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Motus Calls it Quits

Alabama-based manufacturer had unique and highly praised engine but was behind the curve in most other ways

Sad but not at all surprising. That’s probably the best way to summarize this weekend’s news that Alabama-based Motus Motorcycles has announced it will be shutting down operations “effective immediately.”

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According to a Facebook post signed by Motus founder Lee Conn and Brian Case, the reason behind the drastic move is pretty simple: no money.

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“This week, Motus’ financial backers unexpectedly informed management that they will not provide sufficient capital to maintain operations and grow the business. We were surprised and disappointed, especially because we have been working so hard preparing an October 2018 product launch into a new and exciting segment as well as new features on the MST series,” the post stated.

Motus was founded roughly 10 years ago, with one half of the team, Case, having come over from Confederate Motorcycles (also based in Alabama and now known as Curtiss). A prototype didn’t come along until about four years into the venture – a sport tourer built around a 1650cc V4 engine.

Known as the MST, it was controversial from the get-go because its engine was of pushrod design, which some observers felt was outdated for the “performance” genre that Motus was aiming for. Meanwhile, the sun was rapidly setting on the hey day of the sport tourer genre and Motus’ MST lacked many of the rider aids being offered on sport-touring bikes from more established manufacturers, like BMW. Not to mention the projected cost of the MST was more than double the asking price of a BMW K 1600 GT.

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I’ve never seen anything but praise for the Motus engine. Sadly, much of what’s built around it doesn’t compete.

Nonetheless, the bike managed to impress the handful of moto-journalists who got to ride the thing and sparked the imagination of quite a few more, including yours truly. The engine sounded incredible, and Motorcyclist magazine got so overexcited it named the MST as its 2012 motorcycle of the year. Nevermind the fact you couldn’t actually buy one.

Delays, setbacks and false starts turned a planned 2012 release date into a late 2014 launch, with most pre-orders not being received until well into 2015. By this time, the MST and its higher-spec MSTR sibling were woefully behind the curve. Other manufacturers were abandoning the traditional sport tourer, and the Motus bikes’ lack of even a rudimentary ABS system meant they were soon to be prohibited from sale in Europe – the market most likely to actually still want such a machine.

With an entry price nudging US $31,000 the bike started to feel more and more like a good idea poorly applied. If I had been an investor, I would have been concerned – especially as Motus seemed slow to respond to those concerns. By the nature of its being a performance machine, most potential buyers would have expected technowhizzbangery – that’s one of the defining aspects of the genre. But as recently as this year, when Motus head honchos were hit with the question of rider aids they would simply blank the person asking.

When I asked if they’d need [ABS] to conquer Europe, Case told me that they hadn’t yet captured all of the American market… I pointed out that it might be easier to lock down America if the bike had at least anti-lock brakes, and both men conceded that point. After an awkward silence, we were at the same place as where we started: These bikes do not have ABS.‘ – Lemmy, Common Tread.

Perhaps some investor concerns were being heard, though. If you read a lot of moto sites you’ll notice the number of Motus reviews has jumped in the last year. That’s because the company effectively extended an open invitation to mo-jos: get yourself to Alabama and you can ride the bike as well as sit down with the company founders. Meanwhile, the October 2018 product launch mentioned in Motus’ Facebook message was reference to the super naked the company had been working on – a genre that is actually popular at the moment and still growing. And, according to Common Tread, Motus was finally starting to cave on the issue of equipping its bikes with ABS. Maybe.

But this seems to be too little too late. Investors have pulled the plug, and another American motorcycle company has been consigned to history. Well, for the time being, at least.

“This is very unfortunate timing and we will work to quickly find a new path forward for Motus Motorcycles and our American V4 powertrain division,” the company stated. “For Motus owners, hang on to those motorcycles. As you already know, they are heirlooms, unlike any other motorcycles ever built.”

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There were high hopes for a naked Motus

Unfortunate timing is a common theme in the story of Motus and one wonders if this particular fate isn’t down to the timing of other manufacturers – namely Harley-Davidson and Indian. I think it could be argued that the core selling points of the MST/MSTR are that it’s fast and American-made. Yeah, there’s a lot more to it than that, but viewing the bike from an investor standpoint, I’d think those are the things that would make a person feel this is a project that will pay dividends.

So – again, from an investor standpoint – look at where Motus was. Its existing product was expensive, mostly unknown to the consumer, and behind the times in concept and application. Nearly a decade of work had produced a product that wasn’t terribly viable in the current motorcycle market. There were plans to make a product that may have been relevant but questions remained in terms of tech, and the issues of price and consumer unfamiliarity would have been the same.

Meanwhile, Indian and Harley have both recently promised American bikes that go fast. Yeah, the FTR 1200 won’t touch the horsepower of any Motus naked and it’s likely the Streetfighter will also be at least 30 ponies shy of the MST’s 165 hp claim. But the market’s obsession with horsepower seems to have cooled slightly in recent years, and these are American bikes that go fast enough that they would be seen (especially by an investor) as competition for a Motus naked. Competition with established track records, infinitely more name recognition, and more robust dealer networks. Competition that will be delivering less expensive bikes with more tech.

Looking at that, and looking at how the MST/MSTR has performed in terms of sales, I can see why an investor would say enough is enough. It’s sad – I have no doubt Conn, Cane, and the whole Motus team really believed in their bikes – but it’s not at all surprising.