High on the list of truths universally acknowledged must be the fact that the Indian Motorcycle, as a legend, a logo and a symbol ranks up there with the golden arches and the three-pointed star, with power and value beyond calculation. On the other hand, naming your daughter Baby Ruth doesn’t ensure she will hit 60 homers a season against big-league pitching. To collect on the promise of legend and esteem, you gotta have a product.
We are concerned here with the Indian, originally spelled Motocycle by the founders, as currently offered by Polaris Industries. To fully appreciate this, we’ll have to look back 60 years, to an undisputed tragedy.
At the close of WWII, a prosperous and product-starved public was ready to buy just about anything. The car and motorcycle makers had learned a lot during the war, but they were canny enough to offer the old versions while testing and refining the new. The 1947 Harley-Davidsons, Fords, Chevys, Dodges, etc., were identical to the 1941 models, while the improved models—the ohv Oldsmobile engine and the telescopic-fork Hydra-Glide—didn’t get here until 1949.
But at the Wigwam, as always, things were different. E. Paul DuPont, who owned Indian and kept the brand in business through the Great Depression, sold his shares in the company. The new owners had new ideas—vision, one could say. The firm’s chief engineer had designed a radical line of really new machines, modular in that there would be a Single, a Twin and a Four, all using the same basic design, all overhead valve, foot shift and hand clutch, suspension fore and aft, with the writing on the tank being the only clue as to what was what.
Further, the new president embarked on a revolutionary ad campaign. As the Japanese say, he reckoned to enlarge the pie, rather than fight over slices. The completely different motorcycles were launched in 1945, with a completely different campaign endorsed by baseball, show business and movie stars.
But wait: Doesn’t this sound like Honda in 1959, meeting the nicest people and all that? Yes. But for one thing, Honda’s dealer network was based on new people who mostly ran hardware or sporting-goods stores, and for another, Honda’s engineering raised the bar worldwide.
Indian’s new bikes—the Single and Twin (the inline-Four never got past the prototype stage)—were disasters. When they didn’t blow up, they broke down. The motorcycling community was small, and everybody knew how bad the new models were. Add to that, the old dealer network, the guys who’d raised a stink when the evergreen Scout was abandoned and stormed the boardroom demanding a new one, wasn’t always that happy with the new people.
Suffice it here to say that everything that could go wrong did. The money ran out and Indian’s new owners begged for help. The English brands were doing well, so Indian asked to distribute several makes. A partnership was formed, and before you could say the camel’s nose was in the tent, the Indian visionaries were out, the English owned Indian and production of the new models was immediately stopped. The final production run of the final genuine Indians, the Blackhawk version of the side-valve 80-inch Chief, came in 1953.
There followed a run of Royal Enfields and later, Matchlesses labeled Indian, but fooling nobody. Next, a puzzle and struggle over ownership of the script, name and symbols. There were Matchless-Indians, then a run of Italian Indians backed by entrepreneur Floyd Clymer, first road bikes and then motocross.
Next, a series of failures on a different stage: promoters with big plans and no money, who never made any motorcycles. A serious effort appeared in 1999. There was a major market at the time for full-dress Harleys and look-alike rivals from the major brands. Indian of America had a factory in Gilroy, California, and produced a viable machine, a big Twin styled like the old Chief and powered by a version of a Harley clone. But the funding wasn’t enough, sales did not meet hopes and the firm went bankrupt in 2003. Three years later, another group of investors picked up the baton and began building the same sort of repro-Indian Chief, this time with modern engineering as in EFI and a bigger V-Twin than Indian Motocycle ever dreamed of—all of it just in time for the bottom to drop out of the market.
But the true revival, one can only hope, came in 2011, when Polaris bought the struggling brand. What’s the difference this time? The lesson since the debacle in 1945 is clear: It’s a heap more difficult to produce a viable motorcycle than all those dreamers and promoters realized. They all had the script and the logo and the legend, but not one had a product to match the hype, good intentions or no.
In contrast, Triumph, with a logo and badge nearly as good, was revived and still thrives simply because it had 1) the capital to invest; and 2) a properly engineered machine that created its own market. It didn’t revise the classic Bonneville Twin until the big Triples proved that the product matched the promotion. Knock wood, those Indian dealers who stormed the boardroom demanding a new Scout in 1947, may soon get their wish. Except there is a very good chance it will be a Chief.
John Gee’s extraordinary Antique Motorcycles collection
Antique Motorcycles, in Moorabbin, outside Melbourne, Australia(Credit: Loz Blain/New Atlas)
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Tucked away in Melbourne’s urban sprawl is one of Australia’s true hidden gems. Antique Motorcycles features the amazing and ever-changing motorcycle collection of owner John Gee, who was nice enough to take us on a guided tour and tell us about some of his favorite machines.
I’ve lived in Melbourne, Australia nearly 40 years, and been into motorcycles for about half that – and yet this hidden treasure has somehow managed to remain completely off my radar until now. Tucked away beside Moorabbin Airport is a historic motorcycling wonderland, almost a museum, built on one man’s personal collection.
