Defunct for decades, one of America's earliest motorcycles roars back to life
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.
Post-war Indian motorcycles were outfitted with more chrome than a '57 Chevy. The front fender featured a Pontiac-like Indian head with a chrome war bonnet and a plastic face that lit up. Inside was an old-style Christmas tree light that you could change.
The brand should have taken off like the postwar economy. But, according to Terhar, while Indian supplied its entire output to the Army, Harley-Davidson had begun to outmanufacture Indian, and not only contributed great numbers to the war effort but also supplied some of its motorcycles to police departments. Harleys were snatched up at bargain prices by returning servicemen, who got hooked on Hogs and kept buying them. "Harley got a lot of police contracts, then Indian didn't get as much payment as the government promised," Sacco says. "So that started a downward spiral. Indian lost its market because of the war."
As Indian orders declined, alleged mismanagement by the company rose. By 1953, Indian's output had dwindled to the mere hundreds and the factory closed. Indian went out of business and despite constant rumors of a revival, for 50 years the only genuine Indians available were those that restorers lovingly rebuilt by hand. A few "Indians" continued to be produced, in England, until 1959 by the Indian Sales Corp., an entity that had been created in 1950 when financially struggling Indian was split into two companies. Over the ensuing years, a number of battles raged over the Indian trademark, including two involving fraud. In the 1990s, several groups became interested in acquiring the rights to the Indian name. The case went to a federal court in Denver, which narrowed the number of claimants it would consider to two entities: a group led by Murray Smith, who owned the Indian name in Canada, and Eller Industries Inc., which was backed by the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Indian tribe in Oregon. In a 1998 decision vehemently condemned by Eller, which had recently agreed to purchase the Indian trademarks but apparently failed to close the deal in time, the court awarded the rights to the Smith-backed group.
Following the court decision, Smith's Canadian Indian Motorcycle Co., the American Indian Motorcycle Co. and the California Motorcycle Co. (which had developed the winning prototype) and its six related companies announced a $30 million merger, and the following year the Indian name was reborn.
"The new company stayed right in line with what Indian always did," says Sacco. This included reintroducing the classic names such as the Scout. In 1999, the first Indian in more than 40 years rolled off the assembly line.
Only an expert can tell the difference between the new bikes and those of 50 years ago. There's only one significant difference. "One issue is to make the safest bike you can make," says Terhar. "We're not making any version with the suicide shift. We're making everything as safe as possible and keeping the styling to go with it. That's critically important to us."
The "suicide shift," a standard feature on Indians up to the 1940s, referred to a gear shift on the right side of the fuel tank. With the suicide shift, you had to take your hand off the accelerator to change gears -- hence the "suicide" part. But there was also an accelerator on the left grip. Still, it was a dangerous system. (Today's more safety-conscious bikes are built with a foot shift.)
Like the Indians of yore, the new motorcycles have a low center of gravity and retro-valanced fenders; the low-end Scouts (starting at $16,995) have 19-inch black sidewalls while the Spirit (starting at $18,495) and the high-end Chiefs (starting at $20,995) are available with a beautiful two-tone paint job and 16-inch white sidewalls. The limited-edition Chief Centennial, built to commemorate 100 years of the Indian, came in only black and gold. This year, Indian will introduce the Chief Springfield ($21,495), which will sport a vintage Indian paint job, the black Indian script on the tank, and filigree gold around the script.
Sacco rolls out his personal Spirit Deluxe ($18,995) from the showroom. It's equipped with everything a bike truly needs: fringe leather grip covers, saddlebags, and delicate feathers discreetly airbrushed behind the Indian head on the front fender. The levers, mirrors and grips are all chrome, the handlebar is stainless steel, polished to a chrome brilliance, and the triple riser and forks are billet aluminum.
"It has a wet transmission and a final drive belt," Sacco explains. "The pulley is also billet." The front and back wheels have disc brakes, with four pistons instead of the typical two. It'll stop on a hair.
Sacco lets me sit on all styles of the Indian to feel how well balanced the machines are. And, yes, they come finely balanced, with foot stands as well. Unlike Japanese bikes, you won't need to hire a football team to stand it back upright.
After a long trip through the dealership's showroom/museum, I'm aching for a ride on one of these legends. Sacco can sense this and fires up the engine of one of his own bikes; it rumbles like the stomach of a hungry tiger. "It's a Powerplus 100 for purist appeal," he says. "It's a true Indian motor." Indian itself manufactures the engine, but for now it only equips the Chiefs. The motors for the other models use hand-assembled 88-inch S&S Superstock V-twin engines, built to Indian's exacting specifications by Viola, Wisconsinñbased S&S Cycle. The motor is connected directly to the frame, but being finely balanced and hand-assembled, the tolerance of all parts is at a minimum. Every motorcycle comes hand-inspected and then hand-assembled at the Indian factory in California. If it doesn't pass muster, it doesn't roll out the factory door.
Then comes the moment of truth. Sacco slaps a black trooper-style helmet on my head and tells me to get on the bike and ride it around the block a few times. I put on my sunglasses for eye protection and mount the huge machine. On board for the first time I get a sense of its great weight, though it's a much easier ride than my own smaller motorcycle. I take it outside for the ride.
I start slowly and turn left, past Sacco. Then I open up the throttle a little bit. She's a smooth ride, besides having great pickup. After two more lefts, I slow the Chief down and roll her carefully past Sacco. He motions for me to go around again. So I slowly make the left turn and go out of his sight, then open her up full throttle briefly. I feel like running down a couple of men emptying the trash on the opposite side of the block just to watch them scatter, but think better of it. I do blast between two buses and slow it way down before passing Sacco again. He waves me again for another go-around, and I turn slowly and disappear.
At top speed the Indian clings to the road as if it's a magnet, despite my splashing through mud puddles and loose gravel. It's the smoothest, best motorcycle I've ever ridden. If I hadn't left a car in the parking lot and a wife back home, I swear I would have ridden it to California.
Phil Scott is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.