Not everyone who rides a Harley-Davidson wants to cruise. Some prefer the brutal performance vibe that only a tuned up, big bore V-twin can deliver. Especially when it has that unmistakable American style.
That usually throws up a few interesting chassis problems, but Confederate – who as you might have guessed are based in the Southern half of the USA – aim to produce a genuinely user friendly range of performance specials. Not Harleys, different certainly and dare we suggest, that bit better ?
Rumbling through the outskirts of Daytona on the prototype Confederate Grey Ghost, it didn’t take long to find what I was looking for. Two Harley riders were sitting side-by-side at a set of traffic lights, blipping their bikes’ throttles aggressively and looking up and down each other’s lightly customised Softails. I eased the Ghost alongside, keeping one eye on the lights, the big motor spinning in first gear, my clutch hand ready for action.
And when the lights changed the Grey Ghost left them for dead. Given a big handful the Confederate charged away from the line, its V-twin engine revving hard in first and second gears, the acceleration stretching my arms, the exhaust note hardening to a thunderous roar. It was no contest, and the Ghost surged ahead until I backed off to let the Harley riders pull alongside for a look at the unfamiliar bike that had outdragged them.
Juvenile behaviour, admittedly, but at least I had an excuse. Before I’d ridden off on the Grey Ghost, Confederate boss Matt Chambers had warned with a grin that I should make sure to impress any Harley pilots I encountered. The Ghost is aimed at riders who want a big American V-twin with more performance than a Harley, he’d said. So I could hardly let him down when the opportunity arose to demonstrate its superior acceleration to a couple of potential customers.
If those guys and others like them can be won over, the Grey Ghost has a big future ahead of it. The race to capitalise on Harley’s success with a rival American V-twin has been intense in recent years, as firms including Indian, Excelsior, Century Chief, Apache and even Vincent have all announced new machines backed by varying levels of expertise, finance and ambition. There have been plenty of drawings and mock-ups but this prototype Ghost, built by The Confederate Motorcycle Works from Baton Rouge in Louisiana, is the first to hit the road.
Confederate is headed by 41-year-old Matt Chambers, who spent 14 years as a real estate lawyer before “selling my practice and trading my suits for blue jeans.” Chambers has invested his capital and that of several local backers in a firm that currently employs nine people in Baton Rouge, and has teamed with San Francisco chassis and drag-race specialists Kosman Racing to design a small range of V-twins. Their initial aim is to build the Grey Ghost and two other models, starting with 150 bikes this year (1997) and increasing production to at least 1000 machines in 1997.
Once glance reveals that the prototype Ghost is a big, aircooled, 45-degree pushrod V-twin cruiser with more than a hint of custom Harley. In fact it’s a completely distinct machine and even the 1525cc (93 cubic inch) motor although obviously similar in many ways contains barely a single H-D part. The powerplant is built by engine specialists S&S to Confederate’s specification, and is fitted with an all-new five-speed gearbox, designed by Confederate (with help from Kosman and H-D tuning specialists Sputhe), that is considerably more compact than a Harley unit. From there, drive is taken to the rear wheel by a chain on the right of the bike, the opposite side to Harley’s.
The chassis was mainly Kosman’s work, and centres around a steel spine frame. At the rear, a cantilever steel swing-arm operates twin shocks that are situated near-horizontally, below the rider’s part of the stepped seat. Up front, a pair of 43mm Ceriani forks sits at a raked-out 36 degrees. Wheels are 19-inch front, 18-inch rear, with wire spokes and Akront alloy rims. Front brake comprises twin 300mm floating Performance Machine discs with four-piston calipers, with a similar single disc at the rear.
Despite the massive, undeniably Harleyesque lump at the Ghost’s centre, the grey bike has a distinctive and pleasantly flowing look of its own. The Kosman influence is apparent in its long, low, almost drag-bike profile. This prototype had a number of minor cosmetic faults, notably that the fuel tank was mounted slightly too far back and the rear mudguard too high, but Chambers (who pointed them out) said these would be changed on production bikes.
The Ghost is also vaguely reminiscent of a dragster in that its riding position stretches you out across the long teardrop tank to slightly raised handlebars, though footrests are set well forward. Ahead are just the machined alloy Kosman top yoke and the headlamp, whose top holds the small speedo and warning lights. The seat is thinly padded and quite low, although the Ghost has more rear suspension travel than the average Harley.