Antique Motorcycles is a monument to owner John Gee’s passion for anything interesting with two wheels. Walking in the front door, through the cafe/bar area, you step into a huge showroom/museum area where dozens upon dozens of bikes sit in beautifully chaotic displays. Model planes, minibikes, snowmobiles, bicycles and speedway cars hang from the rafters, and the place is chock-full of all kinds of memorabilia.
John took the time to take us through the museum area and talk about a few of his many favourites. We’ll let him take it from here in his own words:
Antique Motorcycles started in 1988, believe it or not. I’ve been going to the States since 88, buying classic bikes and bringing them back to Australia.
I got bitten by the motorcycle bug as an 8-year-old and the bug kept getting worse. By the time I was an apprentice motorcycle mechanic at 17, I owned half a dozen road bikes that I kept at a friend’s house so my parents wouldn’t know. It was around this time I started buying and selling bikes, and building a collection.
In the late 80s, I was traveling across the United States, and I noticed that Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs were cheap. So I planned a trip over there, went and bought 30-odd bikes, shipped them back, and I’d spend the year doing them up in the garage. Eventually when you amass a collection of motorcycles it attracts other people with the same passion. Before you know it, you’re importing bikes for other people and working on their projects for them. One day you wake up and you own a motorcycle shop! It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you do it long enough, you end up with a place like this.
We’ve got a bit of everything here. I’ve got a pretty big mini-bike collection – a hangover from that bug I had as a kid. I prefer original condition bikes. I’ve spent most of my life taking chopper forks and handlebars and Craig Vetter fairings and touring bags off motorcycles and returning them to their original condition. I’ve got choppers from the 70s, I’ve got turbo bikes, I like my British bikes, I love my German bikes … but Indians is my #1 passion.
We became a dealer for Indian about 12 months ago. We’re very happy to sell them, they’re not a hard product to sell at all. They sell themselves out of the box because they’re such a good bike. It’s great to see a serious competitor to Harley Davidson.
Destroyer II – Billy Gibbons’ custom Kawasaki Z1R
We’ve got a lot of famous stuff here … This is a bike that Billy Gibbons, from ZZ Top, had made. He called it Destroyer II, because that’s the kind of guitar he plays.
He got a ’78 Z1R turbo, which was probably one of the most expensive bikes available on the day, and he sent it back to the factory. They put a stage 3 kit in it, which is a bigger sump, a welded crank, 6:1 forged turbo pistons, undercut the gearbox, all that sort of stuff.
Then they sent it off to this mob called RC Hill’s of Orlando, and they did all the gold plating, and the painting, and the custom work.
We haven’t restored the seat, because the seat had Billy Gibbons on it. The time’s come, it sort of needs to be done, but I’ve held back, because it’s Billy’s own seat. Pretty cool bike, it’s only done about 6,000 miles.
I found it in a collection in Michigan. I was buying about 20-odd bikes off one guy. It was in a pretty poor state. But they were the fastest bike in the world at the time. They still currently hold the record for an 11-second quarter mile, sitting on the bike backwards. Quite incredible!
Mad Max Honda Four
This bike here’s out of Mad Max. The guy lived five Ks from here, and he came in and said he had an old Honda and he wanted to sell it. I went and looked at it, I didn’t know it was out of Mad Max, he wanted too much money … I was leaving, I was in the car ready to drive away.
But just as I was leaving, he told me the story of how he rode the thing in Mad Max, and I quickly changed my mind and bought it. There’s a picture of it, right here… There was only two Honda Fours in the film.
When you watch the movie and slow it down, you can see the Star mags, you can see the twin-disc front end, which is unusual for a Honda, they only had a single disc front end. And you can see the calipers are behind the fork – normally Hondas had the caliper in front. He customized his own bike, way back when, ’74 or 5.
They had a Mad Max reunion last year. We all went to Clunes. And they had just about every vehicle from every Mad Max film made. All the people in the clothing and whatnot.
I had this bike there, and nobody knew about it – it doesn’t exactly jump off the page. By the end of the weekend, I found out I had the only genuine vehicle out of any of the Mad Max films at the event. There were at least 10 Interceptor cars, and the MFP police cars, 10 or 12 of those … There’s a lot of passion out of there for Mad Max.
TZ750 race bike
Here’s a TZ750, this was one of Trevor Flood’s bikes. Reputedly raced by Michael Dowson … and Kevin McGee in the ’84 Swann series. I think they raced it to second place in the championship.
It’s a GP bike you could buy off the shelf. This one’s got around 130 horse, it’s running Lectron flat-slides, White Power suspension, Dymag wheels and Brembo brakes. All products that the Floods were the importers for at the time. I bought it from a deceased estate about 25 years ago.
I’ve ridden this one on track. You go flat chat down Phillip Island straight, and when you hit the hump where the tunnel goes underneath, the thing does a huge wheelstand and you have to back off. Whenever you ride this bike, you have the utmost respect for it. When you get off in the pits, you’re shaking, and you go “whew… I lived!”
