Witness the depressing case of Avanti. At one point, it was the future-forward, Raymond Loewy-penned, glimpse at things to come from Studebaker. The next thing you know, it was on its third iteration as a half-put-together kit car, the lion’s share of which came from the Corvette. The same thing happened with Indian Motorcycles, a once-proud American brand that had been shipped around the world like a shanghaied sailor. Now, Indian is poised to make a comeback with yet another owner. Bold Ride takes a look at its tumultuous history, and its likelihood for success.
1901 to 1953 – The Glory Years
Founded in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1901–two years before Harley-Davidson–Indian began life as the Hendee Manufacturing Company. Its founders were George M. Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedstrom, former bicycle racers who joined forces to build a “pacer” motorcycle, a bike that could be used to train bicycle racers. Indian’s early 1.75hp, single-cylinder-powered motorcycle gave way to Indian’s first V-twin in 1907, which would make the brand famous for the next 50 years.
Introduced in 1922, the Indian Scout–a 500cc V-twin middleweight–and the Chief, a true heavyweight, instantly became the brand’s best-selling machines. The 1922 Chief featured a 61-cu.in. (1,000cc) V-twin, which gave way to a 73-cu.in. (1,200cc) engine a year later.
Unlike a lot of motorcycle and automotive manufacturers, Indian managed to make it through the Great Depression, through the efforts of E. Paul DuPont. In 1929, DuPont–of those DuPonts–became president of Indian, and marked the beginning of the company’s heyday.
In 1940, the Chief underwent a major transformation, from mere motorcycle to American icon. The frame was completely revised to include a sprung rear suspension that was vastly superior to Harley-Davidson’s rigid rear end.
That year, Indian sold just as many bikes as Harley-Davidson. “Built like rocks to take hard knocks,” said the advertisements, adding “it’s the Harleys that cause grief.”
And then it all went wrong. World War II punched Indian’s ticket, and sent it on a downward spiral from which it would never return. During the war, Indian had the potential to make its fortune supplying motorcycles, but there were many missed opportunities. Following the war, DuPont sold Indian to Ralph Rogers, who dumped millions of his own money into the company. Rogers invested heavily in fresh, modern designs influenced by British and Italian manufacturers, and embarked on a family-oriented advertising campaign that predated the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign.
It was largely a failure and by 1953, all Indian Motorcycle production had ceased.
1955 to 1962 – The British are Coming
For the next 40 years – an amazing run, when you think of it – Indian Motorcycles existed as nothing but a name that a string of pitchmen, publishers and wingnuts would apply to a chain of ever-lousier motorcycles.
A company called Brockhouse Engineering acquired the name after the company’s demise in 1953. It began importing Royal Enfield motorcycles from England, and with some mild customization, suddenly became the Chief, Trailblazer, Apache, Tomahawk, Woodsman, Westerner, Hounds Arrow, Fire Arrow and Lance models.
In 1960, another British motorcycle company – Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), the conglomerate behind Matchless, AJS, Francis-Barnett, James and Norton – purchased the name from Brockhouse Engineering. The plan was to build a series of Indian Motorcycles based on the Matchless and AJS brands, but just two years later, AMC went into receivership, and the name was up for grabs.
1963 to 1970 – Social Clymer
Floyd Clymer started out in the auto business selling cars, but moved quickly on to publishing, or more accurately, reprinting other peoples’ books without their permission. His early works – including the Indianapolis 500 Yearbook – were nothing but a collection of reprinted articles from other publications for which he provided no attribution. Regardless, he went on to build a small empire in publishing, eventually owning Cycle magazine.
In the 1960s, he acquired the Indian name and set out to resurrect it with an all-new motorcycle. In 1966, he met Freidel Munch, who was working on a wild NSU four-cylinder-powered motorcycle with a light-alloy, modern chassis under the Munch brand. Munch’s company was in desperate straits, so Clymer paid off Munch’s debts and acquired the company, with the idea of resurrecting Indian using Munch’s chassis.
The original idea was that Munch would build an all-new V-twin engine, but that never materialized. What appeared in a few examples in 1968 was an all-new Indian scout, featuring Munch’s chassis, built around an ancient side-valve Indian V-twin. This was eleven years after Harley-Davidson – not exactly known for fast-paced technological advancements – had moved toward overhead valves.
In total, about 250 Clymer Indian Scouts were ever built. Clymer also built a handful of Velocette-powered Indians shortly before his death in 1970.
1970 to 1977 – The Indian Minibike
In the 1970s, minibikes were all the rage, and Floyd Clymer’s Los Angeles attorney Alan Newman wanted in. He purchased the Indian name from Floyd Clymer’s widow, along with the license to import Italjet minibikes from Italy.
Between 1971 and 1976, Newman contracted with a Taiwanese manufacturer of minibikes, and he began building Indian minibikes between 100cc and 175cc. Newman eventually bailed out and for the better part of 20 years, Indian was defunct as a motorcycle manufacturer.
1992 to 2011 – Things Get Really Weird
The years between 1992 and 2011 make the Floyd Clymer years look like the Ford Motor Company circa 1964. For years, the name had been transferred from moped manufacturers to private individuals. Finally, in 1992, Philip Zanghi emerged as President and CEO of Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. Inc. of Berlin.
At around the same time, a company called Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Incorporated showed a prototype of the Indian Century V-Twin Chief. Neither Zanghi’s company, nor Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Incorporated ever built anything, and Zanghi eventually went to jail for securities fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
The next attempt was by a company called Eller Industries, which purchased the name from the receivers of the previous owner. Roush was supposed to build a completely new engine, and a production facility was supposed to be constructed on the Cow Creek Band of the Upqua Tribe’s land in Canyonville, Oregon.
A prototype of a cruiser was scheduled to be unveiled in November of 1998, but Eller Industries flaked on all of its obligations, and the trademark for Indian Motorcycles was sold to IMCOA Licensing America in December of 1998 before Eller Industries ever showed a prototype.
IMCOA Industries eventually merged with EIGHT other companies to form the Indian Motorcycle Company of America. One of those eight companies was the California Motorcycle Company (CMC), which had been building half-put-together bikes using off-the-shelf S&S engines in facility in Gilroy, California, famous for nothing but garlic production.
“Gilroy Indians” were built here between 2001 and 2003, but the company quickly went belly-up during the dot-com bust, and the years following 9/11.
Indian resurrected itself AGAIN in 2006, thanks to London private equity firm Stellican Limited, in a facility in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, essentially using the same recipe for the Gilroy Indian. A redesigned engine came in 2009, featuring sequential port fuel injection, and an improved charging system.
2011 to Present – Polaris
Canadian firm Polaris had achieved success with its Victory Motorcycles brand. It purchased the rights to produce Indian from Stellican Limited and moved all production to Spirit Lake, Iowa. In March of 2013, Indian debuted an all-new 111-cubic inch “Thunder Stroke” V-twin, and kicked off the sale of all-new Indians earlier this month.
Three all-new motorcycles carry the Indian brand: The Indian Chief Classic, the Indian Chief Vintage and the Indian Chieftain, a flagship touring motorcycle with a front fairing and hard saddlebags.
Polaris has done an amazing job developing the Victory Motorcycles brand since 1998. It’s been profitable since 2002, and has sprinted to the number two position in heavyweight 1400cc-plus displacement motorcycles, blowing stalwarts like Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda and Yamaha out of the water.
It might finally be the perfect time for Indian Motorcycles to survive.
Image Credit: Indian Motorcycles, Wikipedia, Phat Rides Custom Cycles