When Lee Conn, co-founder of Motus Motorcycles, offers you a ride on one of his snarling, hand-built MST made-in-America sport tourers—and the up-spec MST-R, just for giggles—you say “yes.”
I first met Lee and his business partner Brian Case several years ago at the annual Vintage Festival held at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama, where they were showing off their newly production-ready motorcycles. Several aspects of these Motus motos drew my attention, not the least of which was that they were actually assembled by hand, right there in Birmingham.
First there was the engine, essentially half of a Detroit pushrod Big Block V-8, dubbed the Baby Block V-4. This was the first American-built motorcycle engine I’d ever seen in a new bike that wasn’t a V-twin.
The numbers don’t look like any American Big Twin either: the MST-R claims 180 horsepower at 7,800 rpm and 126 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm (a relatively “sedate” 165 and 123 respectively on the MST). Those are superbike numbers—from a pushrod V-4.
And it was housed in a moto that looked ready to take on the twisties and actually win. My kind of machine for sure. Brembo brakes, Öhlins suspension, carbon fiber body panels…and did I mention the engine?
When I met them, Lee and Brian had just returned from Bonneville, where they’d set two AMA land speed records on identical MST-Rs, officially making it the fastest production pushrod motorcycle in the world—ever.
So of course I wanted to ride one.
And, finally, I got my chance at an unlikely place: the Americade touring rally in Lake George, New York, just last week.
Scads of technical details on the bike and its history can be found in this First Ride Review, by Rider magazine contributor Alan Cathcart, and if you’re curious it’s an informative read. I’m just going to tell you about what it was like to hop aboard these bucket-list machines and take them for a quick spin on the curving blacktop of the Adirondacks.
Lee started me on the base-model MST, which is priced from $30,975 (we did say bucket list, yes?). Equipped with a multi-adjustable, triple-axis handlebar set made by Maine-based HeliBars, Givi panniers, a taller windscreen and a Sargent seat as standard, the MST was surprisingly comfortable. It’s quite narrow at the waist, so I was able to easily get my feet flat on the ground from the 32.5-inch seat (an optional low seat drops it to 31.5 inches).
Thumbing the starter, the transverse-mounted V-4 gives you a little shake, similar to a Moto Guzzi or BMW boxer, and blipping the throttle rocks the bike gently from side to side. Once in gear, however, the perpendicular transmission cancels out the torque rotation and the V-4 is startlingly smooth.
That smoothness and the comfortable riding position are about the only aspects of the MST one could call “refined,” however. From the moment you pull away the MST flaunts all of its considerable character and makes no apologies for it. Response from the throttle-by-wire is immediate and powerful, so much so that ham-fisted twisting while in a corner could easily result in a quick trip into the ditch.
There isn’t an alphabet soup of nanny electronic acronyms either. No 6-axis IMU, traction control, wheelie control, ride modes or even ABS. The rider is connected to this beast via hands and feet only; the MST (and certainly the MST-R) is not a bike for beginners.
In the hands of a more experienced rider (and let’s face it, $30k-plus for a moto isn’t what you’d call entry-level territory), the MST is exhilarating, challenging and fun. The clutch engages smoothly and with only moderate effort at the lever, and performance and feedback from the high-quality brakes and suspension is exactly what you’d expect from a top-of-the-food-chain sport tourer.
On my brief ride, initial turn-in felt easy (even more so on the performance-oriented MST-R with its flatter, lower handlebar), but once leaned over the bike was stable and planted, meaning mid-turn corrections require conscious input; again, as expected from a sport touring machine.
Riding position on both the MST and the –R was neutral and comfortable, although final judgment is withheld pending a longer ride. My Rider colleague Greg, who stands more than six feet tall and 220-ish pounds, was happier on the MST with its taller bars, but I felt more at home on the MST-R. Either way, the footpegs are low enough to allow plenty of legroom and the rider’s knees are tucked in clear of the protruding cylinder heads—thanks to the engine’s 15-degree forward slant.
Maintaining a legal pace is easy enough, and the MST burbles along smoothly, but the temptation to crack the throttle—rewarded by a unique and addictive snarling howl—is always there; when you pass that big rig or flock of Harleys, they’ll likely wonder what the heck you’re riding.
The more I think about it, the more the Motus reminds me of something like a Shelby Cobra. It has that non-mass-produced feel that’s hard to articulate, but when you’re behind the wheel or handlebar of such a machine you know it. And of course you also know that the likelihood of running into another one at the local two-wheel hangout is slim to none.
But unlike an authentic Cobra, kept garaged and only brought out on perfect Sunday afternoons, the Motus is made to be ridden. After setting their land speed records, Lee and Brian rode their “race” bikes (stock MST-Rs) more than 2,000 miles home to Alabama. And Lee has been known to tour from state to state on an MST, visiting dealerships to drum up interest in the Motus brand.
A $31,000 motorcycle isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve got the means and are looking for a ride like no other on earth, a Motus is worth a test ride (yes, the dealers will let you).