What The New Chief Means For Indian

Hell For Leather, HFL -

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indian-column

Amidst all of the furor and marketing hype for the launch of the new Indian Chief at Sturgis over the weekend I got to thinking about the relevance of the company and its new bikes that go on sale this autumn. Does anyone actually care that Indian Motorcycle is back?

Some years ago, when I was working on re-launching a famous automotive brand, I was told by a man far wiser than me, that history without a future is just that — history. That is something that could so easily apply to Indian Motorcycle today.

It may have once been the best selling and most advanced motorcycle company in the world. And, for sure, its bikes raced and won around the globe including the prestigious Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. In its day Indian became synonymous for outstanding American engineering and real innovation. Then, in 1953, it went bankrupt.

A succession of optimistic, but seriously under funded owners saw the brand decline over the years (at one point it was importing Royal Enfields into the U.S. from England, rebadging them as Indians and then selling them on) and, like so many other historic motorcycle names, Indian should have quietly disappeared and have been consigned to the history books. But, in 2011 Polaris Industries stepped in and now everything has changed. Or has it?

Polaris is an interesting company. It has a broad and very successful portfolio in the powersports industry, has done a remarkable job in keeping Victory Motorcycles running, selling more and more bikes every year, but is still a long way off from ever being a serious threat to market leader Harley-Davidson.

I was very interested in what the new Indian Chief was going to look like when the wraps finally came off at Sturgis at the weekend. Polaris created some great publicity with its teaser advertising and social marketing for the Indian Chief starting back in February. There was video and pictures of the 111ci v-twin engine, followed by a pricing announcement in May. But, we had to wait for the big launch in South Dakota to see if it had actually carried it off.

I think it was a smart move by Polaris to reveal the new Indian Chief at Sturgis. In the past, the motorcycle rally was Indian’s old stomping ground. It was there for the first rally in 1938 and Polaris seized a great opportunity to show off the new Indian in front of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd at an event that Harley Davidson, in recent years, has made its own.

So far, so conventional. This new Chief Vintage is essentially a Harley with tassles and bell bottom fenders.

I sort of anticipated, too, what the Indian Chief was going to look like. The saddle fringing, the Indian art deco chief head on all three bikes’ valanced front fenders was there, as too was the big v-twin and lots of chrome. The new Indian Chief didn’t disappoint me but, at the same time, it hasn’t really moved the game on.

What is astonishing is that Polaris bought Indian Motorcycle just over two years ago and in that time has designed, built and brought to a market a brand new motorcycle in near record time. That I think bodes really well for the brand’s future.

“We have a rich history at Sturgis and it’s such a significant place for the Indian Motorcycle brand. That’s why we chose to launch the Chief there,” said Steve Menneto, VP of Polaris Motorcycles. “We are not Harley-Davidson and are not setting out to do what Harley-Davidson does. We are Indian Motorcycle. An iconic brand that is known around the world. We are very aware of our history and what needs to be done both now and in the future.

“We absolutely have the resources and the engineering capability to make innovative motorcycles. Indian has a legacy for being at the cutting edge of technology and innovation so that is something you can expect from us.”

Menneto would not be drawn on future Indian motorcycle models but he agreed that the new Chief was just the start of a series of new bikes that we can expect to see coming down the line.

“For obvious reasons I can’t tell you what those will be yet but you can be assured Indian is not going to be making just heavyweight cruisers. We want to have representation in a wide variety of motorcycle segments too,” he said.

That for me was a salient point from Menneto. Indian Motorcycle is not going to be making just cruisers. It plans to produce other types of bikes as well. Could we see a lightweight Scout again, a sport bike or even a return to the race tracks for the Indian brand? Menneto wouldn’t say but he hinted that we have not seen anything yet.

I have every reason to be really optimistic for Indian’s future. Last year Polaris generated $3.2 billion alone in sales with the other products it sells, that includes Victory Motorcycles.

In the past couple of years of ownership of Indian, Polaris has generated hundreds of new jobs in the U.S. specifically to work on developing new motorcycles, doubled the size of its product development center in 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 starts to grow.