2002 Indian Chief: Schwarzenegger bike from Terminator 3
This is out of Terminator 3, Arnie Schwarzenegger. They made four bikes, they destroyed two, and two survived. This is the one he actually rode in the scene where they’re chasing the crane truck, and the crane’s jib is pointed sideways and the whole world’s blowing up. It’s taking down the power lines, flipping all the parked cars upside down. Pretty spectacular scene.
This particular Indian was known as the Gilroy Indian. Made in Gilroy, California. Not to be confused with the Polaris product of current times, which is a much superior motorcycle. The chase scene was only a small part of the movie, but Indian fans would’ve been sure to notice what Arnie was riding. It was the first time an Indian had been used in a movie in a very long time. They had a lot to live up to, as previous Terminator chase scenes involving Harleys were also spectacular.
Honda CBX1000 Turbo
In 1978, Honda came out with the CBX1000 six cylinder. A stunning bike, with a motor that was described as “a block of flats.” Absolutely an instant classic. So what to do to improve it?
Meet the Honda CBX turbo! They only made 10 kits, which were dealer fitted. They weren’t factory endorsed, but the factory would’ve been happy they had a product that could run with the Kawasaki Z1R turbos of the time … So that’s one of ten of those. I’ve had a fascination for turbos and have owned many examples, from all the four Japanese brands. I currently still have quite a few, and also some pretty wild Frankenstein home-built turbo bikes. Always fun.
This kit doubles whatever horsepower it had. What’d they have, like, 75 horsepower new? Not much … It might have 140 now.
1942 Harley-Davidson WLA
This WLA was restored by the US army, it’s probably the best example of a WLA in the world. It’s cool shit. Like all bikes here, it goes. Bit of fuel, bit of choke, couple of prime kicks, ignition … (bike starts) Hey? Not bad!
It had the radio instead of the Thompson machine gun. It’s a communication bike. It’s probably the best example of a WLA in the world, since it was restored by the army. It’s not like WLAs are very rare – they made 90,000 of them. But they are rare to find like this.
I didn’t have to do any work on it. The work I had to do was count out the bills and hand ’em over. Haha! Serious stuff. This bike is now owned by one of our very best customers, and is part of his extensive collection.
1951 Harley-Davidson WR
WR Harley-Davidson up there, a 1951 WR, they made 23 in the world. That was Harley’s weapon on the flat tracks. This bike comes from one of the oldest Harley Davidson shops in the USA. It was a spare bike that only saw a few practice laps in its life.
In ’52, they already had the KR top end on the WR – the WR was on its way to morphing into the KR. By ’53, WRs were gone and the KR was born. Very fast bike for the time. They’d pull wheelstands down the main straight at over 80 miles an hour, I’ve seen it myself at the Davenport flat track.
1966 Triumph Bonneville XR750
That’s a Triumph. We use that to test whether people know their shit or not. You just failed. Haha! I just put a Harley tank on a Triumph, because it fit … I was building a bike to race in New Zealand at the Burt Monroe challenge, and the tank came up in Just Bikes magazine, and it had a brand new paint job on it, so I stuck it on there. I was reluctant to take the Harley badge off, because I didn’t know if I was going to keep that tank.
One thing led to another, next thing, people are coming in and telling us they used to have one exactly like it … We left it on there for a bit of fun, we use it to qualify people. It’s amazing how many people will swear black and blue, that that’s exactly how the one they owned was – much to our bewilderment!
1975 Hercules Wankel
We’ve got two Hercules rotaries, we’ve got two Norton rotaries, the water-cooled and the air-cooled, and a Suzuki RE5 Wankel.
They’re a different thing to ride. We don’t call ’em a motorcycle, we call ’em rotorcycles. They’re a bit … heavy and slow to get going, but they’re quirky, and we still like ’em. When I was an apprentice motorcycle mechanic, we used to work on these things. I’ve got fond memories. We used to look at the engine and go “what the hell do you do with that?”
The Hercules is a very surprising motorcycle to ride. It is very quick off the line, it has unexpected power delivery, and it’s very quick and nimble. Quite the opposite to the Suzuki RE5.
The Garage display
That’s the old garage. We use all the stuff in here. It’s all rare stuff. ’23 Indian, there’s a ’39 Indian engine, a ’38 Indian engine, all kinds of important stuff in there. Transmissions, magnetos, carburetors … Whenever we’re restoring an old bike, this is where we come to get our bits.
We did it up like an old ’20’s servo you’d find in outback Australia. Couple of gas pumps out the front, a collection of stuff under a lean-to. We’ve got a bit of junk piled up in there today, it’s not really as good a display as it normally is …
Steve McQueen sidecar
Chad McQueen was just in Australia. I know Chad from the States, he’s one of those identities that kind of turns up at a lot of things.
I met him up at the Rock Store once, up on Mulholland Drive. He was driving an old Porsche. I just noticed this car, you know, it had cut slicks, and a full camber job, and all the body panels were fiberglass, and racing seats … It was a pretty rough old looking car.
