Models like this 1946 Chief helped Indian claim its share of the American-made heavyweight cruiser crown. The marque is putting the pieces together for its much-anticipated return to the ring in late Fall, 2007.
The Chief. The Scout. The Spirit. The names are legendary. Deeply valanced fenders. The Indian head-dress logo. Deep red paint. The styling cues are unforgettable. Once there were two proud competitors vying for supremacy in the American-made heavyweight cruiser market, icons in the American cruiser scene. One has withstood the tests of time. The other has fallen victim to a carnivorous business world where mismanagement and financial woes spell certain doom. But the return of Indian Motorcycles is nigh, and the ghosts of George M. Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedstrom are restless, awaiting the resurrection of the motorcycle company they made famous.
Expect to see the Indian Chief rolling down a roadway near you late in the Fall of 2007. So says Chairman of Indian Motorcycles, Stephen Julius, who recently granted MotorcycleUSA an exclusive interview.
Besides serving as chairman for Indian Motorcycles, Julius is a managing partner for the private equity firm, Stellican Limited. Stellican Limited bought the rights to Indian in July of 2004. The firm has a history of bringing back iconic heritage brands balancing on the fringes of obscurity and returning them to a prosperous, competitive state. Stellican did it with Chris-Craft boats. They brought the Italian yacht manufacturer Riva back to respectability. They even kick-started Vicenza, a soccer team in the Italian Premier League. Now Stellican has its sights set on defibrillating the flatlined Indian Motorcycle Company and sparking life into one of the most recognizable names in American motorcycling history.
Will they be successful? Read on and find out what Julius has to say.
MCUSA: Why buy a motorcycle company that has struggled in its recent past?
Stephen Julius: I specialize in buying famous brand names that have had troubles in their past. The fact that it’s had a troubled past doesn’t concern me in the slightest. Great brands, if you do the right things with them, if you manage to fulfill a promise to the brand by creating a beautiful product, then the brand equity will come flooding to the surface very, very quickly. What Indian needs is to be treated right. Its past needs to be respected but its future needs to be recognized. If you can produce a blend of contemporary products which harks back and takes cues from the past, then you’ll have a winning product. Great brands and great products will succeed in most environments.
For me, this is a 10, 15, 20-year project, this is not a 12-month project. Viewed under the long term, this is a brand that has tremendous equity and in the competitive environment you mentioned (the American-made heavyweight cruiser market) there is clearly an opportunity for another American brand apart from Harley-Davidson. We would be delighted to have a very, very tiny share of what Harley has and we can create a very distinguished business. We’re not trying to go out there and compete with anyone out there and Harley, we are going to follow our own niche. We believe it’s out there.
MCUSA: What are your immediate goals for the company?
Indian Motorcycles opened two years prior to Harley-Davidson and enjoyed great success early on with quality engineering like this Oscar Hedstrom-designed 1000cc 1911 8-valve V-Twin Indian.
Stephen Julius: We have set up a factory in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. We have staffed it up with engineers. We have 14 to start and that’s increasing monthly, but it is fundamentally an engineering team and what we’re doing for the most of this year is focusing on getting the product properly engineered. It’s our objective to come back to full-sail production hopefully by the end of this year. Our short time objective is to get the bike engineered and our medium-term objective (meaning by the end of this year) is to start production. The whole focus is in addressing all the issues that the previous Indian failed to address.
MCUSA: What do you perceive as the biggest obstacle Indian will have to overcome initially?
Stephen Julius: I tend to see the world as an opportunity, not an obstacle. But there will undoubtedly be some Doubting Thomases out in the market, especially those maybe who have purchased bikes from the previous Indian and some of them may have felt fairly shortchanged by the product they got. For them, we feel tremendous empathy. So, inevitably, for a company that has had a troubled past, we will have to overcome those who don’t feel that the company can make it. There’s a PR issue that we need to address and the best way to address Doubting Thomases and negative PR is not by making lots of claims in the press, it’s actually by producing a product that is clearly a quality product that fulfills what it claims to be able to do. That’s the way we will win over people, one step at a time, one brick at a time as we rebuild the house of Indian. It’s not going to happen overnight, but as we saw this very clearly with Chris-Craft, there were people who didn’t believe we could do it when we started six years ago, but step-by-step we won consumers over, we won dealers over and we won even employees over. People that maybe wouldn’t have joined us six years ago are knocking on our door today to join us as employees and managers. There’s no magic to this. We’ve just got to do it right, slowly, carefully, take our time and not think that it’s going to happen overnight.
Stellican Ltd. has a history of rescuing iconic heritage American brands. Look at what they’ve accomplished with Chris-Craft. Can Stelllican’s magic touch return Indian Motorcycles to glory?
MCUSA: How is your success resurrecting Chris-Craft boats going to help you in resurrecting Indian?
