V-Twin Motorcycle Powerplants
“I want to make all bikes go faster.” Almost a half-century has passed since George Smith, the founder of S&S Cycles, made this statement his company’s philosophy. Founded in 1958 with his wife Marjorie in their basement in Blue Island, Illinois, Smith began by producing high-performance pushrods for Harley-Davidson engines. The family business has since become a global enterprise with an expanding scope, but the elder Smith’s ethic resounds in the ambition of his scion.
George’s grandson, current president Brett Smith, has a clear vision of the past, present and the future. “From the company’s inception, people wanted the parts my grandfather built because they saw how fast he was on the track. He didn’t make a product to create a market; his product created the market,” he asserts. “As S&S company evolved from an aftermarket component maker to a builder of engines and fuel delivery systems, we made an enormous impact on the V-twin world by providing an alternative to Harley. Today, with our ability to apply best-in-class technology to the process of personalization, S&S is the AMG or, from an R&D perspective, the Porsche, of the motorcycle world. We are, in effect, pushing the envelope of the exotic.”
One of Smith’s stated goals is to continue to extend S&S Cycle’s pedigree beyond its stature as one of the world’s most respected manufacturers of leading-edge V-twin powerplants. The company already entertains close relationships with American IronHorse, Arlen Ness, Big Dog, Buell, Confederate, Gator, Pantera and Victory, among others. The endorsement of master designer/builders such as Cyril Huze, Eddie Trotta, Jim Nasi and Roland Sands, speaks to the firm’s quality and innovation. Its World Builder Showcase presents collaborations with custom creators from America, Europe and Asia. This year’s edition featured ex-Ducati designer Aldo Quierro from Italy, France’s Nicolas Chauvin, Germany’s Habermann Customs, Japan’s Yokio Sato and Australians Scott Cox and Grant Purkiss. “Five builders, five bikes, five countries, no rules,” Smith says. “These machines are making a difference. We feel it’s our duty to share their brilliance with the public.”
As chief executive, Smith’s relentless energy is married to a rigorous business process that lays out a road map of corporate objectives, while maintaining the original creative spirit. “In this industry, you can’t just be a businessman, because the business is so driven by relationships and by passion,” Smith explains. “You have to balance those factors.” He holds as fundamental the realization that the motorcycle world is in a state of profound change, and the conviction that his family’s firm is a seminal force.
“S&S changed the industry by creating the performance market for V-twins. At the beginning, we responded to a pent-up demand for parts among Harley owners during that company’s struggles in the ’70s. In the ’80s, the Evolution engine and the resurgence of Harley fueled explosive growth for us, which has carried on,” he says. “We became the choice for discerning enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who wanted to buy our crankcases and, eventually, our complete engines. And we have opened the door for customization in a way we never could have imagined. When we consider that many of the once-small custom shops have now themselves become OEMs, we know our work has been a very important part of that migration.”
Smith’s accession to the S&S throne in 2001 came at a time of multiple uncertainties, not only in the U.S. economy, but within the company itself. His strategy was to refocus on the firm’s core competency. “We had a history and a competitive edge, providing proprietary complete engine and fuel delivery systems,” he says. Smith then arrested the trend to outsourcing, bringing manufacturing back in-house. Named Ernst & Young Regional Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005, Smith’s four years at the helm have seen revenues increase annually by as much as 25 percent and profits by over 50 percent.
He takes a vigilant view of change. The S&S product development team has a firm mandate to break the mold; the company released the first closed loop fuel injection system in the V-twin industry. “With increasingly stringent emissions standards, you have to be thinking about more than just torque and horsepower,” Smith reasons. “You need to take the track-proven performance gains and adapt them for today’s regulatory conditions.” One of the original members of the Motorcycle Industry Council’s V-Twin Committee, he is also a vocal advocate taking the lead in environmental protection laws and EPA compliance issues. “While striving for new levels of performance, we need to build engines that are emissions-friendly,” Smith says. As he sees it, this advocacy is another facet of his intense focus on the customer. “We’ve developed proprietary engine designs that will help OE manufacturers meet new and future restrictions,” Smith notes. “We recognize that we need to answer the concerns of the non-riding public. Our new quieter exhaust design was backed by an advertising campaign headlined ‘Sometimes Quiet Is Better’, promoting a responsible approach to cycle noise.”
Nevertheless, S&S makes a big noise in the racing world. “Our commitment to racing is also a commitment to our roots. It’s where we made our reputation,” Smith observes, “and where we connect with our base.” An S&S engine was the first V-twin ever to reach the magic 200 mph mark and, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, S&S teams set numerous records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Its engines for the NHRA Championship Drag Racing and All Harley Drag Racing Association series have had a visible impact and four S&S-powered NHRA Buells have been among the top qualifiers.
Smith aims for a balance of passion and discipline in his business, tempering his legacy of history and emotion with analysis and methodology. “I set goals for us that would make S&S number one in terms of its business practice in the V-twin industry. We identified three areas as key to our core business: product expertise, high-performance racing and industry leadership,” he explains. This also led to the creation of the first Training andCertification Program and Facility in the V-Twin industry, where dealers can attend classes and acquire certification in the company’s products. The plant expansion and optimization of supply chain management have resulted in production capacity being doubled along with distribution capacity.
Looking ahead, Smith is preparing S&S for shifts in the marketplace. He is recasting the identity of the com-pany from the traditional perception of custom engine builder to a high-performance engineering firm. The company’s potential in the sportbike segment, he feels, is significant. Smith also alludes to applications for full-dress touring bikes. “Our new proprietary engine is going to redefine the V-twin industry” he says. “It will be a powerful, low-vibration, low-emissions, high-performance powerplant, unlike any pushrod air-cooled V-twin that we’re aware of.”
“We provide custom builders with an opportunity to become part of the motorcycle industry mainstream,” Smith adds. “We are the only engine manufacturer that produces complete service manuals, and provides a full warranty. We’re also looking at producing clutches, transmissions and exhausts, and may also answer the demand for quality frames, which will drive our engine sales. There are additional possibilities in the growing customization of off-road motorcycles, ATVs and quads.” Smith’s panoramic view also flirts with automotive, marine and aviation applications. “This strategic development can take S&S to a whole new level,” he continues. “All of this will have a positive impact on the value of machines built with our technology and, logically, on the financing and insurance for motor-cycles by builders who use S&S components extensively. While keeping our eye firmly on our core competencies, these can be leveraged in a broader business model. I see us eventually becoming a total powersports company.”
Staying true to the words of the founder to “make all bikes go faster,” grandson Brett appears ready to apply that philosophy in bigger ways—making S&S’s business grow faster.