library. We can see what motorcycle companies were doing in the 1980s or in the 1920s. We ask ourselves, ‘How can we incorporate some of that really timeless stuff into what we’re doing?’ Then on race days, we get to look at the modern technology.”

Case and Conn were surprised at the approachability of the corporations Motus has partnered with. “It’s amazing how receptive people are when you just pick up the phone and call them. A lot of times you think of these companies as big, monolithic corporations with no humans working there,” Conn says. “But it tends to be quite the opposite when you call. They’ll answer the phone and in 5 or 10 minutes you can probably give them a pitch about what you’re doing, and try to make it as exciting as possible. I think that in this day with the economy and everybody feeling sorta beaten down, when somebody calls with some excitement and trying to start something new that is groundbreaking and innovative, it’s a little bit infectious. We’re enthusiastic people and hopefully that translates.” &

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