The Indian Motorcycle Mystique

Edison vs. Tesla

Hatfield vs. McCoy

Ford vs. Ferrari

Yankees vs. Dodgers

Classic match-ups. But don’t forget Indian vs. Harley-Davidson. What is it about the Indian Motorcycle Company that keeps its defenders so fiercely devoted to the company through good times and bad, bankruptcy and ownership changes, even periods of latency?

Where did the Indian Motorcycle Company start?

In 1897, Hendee Manufacturing Company began making bicycles, including one called the American Indian. This bike became the company’s best-seller, and later Hendee shortened the name to “Indian.” In 1901 George Hendee, the founder, hired Oscar Hedstrom to build gasoline engine-powered bikes to pace bicycle races. Racing was his passion and the impetus behind his early efforts.  The gasoline-powered engine that Hedstrom created turned out to be reliable and robust and the Hendee Company solidified its reputation for performance. That year Hendee built a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts to produce the motor-powered bicycles, and the first American Indian motorcycle was sold to a customer in 1902. Other milestones in Indian brand history include:

  • In 1903 Hedstrom set a new world speed record on a Hendee cycle and won an endurance race.
  • In 1911 Indian motorcycles swept the top three positions in the first Isle of Man Mountain Course Race.
  • In 1913 the first swingarm and leaf-spring rear suspension in the industry were introduced.
  • In 1914: Indian debuted the world’s first motorcycle with electric lights and starter.
  • In the 1920s, the company launched several iconic models, including the Scout and the Chief. In 1923 the company changed its name from Hendee Manufacturing to Indian Motocycle. There was no “r” when used with the word Indian in the title, although it is not clear when this changed. It transpired at some point during a series of chaotic ownership and management changes, leading to the cessation of operations in 1953.
  • The legendary 45 cubic inch, 750cc V-twin engine Scout debuted in 1927 and became one of the best-loved Indian bikes of all time. Indian also introduced an inline-four in 1927. (Bikes with inline fours have recently sold for six figures at auction.)During the depression years, sales dropped, but the company continued to pursue excellence in manufacturing. Innovations during this time included the introduction of the “upside-down” four, which had an exhaust over intake (EOI) design.

During WWII Indian Motocycle produced military cycles for both the French and US armed forces and very few bikes were sold to consumers. After the war, the company refocused on motorcycle racing, dominating the competition with its “Indian Motorcycle Wrecking Crew” and winning almost everything on asphalt and dirt.  In 1948, they innovated with new models to compete with lightweight imports.

Unfortunately, Indian ceased manufacturing in 1953. President John Brockhouse sold imports under the Indian name until 1960. But in 1998, nine independent companies merged to form a new Indian Motorcycle Company of America and resumed production in California. That resurrection was short-lived, and IMCA went bankrupt in 2003. However, Stillican Ltd., a British equity firm, purchased the remaining assets in 2008 and produced a small quantity of Indian Chief bikes with 105-ci V-twin engines

 before selling the Indian Motorcycle to Polaris Industries in 2011.

How does Indian compare to Harley-Davidson?

Harley-Davidson, which started making motorcycles a few years after Hendee and Hedstrom created Indian, lagged in popularity before World War II. But they were able to take advantage of the gap that Indian left behind, as well as the many ownership changes and confusion over Indian product authenticity that ensued in the post-war years. More recently, Harley has suffered from reputational damage episodes as well but has recovered.

Both of these fabled brands have to work hard to balance homage to their history with the need to stay up to date. Indian has been selective about modifications to its iconic models, making sure that when they make changes, they do so for a reason. Indian will offer a Limited Edition of a bike to test the market, or to allow for a launch to get a trial run. Sometimes a new edition is in pursuit of a particular target market, as with the 2017 Scout Bobber, which was designed to appeal to a younger rider, seeking a more nimble, aggressive type of cruiser. 

How has Polaris changed Indian?

Polaris has been staunch in supporting the Indian brand, seeking to chip away at Harley’s share of the market in both cruisers and sportbikes. Polaris previously built Victory branded cycles but has chosen to focus on the Indian name as it rolls out innovations. 

The Motley Fool notes that Polaris has succeeded in combining the retro styling of the Indian with modern feature upgrades in technology. For example, the Chief Classic has patented valanced fenders, anti-lock brakes, keyless ignition, cruise control, and Indian’s massive Thunder Stroke 111 air-cooled, V-twin engine with a six-speed overdrive transmission. The luxury Indian Roadmaster lays it on with “…weatherproof storage, power-adjust windscreen, and heated seats and grips to tire pressure monitoring, Bluetooth, and an advanced infotainment system featuring both communication and navigation as well as telephone and Pandora integration.” The customer buying the cruiser doesn’t mind paying a little more for the extras, and it looks like the Roadmaster should. 

In an interview with, Gary Gray, Vice President – Racing, Technology, and Service at Indian Motorcycle Company, talked about the respect that Polaris showed for the history of Indian while launching new models, and the care they took with product improvements. Gray noted that it was important for Polaris to build trust with the loyal Indian devotee before venturing too far from its roots. He notes the difference between models and acknowledges that a Scout buyer has a different tolerance for change than a Springfield buyer might. Polaris is proud of the Indian heritage and appreciates that their customers expect them to continue to respect that history.

Emblematic of the Indian devotee is the restoration junkie, collecting parts and working to recreate the iconic model as a labor of love. Fathers and sons may work on these garage projects together, and at least one book has been written about restoring an Indian. A solid representative of these enthusiasts is Mike Wolfe of History Channel’s  “American Pickers.” While Wolfe “picks” up all kinds of discards in his travels, certainly, some of his favorites are his Indian finds. Wolfe fondly recalls his best pick ever as when he drove 800 miles to find a barn full of classic Indians—10 vintage bikes and a motherlode of spare parts. He admits to having been hooked from that moment on, and a lot of his viewers understand.

Sources used