I was looking at it, and this guy yells out from across the street, “get in! knock yourself out!” Like Americans do … Next minute, of course, he’s there, and he’s on for a chat. I was asking questions about his car, like how fast does it go, it looks pretty serious … He said “aw look, I’ve lost my nerve these days, after I hit the wall at Daytona doing 200 …” I was thinking to myself, typical American, bragging, or making up stories …
Anyway, he said “what’ve you guys got?” Well, I told him we had a rental car and we weren’t very proud of it, we’d parked it ’round the corner. But we’re into Indian motorcycles in a big way, and that’s what we ride at home. He said he had an Indian motorcycle with a sidecar. So we listened to his story about that. And I said, well, I’m not a fan of sidecars, but I do have one. I only keep it because it belonged to Steve McQueen … And he said “well that mah daddy!” And then I realized, shit, this is Chad McQueen – and that story about hitting the wall at Daytona at 200, that was actually true!
That’s the sidecar up there, and that’s the bike it was on, down below. It got caught in a fire at my previous address – one of the buildings burned down. It got a bit singed, but it’s still in pretty good condition. And I told him about it. He remembered the bike – and he said he hated it, because his dad used to make him polish it! Pretty funny.
1951 Indian Squad bike
This is my favourite Indian, it’s a 1951 New York police bike. It’s got a siren on it, still. I bought it off the original cop. Some of the towns, depends where you came from, you had to own the bike to be a cop. I don’t think that’s what happened to him, I think this was a fleet bike.
It was never a pursuit bike, it was a parade bike. So, when the president or whoever came to town, there’d be two of these out in front and two behind as a police escort, that kind of thing.
I’ve ridden it around the grand canyon, I’ve ridden it around New Zealand … It’s been my rider for about 25 years now. I can’t put my finger on why, this bike has something that reaches out to me. Whenever I’m going out for a ride, I look round the shop, and I always end up choosing this one. Actually I’d better get that bike up on the bench, I’ll be riding it the weekend after next. We’re going up to Mansfield in the high country. We’re doing the 25th annual Great Race – Harley vs. Indian.
2016 Indian Scout custom cafe racer
Here’s one we’re building right now, a cafe racer, something a bit different. It’s home grown, right here. We’re just giving people examples of what can be done using a Scout as a base. It’s about getting people’s imagination going, so they can then buy a bike and either get us to customize it, or run off and go and customize it themselves. It’s an awesome platform – 100 horsepower and very nimble handling.
1974 Norton Commando (supercharged)
There’s another bike up here that’s a bit far out … That’s a supercharged Norton Commando. You could buy a kit back in the 70s, bolt on a Drouin supercharger, and double your horsepower. So that’s just one that I knocked up. It’s a … let me think, a ’74 Commando. It’s got a Dunstall kit, Norman Hyde fork brace, alloy rims and clip-ons, a 2-into-1 exhaust …
Not everything’s for sale. Obviously I got into this because I was passionate about bikes and I wanted to build a collection of bikes. All of a sudden you end up being a motorcycle shop, and you’re buying and selling and you’re head-first into it.
But my passion is still collecting. And there’s still plenty of bikes on my bucket list that I want to get before I’m done. So once in a while, maybe I’ll sell a couple of bikes to get something else on my bucket list. It’s about experiencing them.
I got to about 130 bikes in my collection, that was stupid, I couldn’t keep the tires pumped up. It was a major job just looking after them, and there were bikes in there that were quite rough. So I cut it back. I’m probably at about 70 or something at the moment. I try to keep it round about there.
I’ve got a warehouse over the road, I keep a bunch more over there. I like to swap ’em around, keep it all alive. This isn’t a museum you walk into one time – you come back next week, it’s different. Come back the week after, it’s different again. There’s always a reason to come back.
Same with the museum we’re building upstairs. I know a lot of people with collections of very rare and exotic motorcycles. We’ll do a Brough Superior display, we’ll do a Harley-Davidson display, we’ll do all sorts of things, maybe an American brand display with Thors and Merkels and Popes, things like that. It’s always going to be changing, so it’s important to keep coming back.
Friday nights we have our Tapas night, which is where we open the bar and get drunk. There’s some live music, lots of fun. Two bands every Friday, and the cafe’s open every day except Sunday. So there’s the new Indian dealership, and the workshop and the team of mechanics. We work on vintage and classic bikes, which not a lot of shops would touch.
We’ve also got the Classic Racer Club based at the shop, we have rides every Saturday morning, 8 o’clock, heading off in whatever direction the riders choose on the day. Anywhere between 5 and 40 bikes, it depends who turns up.
After several hours chatting with John and photographing the bikes out back, I never felt like I’d scratched the surface of what’s in there – and John’s perfectly happy about that, telling me I should come back again and feature more of the bikes he rotates in and out of the museum.
We might take you up on that, John! There’s a ton of other stuff in the shop we’d love to feature.
