The fire that fuels Walter Roehrich is his passion for all things mechanical. Those who pledge their soul-and often their worldly assets-to the realization of their dream on two wheels can empathize with the founder of Roehr Motorcycles.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve been living, breathing, studying these things-aircraft, automobiles, motorcycles,” he enthuses. “Motorcycles are a microcosm of everything within the realm of one person who can take a project, shape it and make it.”
His studies in aeronautics and obsession for tuning, mixed with some motocross racing, led him to a stint wrenching in the mid-’80s for Ducati star Jimmy Adamo and his collaborator Reno Leoni. “I quickly realized I was a much better mechanic than I was a rider,” he laughs. He also recalls the impact of Massimo Tamburini’s origination of the Bimota marque. “Since then,” he says, “I’ve believed it was possible to become a boutique motorcycle builder.”
The arguments why no reasonable human would embark on such a venture far outnumber the points of justification. The dominance of industrial giants and the list of well-intentioned enterprises missing in action quash the most ardent fantasist. But Roehrich’s quest to create the Great American Superbike is not windmill tilting; it is proof of the supremacy of self-determination. And his motivation? “That hard work, desire and continued effort will eventually turn your dreams into reality,” he explains.
Apt words for the son of an old-school German immigrant-a mason by trade-who chose to make his New World mark in the city of Chicago, taking employment as a machinist at the fabled Stewart-Warner Company. “My father was a military man,” Roehrich says, “so he was a strict disciplinarian, and absolutely brilliant.”
The Second City of the Americas is a breeding ground for brilliant people. From its panoply of blues artists, to its professional athletes, to the incisive prose of great writers like James T. Farrell and Studs Terkel, Chicago celebrates those who achieve, but more importantly, endure.
Reflecting upon the almost 15-year journey to turn the Roehr superbike into reality, Roehrich’s anecdotes confirm his tenacity. “I’ve always considered myself a pragmatist, trying to find the simplest solution to a complex problem. Starting this company out of my own pocket, finding an engine was, of course, a challenge. As I used to race TZ250s back in the ’90s, and that two-stroke Yamaha V-twin was pretty good, I thought, I’ll just put two of these together using a prototype crankcase,” he laughs, “and I figured by keeping it light, at 315 pounds, I might have the makings of an ‘American Bimota’.”
The 115 horsepower Roehr Rv500 was unveiled for the motorcycle press in 2000. His Bimota analogy seemed to have substance. “We started getting interest from people who wanted to buy one,” he says. But even though Roehrich planned to manufacture the motorcycle in limited numbers, he soon discovered the incorporation of digital fuel injection would be too expensive to manufacture efficiently. In his eyes, this undermined the price-value ratio of a machine targeting a $50,000 price point.
“I went back to square one. Finding a Swedish manufacturer, Highland, who had been associated with Husqvarna, I put their four-stroke 936cc V-twin with 120 horsepower into a trellis frame-like the Ducatis I loved-and by ’04, we rolled our Rv1000 prototype,” Roehrich remembers. But with the motorcycle world in exponential evolution, Roehrich now concluded its power would be insufficient. “This motorcycle had to be something special to compete at the exclusivity level I had in mind, especially in a niche market. So I needed at least 170 horsepower.”
Again, persistence prevailed-and led to a slight change in direction. The solution was closer than he could have imagined. “We needed to set ourselves apart from the pack as well,” Roehrich says, “and I had always wanted to use an American engine for an American superbike. The V-Rod provided me with the answer.” Milwaukee was just a few hours away, but Harley-Davidson had not yet made its Porsche-engineered Revolution power plant available to builders, so Roehrich simply bought a bike.
Having been a Porschephile since the age of 16-and having worked for a leading Porsche-Audi dealer as service manager for many years-Roehrich saw the liquid-cooled V-Rod’s Zuffenhausen DNA as primal matter for his next prototype. “Besides the race-bred Mahle pistons and Getrag transmission components, the development of this engine convinced me this was the heart of a superbike that had been hidden in the body of a cruiser,” he explains. Roehrich also knew that EPA certification would be more accessible-a critical factor from a commercial perspective. “There’s also a huge aftermarket for the V-Rod, which we knew we could tap into,” he adds.
When asked why he stuck to bootstrapping his way along rather than find the customary venture capital partners, Roehrich cites his Old World personal values. “A lot of people nowadays don’t understand how it used to be done,” according to Roehrich. “Like in my father’s day, when someone would open up a small grocery store on Chicago Avenue…and 20 years later, it’s Dominick’s Finer Foods with 1700 locations-a legend as well as a major business with a loyal customer base because they built it from the ground up.” There is quiet fire in his voice. “Sure, you can do the Excelsior-Henderson thing with the big money behind you and the fancy factory, but where the product is secondary? Uh-uh. Not for me.” A little Studs Terkel in that feistiness, or simply, as Terkel put it, the “something that distinguishes an artist from the performer: the revelation of self.”
In the present tense, then, we have the 2009 Roehr 1250sc, with its 1250cc heart and soul, supercharged, 180 horses ready to be unleashed. Queried on his decision to impart added thrust, he explains: “Our system, based on the Danish-built Rotrex supercharger, is the most compact and efficient unit out there. With 115 ft/lbs of torque and a balanced power curve, it’s incredibly easy to ride-and you’ll never know you’re riding a boosted bike,” he smiles, “until you hit that sweet spot on the throttle.”
When Ultimate MotorCycling President and Publisher Arthur Coldwells put the new contender through its paces, even his judicious critical faculties were seduced by this singular sensation: “The power just builds and builds; it’s as smooth an engine as you could ever expect. And the build quality is exemplary. This bike to me is the true American Dream-or certainly the motorcyclist’s version anyway! It’s the best of both worlds. I was always aware that I was riding a Harley, but it’s a pukka superbike, too. I already own an Ultra Classic and this would be the perfect fraternal twin to park next to it.”
So, is the new Roehr 1250sc motorcycling’s version of professional football and Chicago Bears legend, the late Walter Payton, who was pure sweetness as he punched holes in offensive lines and tore up the gridiron? Walter Roehrich is amused by the comparison while downplaying it.
The disciplinarian emerges. “I feel that we have much more to prove before getting some respect. And we plan to work hard to earn that respect.” He pauses. “I see Roehr becoming the premier American sportbike builder, offering new technical solutions and innovations that move both the industry, and our clients. This bike is the first of many to come.”
His namesake may have said it best about Walter Roehrich, the man and his motorcycle. Quoting Payton, “I want to be remembered as the guy who gave his all whenever he was on the field.”
Photos by Don Williams