Indian, Beethoven and Seinfeld

Dailies -

By

carter-indian

I’m not a cruiser-hater. I had a Springer Softail, and it was magnificent. I felt like a bastard son of Zeus on that bike, like Henry V on Crispin’s Day. It was truly a gorgeous machine – it looked like it single-handedly won the Cold War. It was quintessential. At idle, it sounded like it was laughing darkly under its breath; at WOT, it sounded like a Spitfire on a strafing run. I still believe that the plain-ol’ Sportster, FXR, and Softail are among the most beautiful designs on wheels. A well-made cruiser can be a great thing. But will the new Indian?

Now, Indian has been fluffing their new cruiser for a while, giving little hints and peeks in time-honored tradition, kind of like Triumph did for the Tiger 800. In January, they unveiled the crankshaft, so we already know it’s a V-twin. They got Mike Wolfe for their celebrity guest fluffer. (In case you don’t know, he’s the guy on TV who helps oversize brides select wedding dresses. I think that’s right.) They have an app for your phone that goes, “vroom.” Really, they do. Now they are going to unveil and run the engine on March 9 at Daytona Bike Week. I don’t know if there will be a special unveiling for the transmission, forks, fenders, etc.

I am genuinely curious and a little tingly about this bike. Indian is the greatest if-only brand out there, and Polaris has major engineering and production chops, so something amazing could happen. I am curious, but I am not especially optimistic. The reason I am not optimistic has nothing to do with Indian or Polaris.

OK, stay with me here:

Did you ever notice how every Doric Greek temple looks alike? (Not to an expert, but to most of us. Actually, I wanted to do a 4-part series on the varieties of Doric temples, but Wes said no.) Or how every composer from the 1780s sounds the same? Or how every 1960s Modernist glass skyscraper looks alike? Or how every 1980s sitcom is basically the same? Or how every medieval Madonna icon looks the same? Of course you have.

The reason is not because those architects/composers/painters/writers weren’t creative or talented. Nobody doubts Mozart’s talent for symphonies and fart jokes. It’s because in each of those cases the particular art had reached the fulfillment of its Classical period. A style has to go through a phase when the Rules are being figured out (the Archaic), a phase when the Rules rule (the Classical), a phase then the Rules are broken (the Mannerist), and a phase that ties it all together (the Baroque). Now this is just one very simplistic way of looking at things, and it doesn’t really always apply, but it can be a useful exercise, so stay staying with me.

Take sitcoms as an example. I Love Lucy is Archaic. They were figuring out the rules. “What if we had a zany mix-up? How about a cameo by Harpo Marx? [note: funniest episode ever] Let’s use three cameras! Put the couch in the middle. The wife has to be hot!” You can see it evolve over the next couple decades until the formula is fixed. Family Ties, The Cosby Show, 20/20 with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, Mr. Belvedere: when you tuned in to a sitcom, you knew exactly what you were getting. Bill Cosby is Mozart – a genius in a rigidly defined medium. Then came Seinfeld, which, like Beethoven, changed everything. They made breaking the rules into an art form. They blew everybody’s mind. (Same thing happened when Philip Johnson built the AT&T skyscraper that – gasp! – wasn’t a perfect rectangle.) Finally came 30 Rock, which brings everything together in a hypercomplex but totally unified paean to all of television. Now, mercifully, the sitcom can die.

We could play the same game with music, architecture, tattoos (which I would argue are currently in a Baroque phase. Frat boys getting Baby Looney Tunes tats on their ankles in the 90s was Mannerist), etc. Don’t ask me why Baroque music comes before Classical. I have an answer, but it’s too much for here. I realize I’m slicing prosciutto with a chainsaw at this point.

You see where I’m going. We are in the Classical Period of the cruiser. The rules are firm and fixed. A cruiser shall be an air-cooled V-twin (or appear air-cooled). It shall have a teardrop tank, low in the back end, hands here, feet there, butt here, 30 degree rake, 65” wheelbase, weight 650lbs. The only deviations shall be periodic special anniversary editions. Even simple deviations like a parallel twin (Triumph Thunderbird) are enough to give one the vapors.