Stephen Julius: There are tremendous parallels between these two brands. They are both iconic heritage American brands. These words are very important: iconic, American, heritage brands. They are both in the powersports industry; they are both based on dealer networks for distributing the product; they are both based on selling a dream and a lifestyle to consumers. We are very cognizant of the similarities. Obviously they are hugely different in many other ways but viewed from a strategic perspective they are very similar, so a lot of the issues we’ve had to address with Chris-Craft and indeed with the previous company I owned in Italy, which was called Riva, (known as the Ferrari of boats in Italy) and probably one of the most famous boat companies in the world. It’s the same issues all the time.
MCUSA: How well is the “Reserve your 2008 Chief” program doing?
Stephen Julius: We have a section on our Website where people can reserve a bike for 2008 and pay a $1000 deposit and we have received a number of deposits. Every week that’s increasing. We are pleasantly surprised and pleased by the faith people in the market seem to be placing on our re-launch brands.
We view ourselves very clearly as a production motorcycle house. We are not a custom motorcycle house. Probably the previous Indian suffered from having started as a custom motorcycle company in 1998. When the trademarks were purchased in 1998, they reversed it into a custom motorcycle house called the California Motorcycle Company. It was early in 2001 they decided to become a mainstream production house and they just felt that it could be done instantly and it can’t.
Indian Motorcycles will be powered by a revamped Powerplus 100 mill. Previously the Powerplus was a 45-degree V-Twin 100 cubic-inch 1638cc engine.
MCUSA: So you’ve elected to use your own Powerplus 100 (previously a 45-degree V-Twin 100ci 1638cc engine). This is going to be built in-house?
Stephen Julius: We are going to be producing our own engine in-house, which is quite a formidable task, but we’re confident that we will be able to produce a quality engine at the end of it. To contract out would have been the obvious and easy route for us. But since day one, one of the reasons I’ve spent two years together with my colleagues was to really examine the market. We spoke to all the major manufacturers, going around the world trying to really understand the economics of the business, where is the market going, what had happened and we decided, no, we have to have our own engine. There’s no way we could buy an engine from a third party. That’s why we’ve decided to go this route. It’s taking us longer, but I think long term we’re doing the right thing.
MCUSA: How many dealers are you looking for as a good starting network?
Stephen Julius: We’ve made our own forecast for the number of units we want to sell in the first year and we’ve established how many dealers that would have to sign up in order to do that, but these are not figures we’re willing to disclose at this point. We’ll start the process of building a dealer network probably in the second half of this year in time for the commercial launch. What we’re not going to do is sign up a huge number of dealers just to be able to say that we’ve got ‘X’ number of dealers. I think it’s important that we choose our dealers carefully so that we have the right ones. I’d rather have no dealer than the wrong dealer. We’ve already gone through that experience with Chris-Craft. It’s probably one of the biggest challenges that we face, over and above the engineering issues, is building the right dealer base.
MCUSA: What’s the general buzz that you’re getting, are people excited about the return of the Indian?
Stephen Julius: We’ve made a point of not really saying much to anyone. I’ve been shy to speak to newspapers just because we wanted to quietly get the word out there. I think the problem with the previous Indian was too much talk and not enough action. What we want to do now is get stuff done and talk about it once we’ve already had it built. We’ve been quite consciously trying to keep our heads low and I think that’s going to be our general strategy this year. But I think certainly there’s been a lot of interest. We’ve had thousands and thousands of e-mails, we’ve had several thousand applicants to be dealers not only just around America but around the world. At times it’s actually quite difficult to manage the level of interest that we’ve had at both the dealer and consumer level.
In 1940, all models were fitted with the large skirted fenders that became an Indian trademark, and the Chief gained a new sprung frame at a time when Harley-Davidson’s still had an unsprung rear end.
MCUSA: Your first bike is going to be the Chief? Are you going to continue using variations of the Chief, like the Chief Deluxe, the Chief Springfield, and the Chief Roadmaster?
Stephen Julius: Absolutely. There will be several exciting variations of the Chief. So that will be the first model, but really, because of all the variations, you could argue that there are going to be several models of the Chief. After that, we will move on with a lighter bike than the Chief.
MCUSA: Are you going to continue using the model names Indian has already established, like the Chief, the Scout and the Spirit?
Stephen Julius: We’ll try to use, where possible, historic Indian names, yes. And where that’s not possible, then we’ll come up with alternatives. There’s enough names that we have registered in our ownership that we’ll have plenty of names for the models we want to develop certainly over the next two to three years.
MCUSA: Do you think that somewhere down the line Indian will branch out into other platforms, like BMW did with its 450 Enduro?
Stephen Julius: That’s certainly a possibility we would consider.
Indian motorcycles, like this 1911 Indian TT Racer, continue to garner a lot of attention among classic motorcycle collectors. A 1912 Indian 7-hp Twin recently sold at the Legends of the Motorcycle event for $46,800.
MCUSA: Indian has a history of involvement in the racing industry, winning the Isle of Man TT in 1911, as the 1st winner at Indy and with countless victories on the boardtrack circuit. Does Indian have any plans to venture back into the racing realm?
