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Is Janus Motorcycles More American Than Harley-Davidson?

The same things that draw people to classic trucks and SUVs also draw them to classic motorcycles. Although modern bikes have gotten faster and more refined, they’ve also grown larger and more complicated. Not to mention expensive: the Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide costs more than a new 5.0-liter Mustang GT. And it’s not like Harley makes a good, small-capacity beginner bike, like the Honda Grom. But there is one company whose bikes capture the look and simplicity of the classics with American-built quality, at a reasonable price. And that’s Janus Motorcycles.

Janus Motorcycles’ history

Janus Motorcycles’ co-founders, Devin Biek and Richard Worsham met through mopeds. When Worsham moved to Indiana for school, he brought an Italian moped along. And when it inevitably needed repairs, he rode it into Biek’s shop. From there, the two developed a friendship that eventually spawned a business partnership.

The two started restomodding vintage two-stroke mopeds. They were drawn to how simple, stripped-down, and lightweight the mopeds were. How basically anyone could maintain and/or customize them; and, as with the Grom, how fun they could be.

Janus Paragon side
Janus Paragon side | Matthew Skwarczek

Eventually, the moped shop transitioned from restorations to customization and specialty exhaust systems. Owners had started to tune their mopeds for increased performance, and Biek wanted to make something in a similar spirit. The result, which he built with Worsham, was the Paragon. As Worsham described in an interview with Pipeburn, this 80cc moped, with a fully-custom frame, tank, seat, and swingarm, was basically the start of Janus Motorcycles. The moped still hangs in the company’s headquarters today.

The 50cc models

Janus Halcyon 50
Janus Halcyon 50 | Janus Motorcycles

After that, the duo wanted to make a bike with an actual transmission, and a different engine. The engine they picked was still a two-stroke, and only 50cc, but water-cooled. They wanted to give it a proper motorcycle frame and decided to go with the Norton Featherbed frame. This is a design that Motorcycle Classics reports helped the storied British company win multiple Isle of Man TT races. The frame was so influential, companies still make replicas today.

The resulting Halcyon 50 models were updated as each one was built. Worsham told me, when I visited Janus Motorcycles in 2018, that some of the early bikes had issues with the headstock cracking. It turned out that Janus was running into the same problems Norton had in the 1950s. Engineers had tried to increase the frame’s stiffness by welding in a bracing gusset, but the part was actually too stiff to work properly. To address the issue, Biek and Worsham personally visited every single one of the 40-50 50cc owners, which included someone in Russia, to remove the gusset.

These bikes also had another issue: the water-cooled design, with water pump and radiator, was more complicated to work on. So, for the next Janus Motorcycles’ product, Worsham and Biek wanted something simpler. Which lead to the company’s current bikes.

Janus Motorcycles’ lineup

Janus Halcyon 250
Janus Halcyon 250 | Janus Motorcycles

Currently, Janus Motorcycles offers 3 bikes: the Halcyon 250, the Phoenix 250, and the Gryffin 250. All use a variation of Janus’ version of the Featherbed frame. The Halcyon is a standard, the Phoenix a sporty café racer, and the Gryffin a scrambler that can ride on pavement or dirt.

Janus Gryffin 250
Janus Gryffin 250 | Janus Motorcycles

All 3 use the same 229cc, air-cooled, single-cylinder, carbureted engine, mated to a 5-speed transmission. Janus reports the engine is actually an evolution of an early Honda engine, designed to be as simple as possible for use in places like South American jungles. Air-cooling means no radiator, thermostat, or water pump; the carburetor means no complicated fuel injection system.

Janus Motorcycles engine and concept sketches
Janus Motorcycles engine and concept sketches | Matthew Skwarczek

To be fair, this simplicity does come at a price. These bikes top out at 70 mph and only make about 14.5 hp. And unfortunately, Worsham told me the engine is “un-upgradeable”.

Janus Phoenix 250
Janus Phoenix 250 | Janus Motorcycles

The engine is also not made in the US. Janus Motorcycles couldn’t find an American supplier that could manufacture such an engine. Instead, it comes, with the transmission, from a Chinese supplier. But, by working with S&S Cycles, the same firm that builds engines for Harley-Davidson, Janus was able to make the engine 50-state emissions-legal.

Also, that engine is one of the few things not made in the US. Worsham and Biek claim a majority of the bike’s parts are made within 20 miles of the company’s Goshen, Indiana shop. Amish craftsmen make the aluminum fuel tank, steel frame, and leather seat by hand. The carburetor has custom parts made by an aerospace and medical equipment supplier.

Janus receives the parts, then hand-assembles and hand-paints each bike. And lest you think that somehow makes Janus less of a motorcycle company, know that one of the most collectible bikes in the world, those made by British firm Brough-Superior, were made the same way.

And, as Jay Leno reported, these bikes are definitely desirable.

What did Jay Leno think of the bikes?

Even before he rode the Halcyon 250, Jay Leno had a lot of praise for Janus Motorcycles’ support of American manufacturing, as well as the company’s clear business acumen. It’s a far cry from what happened with the Drako GTE supercar.

On the road, Jay was also impressed with the Halcyon 250’s fit and finish. The engine is smooth, the mirrors didn’t shake, and all the lights and indicators work. Jay did remark that the hardtail Halcyon, with its sprung seat, might take some getting-used-to. However, he also found it no more uncomfortable than most motorcycles.

2018 Janus Halcyon 250
2018 Janus Halcyon 250 | Matthew Skwarczek

Having ridden a Halcyon 250 myself, I can confirm that the bike handles bumps and potholes fairly well. Along with the Gryffin and Phoenix, the Halcyon comes with a front suspension designed in-house by Janus. It’s a design really only possible because the bikes are so light, but it virtually eliminates brake dive.

Jay notes that the Halcyon isn’t exactly a highway motorcycle. But for riding around town, or for weekend backroad exploration, it’s a very good, simple machine.

Pricing and availability

Each bike takes about 5-6 weeks to build, with the Halcyon 250 being the most popular model.

The starting price is $6,995. However, Janus Motorcycles offers quite a few options on top of the standard bikes. Customers can order luggage racks, leather saddlebags, and a hand-pinstriped fuel tank, among other things.

Are they worth it?

There are bikes that are cheaper than Janus Motorcycles’, and faster. But none of them are American-built.

And although the Harley-Davidson Street 750 is only about $600 more, it’s heavier, more complicated, and more expensive to live with. They’re also more difficult to repair. Janus, meanwhile, regularly posts videos explaining how to repair and customize its bikes.

When I visited Janus Motorcycles’ shop in 2018, Worsham said, “I think, compared to how motorcycles are used in a lot of countries, American motorcycling probably seems a little frivolous.” That may seem odd to say when your company hand-builds a 229cc carbureted bike with a frame from the 1950s and a 70-mph top speed. As with the Grom, Janus’ bikes aren’t for every rider. But they’re simple and approachable enough that almost anyone could ride them, and enjoy them.

That kind of open opportunity sounds pretty American to me.

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