This is not a complaint. Classical rules are valuable; they persist because they work. Greek temples are sublimely beautiful. Mozart really is transcendently amazing. But we can’t keep writing The Magic Flute over and over again. (In case you don’t know, it’s an opera about a singing penis. I think that’s right.) How long will the Classical Period last before we get our Beethoven, our Seinfeld, our Jackson Pollock, our Louis Armstrong?
There may be some hints out there that a change is coming. The V-Rod, Harley’s objectively most sophisticated and most phallicly-named bike, has been out for 12 years, but it’s not a winner for them. And there are the occasional strange departures like the Honda Valkyrie Rune, but that didn’t last. The Rocket III hangs on, but doesn’t seem to have changed the game (for better or worse). Honda’s Fury (a putative chopper, not technically a cruiser) adopts the strange shapes of a Pink Floyd cartoon. None of these is Satchmo singing West End Blues, but maybe they are the first synchopated rhythms. Ugly? Maybe. Different? Yes.

Mad-genius-slash-werewolf J.T. Nesbitt is correct when he says there are no cruisers, just Harleys and Harley imitators. Because those are the Rules… until the Rules change.

We can reasonably expect that Indian’s new bike will be a fully Classical Cruiser. Many of us would love to see a revolution, a Beethoven’s Fifth, but I think this will not be the time. A Classical Cruiser can be beautiful. If we are disappointed by a lack of vision in new cruisers, the fault is ours. It is we, the riders and the buyers, who determine success and sanction design vision. We need to embrace the strange, and the industry will listen. A global corporation can’t take the same risks a poor young genius trumpet player can.

I hear the fat lady warming up. Will she sing another old aria, or belt out the blues?

Who is Carter Edman? An architect and writer in Cleveland. He teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” at Case Western Reserve University. He is also an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church and can perform marriages in the State of Ohio and at sea. Carter rides a modified 2008 Triumph Bonneville.

You can follow the Moto Sapiens twitter feed.
Carter also tweets Things that I know to be True.
And writes as Richard Parker.

  • KeithB

    I can’t hear the fat lady singing over the roar of those straight pipe “custom” look-like-another-effin-cruiser wannabes!
    It’s like cars. They create these rule breaking concepts but in the end, the buying public won’t stray too far from tried and true designs.
    Sigh…..
    Good article Carter.

  • Mykola

    Another awesome Moto Sapiens feature, it’s a highlight for me here.
    It’s also a little shocking not to be looking at a cruiser from down the bridge of an author’s nose here. Cruisers being appreciated for what they are, what a concept.

  • http://www.facebook.com/motorsickle Joshua Winn

    Good read. I’ve been thinking about this since I heard the news about a new Indian, and you couldn’t have said it better about Indian being an if-only brand. There’s so much potential with Polaris, and with their budget, they still just make easy sales with Victory. Why can’t we have a Triumph story here in the USA? They have the name, and correct me if I’m wrong, they were forward thinking at the time, just was at the wrong time. Heck why not bring in a brand new Indian Four sportbike (though I think it was considered more a tourer). Oh and an introductory bike around 8k please, because as it is, 12.5k for a base model is harsh, Victory. Neat analogies too by the way.

    • http://twitter.com/Ricardo_Gozinya Ricardo Gozinya

      Indian Fours were never remotely sporty, they were classified as a luxury bike. The Scout has some sporting heritage, but at that time, there really was no such thing as a sportbike, or a cruiser, they were all just motorcycles.

      • http://www.facebook.com/motorsickle Joshua Winn

        True that. It certainly falls in line with those like the Ariel Square Four. Now that I think about it, those two companies did share a similar fate.

  • Zachary Laughrey

    Enjoyed the article. Really well done.

  • will

    Fun, interesting article.

  • thehpw

    This is why I read HFL. Well done.

  • Charlie

    Great piece. An important distinction is the potential range of innovation. There’s more possible with music or drama/comedy. A particular art form is generally limiting by its nature. And even modern art itself has left little creative area under the curve. In sum, I’m not sure you can have a Kuhn-like revolutionary cruiser similar to a scientific or comedic paradigm shift.