Motorcycle board track racing was the deadliest form of racing in the history of motorsports. Hundreds of lives were lost, both racers and spectators, during the relatively short-lived era of the boards. Yet in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the dangers, motorcycle board track racing in the 1910s was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Races attracted crowds of up to 10,000 fans. Young riders knew of the dangers, but chose to ignore them because the payoffs were so lucrative. Top racers could make $20,000 per year racing the board tracks, nearly a half-million dollars in today’s currency. From America's Historical Newspapers. The reasons for the lethal nature of motorcycle board track racing were easy to understand. Motorcycles, even in the 1910s, the heyday of the board track era, were capable of speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. The boards were oil soaked and slick due to the engines being of “total loss” design, meaning oil pumped by the riders to lubricate exposed valves and springs sprayed freely into the air behind the speeding bikes. Riders raced with just inches between them, sometimes even touching as riders jockeyed for position. The machines had no brakes, and spectators were separated from the speeding machines by just couple of 2×4 boards nailed between fragile posts.
The first decade of the 20th century, with the advent of automobiles and motorcycles, saw an explosion of race track construction. The mention of motordromes in newspapers began as early as 1901. In the July 18, 1901 edition of the Kansas City Star there was news from Europe of government officials threatening to exclude automobile racing from all public roads and that motordromes could be the solution.
“Automobile News from Paris,” Kansas City Star, (07-18-1901), 7. America’s Historical Newspapers.
Motorcycle racing in America during the early 1900s was primarily confined to city-to-city runs and races on bicycle velodromes. But as engines became more powerful it was clear that the small bicycle tracks were not large enough to showcase the capabilities of motorcycles.
In 1910 the Los Angeles Motordrome, built in the resort of Playa Del Ray, was the first large board track built in America. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on April 9, 1910, that world records were broken in auto races on the new board track. The Albuquerque Journal on the previous day gave some of the specs of the new track. It reported the track “a perfect circle, a mile in circumference, banked one foot in three. The grand stands are placed above the forty-five feet of the inclined track. The surface consists of two by four planks laid to make a four-inch floor and laminated to give great strength. About 3,000,000 feet of lumber and sixteen tons of nails were used in the construction of the ‘pie-pan,’ as it has been dubbed.”
“World’s Records Are Broken On New Board Track,” Salt Lake Telegram, (04-09-1910), 23. America’s Historical Newspapers.
Jack Prince, the builder of the Los Angeles track, traveled the country proposing board tracks to city fathers and motor clubs. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on April 26, 1910, that Prince planned to build a half-mile motordrome in Salt Lake City at a cost of $100,000. The paper later reported, on June 18, 1910, that the new board track at Wandamere Park in Salt Lake City was constructed in less than two weeks.
Soon motordromes were being built across the country. And the races drew large crowds. The Salt Lake Telegram on July 4, 1910, reported a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 on the grand opening night of the Wandamere Motordrome. The race featured Jake De Rosier, the great Indian Motorcycle factory rider, as the main attraction.
The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 15, 1912, reported the grand opening of Philadelphia’s Pointe Breeze Park Motordrome. Pointe Breeze would become one of the most successful board tracks with a regular weekly program. Two of the leading motorcyclists of the era Morty Graves and Eddie Hasha were the featured riders that opening night at Pointe Breeze.
“Motorcycle Races New Motordrome at Point Breeze Opened Today,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, (06-15-1912), 11. America’s Historical Newspapers.
The safety failings of board track racing became all too obvious not long after the facilities were built. The Salt Lake Telegram on July 5, 1912, reported a serious accident in which a rider named Harry Davis was killed and seven spectators injured when Davis’s motorcycle crashed into and snapped a light pole. Throughout that summer a week rarely went by without reports of a rider or spectators being killed at the motordromes.
Two accidents in particular permanently tainted the reputation of the motordromes and eventually led motorcycle racing’s governing body to no longer sanction board track races. The first was a tragic accident at the motordrome in Newark, New Jersey, on September 8. 1912. The Lexington Herald on Sept. 9, 1912, reported that two racers (Eddie Hasha and Johnny Albright) died when they crashed into the outside rail. Four spectators were killed in the incident as well and 19 others suffered injuries. The story of this accident ran in newspapers across the country.
“Eddie Hasha and Five Others Are Killed Outright. Thirteen More Are Badly Injured in Frightful Motorcycle Accident at Newark Motordrome,” Lexington Herald, (09-09-1912), 1. America’s Historical Newspapers.
The following summer, on July 20, 1913, a freak accident at a board track across the river from Cincinnati in Ludlow, Kentucky, caused more outrage. A racer named Odin Johnson crashed; his motorcycle hit a light pole, kicking off a tragic domino effect. The motorcycle’s gas tank exploded. An exposed electrical wire from the light pole then sparked the fuel, spreading flames into the crowd. The ultimate death toll was eight as reported by the Salt Lake Telegram on August 1, 1913. Afterwards the widow of Johnson vowed to devote her life to ending races on board tracks.
The headline of an editorial in the August 1, 1913, edition of The Evening Press (Grand Rapids, Mich.) put it succinctly—“Thrills and Funerals.” The board tracks were referred to as “Murderdromes.”
