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Backmarker: Indian Reborn Yet Again

Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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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sloppy   May 8, 2011 08:33 PM
Backmarker, lets get back to reality. There is no way Polaris will get into the automotive market. They have their hands full with what they currently have. I have no doubt that they bought Indian for next to nothing due to the fact Stellican was meeting just over half of their initial forcast. A few years ago Polaris pulled out of the PWC market because they did not want to make a 4 stroke PWC engine. As for Polaris building a sport bike, just keep dreaming. They have already said that they want to position the Indian towards the traditionalist (i.e. keeping it a cruiser.) The most they will do in the next 5 years is maybe and I mean maybe produce something similar to a Sportster. Let Polaris do the thinking and you just collect the dividend checks.
Backmarker   May 6, 2011 10:43 AM
After I posted this edition of Backmarker, an insightful friend wrote to add his two cents' worth... About a year before I retired from the Army,.. I took a motorcycle's worth of money and put it in Polaris stock. I bought it at $55/share in October 2007. Today it is around $103, and recently hit $115. Once Scott Wine, a Jack Welch-protege, took over, things started really looking up. And all of this has occurred in the worst economy in about 80 years. If they can do the styling right, without the goofiness of the previous Victory styling exercises, Indian might again be viable. What I would love to see, though, is a modern Sport Scout as a rival to the SV650. If they can keep the price down, it should sell. Polaris makes some kick@$$ snowmobile motors. They should easily be able to turn one into a V-twin. I have watched this company carefully since I bought their stock (which basically has paid for the bike I just purchased). It is obvious that they have plans to become a major player, and if they don't overextend themselves, to eventually make automobiles. They just purchased that other company to increase their share of the "neighborhood" vehicle pie.
bobbybhb   May 5, 2011 02:09 PM
With Polaris / Victory at the helm of Indian, the possibilities are endless. Victory has already sourced some great talent to design and build bikes. Alan Hurd was resourced from Excelsior Henderson via Triumph, Song Fan and many other engineers have brought Victory a long way in a short time. Victory can offer what has not been in place by any other of its directors since 1953. That is to bring the average variable costs down and bring the prices down. They can offer their in house technology to bring the designs into the respectable 21st century. The single pin fork and blade 45 degree twin is old news that has been beat to death. If they want the sound and some ponies to boot, a new design is a must. An Indian 4 would not be out of the focus, but would only serve as a minor model for the new company. I believe the future is bright for Indian as long as they don't focus on the past. Bobby B
lbejcar   May 5, 2011 11:31 AM
Mark, I agree with your article's last point, build for the future. The trouble with these "what if" scenarios is that sales, not idealism, drives the answers. Frequently we see a hardcore group clamor for all kinds of variations on a two wheel exercise, but the response from the buyers forces doesn't come through. History is littered with all kinds of good worthy, sensible, or exotic, ideas, and because the buying public ignored them, those bikes disappeared. I'm one of those that have sided with Triumph, the modern one, that you refer to in your column. A nice mix of heritage and technology. It'll be great when others follow the same path.
Mitch   May 5, 2011 07:28 AM
Nice little history lesson. I too would like to see Indian evolve beyond just the baby boomer market. I think the Indian brand would be perfect for a Buell like sport v-twin or maybe even a 4 like the Motus.
tquinn   May 4, 2011 03:33 PM
Tremendous article, Mark. So many interesting pieces of information. One of the things you touched on, which I was considering posting on my own blog, is if Indian didn't have such a checkered history, what bikes would they be producing today? For that matter, what bikes would Harley Davidson be producing if they had to keep competing against Indian for the last 50 years? I'm thinking there would have been significant enhancements to their classic V-Twin if they had to have been forced to keep pace with Indian (the V-Rod's engine was a nice step. Buell was also good but we know how that ended). You mentioned Triumph as someone who did this well and I couldn't agree more. Their Speed Triple, to me, is the perfect continuation of the foundation the Bonneville laid in the late 1950's. Whenever there is talk of revitalizing a motorcycle brand, whether it be Norton, Vincent etc. I always wonder where they would be today if they hadn't stalled. I think Polaris should take a cue from Triumph: Show pride in the past but continue to develop new and exciting motorcycles that exemplify the rich history of the Indian name. That's their key to reaching a younger demographic while appealing to the historic nature of their brand. I too don't want this to be another asterisk in the motorcycle history books.
irksome   May 4, 2011 02:21 PM
One salient point in the Indian/HD struggle that you missed; the US Army commissioned both to build a 500cc prototype for use in WWII. Indian complied but HD built a 750cc machine and won the contract. When US soldiers returned to the states, these were the bikes they wanted and the rest is history. I've always wondered; if HD hadn't cheated, would their roles now be reversed?