“In my opinion this is all about American entrepreneurism,” said Menneto. “It’s a classic come back story. We know we’re the underdog at the moment but we have the investment, engineering expertise and the plan to bring some exciting, high quality credible motorcycle to the market. We know we have to be at the very top of our game to succeed but we’re determined. The Indian Chief is only the start.”

So back to my original question. Is Indian Motorcycle relevant today, in the 21st Century?

If you had told me that all Indian was going to do was make v-twin cruisers with 1940s styling. I’d say categorically no. But having the heard the enthusiasm and seen the dedication that its guardian Polaris has already injected into the company, first with this new Indian Chief and the promise of even more motorcycles to come, I’d say for once, the world’s oldest motorcycle company may finally have a very bright future.

  • http://garrett-nelson.tumblr.com/ Garrett Nelson

    I like the idea of Indian expanding into other motorcycle segments. They used to race, so they can always use that as justification to make a sport bike or flat tracker, street tracker inspired bike.

    When Polaris bought Indian I thought it was going to be Victory that they’d expanding into other segments. Kind of like how Yamaha created the Star Motorcycles sub brand, maybe Victory would expand the other way into sport bikes, touring bikes, ADV bikes. It will be interesting to see what Polaris does in a the next few years with both brands.

  • FiveG

    While I am very much NOT a cruiser guy, if they came out with a quality, truly functional, XR1200-type motorcycle, I’d start to be tempted to violate my “Dear, I’m down to one bike” pledge.

    • Davidabl2

      Yes, a good ‘standard motorcycle” but in Tracker style.. I’m surprised that nobody has tried it.
      Besides Harley.

      • Dust.

        Idk if thats really fair to say, the Triumph Thruxton and scrambler are pretty close to a Tracker style standards. Also, i think its fair to say the Ducati Monster isnt far off that lineage either.

        • Davidabl2

          Sorta kinda. I think of “Trackers” (aka “Streettrackers”as bikes inspired by the bikes used in Flattrack (dirt oval) racing in the USA circa 1970′s i.e. the era ruled by the original XR750. Notable competitors would have been Triumphs and Yam XS650′s.
          At least in those terms the Thruxton would be more cafe than tracker, and the Scrambler would be what yanks called an Enduro. Ergonomics on a Monster may be similar, but the Trellis frame doesn’t say “Tracker’ at all to me. And wouldn’t no matter what tan,.bars & fenders the Ducati was wearing.

    • JVictor75

      As I said on Reddit a few weeks ago (in reference to a thread about an extremely well done Harley Scrambler):

      “I would love to see the desert sled/scrambler bike make a larger comeback than it already is, and I would love for Polaris/Indian to be the ones to do it. I think what turns a lot of mainstreamers off of the idea of having a bike like this is the lack of warranty and/or dealership support.

      Step 1: Polaris/Indian revives the ‘Scout’ line and that it becomes a competitor to the (sadly, now defunct) Harley XR line.

      Step 2: Build three models:

      “Normal” production model (aka the “vanilla” version) call it the “Indian Scout”

      Street tracker called the “Scout ’101′” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_101_Scout

      Scrambler version called the Scout ’841′.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_841

      Step 3: Print money

  • Jeremy

    I too was unsurprised and also disappointed with the new Indian, but it makes total sense for the American market. I would love to see a Bonneville competitor. Similar to what FiveG wrote.

  • Steve K.

    I’ve been following reactions to this new Indian Chief and I have to agree I feel a little let down myself. Mr. Watson seems to be OK with a promise of more interesting things to come. I’m more skeptical. First this new Indian will have to be a sales success, while at the same time not cutting into Victory sales. If it flops, I doubt there will be any Indian sport bikes, street-trackers, etc. I feel like we were waiting for a cool Erector Set under the Christmas tree — but got wool socks.

  • Bill J

    This won’t happen, but what if Indian (Polaris) gets together with Mission Motorcycles and create an E-Cruiser for the 21st Century? American muscle and technology, working together to bring the most efficient, high-performance, motorcycle machine for the future. Heck, I’d buy that for a dollar…

    • BillW

      Polaris has invested in Brammo, if I recall correctly.

