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Indian Chief (2014): The New Leader? (Review)

Indian chief 2014 vintageThe sun is shining in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the roads aren’t too crowded (yet) and the bright red 2014 Indian Chief Vintage I’m spurring into Sturgis rolls nicely through corners, holds straight lines beautifully, and summons rich loads of bottom-end power at will. Its engine builders say they originally set a goal of 115 ft/lbs. torque, but instead reached peak torque of 119 ft/lbs. at 3,000 rpm, which now feeds to the back wheel through an oversize direct drive clutch and belt final drive. In third gear, I can let the revs taper down to nothing and then pull them up again with just the flick of the wrist, and crisply wick to highway speeds. Third is an especially flexible ratio in the six-speed, but then again, this machine is full of pleasant surprises, such as the double-takes on the faces of passers-by as they get a load of me on the Indian, with its 1947-style war bonnet lamp, leather fringe flying at the saddle, chrome forks and chrome controls.

The quick-release saddlebags, like the saddle, are made of thick, heavy, buttery soft leather—actual tanned leather. The metal clasps closing the quilt-lined bags are sturdy and speak of quality. Indian’s PR guy Robert Pandya was uncooperative when I asked where they’ve sourced the leather. “We don’t disclose our suppliers,” he said. “But I can tell you they’re the original suppliers to Indian.” 

He means the original company that went under for the last time in 1953. Or perhaps, it then went under for the first time, I’ve lost count. But Indian never truly disappeared. There have always been T-shirts and pins, and lovingly restored Chiefs such as Dan Remick’s on page 52, this issue. And of course there have been the locusts and pretenders who’ve gained access to Indian marketing rights over the years, those who hoped to line their pockets with the Indian legacy by churning out incompetent big-inch Twins with large fenders. The Gilroy, California chapter of the Indian story springs immediately to mind. This was a group that nearly buried Indian once and for all. CB Publisher John Molony and I rode the bikes and came close to heart-break on those hammering variations of once great motorcycles. 

By now, it’s no secret that Polaris, the number one powersport business in North America, has staked its claim to the Indian brand, and even the old guard of American motorcyclists has given its approval. This I could discern from all the thumbs-up the Vintage drew from the army of Harley riders making their way to Sturgis for the rally in August. There’s a collective sense of approval among American riders that a beloved marque is finally in good hands. This isn’t an underfunded crew making ham-fisted attempts at reviving a legend, but mighty Polaris, a $3.2 billion operation, that is growing by 20 per cent annually, according to Polaris vice-president of motorcycles, Steve Menneto, who spoke to media during the official introduction of the new Indian motorcycles in Sturgis. The unveiling of the initial three models in the Indian lineup was a PR sensation as an entire block of downtown Sturgis was roped off for a Saturday night “reveal party” that welcomed the public to come see the new bikes for themselves.

Though it might be tempting to suggest the Indian bikes are merely rebadged Victorys, nothing could be farther from the truth. These are clean sheet bikes that were drawn from scratch in the space of 27 months. 

Not only do the Indians have their own unique architecture and engine with no parts in common with Victory, they may well evolve in fundamentally opposite directions. “We want to see Victory and Indian going their own way,” said Menneto. “Indian allows Victory to go its own way.”

Canadian Biker was invited to Sturgis to be among the first in the world to ride the standard Indian Chief Classic ($18,999) with ABS, cruise control, and throttle-by-wire; the aptly named Chief Vintage ($20,999) with leather fringe and soft bags; and the premium Chieftain ($22,999) that carries hard bags with remote locking, power windshield, and a fork-mounted fairing. Bear in mind that the above are prices in the US. When I asked about Canadian pricing I was told to add 10 per cent. I don’t think that was carved in stone, nor was a Canadian dealer network as  of this writing. 

Among the technical features of the Chiefs is keyless starting, which can be handy until you lose the coded key fob. Then it’s a problem—the bike won’t start if the fob is not in the vicinity of the bike. But the Chieftain carries the most number of premium features including the full dash, tire pressure monitoring system, Bluetooth, and 100 Watts of audio.

While the Chiefs are all variations on a theme, they are built around a shared six-piece bolt-together modular frame with twin vertical downtubes and aluminum castings to which the valanced rear fender bolts all the way around the perimeter as a structural member. The Chieftain is the quicker handling of the trio with a 25-degree rake for lighter steering, versus the 29-degree of the Classic and Vintage. The Chieftain is also equipped with lower bars—there are three bar options— for a friendlier feel. All Chiefs come shod with Dunlop American Elite tires.

The frame also contains half of the airbox volume and progressive linkage suspension. Here’s a neat feature: the removal of a single pin from the frame lowers the entire rear suspension, making the unpleasant task of fixing a tire that much easier.

The aluminum chassis is a “balance of strength, weight, and performance,” says senior project engineer Nick Schafer. “We wanted it to perform.”Indian chief 2014 vintage Indian chief 2014

Indian also wanted its first offerings to be bulletproof. During the testing phase, the vehicle was subjected to an electrodynamic shaker that essentially piled on the equivalent of 200,000 miles of wear and tear in just a few days. Further torture to the early Indian mules came in the wind tunnel, on closed courses, in Death Valley, and on the highest mountain peaks in America.

