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JT Nesbitt Rises: Glory be American Superbikes

Thursday, October 4, 2012
“This is the one. This one I’m working on right now, this is the bike. This is the reason why I’m here, I think,” said JT Nesbitt in a gentlemanly Southern drawl during our recent interview.

American motorcycle designer JT Nesbitt aims to continue the evolution of the American superbike in his Bienville Legacy Project.
American motorcycle designer JT Nesbitt aims to continue the evolution of the American superbike with his Bienville Legacy Project.
A bold statement coming from a man who made a name for himself designing the G2 Hellcat and Wraith during his tenure with Confederate Motorcycles. This also after an eight-year hiatus from creating anything with two wheels. This isn’t to say that Nesbitt has let his talents fester in a darkly lit New Orleans bar. On the contrary, he salvaged a 1998 Lincoln Mark 8 that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina floodwaters, turning “The Stinkin’ Linkin” into a Bonneville racer. He also crafted an automobile with design inspirations from 1930s grand prix racers called the “Magnolia Special” that runs on compressed natural gas which he then rode from New York to LA in 89 hours. But motorcycle design has been on the back burner for a while, ideas simmering inside Nesbitt’s mind until the proper impetus presented itself.

That impetus came in the form of one Jim Jacoby. Jacoby, an entrepreneur and founder of the American Design and Master-Craft initiative (ADMCi), is the man encouraging Nesbitt to break the boundaries of conventional motorcycle design, to challenge the laws of mass in motion and the forces that act upon stiction and dive. In essence, Jacoby has taken the reins off Nesbitt, allowing him to design without the stigmas of mass production or creativity-crushing overlords. Nesbitt’s goal is to continue the evolution of the American superbike, a segment he claims has been ignored for far too long.

The Bienville Legacy Project begins to take shape on the drafting board.
The Bienville Legacy Project begins to take shape on the drafting board.
Carbon fiber girders will serve as both the fork and swingarm on the Bienville Legacy Project.
Carbon fiber girders will serve as both the fork and swingarm on the Bienville Legacy Project.
The entire process  from the drafting board to a functional motorcycle  will be filmed by the ADMCi for a feature-length documentary.
The entire process, from the drafting board to a functional motorcycle, will be filmed by the ADMCi for a feature-length documentary.
Nesbitt’s “Bienville Legacy Project” sources inspiration from motorcycles like the Pierce 4-cylinder and 1923 Ace XP4, motorcycles he perceives as establishing the foundations of smoothness, speed and beauty in an American superbike.

“This is a Deusenberg motorcycle. There was a time when America made one of the top automobiles in the world. This motorcycle is kind of like that,” Nesbitt said.

At the heart of the Bienville Legacy Project is the liquid-cooled, 90-degree V4 engine designed by Brian Case of Motus Motorcycles. The engine used in in Motus’ sport-tourer is a 100 cubic-inch, 160 horsepower longitudinal V4 that’s compact and should help in the quest for mass centralization. The variation Nesbitt intends on using will be supercharged in hopes of pushing power numbers into the 300 hp range.

More compelling than that though is Nesbitt’s intention on using a composite leaf spring frame supporting a carbon fiber girder fork and swingarm. The leaf spring will be supported by a chassis that cradles the spring between the independent front and rear suspension.

“The underlying philosophical problem is you’re asking your forks, the springs in your fork, to do two jobs. They have to suspend while they provide a resistance force under braking,” explained Nesbitt.

Using a leaf spring for the frame reduces bushings and helps centralize mass, while girder suspension units will lower unsprung weight as opposed to a conventional telescopic fork with springs and hydraulic fluids. The girders are mirror images of one another, allowing for the use of the same size brake discs and calipers front and back, which in the prototype pictures are radial mount ISR Calipers with a Titanium banjo bolt and BST carbon fiber wheels.

Nesbitt also has an interesting perspective on motorcycle seats he addresses with the Bienville Legacy Project. Hoping to “encourage the free exchange of information form man to machine and back again,” he’s studied one of the longest-standing interfaces between man and a mode of transportation, the horse saddle. Man has been riding horses for thousands of years, so why not extrapolate on methodology that’s already proven to work? Yes, the Bienville Legacy Project will be outfitted with a leather saddle, each custom tailored to the caretaker of the motorcycle. The saddle will only fit one person so that every contact point on that motorcycle according to Nesbitt “is completely understood, completely reconciled.” It will be a case study in understanding contact points in relation to man and machine in motion.

