Why This Motorcycle Matters to America
by Charles Karel Bouley II
Photos by Kenneth Erick
The economy is tough for many in America; and in tough times people like to hear about things made in their country; to many, the label “Made in America” equates to jobs and community. When it comes to motorcycling, Victory, Buell and Zero hail from the USA and arguably the most well-known American motorcycle of late is the very successful Harley Davidson brand.
But America’s oldest motorcycle company, established in 1901, Indian Motorcycles is re-entering the marketplace with three consumer motorcycles; a relaunch and expansion of a brand steeped in America’s history yet one that hasn’t consistently produced motorcycles in decades.
These bikes are cruisers, and given the company’s recent marketing
“We want the consumer to know that there is a choice again when it comes to motorcycles made in America, with a history in the culture and nation,” stated Robert Pandya, External Relations for Indian Motorcycles, while being interviewed for The Karel Cast.
The company has gone through many incarnations since it’s inception in 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts. It soon became clear that there were two areas the bikes excelled: war, and racing. By 1942, according to the History Channel, 40,000 Indian motorcycles were deployed in WW II. Returning veterans wanted the same power and bikes and riders began setting records on Indian motorcycles. So what happened?
“After World War II, by the early 1950’s,” Pandya continued, “they couldn’t sell enough bikes to continue consumer production. Over the next decades the company went through many things, some management issues, the economy, but the brand never left America’s consciousness,” he added.
Many may know the brand from the film the World’s Fastest Indian.. That film tells the story of Herbert “Burt” Munro who in 1967 rode a 1920 self-modified Scout® to an under-1000cc land-speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats. That record still stands.
Another player, Polaris, has been servicing the military and consumers with American-made motorcycles under the Victory brand. These large cruisers and sporty 8-Ball line have been a growing success against rival Harley and others. It is with Polaris that Indian has aligned for its reintroduction.
“Polaris is a parent company but Indian is treated as its own brand, independent,” Pandya commented on the company’s recent structure. “And made in the USA is still important to the company as a philosophy. Production takes place in the U.S. with the engines made in Osceola Wisconsin, and final assembly and paint are in Spirit Lake, Iowa,” he added.
Pandya is right about the Indian brand still being in the consciousness of America. I’ve experienced this first hand over the last few weeks as I’ve ridden the Indian Chief Classic as part of the media review program. In fact, I’ve ridden many review bikes, and few illicit the conversations, horn honks, waves, hi-fives, photo requests and smiles this bike has received save maybe the Piaggio MP3 (but it has three wheels and looks like no other bike).
I was on the bike over the July 4th weekend in the coasts and canyons of Southern California and many thought the bike, myself and my passenger had been in a parade. Indian provided a jacket from their new apparel line for all the riding and twice while away from the bike the jacket prompted people tot talk to me about the brand and their memories of it. That’s powerful branding, but can the bikes deliver?
Having ridden almost every line of cruisers, from the Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero to the Victory Hammer S 8-Ball and at least six other manufacturers, I had some frame of reference for comparison. As I age (I’m 51) I find I like the comfort the larger cruisers provide for many rides and the speed and agility of a commuter bike like my Aprilia Mana 850 or the Honda CTX 700 at other times. Given that, the Indian Chief Classic truly is in a class of its own in style, performance and yes, cultural identity and history. I have not driven the other two models, the Indian Chief and the Chieftain; the primary difference is body style and bags. The Chief has leather bags and vintage feel while the Chieftain has the hard cases, windshield and other upgrades. The line starts at $19k and goes up to $23k plus optional accessories. That is very competitive for the performance and look.
The mechanics of it are impressive. The Polaris Thunder Stroke 111 “is quite a power center,” as Pandya put it. Indeed. With or without a passenger, flat terrain or mountains I have yet to reach a point after a few weeks of riding where there wasn’t ample power, massive power, nearly unlimited power. With power comes fuel consumption. The 5.5 gallon tank is giving me about 200 miles, or 40 mpg. That’s a mix of city and open road, since, if you have a show piece, it’s hard not to go show it off.
Show off is what this bike, from the reactions I’ve seen, seems to do best. The Indian Red attracts attention, the Dunlop American Elite 130 and 180 whitewalls add vintage touches and grip the road; of course, at 812 pounds and low center of gravity road-hugging is something it does well and the leather seats have ample room (trust me). The line comes in the Indian Red, Thunder Black and Springfield Blue, a nod to the bike’s birthplace. The keyless ignition and mix of electronics and vintage styling on the dash allows the rider to get alerts, check ABS, gear position and the cruise control is a pleasure I didn’t know I missed until an eight hour drive to San Francisco, CA up Interstate 5 on the bike reminded me. Many cruisers now come with cruise control and it has its place. The more electronics on a bike the more leery I become; just more things to breakdown. This seems like a nice mix.
A quick google of the reintroduction and comments from owners would lead one to believe that this time Indian is on the path to continued production and longevity. From a marketing standpoint, they are going after branding with the three bikes and a contemporary and vintage clothing line for all consumers as well as a full line of gear for the riders. The gear keeps the vintage feel for many of the pieces, and incorporates the iconic logo in to other contemporary designs. Harley Davidson does well with brand expansion through merchandising and clothing and this line, while small, looks like it could expand and grow for the company as well.
From the motorcycling standpoint,they aren’t so much rebranding but reintroducing the brand and its American history, roots and continued connection. That’s a strategy that has worked well for companies such as Harley Davidson and the new line of cruisers from Indian are proving a formidable challenger to the hold Davidson has enjoyed in Indian’s absence from the consumer marketplace.
While a younger demographic is always the key to a company’s longevity, there can be no doubt that middle-aged riders are also a target. After spending time with the bike, as one of those riders and possible buyers, I can say it is definitely a bike I would be hard pressed to resist giving myself for Christmas. In red, of course.
Follow Indian Motorcycle on twitter @indianmotocycle (no “r”) and visit their site.