For many years the Indian name evoked American motor cycling quite as vividly as Harley-Davidson does today. Founded by George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom in 1901 – even earlier than Harley – the Springfield, Massachusetts company’s first model was a 1¼ horsepower single. Yet just a decade later an Indian
ridden by O C Godfrey became the first overseas machine to win the Isle of Man TT . Numerous other competition successes followed, particularly in the uniquely American sports of flat-track and board racing. There were laurels, too, in long distance ordeals, where men like Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker achieved almost legendary status.
Nor were Indian averse to novelty. They offered early forms of electric start and rear suspension before World War I. They even built engines with four valves per cylinder – although the ‘Big Valve’ two-valve 1000 of 1919 proved to be faster. In the early twenties they built an experimental overhead camshaft 500, although this never raced and it was on a sidevalve Indian that Freddie Dixon placed third in the 1923 TT . The last racer to come out of the factory, a 1948 ‘Big Base’ 750 V-twin, was still going strong on American half miles into the late ’60s. More remarkable still, the same Indian Scour that had set a speed record in 1931 was last seen racing at Sacramento in 1968.
Years in Production
air cooled 1308cc OHV Vee-twin
50 bhp @ 4800 rpm
3-speed hand change
duplex tubular steel cradle
drum / drum
1922 – 1953
Despite this endeavour, Indian fell into the first of many financial crises as early as 1911. The machine which rescued them then was to form the backbone of their range for decades. T he 600cc S cout stood out in a market dominated by heavyweight 1000cc machines (although a 1000cc Indian Chief followed). It was light (300lbs) , smooth and agile, with a full electrical system, all chain drive and three-speed gearbox. Nonetheless the Scout retained the traditional ‘suicide’ foot clutch and hand-operated gearchange . And although it wore two brakes, both acted on the rear wheel. It wasn’t until 1928 that a Harley became the first American motorcycle to ‘pioneer’ the front brake.
On acquiring the Ace motorcycle company in 1927, Indian began production of a range of in-line fours which were to become almost as uniquely Indian as its twins. Although the Vee-twin is now thought of as the definitive American engine configuration, for many years a host of US manufacturers, notably Henderson, produced such behemoths . Paradoxically, the Danish Nimbus was the last of this breed.
In 1940 both the twins and the fours gained sprung rear ends, nine years before Harley were to follow suit with the Hydra-Glide. Yet the forties also saw an ill-advised attempt to build vertical twins in the Triumph mould. Indian’s elderly designs certainly needed modernising, but this was not the way. The vertical twins proved to be unreliable and unpopular, imposing a huge financial strain on the troubled Indian company.
In 1949 the 1200cc Chief was enlarged to become a 1300cc juggernaut. However, quality was poor and sales sluggish, and in August 1953 the once-mighty company ceased motorcycle production. Instead, the Indian name degenerated into a sales device for re-badged British machines. At one time or another, AJS, Douglas, Excelsior, Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield, Velocette and Vincent’s have all worn the familiar Indian Chief tank badge. Indeed, the engine of the Rickman Interceptor had originally been destined to wear an Indian timing cover in the USA.
At the end of the seventies, yet another tribe of ‘Indians’ appeared. Assembled at the Italian Italjet factory, using Italian parts but British Velocette Venom engines, these were the brainchild of Floyd Clymer , of Clymer workshop manual fame. When this venture folded after Clymer’s (and Velocette’s) death, the Indian rights passed to a Los Angeles company who embarked on the first of two failed attempts to sell Taiwanese mopeds under the old Springfield name. Yet for all these undignified failures, the Indian name continues to hold a resonant attraction to motorcyclists. In the nineties it was linked to a Vee-twin machine designed for Indian by John Britten in New Zealand.
In 2011, Polaris Industries purchased Indian Motorcycles and moved operations from North Carolina and merged them into their existing facilities in Minnesota and Iowa. Since August 2013, Polaris has marketed multiple modern Indian motorcycles that reflect Indian Motorcycle’s traditional styling.