A $19,000 Indian

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Indian Motorcycle is back in business with a new owner, ambitious business plans for the future including news this week of a $19,000 all-new Indian Chief V-Twin heavy cruiser due for launch this summer.

But why should we care? After all we have seen this before. How many times can you apply CPR to something that is well and truly dead before accepting that it’s over, the world has moved on, and finally do the decent thing and consign Indian Motorcycles to the history books?

The problem is Indian Motorcycle is an iconic brand that despite everything that has happened to it over the years it simply refuses to die. And now with multi-national Polaris Industries at the helm could there finally be a real future for America’s oldest motorcycle company?

Created in 1902 in Springfield, Mass., Indian was in its glory days not only the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the U.S. but also the world. It earned an enviable reputation for its engineering and quality of its motorcycles and had big successes too when it took its bikes to the race tracks between the World Wars.

Indian can also lay claim to have created a lot of the enigmatic heavy cruiser design cues for its motorcycles in the 1940’s, many of which are still can be seen on today’s modern cruisers. It also offered us sprung solo saddles, fringe tassled saddlebags, whitewall tires, art deco touches and chrome embellishments, which you could argue its long time rival Harley-Davidson eventually took over and made its own when Indian collapsed in financial ruin in 1953.

A succession of owners tried to kick start the company over the years but there was always insufficient capital, along with trademark and quality issues hampering every attempt to try and bring Indian back to where it should be as an innovative, engineering-led company that has great quality and beautifully designed motorcycles.

A 1940s era Indian motor.

As the new owner of Indian Motorcycle, Polaris Industries is recognized as the leader in the powersports industry around the globe. It has interests in electrical/hybrid powered vehicles and bikes too, is a global sales leader for snowmobiles and ATV’s, supplies the U.S. military with side-by-side vehicles and owns a Swiss company that provides engineering and technology support for Grand Prix Formula One racing.

The new “Thunder Stroke 111.”

As Indian Motorcycle’s Robert Pandya explained: “Polaris has the resources, expertise and experience in almost every area of the transportation industry and it works in almost every area except the manufacture road cars.”

That industry know-how also extends to motorcycles when in 1997 Polaris started building Victory Motorcycles that over the years has started to be taken seriously in the heavyweight cruiser class, moving into the number two sales slot in 2012 after selling more than 13,000 bikes. That’s miles behind Harley-Davidson who dominated the sector with global sales in excess of 230,000, but Victory has fought hard for its reputation with some good bikes in recent times.

The burning questions are does Polaris have the drive to resurrect the Indian Motorcycle brand and can it really bring it back as serious rival to Harley-Davidson, who by Polaris’s own admission has 85% of the market, a die-hard fan base and essentially made the cruiser market predominantly all of its own?

Unlike Indian’s owners of the past there is no doubting Polaris’s financial standing today. Last year alone with its diverse interests around the world it generated sales of $3.2 billion.

In just 18-months of ownership of Indian Motorcycle it has generated hundreds of new jobs in the U.S. specifically to work on developing new products, doubled the size of its product development center in Wyoming, Minnesota, and introduced a new production line specifically for Indian Motorcycle alongside Victory Motorcycles at its facility in Spirit lake, Iowa, with the capacity to grow the plant when the Indian range increases.

But Polaris’s momentum has not stopped there in its attempt to get Indian Motorcycle up and running and back out there.

At the 2013 Daytona Bike Week in March, it announced the all-new Thunder Stroke 111ci, 115 ft-lbs, V-Twin engine. It has been designed in-house and is being built at Polaris’s assembly plant in Osceola, Wisconsin and will go into the all-new Indian Chief due for launch this August.

To turn around a new motorcycle engine from scratch even in today’s fast model cycles and using advanced engineering CGI design methods is nothing short of astonishing.

Indian said it looked at a whole series of options for this first bike, even revisiting the company’s past and considering in-line four-cylinder engines, before deciding on a 49-degree, air-cooled V-Twin.

“Polaris is in this for the long-run,” said Pandya. “We recognize how iconic Indian Motorcycle is and we are very serious about our role as guardians of such a well-known and well-loved American brand.

“What Polaris can offer Indian, aside from financial stability, is a huge resource in terms of design and engineering through all of the other companies within the group.

“Whilst both Victory and Indian will share the same production facility they do not currently share parts. You simply cannot take a Victory and put Indian tanks and parts on it. It wouldn’t be an Indian motorcycle and we will maintain this engineering integrity.”