“Thrills and Funerals,” Grand Rapids Press, (August 1, 1913), 6. America’s Historical Newspapers.
A Salt Lake Telegram article on August 22, 1914, tracked the rise and fall of the motordromes, citing the numerous deaths as well as revelations of fixed races as the causes of the decline of motorcycle board track racing.
By the end of the 1910s the board track era was largely a thing of the past. Besides the dangers of racing the boards, the tracks rapidly deteriorated and many burned down. A thrilling but deadly chapter in American motorsports came to a close.
Indian's marketing director shares with us the secret to the iconic brand's renaissance.
It’s hard to talk about the motorcycle industry in 2017 without talking about Indian Motorcycles. Sales for the Polaris-owned brand have been soaring with double-digit growth while another American cruiser brand which will remain nameless is struggling. Motorcycle sales in the States are down overall but that hasn’t stopped Indian from growing its market share in big bikes from three percent to ten percent in just one year. The boys in Milwaukee still have a comfortable lead in the segment, but the gap is closing faster than anyone could have predicted.
So what’s the secret? What’s the special sauce behind Indian’s success? We reached out to Indian’s marketing director Reid Wilson to find out.
“There are a variety of factors that we believe have played a role in our ability to outperform the industry throughout 2017, no less of which is momentum,” said Reid. “We’ve been able to sustain and build upon the significant momentum we established with key product line introductions in recent years, including Scout and Chieftain, both of which remain consistent performers for us.”
Indeed, the Scout has become a segment leader in entry-level cruisers terms of power, engineering, and style at a competitive price. The Chieftain does everything a touring bike is supposed to do. It’s big on long-distance comfort, modern technology, retro/modern style, and enough special editions to keep it interesting.
“We’ve built on that momentum with a careful balance of commitment to our heritage, coupled with a focus on modern design and performance,” said Reid speaking further to the brand’s momentum. To me, this statement hits the nail on the head for Indian. The brand has found the perfect blend of looking back to its heritage and looking forward to its future. Indian injects just enough “heritage” into its bikes without getting too hung up on it while giving the bikes enough new-school flair and class-leading performance to stay truly modern and competitive. Nobody would mistake a 2017 Indian for a model from 30 years ago, which is something not all American cruiser brands can claim.
That’s a great ethos, so how does it play out in practice? “Examples of this would be successful modifications to some of our popular models, such as injecting the Chieftain platform with a heightened level of attitude through the introduction of the 19-inch wheel and open fender, or the limited edition ‘Elite’ series models for Chieftain and Roadmaster, as well as our popular limited-edition collaborations with Jack Daniel’s,” said Reid. “At the same time, the new Scout Bobber was designed to appeal to a younger consumer that’s seeking a more nimble, aggressive type of cruiser. For that reason, we launched the bike at X-Games in Minneapolis at a huge party we hosted for the top action sports athletes and, overall, the launch has been extremely successful for us.”
Another thing about Indian that’s impossible to ignore is its dominant success in flat track racing having recently won the grand national title. “The investment and commitment we’ve poured into Indian Motorcycle Racing in the American Flat Track series is paying off, reminding riders that our brand remains one grounded in the highest levels of innovation and performance,” said Reid.
We asked Indian what the brand is planning on doing to continue this momentum. “First, and foremost, we will be maintaining our steadfast dedication to the customer, providing a product that consistently delivers in terms of timeless style, unmatched quality, and performance. These characteristics will remain the cornerstone of the Indian brand,” said Reid. “We will also honor the spirit of innovation and exploration that the Indian brand was founded upon more than a century ago, venturing into new categories with new models that push forward and expand Indian’s relevance with a wider range of riders.” To put it simply, Indian figured out a winning formula and it’s sticking to it.
Any brand that’s old enough can hang its hat on “heritage” and “character” and call it a day. But that isn’t cutting it anymore. Indian is proving that it takes more than a “Since 1901” inscription on the engine to sell bikes. The motorcycles have to be truly new and innovative while proving their performance, sometimes by becoming flat track champions. If the competition can’t keep up, it will continue losing relevance until Indian is king again for the first time in about century.
Source: Here’s Why Indian Motorcycles Is Growing While the Competition Struggles
Ever since Indian Motorcycle was revived by Polaris, the American motorcycle brand’s lineup of products has been growing fast. However, there’s one thing that all Indians have in common, from the entry-level Scout Sixty up to the luxurious Roadmaster Elite: they’re all cruisers. Since the brand is positioned to go toe-to-toe with another century-old name in American motorcycles, the new Indian Motorcycle has been competing exclusively in those segments, and it’s actually done a pretty nice job scraping out a market share for itself.
But for a while now, we’ve been hearing Indian promise that greater product diversity was on the way. Indian Motorcycle marketing and product director Reid Wilson told The Drive a year ago that the company would be “venturing into new categories with new models that push forward and expand Indian’s relevance with a wider range of riders.” A month later, Indian pulled the wraps off of the FTR1200 Custom concept bike, a motorcycle for the street that’s heavily influenced by the dominant FTR750 race bike that’s won that last two American Flat Track titles.
