Confederate F124 Hellcat Review
Words: Alan Cathcart Photos: Kel Edge New Orleans is where the rest of America can leave home and go abroad without exiting the USA. An exotic world of gumbo and jambalaya, of jazz, voodoo, bayous, and the historic French Quarter. New Orleans was where African slaves once danced in Congo Square, yet it's also 'The Town That Care Forgot', where Buddy Bolden invented jazz, then spent 30 years lo
Nor is Confederate Motorcycles your average American motor company, or Matt Chambers the typical president of such an enterprise. The 50-year old former trial lawyer could have jumped straight from the pages of a John Grisham novel. For all we know, the way he speaks and writes, he could be Grisham himself, (see the sidebar interview). After founding Confederate back in 1991, he's devoted himself to building a very different kind of American bike from the usual Harley clones. Milwaukee and New Orleans are as separated philosophically, as they are geographically.
In New Orleans' fast-rising Warehouse District, the F124 Hellcat lurks in a corner of a cavernous former livery stable, where the Confederate plant is housed. This finely honed powercruiser is the Bimota of the bayous. The Hellcat is a showpiece for the design talents of Confederate style guru J T Nesbitt. Take a look at the snaking sweep of those fat twin exhausts, internally ceramic-coated, and externally heat-wrapped as they head for the three-inch Inconel flexible collector. Look at the tubular steel swingarm, with those twin arms slanting downwards to point at the pavement.
The longstroke, 104.8 x 117.5mm/4 1/8 x 4 5/8in. engine, is 2031cc, delivering a mighty 135bhp at 5200 rpm at the rear wheel, and according to Confederate, 140ft/lb of torque at 4,500rpm. The engine is rigidly mounted as a fully-stressed member in the TIG-welded spine frame. The three-inch diameter backbone serves also as the oil tank for the dry-sump motor, with a two-inch front downtube, and duplex engine cradle to lock everything in place. This achieves the stiffness Confederate captain Matt Chambers says was one of his key objectives in concocting the Hellcat.
The unit-construction five-speed close-ratio transmission, has a belt primary drive, and vertically stacked shafts housed in a special S&S-made gearcase. A layout adopted by Yamaha to great acclaim on the first R1, exactly four years after Confederate had first incorporated it in a motorcycle 1994.
The chain final drive has been switched to the right side of the bike, via an outrigger bearing mounted in a plate, which is bolted to the swingarm pivot and the gearbox casing. According to Matt Chambers, this adds immeasurably to overall chassis stiffness, while also reducing the wheelbase, extending chain life due to reduced lash, and permitting a significantly wider rear tyre than on any Harley. The Hellcat boasts a massive 240/40VR18 Metzeler ME880 mounted on an eight-inch Lightcon cast wheel, with a four-incher up front carrying a 130/60VR18 hoop.
The 50mm Marzocchi upside down forks are the same as Massimo Tamburini selected for his MV Augusta F4 1000 that's currently king of the Superbike hill. They are held by mega-stiff six-bolt Traxxion Dynamics triple-clamps, each milled from what started out as a solid 30lb bar of 6061 aluminium. A pair of six-piston Swedish-made ISR brake callipers are mounted radially, gripping semi-floating 310mm ISR discs, with a barely smaller 280mm rear and twin-pot calliper. The exquisitely shaped 21.37litre carbon fibre fuel tank is made by Fiber Dynamics to Nesbitt's voluptuous teardrop design, which sees it hug the form of the frame so faithfully. The equally curvaceous, and surprisingly comfortable carbon fibre seat, nestles behind nestles behind the tank.
The twin Penske Indy cantilever shocks stacked side by side is a conscious reference to a Vincent Black Shadow's similar rear suspension layout. The minimalist twin taillights nestling beneath the seat, double as trafficators. This is a superbly-developed, finely-detailed blend of powercruiser and Superbike which, Yamaha MT-01 apart, is unique in the marketplace. Where the Yamaha tips to the side of the Superbike, the Confederate points its front wheel at cruiser kingdom. And at 227kg with oil/no fuel, the Hellcat may be porky by sportbike standards, but for a two-litre cruiser, it's no more than a light-heavyweight.
The lofty-ceilinged brick warehouse where the Art of Rebellion is practised by Confederate Motorcycles, houses an eclectic selection of vehicles giving a clue to the corporate culture of the place. A sharp-looking 1963 Buick Riviera, is the only car that designer J T Nesbitt actually owns. Further back in the employee bike park, is his ride-to-work set of wheels, a 1930s U-model flathead Harley bobber with SuperTrapp exhaust. It has a Guzzi front brake, and six-piston rear brake calliper. Next to it is a 750 Moto Guzzi special, with reversed cylinder heads and forward-facing carbs, matched by straight-set rear-exit exhausts, then an SR500 Yamaha, a CB160 Honda and a Triumph Tiger with serious mileage under its wheels. These twelve employees are not your average US bikers.