With the announcement this week of the Indian Chief priced at $18,999, Polaris has made it clear that this is just the first of several types of a motorcycles that it will be unveiling in the future. Whilst there are no specific details yet about the Chief or any other models, Indian has hinted it will be looking to its sporting past for inspiration and not just focusing on cruisers. Time will tell.

However there is still a lot of work to do with a national Indian dealer network. When Polaris bought the company it inherited less than 20 dealers in the U.S. Victory Motorcycles has some 450 dealers in North America alone many of whom sell other products from Polaris but Indian Motorcycles will have its own separate national dealer network and corporate identity and plans are underway now to appoint new retailers to coincide with the launch of the Chief this summer.

In its golden years Indian was a stalwart of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally with a huge presence. With the company’s first demise in 1953 it wasn’t long before archrival, both on the street and racetrack, Harley-Davidson quickly made the Sturgis event its own.

In a provocative and some may say an applaudable move, Indian will be traveling to the 73rd annual Sturgis Rally on August 3-111 this year to unveil its new Indian Chief in front of a Harley-Davidson crowd.

“We looked at a whole series of ways of introducing the Chief and the absolutely best fit we felt was Sturgis. We’ll be showing our new motorcycle to a knowledgeable and passionate audience,” added Pandya.

So, back to our original question. Does actually anyone care that there is now yet another iteration of the Indian Motorcycle company?

Based on the broken promises of Indian’s past and some pretty horrendous motorcycles that were built to a price with dubious performance and build quality we’d say a resounding no.

But full marks to Polaris. It’s keen to demonstrate it understands the Indian Motorcycle brand and tells us it has spent time listening and talking to potential customers to ensure that it’s going down the right path with new motorcycles for the future.

It has huge resources within the Polaris group from a very sound financial position to a pool of technical and technology talent that seems to cover nearly every aspect for Indian to draw upon.

It’s early days to pass any comment on the new Indian Chief as nobody has seen it yet alone ridden it. Price-wise at $18,999 it’s up where we would expect a big cruiser to be but it’s going to be very interesting too to see what else is coming down the line from Indian under Polaris’s dynamic stewardship.

But in the meantime, Harley-Davidson you may want to pay attention here, Indian Motorcycle is back and as they say in the movies – this time it could be personal.

  • http://www.racetrackstyle.com/ Racetrack Style

    “Does actually anyone care that there is now yet another iteration of the Indian Motorcycle company?”…

    A resounding Yes! The following is not to be interpreted as an overly patriotic “buy American” or else stance, (especially since i currently ride a V11 Sport from Guzzi) but a stance that wants the American interpretation of performance motorcycles to be represented fully, without the half-ass treatment Buell was given. It is also critical to have the heart of the performance bike made by workers on American soil. Wouldn’t you look at your Ducati or Aprilia with a bit less enthusiasm if the engine was not made by workers in Italy?
    This time around, Indian is owned by a company that not only has sustainable diversity but they have competitive engineering talent producing performance products right now. See their light-weight race snow sleds….which can easily lead to a mass-produced, American performance bike & American Sport Tourer. (Lookup the sales figures HD had in the late 90s – 2005).

    Those kinds of billions of dollars should lead to American-made performance bikes that pay homage to Indian’s first bit of history, racing.

    • Tim Watson

      I agree with your Racetrack Style. My question was more rhetorical than anything. It’s early days but it looks like Indian is in the right hands with Polaris that has the resources to do something with the company – not just money but a depth of expertise as tool. Time will tell but it’s encouraging news for such a special brand.

      • http://www.racetrackstyle.com/ Racetrack Style

        I was almost certain it was a rhetorical question. Either way, I wanted to respond.

        Good sound when the throttle was cut in the one video on their site

  • Jason 848

    Normally I wouldn’t get excited for a resurrection of the brand, but with Polaris writing the cheque I believe they can turn out some half decent bikes. It’ll be another lifetime before they’d be able to wrestle more market share away from H-D though even if they took all the right steps.

    More choice can only be a good thing. Im interested to see the new Chief

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

      I doubt if they’re going to “take it to the track’ except at Bonneville,since Harley racing is “Special Olympics” stuff nowadays. But there’s certainly a market domestic manufactured motorcycles with more exciting performance. After all, a lot of hard-core Harley folks seem to started out on minibikes, then ran Brits & larger Japanese bikes and went over to H.-D. in middle age. It’s hard to imagine todays Ninja and Gixxer riding kids ever going on to RoadKings..

