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A motorcycle design for the history books

The Bienville Legacy.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Jim Jacoby wants to create an American Renaissance of design. He has a plan to give blank checks to master craftsmen, and give them the freedom and the budget to build their dream project. His first commission, a groundbreaking motorcycle by renowned designer JT Nesbitt, is nearly complete. It’s sort of a patronage system loosely modeled after the Medici, the wealthy banking family that gave birth to the Italian Renaissance. This new system is designed to remove the drive for profit from the act of designing. The hope is that through this process, breakthroughs in design and engineering emerge. And those breakthroughs will lead to business opportunities.

This system is called the ADMCi, American Design and Master Craft Initiative, and its first commission is called The Bienville Legacy.

When David Lenk, an industrial design expert, first saw the Bienville Legacy, he was so moved, he cried. He says the design rivaled the great industrial designers of history, “the genes of engineering greats like Barnes Wallis along with the ascetics, the fine touch of Ettore Bugatti. I know that your eyebrows may arch linking JT with these engineering and design icons, but I will stand behind it.”

What he saw, he says, “Was a motorcycle that basically challenges many, many engineering precepts that go back 120 years. This is a guy who not only stepped back to square one, but then he stepped out of the square.”

Let’s go back to square one. The origin of the motorcycle is essentially the bicycle. “Think about the first motorcycle,” says Lenk, “it was a bicycle that they hung an engine onto.” But for The Bienville Legacy, Nesbitt started from an entirely new origin point: The bow.

“The very first man-made spring is a bow and arrow. So this technology is Paleolithic. It predates civilization,” says Newsbitt.

Imagine a bow and arrow pointed at the sky. Where your hand grips the bow is where the engine of the motorcycle is attached. At each end of the bow is a wheel. So instead of having shocks like a regular motorcycle, the entire bike is one big leaf spring. It looks like it's part beast, part machine.

“These are the sort of things you read about in history books,” says Lenk.

Lenk has spent his entire life surrounded by industrial design. His grandfather was at one point the largest producer of soldering irons in the world. Lenk went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I guess you could say I’ve been born with this bug and have nurtured it my whole life,” he said.

Today Lenk designs museum exhibits for a living. After finishing a recent job at a museum in New Orleans his employer took him to a French Quarter bar called Molly’s to celebrate. By chance, he happened to sit next to JT Nesbitt and Jim Jacoby. “It was a real Motorhead moment,” Lenk remembered. “Within two sentences we were talking about French Coachwork of the 1930s and design, and the conversation ended with an invitation to visit his C shop that Saturday. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.”

Nesbitt’s shop is called Bienville studios. It’s about a block from the Mississippi River on the edge of the French Quarter. When you step inside, it’s surprising just how spare it is: a small workbench, a few racks with parts, some tool boxes.

JT Nesbitt working in his studio.

JT Nesbitt working in his studio.

But the most striking thing in JT’s shop is in the center of the room, a strange looking motorcycle, balancing on a hydraulic lift like a statue on a pedestal. It’s a prototype that Nesbitt built. He’s named it The Bienville Legacy.

“There’s no example, as far as I know, of anyone else in the world doing that. It’s completely original thought,” said motorcycle journalist Alan Cathcart. He’s written about motorcycles for over 30 years. He’s been called the kingmaker because he’s often the first person to ride and review new bikes. 

He described Nesbitt’s design as breathtaking, though to most people it simply looks strange.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a strange-looking thing because we don’t have to sell them,” said Nesbitt.

If this were a typical corporate motorcycle, the plan would be to put the bike into production and sell them for a profit. But this is not a profit-driven endeavor. “To look at this for short-term recoupment would be to undermine the overall purpose of what we're up to,” said Jim Jacoby.

He’s put up his life savings to pay for the building of three prototypes. Jacoby gave Nesbitt a blank check and told him build his dream bike without any constraints. The expectation is that by giving JT the freedom to experiment with new ideas and materials, breakthroughs in engineering and design will emerge.

When I visited Nesbitt at his shop, one of the first things Nesbitt showed me was a small box full of bolts

“This is titanium hardware,” said Nesbitt, holding up a wooden box. Nesbitt designed the bolts himself. The bolts and other hardware alone cost $30,000. Boeing's prototype shop in Seattle is manufacturing them.

Nesbitt says this motorcycle is the first to use this much titanium and carbon composite structurally. “I think that all motorcycle designers want to use those materials but they are limited by their budgets. The materials that I'm talking about are radically expensive.”

Motorcyle journalist Alan Cathcart mounts the nearly competed Bienville Legacy Prototpye.  

Nesbitt calls titanium a miracle material, “and now it’s available. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now because the military industrial complex had sucked up all the titanium. It’s just now becoming available in quantity.”

One of the byproducts of Nesbitt’s motorcycle is eight original engineering patents related to his first-of-its kind suspension system. “The outcomes for the patents might be new ways of doing suspension in automobiles,” said Jacoby.

This is one potential long term source of revenue from the bike. If the automotive industry adopts these engineering ideas, it would have to pay to license the patents. But that’s a big "if." This is one reason this project is a tough sell to investors: It’s unclear if any of Nesbitt’s radical designs will ever be adopted by the wider automotive world.

When Nesbitt was commissioned to build his motorcycle prototype, he signed over the patents and intellectual property to the American Design and Master Craft initiative, the ADMCi. In exchange, he gets his rent paid, but zero salary. If the patents do make money, he will get a percentage. But again, that’s the big if.

“I think on balance, I’m coming out way ahead,” said Nesbitt. “I’m giving everything I can to live my dream. I get to reinvent American motorcycling.”

Motorcycle journalist Alan Cathcart has been called \"The Kingmaker.\" Here he is with Nesbitt and the nearly completed Bienville Legacy.

The next step for Nesbitt and Jacoby is to prove that the motorcycle is more than just a beautifully crafted, groundbreaking design; they have to prove that it can perform. So they’re taking the bike to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, to attempt to break a world land speed record. 

“The weight advantage, for a variety of design decisions, is tremendous,” said Jacoby, “It’s probably going to net out as a 350 pound bike with a 300-350 horsepower engine which is, by any definition, a rocket.”

Jacoby has decided he wants to be the one to ride the bike across the salt. He’ll have to top 200 miles per hour to break the record in the category this bike competes in. He’s never gone anywhere near that fast on a motorcycle. He admits that this plan is completely absurd, but, he says, it’s necessary. “This is a design that needs to be proven on the field of battle. And the field of battle in this case is the Salt Flats.”

After Nesbitt finishes building the motorcycles, he will remain a part of the ADMCi. “I become one of the people who’s involved with selecting the next project.”

If the ADMCi can recoup the money spent on the three prototypes and attract patrons to fund more commissions, Nesbitt will help seek out another master craftsman to get a blank.

This time he will be the one asking the question, “What would you do if you could do anything?”

“I’m the perfect person to be a judge of character, said Nesbitt, “and when somebody asks you what you would do if you could do anything, you had better be ready with a good answer.”

CORRECTION: Barnes' Wallis' last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The text has been corrected.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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