An Early American, Ready to Try Again

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BRIAN HEAD, UTAH -- On Sept. 17, 2003, an all-new model from the Indian Motorcycle Company of America was delivered to me for a review.

Two days later, the Gilroy, Calif., company locked its doors and went out of business. Its disappearance was so sudden and so complete that I had no idea where to return the motorcycle.

The comings and goings of would-be makers of motorcycles carrying the Indian brand name have for years been a steady source of work for reporters. But this was the first time that I recall having to write a birth announcement and a death notice in the same week.

A list of the various entities that have claimed ownership of the Indian name, trademarks or motorcycle brand would be long indeed. The original Indian motorcycles came from Springfield, Mass., in 1901 -- two years ahead of Harley-Davidson's arrival -- and lasted until 1953, along the way establishing a strong reputation on racetracks.

Since then, at least a dozen purveyors have used the brand name and logo, some legitimate, some clearly not. In fact, in 1998, the Gilroy-based company had to consolidate rights from nine claimants before it could begin the process of creating its own short-lived version.

So it was with a measure of wariness -- even suspicion -- that the news was received in 2011 that Polaris Industries, known for its snowmobiles and watercraft, would be the latest to acquire the rights to Indian.

But it's worth noting that Polaris also is the parent company of the well-regarded Victory Motorcycles, which it established 15 years ago. So Indian's newest owners at least were experienced and competent in the art of making motorcycles.

Polaris, a company with $3 billion in sales based in Medina, Minn., also offered the Indian name something it had lacked for decades -- the deep pockets required to build no-compromises bikes.

In the two years since its purchase, Polaris has invested tens of millions of dollars, expanding the research and development department, production capabilities and other infrastructure it determined were needed to give Indian a fitting revival.

At the huge Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally in August, the company unveiled a new lineup of heavyweight cycles bearing the Indian logo: the Chief Classic ($19,399 including shipping), Chief Vintage ($21,399) and Chieftain ($23,399).

The 111-cubic-inch (1.8 liters, if you prefer) Thunder Stroke V-twin engine that powers all three is billed as Indian's first all-new power plant in 70 years.

"People questioned whether we were just going to slap an Indian logo on a Victory motorcycle and call it 'mission accomplished,' " Steve Menneto, vice president for motorcycles at Polaris, said in an interview before the introduction.

"Our new Indians are just that: new, all new," he said. "They share less than 1 percent of content with Victory."

Although the Indian models are built in shared facilities with Victory in Spirit Lake, Iowa, Mr. Menneto said the personnel, equipment and production lines were all separate.

The power source for the Indian line is a fuel-injected 49-degree V-Twin that produces 119 pound-feet of torque. It hews to tradition with air cooling, and considerable effort was devoted to preserving nostalgic styling cues like the angled cooling fins on the cylinder heads and the positioning of the exhaust pipes. Before its introduction, Mr. Menneto said, the engine had been subjected to the equivalent of more than two million development miles.

Engineers also lavished considerable attention on the sound it would make -- a key consideration for a motorcycle that is aimed directly at the Harley constituency.

Indeed, the engine roars to life with a deep, satisfying-but-not-deafening report. Hammer on the throttle and the resulting bam-bam-bam is almost like that of an old fighter plane. Well played.

The Thunder Stroke 111 is meant to trump Harley-Davidson's largest offerings in every way. Lacking a scientific side-by-side comparison, I can only say that from a subjective standpoint, it's game over.

The engine feels particularly well-sorted, even when subjected to the harshest environments. I rode 400 miles from Southern California to Utah recently, with only two brief stops for fuel; the trip lasted six hours and averaged 70 m.p.h. up and down several mountain ranges, up to 10,420 feet in elevation in Utah, through 107-degree temperatures in Baker, Calif., and even in some stop-and-go traffic around Las Vegas.

Yes, the heat roiling off the engine then was duly noted. But there was nary a hesitation from the Thunder Stroke 111. The power at all speeds was instant and gratifying.

Gary Gray, Indian's product director, had told me before the trip that I could expect to average "low to mid-40s" in my fuel economy.

That sounded optimistic, as I typically see mileage from the high 20s to mid-30s in long-distance tests of heavyweights from Harley, Honda and Moto Guzzi. But I averaged a commendable 42 m.p.g. for my Indian romp.

The bike was also all-day comfortable, in seating and riding position, implacably stable and easy to ride. It did not feel the least bit tippy or cumbersome at slow speeds, as some heavyweights do. The brakes provided good stopping power, and I liked that the antilock system did not link front and rear brakes.

The new Indians are easy on the eye, too. The Chief and the Vintage are such singular Indian classics that they almost designed themselves, Mr. Menneto said. "They each have five or six iconic styling cues, and we brought those forward and added modern-day tech."

Along with the valanced fenders, teardrop fuel tank, leather saddle and lighted mascot on the front fender, the base bike, the Chief Classic, has a 6-speed transmission, air-adjustable single-shock rear suspension, cruise control, belt drive, antilock brakes and keyless starting with central remote locking.

A step up to the Vintage adds fringed tan leather quick-release saddlebags, a matching leather two-place seat, additional chrome trim and a quick-release windshield.

The most intriguing offering is the top-line Chieftain. It is the first bagger -- a model with hard saddlebags and front fairing -- that has ever worn the Indian badge.

"The Chief and the Vintage are quintessential Indians," Mr. Gray said. "With the Chieftain, we weren't as restricted in what we could do from a styling standpoint. The fork-mounted fairing is shaped with a streamlined 1930s locomotive in mind."

The Chieftain also is equipped with an audio system (including fairing-mounted speakers), 12-volt power plug, Bluetooth capability, tire pressure sensors and motorized windshield adjustment.

"The bagger segment is one of the largest in the industry, and we knew that is one of the arenas we had to play in," Mr. Menneto said.

Reminded that Victory has a similar offering in the Vision, Mr. Menneto said internal research indicated there was little chance of one brand cannibalizing sales of the other.

Still, during one of my brief stops on the test ride, a Vision owner pulled up to admire the Chieftain.

"I love my bike," the rider told me. "I won't trade it for anything. Except maybe that."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 12, 2013 2:01 PM


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