  • http://www.bikeexif.com/ Chris Hunter

    For me, Indian is about ‘performance motorcycles’—a market segment that Harley-Davidson has pretty much dropped. It’s also a market opportunity big enough to drive a truck through.

    Indian should sell enough of the new cruiser to get the brand back into the public eye, but the breakthrough and market share will only come with a new Scout. Make it sub-1000cc, sub-500 lbs, and sub-$15,000.

    You can’t blame them for going the cruiser route to begin with, but let’s see what they come up with next.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.tessier Joshua Tessier

      I agree with the performance motorcycle aspect. I would love to see them follow the path Moto Guzzi and Norton are currently on. The Griso is beautiful masculine and has all the right moves. The California is a site to be seen if I were in the cruiser market that’s about the only bike I would be considering. The V7 racer and Norton’s exude what people are looking for in a modern cafe racer. If Indian could pull off the and inline four and fit it into a modern cafe, muscle, cruiser product it could define a new modern American market that I would be interested!

      • Mark Hubert

        And neither the Moto Guzzis or the Norton are flying off the shelves in significant volume (in the case of the Norton not even rolling out of the factory).

        There’s internet pipe dreams and then there’s sales’ floor reality. Indian chose the latter, and wisely so.

        I’d like to see a modern Indian as much as the next person, but the motorcycle industry needs less armchair customers, and more people in the showroom putting their money where their mouths are. Until that time, it will only be more and more forward control, V-Twin bikes.

        • http://www.bikeexif.com/ Chris Hunter

          Norton is irrelevant—think Triumph Bonneville instead, a sales success if there ever was one.

          You could also argue that Indian should avoid the forward control V-twin, because Harley has that market totally sewn up.

          Americans are far more patriotic than riders elsewhere in the world. Harley has already draped itself in the flag, but there’s no US-made, reasonably sporty roadster that can do the same.

          As with most business scenarios, to get a real breakthrough you need to be the first, or the only one of its type, or streets ahead in functionality or style. Indian could tick at least two of those boxes with a new Scout.

          • Mark Hubert

            The Bonneville is certainly a success, but a Scout should be more in line with a Softail or Sportster than a Bonneville competitor. I would agree that it takes market leadership to break a new segment, but Indian seems to be more more interested in Harley’s marketshare than the Triumph customer.

            Plus, similar products of that genre and in that price range have not flown off the shelves. Take the XR1200 for example. V-Twin, standard seating position, somewhat historical link to Harley’s long-gone racing past, and around $15,000.

            Everywhere one looked, the internet commentariat approved of a “real” Harley. However, it was a sales disaster and discontinued.

            A Harley specific issue, maybe, but the American customer has proven time and time again that they want a V-Twin with forward controls. The Bonneville has been a success, but Triumph wishes they could sell as many as Harley does Sportsters.

            That being said, I completely agree with you that the U.S. motorcycle industry needs product leadership, but Indian does not seem interested in this in the least.

            A reinvigorated Buell is probably the best bet rather than a brand tied to an aging demographic and too much historical baggage.

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

              Every time Harley has tried to sell a performance oriented bike, since the late mid-late 70′s, it has been a failure. Sure the XLCR, the FXDX, the XL1200R and the VRSCR are given something of a cult status, but they didn’t do all that well on the sales floor. They didn’t appeal to the traditional Harley demographic, and they were too heavy and/or underpowered for those looking for performance.

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

        If I recall, Indian’s inline four was even bigger than the V-Twin they used for the Chief. 78 ci as opposed to the Chief’s 73. Not exactly good material for a cafe racer.

  • Victory rider

    Being a Victory rider this is a great feeling to see Indian alive . When I was transitioning from a sport bike to a cruiser I never once considered HD because everyone has one. In the early days of victory No one had a clue what a Hammer was they all though it was a HD now 10 plus years later people are recognizing the brand and that was a brand from scratch… Indian is and always will be the First American Motorcycle!

  • StuckinNorthCarolinaMainer

    Indian started in 1901, not 1902 as stated in the article. I have always rode Indians, and always will. I applaud Polaris Industries and their efforts to keep the storied brand alive.

    • Eraser Head

      would you buy one though? ;0)

      • StuckinNorthCarolinaMainer

        Over and over again.