    • Richard Gozinya

      Wouldn’t that make more sense to do it with Victory? Victory’s not tied down by heritage or pedigree or whatever, they really can do whatever they want, without all the baggage they’d get with Indian. Kind of why I’m taking what they’re saying about going beyond the cruiser segment with a grain of salt. They’ve had plenty of time to do just that with Victory. We don’t need an old motorcycle company revived, we need a new one, unencumbered by any sentimentality.

  • Sohl

    I can finally say “I get it.” I have been loudly opposed to the direction Polaris has taken with this brand ever since I was first exposed to JT Nesbitt’s wild-eyed call-out post of dreams on the late HFL ::pours out a shot::. He was so right: in order to succeed in again becoming a great American motorcycle company, Indian needs to take care of their future, by using all those Polaris resources to masterfully engineer the next thing in motorcycling, for the next generation of motorcyclist. They can’t produce ONLY ’40s-style heavyweight cruisers — can’t produce JUST cruisers, period. To do so would be so frustratingly myopic, especially in the face of the unstoppable hipster movement of the young American man, who is crying out for a return to authentic American ingenuity in the products he buys. But then I read this:

    “For obvious reasons I can’t tell you what those will be yet but you can be assured Indian is not going to be making just heavyweight cruisers. We want to have representation in a wide variety of motorcycle segments too,”

    Now I understand. And I’m actually kind of proud of them. I was frustrated at first because, prior to launch, the company never let on for a single second that they planned anything beyond the throwback heavyweight. But now, viewing the (excellent) marketing campaign for the Chief in light of the quote above, it’s clear that they’re just getting their foot in the door by smartly chasing the most immediately rich American motorcycle market: Harley. It’s not myopic — it’s brilliant business.

    Many of us dream of the day that we can own an affordable, fun, world-class American motorcycle. Indian is the sole hope of people like us, and all of a sudden I feel good about that.

    Maybe one day the guys at Indian will even go knock on the door at Bienville Studios…

  • DaveDawsonAlaska

    Love it, but I can’t wait to see someone chop off the bell bottom fenders and most of if not all the rear bodywork. But maybe the Scout’s going to be a bobbed Chief?

  • Lourens Smak

    Indian should have made an in-line 4 engine (length-wise in bike, obviously) and then they should have done something more modern with it. It would be a real choice, to ride such an Indian instead of the obvious other classic US bike. Now it’s just a me-too cruiser, trying to steal a few sales from the brand with the most loyal following on the planet…

  • HoldenL

    Ultimately I don’t care one way or the other, but Indian’s promise of expanding into a variety of motorcycle segments has the aroma of vaporware.

    The coolest path to success would be for Polaris/Indian to pull a Bob Dylan: Go electric. And that’s not gonna happen.

    • Davidabl2

      Obviously, since Indian is a division of Polaris it will go electric when Polaris does..
      And Polaris is almost certainly going to be making some electric vehicles before Harley
      and the Japanese big four companies. Although I may be underestimating Honda ;-)

      • Brammofan

        There’s nothing “vaporware-ish” about the Polaris’s and Indian’s promise to expand into a variety of motorcycle segments. Polaris has already “gone electric.” They own GEM and Goupil and have spent millions of dollars building a stake in Brammo, *the* electric motorcycle company. Polaris may not have an electric Chief out there (yet), but don’t be surprised if something big and electric rolls off their assembly lines sometime (relatively) soon.

        • Davidabl2

          The heavyweight cruiser section of the market is probably the LAST segment that will
          go electric…

  • markbvt

    Those who are disappointed and underwhelmed by the new Chief should remember that the classic Indian Chief is the most iconic Indian model out there. It’s the bike most people think of when you say the Indian name. For Polaris to not target this as their first-unveiled new Indian would have been lunacy. Half the people complaining now that it’s boring and predictable would have been complaining instead that the new bike ignores Indian’s rich legacy. And the old-school fanboys would be crying foul and saying that Polaris had ruined a classic American brand. They couldn’t NOT first unveil this bike, especially at Sturgis.