    I had a ’47 Chief. It burned too much oil. It was also a bummer when it broke and no one could put the cases back together. An old hill climber West of Albany had to help. I think he actually heated them up in his oven. So I would welcome a modern yet classic cruiser – a Harley with nice detailing. Then perhaps we can get some more, novel stylistic exercises – like the Griso

  • Speedo007

    I think they need a classic (safe investment for them), but also need to explore a bit to offer something a bit different, that could attract a different crowd. A bit like Harley with they V-rod or XR1200. The XR1200 is the only Harley I would buy, looks good and seems like fun. If Indian came up with something a bit different, I’d be curious to check it out for sure…

    • Mykola

      The XR1200 has been discontinued.
      Very few of the people who “would buy” it, actually bought it.

      • Speedo007

        I would have bought it really, if only there wasn’t a Harley sticker on the tank :) But yeah I know what you mean, even the V-rod for some isnt a “real” Harley, just cause it has a modern, reliable engine. The difference I see with Indian is they have a micro fan base compared to Harleys…so trying something a bit different I think would be worth the try to grow their market. You build your classic to satisfy the die hard fans, then build something fun to attract younger crowds. It’s possible, look at how Ducati though being a company with a legendary heritage, manage to produce bikes for all sorts of people without losing their die hard fans in the process.

        • http://www.facebook.com/motorsickle Joshua Winn

          Do you like radios? Then do I have a motorcycle for you!

  • Webbiker

    A really nice article. No attitude for the sake of it. Just well written and plain good.

  • Brutus Billman

    I don’t see any way Indian can afford to introduce anything but a Harley competitor. That’s what Indian has been since very early in their history.
    Seems to me, the Indian brand should nod to the vintage cruiser so that the Victory brand could be free to develop something less…antiquated. Something lighter that corners and has more suspension travel. As new as Victory is, what harm could be done to Victory if it introduced a model appropriate for THIS century?

    • roma258

      My understanding is that Indian was the more sporting of the two brands, but I frankly don’t care. Just want to see American companies make competitive 21st century motorcycles beyond the cruiser niche. If that means Indian goes full tassel and chrome, while Victory gains actual performance, so be it.

    • Kevin

      Harleys with tassels and leather seats with springs underneath them, I fear. Massive fenders and two-tone paint.

  • carbon

    Bravo!

  • Gavin Todd

    I finally figured out what they meant when they said they bought Indian to compete with HD. I was at the Progressive motorcycle show and went to look at what Indian had to offer. Half the booth was historical, old bikes the they had nothing to do with, bought heritage. the rest was clothes! they where the only manufacturer there without a bike to sell. Even the small electric companies had a few bikes to sit on. I don’t expect to see anything from them any time soon and when it comes out it wont be anything special. because the truth is Polaris bough Indian to compete with HD in t-shirt sales!

  • The Blue Rider

    Brilliant. This explains much more, and sums up my feelings in a nicer way, than my thought: “Indian coming back? What’s the point?”

  • http://twitter.com/viniciusdevasco Vinicius de Vasconia

    Would you consider the Diavel a cruiser? If yes, might *it* be the start of the Mannerist phase?

    • The Blue Rider

      I second the question. What *about* the Diavel? I agree, perhaps it’s the only way forward for “cruisers”… Adapt, change, recombine, reinvent.

      • Stuki

        If I was just going for a leisurely ride on a Sunday, or a non speed dependent ride cross country, the only thing making cruisers less than ideal (for me), is the hammering of my fragile lower back by the “all the weight on the tailbone” riding position, combined with the short travel, most often harsh, rear suspension. I love, love, love footboards over pegs; big, wide seats over skinny narrow ones and, for non dynamic riding; heavy, slow revving, torquey engines over fast spinning ones. Particularly ones with the ind of compression braking Ducati twins are notorious for.