Another aspect that will define the Bienville Legacy Project is the materials used in its construction. Keeping overall weight down on a superbike is paramount and materials with a high strength-to-weight ratio are the most coveted. Matching the proper metal for different applications will also be key. Cast aluminum, desirable for its strength and workability, will be used for the tailored saddle area. Titanium is preferred for axles and fasteners as long as the pitfalls of welding it can be circumvented by using water jets to cut it and then bolting it together. Chromoly has already established its usefulness in frames and as mentioned, carbon fiber is the composite of choice for the girders and wheels. After it’s all said and done, the Bienville Legacy Project will then be tested on the “Great White Dyno,” Bonneville’s legendary salt flats.

The liquid-cooled  90-degree V4 designed by Brian Case will be supercharged for the Bienville Legacy Project.
The liquid-cooled, 90-degree V4 designed by Brian Case will be supercharged for the Bienville Legacy Project.
“The reason I’m so drawn to Bonneville is that experimentation at Bonneville is encouraged. That’s what it is. It’s our race as Americans,” Nesbitt said.

At Bonneville, Nesbitt and the ADMCi team will attempt to break three land speed records with the three prototypes they intend on producing, competing in the 1650cc APBG (special construction pushrod blown gas), APSPBG (special construction partial streamline pushrod blown gas) and APSPBF (special construction partial streamline pushrod blown fuel) classes.

Ambitious as the Bienville Legacy Project is, none of it would be possible without the help of Jacoby and the ADCMi. Nesbitt likened the relationship to the Medici family of the late 14th century who as patrons of the arts contracted the best Florentine artists of the time and fostered the birth of the Italian Renaissance. Similarly, the ADCMi is set up as a supporter of a master craftsman, in this case Nesbitt.

“The ADCMi contract for me is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen enough.”

As part of the arrangement between the two parties, Jacoby is sending digital designers, coders and strategists from the American Design and Master Craft initiative to work with JT on the project at his studio down in New Orleans in order to “learn elements of master craftsmanship so they can be applied to digital design culture.” Nesbitt jokingly states he’s going “to provide physical experiences for a few lucky people.” The ADMCi will also be filming the Bienville Legacy Project for a feature-length documentary.

While we had JT on the phone and knowing about his rant against Polaris and Indian Motorcycles, we couldn’t help but hit him up with the burning question “What do you think is wrong with the state of the American motorcycle industry these days?”

Nesbitt replied, “Let me put it to you this way. I just finished reading a pretty interesting book by Bob Lutz, Car Guys vs Bean Counters (The Battle for the Soul of American Business). And in that book, Lutz singles out a theory that the problem with American manufacturing is that the head of American manufacturers are Brown University MBAs instead of guys who started off sweeping the floors. The way I can say it is, with a few notable exceptions, it’s not product driven.” (Exceptions he mentioned being his former Confederate Motorcycles’ co-hort, Brian Case. He also mentioned Michael Czysz and Erik Buell).

JT Nesbitt returns to motorcycle design after an eight-year hiatus with the Bienville Legacy Project.
'This is a Deusenberg motorcycle. There was a time when America made one of the top automobiles in the world. This motorcycle is kind of like that,' Nesbitt said.
And while production of the first prototype is well on its way to completion, one obstacle remains for Nesbitt and the ADMCi – money. They’re currently trying to raise $500,000 to build the three prototypes through a fund raising campaign on Kickstarter. Innovation and materials involved in building the new standard in American superbikes doesn’t come cheap. ADMCi is offering pledgers a range of benefits, from weekend apprenticeships working under the guidance of Nesbitt to accompanying them out to the Salt. Right now there’s 17 days to go on The Legacy Motorcycle Commission and its raised a mere pittance of their goal but we’re hoping more supporters get involved because it’d be a shame to waste the vision of the enigmatic designer. Hopefully JT doesn’t have to conjure the juju of Marie Laveau to see his vision become reality. In the meantime, he advises us to keep an eye out in October because it’s going to be “a very busy month” while leaving us with this final tidbit.

“Ideas themselves have tremendous power. And it’s a great idea.”
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