    But read between the lines. The success of the brand is not going to depend on the success of this initial bike. They clearly have other models in development, and will be unveiling them separately over time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something non-cruiser gets unveiled at one of the industry shows this fall.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

  • Davidabl2

    “Is Indian Motorcycle relevant today, in the 21st Century?
    If you had told me that all Indian was going to do was make v-twin cruisers with 1940s styling. I’d say categorically no.”

    Not so fast there, Mr. Watson. Since traditional-looking heavyweight/middleweight Cruisers are now the best-selling market segment and have been for decades there’s got to be some life left in that market.
    An intelligently engineered alternative to Sportsters/Bonnevilles/VN900′s/Aeros/Star Classics
    etc. could certainly stir up the market. Basically a standard motorcycle in cruiser clothing in the same way
    that a Versys or a monster could be said standards in Sportsbike dress. Or, arguably, as the Bonneville and Sportster lines could be said to be standards in “retro” dress. And it seems pretty damn clear that that Honda is trying “to stir up the market” with their new multitude of lower-priced street bikes…

  • Ehsan Rauf

    Polaris….give us a Scout!!

  • Dust.

    I think the next logical step for them will be to make a muscle cruiser, something along the lines of the V-Max or the Diavel. They need to blur the lines gradually. If they came out with an I-4 literbike next week, it would probably tarnish the budding image that they just worked hard for at Sturgis. They want to take that heritage and then, move it forward quickly, yet gracefully and not so fast that they mess it up.

    I predict after the Muscle Cruiser, we will see a scrambler, flat tracker style bike to compete with the Thruxton/Scrambler and possibly the Ducati Monster. Next will probably be a naked streetfighter or an adventure bike. Then after those we might see actual superbikes, but i’d be surprised if they make a sportbike in the 600cc range.

    • Davidabl2

      “If they came out with an I-4 literbike next week, it would probably tarnish the budding image that they just worked hard for at Sturgis”.. Not if it was an inline 4 front to back like the original Indian 4′s! –And it’d be more like a TWO-literbike, than a ONE-literbike….
      I’d expect that some of the other bikes you’re talking about are more likely to appear in the Polaris lineup than the Polaris/Indian lineup.
      An Indian-4 as as competitor to the Goldwing could get pretty interesting..and it’s an idea that Polaris probably considered. Briefly,very briefly. Or for a good ways down the road. Certainly not this soon.

  • Rob

    The one thing you have to admire Polaris/Indian for is their engineering team and focus groups that benchmarked what they wanted the bike to be.

    They’ve got standard ABS, Cruise, and chrome everywhere with options for heated seats and handlebars and optional sound on what essentially equates to a road king classic. Combine this with a motor that, on paper, is more powerful than anything Harley makes (let alone at a much lower price/performance figure) and from what I’ve read, shifts smoothly to boot (yay, no more tractor trannys!)

    All of this at price points that are within $1000 either way of comparable Harley models. The amount of little things done right on this bike should definitely make you think twice about buying a brand new Harley, and I have a feeling that this is a bike that the test ride will seal the deal on, not the other way around (as it was for me when I tested some harleys.

    I’m not a fan of cruisers or the marketing and “scene” that goes with them, but I applaud Indian for at least making someone at Harley think that maybe they should finally include a bunch of stuff in the base price that should have been there in the first place. The cruiser market is not one that is driven by steep levels of innovation, but more so by evolution. The sum of the little features is what will make Harley step up to the plate in 2015 or so (when I’ve heard there is a major refresh planned) and kick off some real innovation. The “choice in American motorcycles” line is a great thing for everyone here. Heavyweight cruisers have gotten bland and outdated (despite the fact that current bagger sales will tell you otherwise) precisely because it was a one horse show. Let’s see where this goes…

    Also, Ride Apart: I know you don’t really cater to the cruiser crowd, but go test ride a Harley touring bike or road king classic and then test one of the new Indians and give us the first “American cruiser comparo” out there.