The concept was a hit and got a lot of attention, prompting Indian to confirm a production model in June and unveil the official FTR 1200 and FTR 1200 S production models this month. We went to the massive Intermot motorcycle show in Cologne, Germany where the bike was unveiled and had a chance to talk to a few big shots at Indian Motorcycle about how one of the most important American motorcycles in years went from a dominant flat tracker to a stunning concept to the first non-cruiser in Indian’s modern history.
One of those big shots was Wilson, the same guy who told us a year ago to expect a more diverse lineup from Indian. “You’d like to think it was a really clear and simple path, but we started working on this bike in March of 2016,” he said. “You make compromises and you figure out the best way to express [the spirit of the FTR750] in a way that is relevant for a street rider for something that will work on an everyday basis, but will still maintain the essence of the race bike.”
So it sounds like a production bike was the plan all along ever since Indian got back into flat track racing. It just so happens that Indian built a very good race bike and a concept that was extremely well-received, both of which aided in building hype around a bike that you’ll actually be able to buy.
Flat track champ Jared Mees aboard the FTR 1200 with some very enthusiastic Indian fans behind him.
Wilson went on to talk about how Indian surveyed the globe and spoke with thousands of riders about what they would want to see in a performance-oriented motorcycle from an American brand. Based on that feedback, the FTR1200 Custom concept was born. I asked Wilson about some of the challenges involved in turning the concept bike into a production bike.
“Exhaust is always challenging just due to the regulatory challenges we face. This is a global bike so we have to adhere to a wide array of countries’ standards,” he said, highlighting of one of the most noticeable differences between the concept and the production model. “The FTR1200 Custom is a very pure motorcycle, but it’s not a motorcycle you’d want to ride more than a couple hours at most. But you get on [the production bike] and you could ride this thing cross-country without a lot of compromises in terms of comfort. It’s quite friendly to the customer in terms of comfort and performance.”
Wilson went on to speak of the overall significance the FTR 1200 will hold in the American motorcycle industry. “The significance of this motorcycle is massive. I’m almost 40 and I grew up dreaming about this motorcycle from an American brand my entire life. To be able to work on it is a dream.”
2019 Indian FTR 1200 S
Next up was industrial designer Rich Christoph, the man who designed the FTR750, the FTR1200 Custom, and the FTR 1200 production bike. He detailed the importance of starting with a race bike and designing a street form around it.
“Thank God we went racing to begin with,” he said. “It would be really easy to just keep doing the same basic cruiser stuff and not get involved in flat track racing, but we challenged ourselves to raise the bar. We knew that racing would improve chassis development and powertrain development that got us information we can deliver back to the customers on our street bikes.”
“I was trying to capture the championship lines and the shape of the tank and carry those lines, silhouette, and proportions into the FTR1200 Custom. I had nobody in the way telling me what I could and couldn’t do. There were no restrictions. It was just pure sculpture, pure emotion, and pure mechanics.”
For anyone disappointed that the production FTR doesn’t look more like the concept, Christoph explained to me why they couldn’t just mass-produce the concept. “What I may have done is done it a little too well. Now you’ve gotta take that bike and dissect it. You need to cut a seat and real fuel volumes out of that silhouette. The 1200 Custom had high pipes on it and you’d burn your leg after about 20 km and at about 25 km you’d run out of gas. And it would be about $95,000 to build that and sell it on the street.”
Indian FTR1200 Custom
You hear that, naysayers? If you got a carbon-copy of the production bike in dealers like you wanted, it would almost have a six-digit price tag, not to mention its various practical disadvantages.
“All of those design challenges in making a real motorcycle at a cost that the customer is actually willing to pay for and fall in love with is a very delicate balance and it’s a big challenge,” said Christoph.
That design challenge was completely worth it, Indian’s international product director Ben Lindemann told me, expanding on the importance of the brand exploring segments outside of its bread-and-butter cruisers and diving into racing.
“As a brand, we were always known for racing,” said Lindeman. “When [Polaris] bought [Indian] in 2011 it was important to us from the beginning to get back into racing. Coupled with that, we wanted to grow outside of our traditional segments of cruiser, bagger, and touring bikes. We wanted to get into segments that are growing in the U.S. and are also really big internationally.”
“About four years ago we said ‘okay, let’s do a race bike and then let’s leverage that race bike to build a street bike.’ Once we did the race bike we got a lot of feedback and people loved how it looked so we knew we were on the right path.”
Indian Motorcycle- Jared Mees doing a burnout at the unveiling of the FTR 1200
But it isn’t just visual similarities that the race bike shares with the production model. Although they share zero components, the FTR 1200 actually got some mechanical inspiration from the FTR750 as well. “The airbox on the FTR 1200 is directly above the throttle bodies just like on the race bike,” Lindemann pointed out. “We ended up packaging the fuel under the seat which gave us more advantages. It lowered our center of gravity and made the bike more agile.” Another mechanical similarity is in the bike’s swingarm, whose tubular steel design matches the race bike as well.
