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The Indian Rides Again

Defunct for decades, one of America's earliest motorcycles roars back to life
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

Richie Sacco is a stocky man with graying hair tied back in a ponytail. He's wearing a short-sleeve, black Indian motorcycle T-shirt, an Indian belt buckle, blue jeans and Indian boots. He may even be wearing Indian boxers for all I know. Not only is he the president of Long Island's Indian Riders Group, but he's also the product specialist at the Indian dealership in St. James, New York. As far as Indian motorcycles go, you can't get anything past Sacco. I interrogate him with questions about specific models that haven't been made in decades and Sacco answers without hesitation. This guy's a real Indian-head. Just like the ones attached to the front fenders of Indian motorcycles.

Indian is one of the oldest names in American motorcycles. But it's also one of the newest, according to Lou Terhar, president and chief executive officer of the privately held Indian Motorcycle Co. based in Gilroy, California. The company, which was founded in 1900 and produced its first motorcycle the following year, went out of business after a half-century, but was reborn in 1997. The original company was created when champion bicycle racer George Hendee and engineer Oscar Hedstrom teamed up in Springfield, Massachusetts, to form the Hendee Manufacturing Co. They called their first motorcycle the Indian to pay homage to "a wholly American product in the pioneering tradition." In a few years they changed the name of the company to Indian, too. Back then, people weren't too concerned with political correctness.

"Our hallmark is our respect to Native Americans and to the legacy of Indian motorcycles," says Terhar. "We appreciate the heritage passed on to us and will do nothing to damage that." He adds that the company has an advisory group of Native Americans to insure that the company does nothing to offend their community. "That's important to us," Terhar says.

After the company went under in 1953, people would scour the countryside for dilapidated Indians and restore them to mint condition. To say Indians have a fanatical following is like saying bikers sometimes wear leather jackets. Just saying you owned an Indian to a motorcycle aficionado was like telling art dilettantes you had a Michelangelo sculpture. Of course, there was a price difference.

"Motorcycles were the first motorized means of transportation before cars became more affordable," says Sacco. "Not on a grand scale but beyond somebody tinkering in their garage." Motorcycles could navigate the day's dirt roads much better than a four-wheel Ford; slap on a sidecar and you could even carry a passenger or two.

The first Indians owed a lot to bicycles. The seat, shaped like a rounded triangle, looked as if the company founders had removed it from a single-speed pedal pusher. It even had a pair of springs on the back to cushion the ride. The motorcycles were thin; the widest part aside from the seat was the long, thin cylindrical fuel tank. The Indian Co. beat Harley-Davidson's incorporation by two years, and for a couple of decades, it was the premier motorcycle manufacturer. In 1913, Indian sold nearly 32,000 motorcycles, a company high; some 42 percent of the U.S. motorcycle market were Indians.

At first, the company concentrated on manufacturing racing bikes. By 1911, the Indian Co. held no fewer than 121 speed and endurance records -- every last one in America. The company chose to give the bikes Indian-themed names such as Chief and Scout.

"General Pershing bought Harley military bikes to go after Pancho Villa [in 1916]," Sacco says. "Pancho flew right past Pershing's motorcycles and they couldn't catch up. Later, they found his motorcycles hidden in a cave. He had Indians."

The Depression hurt Indian sales, but the company managed to stay in business (like its rival Harley-Davidson). Indians acquired Art Deco touches, such as deeply valanced fenders and two-tone paint jobs that beat Detroit's four-wheel best by a decade or so. Then the Second World War erupted, and the company virtually stopped manufacturing commercial and police bikes. At the time, it only produced machines for the military.

During the war, Indians were used mainly for messenger service. Even the French government got into the act, ordering 5,000 Chiefs with sidecars to aid the war effort.

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