Wheeling the Hellcat out into the Louisiana sunshine, you catch your breath at the carbon weave shimmering before your eyes at every part of the bike. It seems almost inappropriate you should actually sit on one of these black components, but once settled aboard the seat, you find it's unexpectedly comfortable. Confederate offers a personal butt-moulding service to ensure a good fit. The quite low-set flip-up footrests don't position your feet as far forward as on most cruisers, and in fact they're perfectly placed to let you lever yourself up off the seat to avoid the worst of the road rash. The wide handlebars are not set excessively high, so this is very definitely a cruiser, not a sportbike, when you come to ride it. It's an outlandish oxymoron. It's Sylvester Stallone in a Savile Row suit.
The big motor pulsates into life with a blast of thunder from the twin swingarm exhausts, settling after the initial wakeup call to anyone within a quarter-mile radius of where you're parked, to a snarling, loping 1000 rpm idle with a distinct hint of menace about it.
Off hand I can't think of anything I've ever ridden, which was normally aspirated, that accelerates as hard and fast as the Confederate Hellcat, and that includes the Triumph Rocket III, which is the only other bike around with this many cubes that's tuned for performance rather than mine's-bigger-than-yours bragging rights. Triumph Rocket has an inferior power-to-weight ratio, and also pushes more air than the Hellcat, plus it certainly doesn't make sure you know all about how fast you're accelerating in the same way as the angry-sounding, hell-raising Hellcat does. The British bike, however, does cost quite a bit less, plus it has a more liquid power delivery than the Confederate, which likes to be revved above 2000 rpm to really accelerate cleanly. The bike I spent most time on out of the four we cruised, OK, raced, down to the French Quarter one evening, had a hiccup pulling away below the two grand mark, though another I tried was OK, so it probably just needed the carburation dialled in.
The Hellcat's massive torque means you just crack the throttle open in almost any gear you care to throw at it, and the Confederate surges forward irresistibly. It's completely unnecessary to rev the motor anywhere remotely near the 6500 rpm redline, especially with the clean-shifting five-speed gearbox, whose neutral was however impossible to find on any of the bikes, even on the move coasting up to a red light. Riding the hefty torque curve and short-shifting at around five grand soon after it peaks out, is the way to tame the Hellcat. Do that and you'll still maintain launch control as you fast-forward towards the horizon.
The Hellcat's chassis package certainly seems stiff and taut, but the twin Penske cantilever shocks which are adjustable only for rebound damping, not compression, don't seem to deliver the promised four inches/100mm of wheel travel that Confederate claim, mainly because of the stiff springing needed to prevent the massive torque compressing the suspension unduly under acceleration. Ride quality is pretty dismal as a result, with only the weight of the bike preventing it being flipped up in the air just as the rider is, over the concrete ridges in New Orleans city streets. The fat rear tyre is a real design statement, following J T Nesbitt on another Hellcat, I realised that except for the handlebar, the rear Metzeler is the widest part of the bike! This gives it undeniable visual presence, as well as allowing you to lay down the rubber en route to a fast standing quarter off the staging lights on Rampart Street, taking full advantage of the Hellcat street dragster's absolutely awesome acceleration. As a traffic-light pink slip racer, this has few equals.
What the Hellcat doesn't like doing particularly well is going round corners at more than part throttle. It pushes the front wheel quite noticeably if you insist on doing so, and the resultant understeer will take you places you don't want to be.
Vibration is ever-present from the solidly-mounted 45-degree V-twin motor lacking the benefit of a balance shaft, but rather surprisingly it's not at all invasive, especially if you short-shift in the gears, and let the tall gearing take the edge off the vibes. Must be something to do with pitch or intensity levels, because the Norton 952 Commando prototype that I'd been riding a few weeks earlier, with its theoretically smoother 270-degree crank, and fitted with a counterbalancer, certainly vibed a whole lot more than the Confederate. The Hellcat felt just fine by custombike standards, pulsating rather than shaking or vibrating. It felt relatively refined, that word again.
The F124 Hellcat is an American motorcycle not like the others. Just as New Orleans is America's most 'foreign' city, and Louisiana its most 'foreign' state, so their own motorcycle company builds the most 'foreign' US cruiser product, both in terms of specification and performance. The Bimota of the bayous is a standout supercruiser, built for he who must eat up the miles to do so alone. Maybe Brad Pitt wanted to spend more time with his newly acquired Hellcat, and that's why he just split up with Jennifer.