If you ask a random motorcycle enthusiast to name the two most iconic American motorcycle brands, their answer would undoubtedly be: Harley Davidson and Indian. While the Indian brand doesn’t transcend the motorcycle niche in the way that Harley Davidson does, Indian riders are still very enthusiastic and plentiful.
It’s easy to see why Indian is such a well supported brand. Since the early 20th century, Indian has been responsible for producing some of the most legendary motorcycles of all time.
The company formerly known as Indian was founded in 1987 by George M. Hendee as the Hendee Manufacturing Company. The first motorized bicycle produced by Hendee was was created to pace bicycle races in 1901. In the following year, a single-engine motorcycle with a chain drive was sold to a retail customer - thus beginning the legend.
Also in 1902, Indian made a successful debut in racing - winning a long distance race from Boston to New York City.
In 1903, Indian’s chief engineer broke the world speed record (56 mph) riding his Indian vehicle.
Already differentiating itself from the competition, Indian delivered a motorcycle in 1904 with a highly distinct, vermillion red coloring - this color is still associated with the Indian brand to this day. That year, sales exceeded 500 units.
In 1907, Indian stopped outsourcing its engine design to the Aurora Company and moved into an expanded plant in Springfield, Massachusetts. With a larger workforce and more business resources available, Indian started making new innovations to its motorcycles.
During WW1, the company created its most iconic vehicle to date: the 1000cc Powerplus. This model was used heavily in the American war effort, with over 50,000 units being used to supply troops on the European battleground.
In the early 1920s, the Scout and Chief V-twin models were released - immediately generating notoriety and sales. The Scout featured a middleweight design, whereas the Chief was a larger model.
In 1923, the Big Chief was released, featuring an upgraded 1200 cc engine. The same year, Hendee Manufacturing Company changed its name to Indian Motocycle Company. Interestingly, the company chose the archaic spelling “motocycle”: a 19th century term pertaining to carriages without horses. This added to Indian’s allure and uniqueness.
In 1930, a merger occurred between DuPont and Indian, which led to several new iterations of the already popular Scout model. The 101 Scout (released in 1928) featured a long wheelbase, low seat and handled excellently. However, the 1932 Standard Scout featured the same frame as the Chief, which made it heavier and less maneuverable.
The subsequent model was the 1934 Sport Scout, which featured eye-catching flared fenders and a tribal Indian Motocycle logo.
Pictured above: 1926 Indian Scout
Once again, the world became locked in deadly combat, and Indian makes its contribution to the Allied Forces. The company created 500 Chiefs with sidecars to assist the French Government. These quaint vehicles were delightful to behold and could reach a top speed of 100 mph when tuned.
The company also developed the Indian 841 for the US Army.
Post-war adoption and obliteration
After the conclusion of WW2 in 1945, American troops returned home with a newfound love for motorcycles. Many veterans replaced the adrenaline-pumping experiences on the battlefield with riding motorized vehicles. Around this period, loosely formed motorcycle clubs were established and riding became seen as a cultural phenomenon.
In 1949, Indian released the 149 Arrow and the Super Scout 249. The next year, the lightweight 250 Warrior was released. In this period, the Indian head-fender light “Warbonnets” started to become a key feature of the band (one that remains today).
Despite these innovations, Indian’s post-war sales were inadequate, which led to the dismantling of the company in 1953.
In the decades that followed, the Indian trademark was swapped and sold numerous times. Despite this unfavorable period of misfortune and bankruptcies, the Indian name still remained in the public consciousness.
For instance, in 1967, 68 year old New Zealand native, Burt Munro, descended upon the Bonneville Salt Flats and set a world speed record of 183.586 mph. Munro was riding a heavily modified 1920s Indian Scout, which led to an abundance of news stories about “The World’s Fastest Indian”.
The record still stands today and the story was eventually made into a 2005 feature film starring Anthony Hopkins.
After the latest bankruptcy in 2003, it appeared that Indian would be forever relegated to the annals of motorcycle history. However, in 2008 Stellican Ltd. (a British private equity firm) purchased the rights to Indian, which were subsequently sold to Polaris Industries in 2011.
Manufacturing relocated to the Polaris production plant in Iowa, where Indian motorcycles would finally be revived for good.
In 2013, Indian announced a new lineup of motorcycles, which would catapult the brand back onto the world stage. At Daytona Bike Week, the Thunder Stroke 111 V-Twin engine was unveiled and a replica of the Munro Special streamliner was driven into the party. This created eager anticipation for Indian’s new vehicles.
Combining modern technologies with Indian’s trademark aesthetics (valenced fenders and warbonnets in particular), the new lineup of motorcycles has been graciously accepted by Indian enthusiasts worldwide.
The Indian Springfield features a compelling, retro aesthetic, whereas the Chief Vintage takes inspiration from the Wild West - a mesmerizing hybrid of leather and chrome. The Scout gets a new lease of life too, and is available in a range of tones (including Indian’s patented vermillion).
The Indian Chief Dark Horse features a deathly, matte black finish (all over, from war bonnet to fender) and is the lightest of the Chiefs, with a weight of 751 pounds. If you’re looking to try out your first Chief, this model could be an excellent entry point.
Given Indian’s recent resurgence, the war with Harley Davidson continues. May it never cease - for Indian riders worldwide!