There were, of course, many false starts in the early going when it was not yet clear to the design team led by Greg Brew, what final form their reborn Indian Chief should take. “Inheriting the brand meant learning about the brand,” says Brew. “What to keep, what to leave behind? We had to guess how the years would have progressed [if the original Indian company had survived]. What would we be looking for from the time of the [art deco] streamliner?”

The team decided from the project start that the new Indian would have to respect the history, but which part of history? The Indian Motorcycle Co. dates back to 1901, and in that time there were numerous iconic models from the Springfield factory including the all-conquering boardtrackers manned by Indian’s legendary Wrecking Crew, light, nimble Scouts and heavy inline fours. There were givens, of course. The war bonnet was an automatic inclusion, and so were the distinctive big fenders. 

“There was a lot of second guessing and back and forth about designs,” says Brew, “but almost all the designs had parallel push tubes and downward pipes. We also wanted the tank four inches shorter than the Kings Mountain bike.” (The company Stellican was the last former holder of Indian marketing rights. Their bikes were built in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.)

It was a non-negotiable that Polaris’s interpretation of the circa-2014 Indian Chief would include a proprietary engine, and only a V-Twin would do. The economics of the motorcycle industry are already well established with Harley-Davidson firmly in the driver’s seat with the majority of sales in the 1400cc and up category. Indeed, its Street Glide is the top selling bike in North America. With the Chieftain pitched to compete against the Street Glide, and the Chief Vintage against the Heritage Softail Classic, it’s not a battle that Indian could win (or even put up a decent struggle) without a V-Twin of its own. Enter the Thunder Stroke 111 engine, introduced earlier this year, with historically correct multi-directional fins. As is the intent, the 49-degree Thunder Stroke 111 bears a striking resemblance to legacy Indian bikes of the 1940s yet it is fully modernized with fuel injection, and high flow ports. “You can’t build an actual flathead today,” says senior engineer Eric Fox, citing concerns such as EPA noise and emissions restrictions.

The Thunder Stroke blueprint called for unit construction, with the transmission and its silent-running helical cut gears contained in the same case with the three-cam (one intake, two exhaust), two-valve engine. The 111 cu. in. (1811cc) mill also carries on the tradition of down firing exhaust tubes, which have been a feature of Indian V-Twins since 1907. 

The inclusion of this feature was apparently a costly engineering investment. “Downward firing exhaust was a definite challenge,” says Indian product director Gary Gray. But from an outsider’s perspective it was well worth it if they added to the melodious V-Twin sound of the Indian Chief. It’s simply a sweet sounding engine. “There were multiple iterations of exhaust tuning,” said Brew.

Certainly, Chiefs are the finest Polaris-made motorcycles I’ve ridden to date. They accelerate with fast, instant, very accessible power that is dialed into perfect pitch with the transmission selections. They handle with an ease and sweeper swallowing deftness. There’s an accessory line of clothing, garage items, and performance products that promise a high degree of collectability, and rider brand loyalty. And with a class-leading array of standard features such as the gorgeous leather, luxurious chrome package, ABS and a five-year warranty, Indian has very quickly become poised to be a significant asset in the cruiser and bagger market. We’ll stop short of saying they’re in a position to threaten Harley, but Milwaukee is most certainly aware that there is now a new American on the market, with its own long and revered history. This time though, that history is in good hands.

By John Campbell

Simply, they nailed it 

This one could have been so easy to mess up. So easy. Everyone before Polaris did. Every time someone tried to revive Indian, it was the same horror story: caricature proportions, flimsy chassis and catalogue engines, not to mention a general homemade feel. Some will try to defend the last effort by Stellican, which produced the so-called Kings Mountain Chiefs, but they were only the “least worst” of the list. That the new Polaris-era Indians don’t share a single part with the Kings Mountain version—nor with Victory bikes for that matter—says a couple things. First: absolutely nothing of the prior bike was worth saving. Shocker … 

Second:  Polaris took this revival effort extremely seriously. To reuse an existing Victory engine or chassis would have been forgivable, logical even. But they didn’t. Instead, ground-up designs were realized on both counts, and in a record two and a half years. Rushed to production? No sir. 

I rode all three variants of the new Indian Chief at the recent global launch in Sturgis and came away with immense respect for the team that worked on these motorcycles. Quite simply, they nailed it. The proportions are now correct, and while the retro look is obviously there, it has not been overdone, abused or misinterpreted. It’s just right. The chassis isn’t only wonderfully balanced and precise, it’s also damn impressive with its all-cast aluminum construction. 

And then there’s the all-new engine: a 111-cu. in., air-cooled, fuel-injected torque-factory that you may never feel the need to rev past 3,500 rpm. The amazingly refined feel of this V-Twin may be what impresses me most about the new Indians. Many manufacturers produce decent Big Twins, but few produce great ones. Harley-Davidson obviously knows a thing or two about the correct sound and feel of a V-Twin, and Yamaha does a great job too with its 1900, but Victory engines have always been lacking in this field. 

Hence my surprise at how pleasant and refined the new Thunder Stroke 111  on the Indian Chief is.  Seriously well done. 

Sidebar by Bertrand Gahel


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