Skip to content
HOME » COLUMNISTS » #321 Building a History

#321 Building a History

There may be gaps in the “Legend” but Indian Motorcycle is quickly filling them in.

Sarah McLachlan may have sung heartfelt about working to build a mystery but almost as ardently Indian Motorcycle is working hard at building a history. Through the years from 1953 when the original Indian Motorcycle ceased production to the point Polaris purchased the brand there was a rift in history, which Indian is now working ceaselessly to fill. To be fair, a lot happened between 1953 and 2011, when Polaris assimilated the Indian brand, so the company had a running start. Indian Motorcycle as a brand name has undoubtedly flickered but never been fully doused. Instead it’s been kept alive by all manners of corporate shuffling and, more importantly, by the undying love of many riders for what was—before Polaris’s other motorcycle brand co-opted the position: “the other American motorcycle.”
Indian went through several owners during its “Lost Years” with products ranging from small displacement Indian-branded bikes built in Italy and Taiwan through the 1970s to Royal Enfield bikes branded as Indians available through the late 1960s. Most dramatic for many would have been the Gilroy-built Indians that started production in 2008. A cross between a custom bike and a heritage styled cruiser, the Gilroy bikes were easy on the eyes but the company lacked longevity being the final stop (except for the King’s Mountain, North Carolina detour) on Indian’s journey. And we can’t forget the Kawasaki Drifters that proved a bike that still resembled an old Indian would sell. Yet with the exception of Bert Munro and the “World’s Fastest Indian” of 1967—which was based on a 1926 Indian Scout—this isn’t the history that today’s Indian Motorcycle wants to celebrate. Fortunately there is a lot to feed the new history from the years before 1953.
The Sturgis Rally famously began as an Indian dealer’s event; various Indian motorcycles were dominant in flat track events, including the Springfield Mile; an Indian motorcycle won the initial Daytona 200 and the first Indian motorcycle was sold to a customer in 1902—one year before Harley-Davidson’s debut and the basis behind Indian’s claim of being America’s oldest motorcycle company, an assertion perhaps best taken with a grain of salt.
But Indian has been very busy in turning that grain into a mountain by hammering so much heritage into the brand that one could be forgiven for forgetting that the brand ever went away. Which will work especially well if that sepia-toned marketing is focused on the younger market, the hipsters who may lead the future of motorcycling. But considering you would have to be at least 63 years old to have been alive when the original Indian Motorcycle last had an assembly line many of us are ripe for revisionist history. A limited Jack Daniels edition Chief might help with that but it may also help to have a few celebrities assist along the way.
Roland Sands is currently reliving the glory years of Indian racing with his Hooligan flat track series. The custom versions of Indian bikes, which seem to arrive monthly, have included a custom Springfield (named after the original hometown of the Indian) and at Sturgis a trick hillclimber that while it would be best to not race it up a hill, sure looked good below it. And there was the Black Bullet custom that evoked the land speed record days to round out recent efforts.
Indian is hitting all the right buttons and doing it so relentlessly and often that soon no one is going to remember that the company ever went through many iterations prior to its rebirth at the hand of Polaris. A rebirth backed up by Indian Chiefs with tassels and proprietary engines, retro jackets, helmets and Bert’s Fast Indian T-shirts and sweaters. If this keeps up someone is going to go looking for a 1977 Indian Chief. What do you mean there isn’t one!

Keep independent motorcycle journalism alive! If you found this article interesting or useful, please consider sharing.