After much build up, from carefully released information, the reveal of the new Thunderstroke 111 engine, the Spirit of Munroe and an ad campaign that proclaims that choice has finally arrived, Indian is here. The new Indian, that is, which is why I say 'is here' rather than 'is back.' There is a fair amount of significance to this, though likely not as much as Polaris is hoping for. For starters, Polaris' own Victory motorcycles have been offering choice for a few years now, and until they were bought and eventually disolved by Harley, Buell also was an alternative bike to Harley. Not to mention the ready availability of imported bikes, some of which are actually built in the US. So actually, US motorcycle customers have had plenty of choice for a long time.
For those who don't know, Indian, which proclaims "Since 1901" in their ads, is one of America's oldest motorcycle marques. Older by two years than Harley Davidson, which has been operating continually since 1903. Indian was at one time the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the US, and likely the world. They were also a premium bike, a cut above Harley at the time. Indian and Harley had a Ford/Chevy rivalry. Indian motorcycles were considered to be beautiful machines, with skirted fenders and elegant lines. Like Harley Davidson, they contributed bikes to the war effort in both world wars and designed bikes to the US military specifications. And like Harley, their bikes ultimately took a back seat to the Jeep in terms of US military use. In spite of Indian's reputation, they were overtaken by Harley, changed owners, and then went under in 1953. In car terms, it would be as though Ford had gone under. In terms of the industry, it was that significant.
Following their demise, the company, or at least the name, was purchased by Brockhouse Engineering, who used it to import rebadged Royal Enfield motorcycles from England. In 1960, they were bought by AMC (Associated Motor Cycles, an English company) who intended to sell Matchless and AJS motorcycles badged as Indians. They went under in 1962. In 1963, Floyd Clymer acquired the name and used to import Italian, and later Taiwanese, motorcycles under the Indian name until 1977, when their Indian company went bankrupt.
Since then, the Indian name has changed hands numerous times, with not every owner actually producing bikes. 1998 saw an attempt by Eller Industries to not only restart the company, but to build the bike on tribal land, but legal issues prevented it from getting beyond the planning stages. In 1999, the Indian Motorcycle Company of America was formed by the name's new owners and bikes were built in Gilroy, California, powered by S&S engines. This venture went until 2003, when the new company went backrupt.
In 2006, a London based equity firm acquired the name and the restarted Indian was headquarted in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. The Kings Mountain Indian was built until this year, with the company being acquired by Polaris in 2011. These bikes were lofty in price, starting in the high twenties and going up to almost forty thousand dollars.
This year, after selling Kings Mountain Indians for three years, Polaris unveiled their new Indian bikes. Priced in the high teens, the bikes are right in line with Harley's Road King and Street Glide bikes. The new engine was unveiled first and I must say that it is a stunning jewel of a powerplant. A work of art in chrome and steel. The bike was unveiled at Sturgis and in my opinion, it is a gorgeous bike that is immediately recognizable as an Indian. My own opinion is that the bike is a home run. If you want to look at the new bike to judge for yourself, here is Indian's home page: http://www.indianmotorcycle.com/en-us/home
This new Indian is the best chance that Indian has had for a revival since 1953. Until Polaris introduced Victory in 1998, American motorcycles meant Harley Davidson. Victory bikes are nice bikes and offer a very viable alternative to Harley, but they have only managed to grab 5% of the market that Harley dominates: middle to heavyweight 1400cc + cruisers. Harley, by comparison has 59% of the 650cc and higher cruiser market and over seventy five percent of the 1400cc + market, with the remaining 25% divided between BMW, Ducati, Triumph, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, and Suzuki. And now, Indian, which is owned by the same company that owns Victory. Just to put into perspective, Victory is actually #2 in the 1400cc + market.
So does Indian have what it takes to actually offer Harley some meaningful competition? Hard to say. Having instant name recognition counts for a lot. So does having a loyal fanbase that has waited for this bike for rougly sixty years. They've got the right machine with the right engine and they're backed by a company that understands the industry and has deep financial pockets. Only time will tell if they actually can succeed in taking more than a sliver of the market, but if nothing else, they've produced a gorgeous bike.
I haven't personally ridden the new Indian, but what I have heard has been largely positive. I would love to see Indian succeed. Their success will strengthen the American motorcycle industry and with worthy domestic competition, will hopefully make Harley an even better bike. Harley has been virtually frozen in time with regards to their styling and riding flavor. They do what they do very, very, very well. But imagine if Chevrolet were only building evolved versions of their late sixties cars, with the same suspension designs, same styling, and same feel, all powered by their modern V8 engines? Would it be a good car? Undoubtedly. But it would also represent stagnation of the brand. I think it's great that Harley still makes old school bikes, but a bit more modernity in their line up would be a very good thing. Hopefully, if Indian succeeds, they won't get caught in the same time warp.
I've rambled enough. Ride free and true!