        For what I need a bike for, which is primarily lane splitting down pothole strewn, half paved roads, interspersed with quick bursts of speed, they don’t make the world of sense. You’d think scooters would be the answer, but they share the same short suspensions, too far forward foot placement, and bolt upright posture; which for me equates to back pain every darned time I try them.

        • BigHank53

          Try sitting on one of the police issue Electra Glides; the footpeg position is a lot closer to reasonable. Or that new Goldwing…

          • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

            Single best HD experience I ever had was on an ex-police department bike. I could have ridden that all day.

            • yipY

              “Until the cops got it back?” :)

              • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

                All those flashing lights would make my commute easier…

      • http://www.facebook.com/jose.manuel.12327 Jose Manuel

        The revolution of the cruiser came from afar with the Diavel, not from America with the V-Rod, by another hand the “evolution” comes from Moto Guzzi with the new California, not with the Indian… (maybe the California will be “the Beethoven that you are waiting for…” Aircooled with new technology, beautiful design and better handled)

    • Stuki

      That motor is not very “cruisable.” (unless Ducati’s facility for electronics have completely transformed it).

      It does have a god bit of one important cruiser ingredient: It works fairly well as an outdoor couch able to be moved from place to place by its own. That’s one thing I always liked about cruisers. They really are nice to sit on after you have arrived at your destination, and you’re just soaking up the rays talking trash with riding buddies. 1198s, not so much.

    • Alec Boyle

      I would also say that the new Honda CTXs represent at least an ATTEMPT to alter the traditional rules of the cruiser, in that they are futuristic in design, and not absurdly over priced relative to the technology involved in their construction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothy.gammey Timothy Gammey

    Mike Wolf is from “American Pickers” and is a certifiable indian motorcycle nut. Very much into the classic bike scene.

  • http://twitter.com/MBikerStuff MotorcycleBikerStuff

    It has taken you as long to explain how slow the Indian introduction will be as it has taken Polaris to introduce the bike. Whew!

  • http://twitter.com/redtriage Ed Hunt

    Genius, as always. Polaris (as Victory) has at least put a little edge into cruiser designs, but I can also see them spending a lot of money on “more cowbell” too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottie.r.smith Scottie Ray Smith

    I am 44 and it seems as if I have been reading about Indian’s Resurection for the past 30 years of my motorcycle lust/infatuation/desire. No one ever gets it right. And that makes me a little sad.

  • DucMan

    Indeed, well done, Sir….Well done.

  • TraderJoesSecrets

    I still say, I wish Indian now tried to do, now, what Indian then tried to do then. I.E., build a state of the art bike, and not some (either genuine- or faux-) retro pastiche. Mister, we could use a man like John Britten again. (Did you see what I did there, with the sitcom reference?)

  • Kr Tong

    I can’t think of a better name than “Indian” for a company upholding questionable traditions.

    • Stuki

      The “Indian” design is so bloody Iconic; that even non riders asked a riding buddy of mine whether his bike was an “Indian”, when he rode the Kawasaki version back in the early ’00s.

      I think Polaris is doing the right thing by branding Victory as the more modern cruiser than Harley, while reserving Indian for the staunchest of traditionalists.

      • Kr Tong

        I think you missed my point regarding the term INDIAN being ironic for a brand that continues to stick by old thinking and stereotypical design.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidabl.blankenhorn Davidabl Blankenhorn

        I ride one now and was getting “is that the new Indian” after the King’s Mountain (Charlotte,NC ) ones were announced. (Even though it has about 5 kawasaki emblems on it) It’s one of the little 805cc jobs and seems to be a more agile bike than most cruisers

  • http://www.facebook.com/corey.cook.549221 Corey Cook

    Did Dennis Miller just write an article for HFL? If so, I’m very ok with that. Keep this up!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dimitri.hettinga Dimitri Hettinga

    When in the late 40′s and early 50′s Indian started following Harley (upping the capacity of the bikes and increasing weight) it all went hay wire for the company. Indian always was the more svelte and nimble of the 2 ( like the bike in the pic). Maybe they should learn a lesson here. I do not see any Indian identity in their current product. Differentiate your product please…