  • BillW

    “We want to have representation in a wide variety of motorcycle segments too.”

    I’m sooo glad to read that. Because frankly, a trio of Harley FLs with valanced fenders and a weaker dealer network wasn’t anything the world needed, in my book. And that sure looks like what they’ve created here. If testing shows that they’re far superior to comparable Harleys, they might have a shot. But the Victorys haven’t blown the Harleys away, so color me skeptical.

  • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

    Tim, expound a bit on that gnarly moto in the lead photo. That looks like some classic cruiser fun.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Just some pic of an old Indian they threw in the press kit. I liked it too, hence using it.

      • Guzzto

        I watched the marketing video and they had a side by side shot of this old Indian and the new one, I loved the purposeful simplicity of the original and thought it made the new model look bloated and bland by comparison,

        • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

          This, by the handful.

    • Davidabl2

      From the picture it’s hard to tell, but the girder front end, the handlebar style, the “Chummee” seat and that Chieftan fender emblem would seem to place it as a post-war, but pre-1950 Chief.
      Not surprisingly, an Indian of the era that Polaris is “channeling,” ;-)

  • Charlie

    Let’s not necessarily over-complicate things – about the future or the pedigree. How about a well-finished, detailed cruiser that’s a decent value. The lineage is a bonus. Harley’s take about $30k to be dressed up – and it doesn’t seem to help. The switchgear alone is awful. I had a ’47 Chief and I loved the riding position. Floorboards are awesome. But I would burn a quart of oil every 100 miles and there was no one within 200 miles who could fix anything. These modern bikes look good and are reasonably priced. Cheers to Polaris for bringing these to production quickly. The future may indeed be bright – but the present is just fine

    • Davidabl2

      “How about a well-finished, detailed cruiser that’s a decent value.”
      I’m putting one together from a 2003 Kawasaki VN800 “Drifter” :-)

  • Send Margaritas

    Good article, I think you nailed it.
    Personally, I think there is a lot of promise to their cruisers. This site leans a bit to the Sport bike crowd…and you’re underestimating how positive the reception is to the Chief.
    I’ll second the call to a new Indian to comparable HD article, that would be great.

    • Tim Watson

      Thank you. We’ll try and make this happen Indian v H-D. That I agree would be an interesting story.

      • Davidabl2

        Another interesting story:
        New Indian vs Old Indian (2013 vs 1947 Chiefs)
        H.D. Blackline vs El”Knucklehead” (2013 vs 1936-’47)
        How far they’ve come and how far they haven’t.

        From riding some hills&twisties next to an EL that was going full tilt I can tell you that the performance envelope isn’t that far removed from that of a modern cruiser (except for the “leisurely’ braking!)

  • Stanislao

    As someone who has spent his entire life in Rapid City, less than half a hour away from Sturgis, I don’t think the market needs any more cruisers.

    • Davidabl2

      i can hardly imagine what it must be like to live near Sturgis when Sturgis is happening.
      Or Daytona Beach…

    • Stuki

      Given their (Polaris’) dealer network and customer base, I would love to see them do a genuine “scrambler” style bike. Dirt bike for the long and slow crowd, with comfort, good load capacity and simple maintenance. And, perhaps even a touch of nostalgic style thrown in.

  • frankfan42

    I really like the new Indians, and find myself drawn to the Chieftain. Now, let’s see how they evolve. Polaris was wise to spend the money on these three core products first. Cruisers are high profit items, and this can help make the enterprise viable.

  • http://www.bigscotty.com/ Big Scotty

    This article is old – now that Indian is selling as many bikes as they can make I wonder what people think today? I’d also note that I’ve seen some Harley Riders (I ride both Harley and Indian) say things about Polaris – referring to it as a snow-mobile company – i.e. in a disparaging manner. I’d caution against that sort of silly attack. Because Polaris/Indian could come back and remark about Harley’s days as part of AMF and mention something like “Well at least we never made bowling balls.”

    And the younger riders who usually ride on and comment on these articles love to hate on the cruiser market. But yet, cruisers are the number one selling category in the motorcycle business. Imagine that.