Stephen Julius: I think that is a possibility that we would very seriously consider. With a brand as big as Indian, there is very little that we couldn’t do as far as types of motorcycles. We have to be careful when starting up about claiming to want to do a bunch of very ambitious things, so we are going to approach this very slowly, but if you ask, do we have the credibility to do these various things that you’ve just raised, absolutely.
MCUSA: Will you continue to use successful styling cues that the Indian is known for, (like the Indian head-dress logo and the deep red color used in its logo and in paint on bikes)?
Stephen Julius: What we’ve got to do, we’ve got to take styling cues from the past and blend them with contemporary styling cues that are relevant to today’s consumer. Today’s consumer isn’t a single person, it’s divided into many different segments, not just 40- to 65-year-olds. It’s also going to be younger consumers. We have to do this one step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and this project is as big as building Rome, I assure you. We’ve pulled together a truly tremendous engineering team so far, and that is the basis for any good motorcycle company, apart from having a great brand, is having a great engineering team.
We ran across quite a few classically-styled Indians during our recent visit to the 2007 Laughlin River Run.
MCUSA: What about the deeply valanced fenders that is synonymous with Indian styling?
Stephen Julius: Certainly we will offer those on some of the models like the Chief.
MCUSA: When can we expect to see the first new Indian hit the streets?
Stephen Julius: You know what, by the end of this year you’ll see them hitting the streets, that’s my forecast. We want to get the engineering right, that’s more important to me than what month I hit the streets with the bike, to be really honest. We’re estimating the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
MCUSA: How has the move to King’s Mountain been working out?
The 1909 Indian that Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker rode to victory in one of the first races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had no brakes, no front fender, a tiny rear fender and double chain drive.
Stephen Julius: Tremendously. The state of North Carolina and Cleveland County, the county where our plant is and the city of Kings Mountain, all three of them have been remarkably welcoming, supportive, helpful. We are thrilled to be here. It’s a great state to be in. It’s also the center of the powersports industry of the U.S. There’s lots of talented people available to us and there’s also people willing to move to the state to work for us. We’re hiring people from across the United States, so where we are located is pretty important.
MCUSA: How many people does the facility currently employ?
Stephen Julius: Right now, it’s a small team of 14 engineers in Kings Mountain. That’s increasing, and we will be several hundred within the next couple of years.
MCUSA: There have been stories in the media where Native Americans have protested using their likeness in a manner they perceive as offensive. They even tried to have the professional baseball team the Atlanta Braves change their name. Have you had any negative feedback from Native American groups over the use of the word ‘Indian’, and ‘Chief’ and ‘Scout’?
Stephen Julius: Well, let me make two comments. First, anything we will do will certainly not be in any way disparaging to the Native American population here. We are proud to be associated with them. Secondly, these issues were raised in the past and they were dealt with, actually, after quite long and expensive legal cases in the courts and they’ve all been resolved, so that’s not something that is of concern to us.
MCUSA: There’s a faithful following anxiously awaiting the release of the new Indians. What would you like to say to the Indian faithful?
Since Godfrey, Franklin and Moorehouse swept 1st, 2nd, and 3rd aboard Indian motorcycles in the 1911 Isle of Man TT, racing and Indian have gone hand-in-hand.
Stephen Julius: Be patient with us. We’re coming back, and when we come back, I hope you will be proud and satisfied with the work we’re doing. Thank you enormously for your continued support, it means a tremendous amount to us and our employees. People rooting for us helps us. Doing what we’re doing is not easy. It’s challenging and knowing that there are people out there that want us to succeed is extremely important. This brand is almost a national American asset and it deserves to succeed and it deserves to be alive and it deserves to be healthy and producing a great product. My team and I are determined to make it a reality. Thank you and be patient.
MCUSA: Are you going to have them build you a custom Chief?
Stephen Julius: Listen, I’m going to have whatever we sell to consumers, whatever’s good enough for them is good enough for me. The irony is when you own a bike or boat company, you’re usually the last guy to get a bike or a boat because you want to ship it off to a customer first. (laughs) I’ll take whatever’s available when the time comes.
MCUSA: What do you like to do in your spare time, if you have any?
Stephen Julius: I have three small children that are a source of tremendous joy to me and I have a lovely wife. I enjoy boating, and biking when I have time. I commute all the time between London and the United States so I don’t have a huge amount of spare time with a young family and two thriving businesses. I did get to take my wife out to Sturgis for three days this past year (2006).
Indian Motorcycles is finally controlled by an organization with the necessary funding, the proven track record, and the commitment to success which should help the manufacturer regain the prominence it once enjoyed. Taking time to research the market, establishing a nucleus of qualified engineers, and not rushing to put a product in the marketplace before its time demonstrates the entrepreneurial savvy Julius has honed through his prior business acquisitions. The decision to use a proprietary engine is a smart move. Continuing to use the easily recognizable styling cues that helped make the brand famous is another. MotorcycleUSA anxiously awaits the Chief’s introduction and will be keeping an eye out for an invitation to be one of the first to ride the revered Indian steed.
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