Katrina, karma and Confederate Motorcycles’ comeback

Katrina, karma and Confederate Motorcycles’ comeback

Confederate Motors hits new gear in Birmingham 10 years after Hurricane Katrina from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

When you look at any of the bikes Confederate Motors makes, you can imagine the muscularity, industrial bent and testosterone that must have gone into constructing these mechanical works of art.

Then you ask Confederate founder and CEO Matt Chambers and he quotes e e cummings and talks about the karma of the building where the bikes are made in Birmingham’s Lakeview District.

The front view of Confederate Motors' P 51 Combat Fighter.
The front view of Confederate Motors’ P 51 Combat Fighter.

The dichotomy is probably what makes Confederate Motorcycles such striking and unique machines with millionaire and celebrity owners like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and King Abdullah II of Jordan – and carrying price tags to match.

The Confederate Motors P 51 Combat Fighter motorcycle's black version retails for $119,500.
The Confederate Motors P 51 Combat Fighter motorcycle’s black version retails for $119,500.

But the maker of bikes of the rich and famous saw it all come crashing down because of an infamous storm a decade ago. The timing could not have been worse.

The day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast, Chambers was in the Middle East raising investments for the next year of motorcycle production in New Orleans. The company had already been in business more than a dozen years and went from being an abstract, almost research and development group, to producing motorcycles that were receiving global recognition for their design, operation and uniqueness.

The company had moved into a new warehouse a few blocks off Canal Street and was hard at work making motorcycles in the Big Easy.

The fundraising had exceeded Chambers’ goal and the outlook for Confederate was as bright as it had ever been. Chambers, his investors and partners celebrated well into the night.

Then he went back to his hotel room and turned on the television. The size of Katrina dwarfed the dot on the radar that was labeled “New Orleans.”

“My sense of guarded optimism told me, ‘Ah, that thing will turn away. It’s nothing.’ I went to sleep,” he said. “When I woke up the next morning, it looked like it would be a cataclysmic result and it turned out to be just that.”

The Confederate Motors P 51 Combat Fighter motorcycle's blond version retails for $115,900.
The Confederate Motors P 51 Combat Fighter motorcycle’s blond version retails for $115,900.

The storm brought the building and the roof crashing down. It would be weeks before Chambers would be allowed back into the neighborhood to confirm the tools, racks, computers, paperwork, etc. were all lost.

Confederate’s insurance company went bankrupt, FEMA had no assistance that applied to businesses like Confederate and the company’s future went from stellar to shattered.

“Three-quarters of the money we had raised the night before unplugged for reasons I fully understand. I was surprised they even did the first quarter,” Chambers said of the investors.

The front view of Confederate Motors' P 51 Combat Fighter.
The front view of Confederate Motors’ P 51 Combat Fighter.

Being a motorcycle enthusiast, Chambers remembered visiting George Barber’s personal motorcycle museum back when it was in Birmingham’s Lakeview District. He paid a visit to Barber, who had recently completed his multimillion-dollar Barber Motorsports Park racetrack and four-story Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum near Leeds off Interstate 20. Barber and economic development officials convinced Chambers to start over in Birmingham.

(Read our Barber Motorsports Park profile.)

He agreed and the announcement of Confederate’s move to Birmingham was made at the Barber museum a few months later. Confederate set up production at a small shop near UAB and put the pieces back together by assembling bike parts into working works of art again.

Production was slow and it took a while to establish orders for the bikes – which were priced in excess of $60,000. The recession didn’t help and the recovery took longer than expected.

Eventually, things started looking up. Confederate moved into a larger space near Pepper Place in Lakeview, a district known for architecture and design. Chambers said the building has good karma for the appreciation of function and form over finance that existed in the era it was built.

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“What doesn’t take you out makes you stronger,” he said. “I actually feel like we’re better off today. I’m glad we could go through all of that stuff because we’re better managed, have better people. I think we’ve done a fairly good job with the body of work. I’m humbly pleased with the design work our company has done up to this point and I believe it’s going to get a whole lot better.”

For the first time since Katrina, Chambers said the company is in a position to rev up steady production. A new bike will go into production every quarter from now until 2018, taking the production levels from one a week to as many as three a week.

Starting with the new P 51 Combat Fighter, Birmingham's Confederate Motors hopes to start a new production run every quarter through 2018.
Starting with the new P 51 Combat Fighter, Birmingham’s Confederate Motors hopes to start a new production run every quarter through 2018.

“The new strategy is to just hit the market with consistent, uber quality, hand-crafted, wonderful beautiful designs of Confederate Motorcycles,” he said. “It’s like the fighter coming off the ropes and you’ve got one punch. We’ve done that for a while. But this time we will have multiple, we will have a barrage of different punches coming from different angles. No doubt it will be successful.”

The new slate of motorcycles, starting with the recently announced second generation P51 Combat Fighter, will have a new frame that provides zero fatigue to the structure of the bike. The bike will cost from $115,900 for the blond version and $119,500 for the black version.

That may sound like a lot of money for a motorcycle, but Chambers said he’s not just selling motorcycles.

“Great art is something that you experience and it makes you change from the way you used to think,” Chambers said. “If we tap that energy and we imbue it into the motorcycle then the motorcycle will have its own abstract energy and will carry that forward forever and it will change people’s opinion.”

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