At a press of the button the Sportster starter-motor (one of the handful of H-D parts) thunked the massive V-twin into life, where it sat, juddering gently and sucking through a single S&S carb between the Vee. Immediately I released the hydraulic clutch to pull away it was obvious that this was one meaty brute of a motorbike. Confederate have not disclosed figures for either power or torque, except to claim that the Ghost makes more of both than a Harley Big Twin, but most of the motor’s considerable output is produced low-down.
The merest tweak of the throttle sent the grey bike lurching forward with enough force to push me back against the stepped seat. With a mighty blam, too, from shotgun pipes that will be quietened slightly for production purposes. That made for excellent entertainment on the streets of Daytona during bike week, where the Confederate more than matched any Milwaukee opposition in both roll-ons and stop-light grands prix. The motor carburetted crisply throughout, and pulled cleanly in top from below 30mph.
The Ghost felt pretty good, too, out on the open road, where it cruised easily at 70mph with a certain amount of buzzing from its solidly-mounted engine. There was heaps of instant power in hand at that speed, and winding back the throttle sent the bike accelerating to an indicated 110mph with the unstoppable feel of a charging rhino. But above 80mph those big dancing pistons really began to make the Confederate shake through its seat and the solid-mounted handlebars (which will be rubber-mounted for production models).
Given the Ghost’s kicked-out forks and ultra-long, 1750mm wheelbase, it was no surprise that even approaching its top speed the bike felt as though a hurricane wouldn’t have knocked it off course. Naturally, the flip-side was that the Confederate steered about as quickly as a Mississippi paddle-steamer, needing plenty of muscle to get it to change direction even remotely quickly. And the big V-twin’s broad Avon Venom tyres (the rear a 180/55 cover) had used little of their considerable cornering potential before the footrests touched down.
Chambers remains committed to the long, low look and the emphasis on stability, but admits he was wrong to insist that Kosman gave the frame so much rake. Production Ghosts will have a steeper 30-degree head angle, which should liven the handling up considerably and also allow the strong but rather harsh-feeling Ceriani forks to work more freely. Footrests will be rubber-mounted and narrower, in the interests of improved comfort and ground-clearance.
I had no real complaints concerning the brakes, which pulled the 220kg bike up hard, although Performance Machine’s front set-up required a little more lever pressure than I’d expected. But nevertheless the production Ghost will have bigger, 330mm discs for added bite. If there was one thing above all that was impressive about Matt Chambers, it was that every time I picked fault in the prototype, a suitable improvement was already in the pipeline.
All of which should mean that the production Grey Ghost is quite some motorbike when it starts coming out of Confederate’s Baton Rouge plant in late spring (1998), at an initial rate of ten bikes per week. That’s the plan, anyway. And although Chambers admits that he’s looking for extra capital to finance more rapid expansion, he insists that Confederate already has enough money to cover existing plans for the next three years.
Those include producing not just this bike but also two other models using the same basic engine and frame unit. One will be a subtly redesigned roadster with new styling and some chassis alterations, the other a much sportier machine with high-level pipes, a single seat and upside-down Cerianis.
The Grey Ghost has almost completed the tests it needs to be sold in 49 American states (California is much more difficult), Chambers says. Bikes will initially be sold from Baton Rouge, at $27,000 each (about £17,000), but Confederate are planning a network of 25 dealers across America. And Chambers who says he’s motivated by a desire to prove that ’the South can build a better bike than the Yankees’ is also looking for potential foreign agents, particularly in Britain, with a view to beginning exports as quickly as possible.
As tested the Grey Ghost isn’t quite the finished article, and has several rough edges that need sorting out before it could be considered a genuine, premium-priced rival to a Harley. There’s a big difference, too, between building one prototype and producing and selling ten every week. But the potential is there, and Confederate’s willingness to get the bike right suggests it could be a winner. If the Grey Ghost does make it into production, it will certainly give most Harley riders a run for their money away from the lights.
Get bike insurance from Carole Nash for the Confederate Grey Ghost.
Engine Aircooled 45-degree pushrod V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) –
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission Chain primary, 5-speed box, chain final
Front tyre 100/90 x 19in Avon Super Venom
Rear tyre 180/55 x 18in Avon Super Venom
Front suspension 43mm Ceriani telescopic
Rear suspension Twin Progressive Suspension dampers, adjustments for rebound damping
Front brake Twin 300mm Performance Machine discs, four-piston calipers
Rear brake 300mm disc, twin-piston caliper
Top speed 110 mph
Fuel capacity 19 litres
Current price £17,000