Lindemann went on to talk about the four priorities Indian had when designing the street bike. It needed to look like the race bike, it needed to be fun, it needed to have character, and it needed to be customizable. Indian believes that with this formula, the FTR 1200 will be a hit that can set the stage for further diversity in the brand’s lineup.
That leads me to the one question I asked all three of the important people at Indian Motorcycle that I spoke with. Since Indian is making it sound like the FTR 1200 is the first of multiple bikes to use this engine and this platform, I asked what Indian can tell us about the future of this new platform. All three answers made me giddy so here they are verbatim:
WILSON: “You’ll definitely see more. When you ride the bike, you can feel where it can go and I’ll leave that to your own interpretation when you get to ride the bike. You can see the potential in it and this will be one of many bikes coming over the next coming years. It’s an amazing platform that has a lot of flexibility to go a lot of different places and it’s going to be a really fun couple years.”
CHRISTOPH: “We’re exploring everything. I would say nothing’s off the table. You can kind of look at the bike and you can imagine what its variants may be. I can’t say anything specific, but we’re not done. We’re just getting started.”
LINDEMANN: “It’s a very capable platform. We think the Indian brand can play in any segment. We talked to a lot of customers and they feel like it’s a brand that resonated outside of cruiser/bagger/tour. We think from a customer readiness and market readiness standpoint, we can go in any segment we want. We designed this platform to be capable of doing a lot of things. We have an exciting future with this platform and we’ve got a lot of other great news coming as well.”
2019 Indian FTR 1200 S
My personal translation: Indian is probably working on an adventure bike with this platform. After seeing it in person, it’s very easy to visualize different styling, suspension, tires, ergonomics, etc to morph this platform into a bona fide ADV. It’s a very hot segment and it’s one that Harley-Davidson is about to get into with the Pan America. For Indian, the platform and engine are already done and the brand might even be able to bring an adventure bike to market sooner than the Pan America shows up, which is supposed to be in 2020. Of course, this is just my own speculation, and time will ultimately tell.
From the styling to the pricing to the spec sheet, it sure seems like Indian knocked it out of the park with the FTR 1200. If this thing’s real-life performance is as good as we hope it is, we think Indian Motorcycle will have a global winner on its hands when this bike hits dealers next spring
Mike Wolfe is known as an American picker. He’s a TV star, author and entrepreneur.
But mostly, he’d tell you, he’s an Indian Motorcycle® enthusiast. He loves them for their history and heritage, and for their ride. His “best pick – ever” (and what got him in the business full-time) was when he scored a treasure trove of Indian® motorcycles at a Pennsylvania farm.
Mike called the farmer about his classified ad, then drove 800 miles and slept in his van in the farmer’s driveway. The next day, the farmer opened two barns, revealing 10 vintage Indian® motorcycles and tons of parts. Mike Wolfe discovered heaven on earth.
In his picking business, Mike encounters antiques of every kind. But his greatest picking passion is Indian® motorcycles. He collects them. Gets them running. And mostly, he rides. He loves dings, dents, scratches and rust. Forget cosmetics or fresh paint. Just ride. After all, it’s an Indian®.
Indian Motorcycle is excited to be working and riding with Mike Wolfe. He’s helping us bring back the passion this iconic brand deserves, and is energized to ride with us into the exciting next chapter of Indian Motorcycle® history.
A new book has just been published with some very nice photographs. If you are a fan of early motorcycle history you will love reading about and looking at this unpublished early photographs.
Georgia Motorcycle History: The First 60 Years, is the culmination of tireless research, pouring over hundreds of archives, articles, family collections, books, and interviews. This stunning, 270-page, clothbound, hardcover coffee table book illuminates the earliest days of American motorcycling culture through the photographs and stories of Georgia. The exclusive collection contains nearly 250 black and white archival photographs, each image methodically researched and captioned in vivid detail. While several key figures in American motorcycling history are featured, the book also explores topics such as the motorcycle’s role as it was used by civilians, military and service departments, professional racers, and farmers.
The book begins with an introduction of the motorcycle at the turn of the century. From there, the first chapter presents the story of Georgia’s first motorcycle and expands into colorful stories of America’s earliest enthusiasts and pioneering spirits. The second chapter recounts the exhilarating and dangerous tales of motorcycle racing, from its origins on horse tracks and the infamous motordromes to the later industrialized and professional sport that we know today. It wasn’t all fun and games though. In chapter three, the book looks into the motorcycle’s role in both WWI and WWII as well as its indispensable place in various municipal service departments. In the last chapter, Georgia Motorcycle History steps back and reviews the motorcycle’s evolution from a bicycle with a clip-on motor to an advanced technological mode of transportation, from a simple utility to a member of the family.
The pictures and stories included in Georgia Motorcycle History reach far beyond a simple documentation of local history. They embody the American spirit and represent a cornerstone of our nation’s culture. Over 200 copies of this stunning book have been sold to eager customers in 15 different countries within the first 2 months of its release and copies are now being carried by exclusive retailers and world-class museum gift shops.
For more information and to purchase the book, you can visit the authors website at: