Backmarker: Indian Reborn Yet Again

May 4, 2011
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

The original Indian motocycle logo; the company dates itself to before wed even settled on the spelling of the word motorcycle.
The original Indian ‘motocycle’ logo; the company dates itself to before we’d even settled on the spelling of the word. Can the latest incarnation of Indian find true success?

Polaris just bought the Indian trademark, which could be a good thing for the American motorcycle industry. Or, it could just be another asterisk at the bottom of the ‘Indian’ article in some future motorcycle encyclopedia. After all, anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the motorcycle market since the mid-’50s empathizes with General George Armstrong Custer, whose last words were, “Where are all these #u@&ing Indians coming from?”
Even the original Indian company, the one based in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the factory was known as ‘the wigwam’, had a checkered history. It was started by George Hendee, who was a great bicycle racer at a time when bike racing on banked board tracks was a major spectator sport, and who went on to head a successful bicycle company. At the turn of the century, bicycle racers trained behind motorized pacer bikes (such a vehicle was sometimes called a ‘derny’.) Hendee noticed that the machines built by one particular guy, Oscar Hedstrom, worked a lot better than the rest of them.

While there had been a number of powered two-wheelers, including things like the Daimler Maybach and steam-powered high-wheel ‘penny-farthings’, the first practical motorcycles evolved out of those pacer bikes. Hendee, as the promoter and business genius, and Hedstrom as the engineering genius, turned their Indian ‘motocycle’ company into the first big motorcycle company in the U.S., though Harley-Davidson was hot on their heels.

The two were very innovative; they were quick to adopt chain drive, gearboxes, and mechanically-operated inlet valves. As board track racing for motorcycles themselves became a major sport, they produced some ferocious eight-valve race bikes. The first time the Isle of Man TT races were held over the Mountain Course, in 1911, Indian totally dominated the Senior race, placing first, second and third.

An example of derny motorized training bike. The first practical motorcycles evolved from vehicles like this. It was quite an advantage pedaling behind it; check out the gearing on that bicycle!
An example of ‘derny’ motorized training bike. The first practical motorcycles evolved from vehicles like this. It was quite an advantage pedaling behind it; check out the gearing on that bicycle!

Hendee capitalized on that success, and within a couple of years Indian was selling nearly 40,000 bikes a year! Hendee pushed hard for even more research and development, arguing with Hedstrom that they needed electric start and electric lights. In 1914, Hendee got his ‘electric’ bike, though Hedstrom quit in frustration. The ‘electric’ bike was a disaster, and by 1916 Hendee had been forced out of his own company. Indian was, by then, relegated to #2 behind Harley in sales.

Still, the wigwam didn’t stop trying. Charles Franklin, an ex-TT racer came over from England to replace Hedstrom, and designed the very good 101 Scout. In 1927, Indian bought the assets of the Ace motorcycle company, which produced a brilliant in-line four-cylinder bike designed by Arthur Lemon. The Indian Four was the BMW K1600 of its day, and remained in production until the early ’40s. But the Depression was hard on Indian. This period established a bit of a trend for the company; good bikes, bad business. In 1930, E. P. DuPont bought the company, but sales fell to a couple of thousand units a year.

Franklin died in ’32, but luckily the company found another great chief engineer in Briggs Weaver, who designed the 750cc Sport Scout. While the 1200cc Chief may be the Indian most remembered today, the Sport Scout was perhaps the marque’s defining machine. It was the GSX-R600 of its day, and did very well in Class C competition.

By the ’40s, Indian the company was pretty much on its own trail of tears. Du Pont sold it to a guy named Ralph Rogers, who grasped the superiority of the lighter and nimbler bikes coming out of the UK at the time, but the smaller bikes Rogers made weren’t very good. Rogers needed investment and got some from the UK, from Brockhouse Engineering.
In the late ’40s Rogers left the company in the hands of John Brockhouse, who continued to produce a few Chiefs a year, while attempting to market the UK-built Indian ‘Brave’ without much success. I think that Chief production stopped in ’53, but that a few bikes were assembled out of stockpiled parts for a couple of years and that since there were some fleet customers – police departments – that specified they had to buy American, they sold a few of the last Chiefs for that purpose.

That was the end of anything that could be thought of as a continuous line tracing back to the original Massachusetts company. But it wasn’t the end of the Indian brand by any means…

The eccentric and opportunistic Floyd Clymer acquired the rights to the name and imported a few machines from the UK and Italy (made by Enfield and Italjet) which were badged ‘Indian’. When Clymer died, his lawyer ended up with the rights and he, in turn, licensed the name to a minibike maker in Taiwan. Then, for a while, he actually owned a factory over there, producing really horrible, chintzy Indian minibikes.

In the mid-90s  there were intriguing rumors that an Australian investor planned to buy up the Indian trademark and hire John Britten to design a new Indian Chief.
In the mid-’90s, there were intriguing rumors that an Australian investor planned to buy up the Indian trademark and hire John Britten to design a new Indian Chief.

I guess that was the Indian marque’s nadir. But if anything the recent history of the brand’s even harder to sort out, partly because the trademarks for motorcycles and other applications such as clothing or restaurants were sold off separately. So in the last 30 years various companies have bought, sold and argued over who owns the rights to the name. There’s an ‘Indian’ restaurant in Toronto, and the guys who run that at one time claimed they were going to produce a motorcycle. (I mean, there’s an Indian motorcycle-themed restaurant, not an Indian food restaurant, although there’s dozens of great curry shops in Toronto, too. Yum.)

The only time, through all of this, that I ever didn’t think, Just let Indian die, so we can remember the good years, was the brief shining moment at the 1995 BEARS races in Daytona, when the talk of the paddock was that an Australian entrepreneur named Maurits Hayim-Langridge planned to acquire the rights to Indian and had contracted with John Britten to create an all new Chief. Since Britten’s only designs so far had been for iconoclastic race bikes, he might have seemed like an unlikely choice. But John’s very first motorcycle had been an old Indian Scout pulled from a New Zealand irrigation ditch, which he restored as a teenager. The thought of a new Britten-designed Indian stirred up some buzz amongst motorcyclists, but within six months, Britten died of cancer.

In the late ’90s a court in Colorado tried to sort it all out, and the rights ended up going to a company in Gilroy, California, which immediately began assembling bikes from brought-in components. The motors were S&S Harley clones – which given the fierce historic rivalry between the wrecking crew and the wigwam, made real Indian fans roll their eyes. The Gilroy operation briefly tried to produce a new Indian from scratch and hired great designers like James Parker and Tim Prentice. But the company never reached critical mass and never got beyond ‘novelty-alternative-to-Harley’ status.

The Gilroy company’s trademark rights were acquired by a UK-based investment firm, Stellican, which was probably hoping to pull off the sort of coup that Texas-Pacific Group achieved when it acquired Ducati, revived the company and sold it at an enormous profit between 1996 and 2005.

South Dakotas Crazy Horse Memorial was a perfect backdrop for the impressive styling of the 2010 Indian Chief Roadmaster.
Stellican worked to keep the Indian brand alive, producing retrostyled cruisers since 2006.

Stellican reestablished a small manufacturing operation in North Carolina, which has been producing Indian motorcycles based on the later Gilroy designs for the last five years.

Phew! This is the company that Polaris just acquired. I wonder if Stellican’s deal was all cash, or do they now own a little piece of Polaris? That’s what I would have advised, because there’s lots of potential in a revitalized Indian brand.

My point in writing this long story is to get here…

Polaris is an interesting company. Since my focus is mostly on motorcycle sport, I’ve had little exposure to the Victory line, but what I’ve seen, I like. I think they’ve gone about the business of establishing Victory as its own brand – not just a Harley-Davidson wannabe – in a measured, realistic, intelligent way. Especially at both ends of the line, with the Vegas 8-ball and the striking Vision touring bike, they’ve created machines that Charles Franklin and Brock Weaver might have approved.

But Polaris’ CEO has already referred to Indian as a ‘heritage’ brand, and an internal Polaris presentation has leaked out which makes it clear that a revitalized Indian will basically go head-to-head with Harley-Davidson.

I have a different hope for this Indian incarnation. (Oops, my allusion’s gone from North American Indian to Indian sub-continent Indian with that choice of words. I’m probably still thinking of those curry shops in Toronto.)

My hope is that Polaris asks itself this question: If the great Indian designers, from Hedstrom to Franklin, from Lemon to Weaver, were alive today what kind of motorcycles would they be making? I know this much is true: Not one of those guys would be looking to the current Harley-Davidson lineup for inspiration. Neither should Polaris.

Ace custom builder Shinya Kimura rode his 1915 Indian big twin almost all the way across the U.S. in last years epic Cannonball motorcycle rally. By the time this bike was built  Indians best years were already behind it.
Ace custom builder Shinya Kimura rode his 1915 Indian big Twin almost all the way across the U.S. in last year’s epic ‘Cannonball’ motorcycle rally. By the time this bike was built, Indian’s best years were already behind it.

I understand the temptation. Indian is the only brand that could ever aspire to go head-to-head with Harley-Davidson, and really appeal to Harley’s core demographic. But there isn’t a business case for doing that. Harley’s core buyers are aging too fast. Fifty may be the new 30; at least, I sure as hell hope it is. Sixty may be the new 40. But the reality is, 75 is still 75. Baby boomers have driven all of Harley’s growth since the Vaughn Beals-led takeover 30 years ago, and within a few years that cohort will have bought their last bikes. There’s no future there, and Harley-Davidson would be the first company to tell you that. Not too long ago, they fired Carmichael-Lynch, the legendary ad agency that turned The Motor Company into the prescription of choice for baby-boomers in mid-life crisis. One of the agencies that replaced it was Fuse, a specialist in youth-outreach marketing.

Where is there a future? In the future.

I’m not saying that a revived Indian should get straight into an arms race with BMW, Kawasaki and the rest of them (although on the 100th anniversary of Indian’s dominant Senior TT win, it’s worth remembering that in the wigwam’s heyday, they led the sport-bike arms race.)

Maybe the revived Triumph is a good model; it’s produced several unique designs and many motorcyclists who were skeptical of that brand’s resurrection have come around to approving the Hinckley output. Heck, even Motus has set off down a new and uniquely American path.

Polaris needs to find the next generation’s Hedstroms and Franklins, and hire them to make an Indian for the future, not one for the past. It’s time to get off the reservation.

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