Kiwi Indian keeps vintage Indians on the road by supplying parts and expert help.
It’s in the details: Kiwi Indian’s 1939 Chieftain Indian replica looks like the real thing, but closer examination shows usable upgrades like a front disc brake and electric starting.
Though the last Springfield Indian left the Massachusetts factory in 1953, the iconic brand lives on more than 60 years later — though it did, over the years, keep some questionable company.
First came Britain’s Brockhouse Engineering, who kept the brand alive by distributing Royal Enfields rebadged as Indians, also selling their Corgi minibike as the Indian Papoose. When Britain’s AMC bought Royal Enfield in 1960, the company also acquired the Indian name and started selling Matchless motorcycles with model names like Apache, Tomahawk and Arrow. When AMC itself went bust in 1962, American entrepreneur Floyd Clymer stepped in, selling a variety of small motorcycles under the Indian name until his death in 1970. The last of the Clymer Indians was the Velocette-powered, Italjet-built Indian 500. There followed a string of Taiwanese-built 2-strokes sporting the Indian name, including mini-bikes, through the 1970s.
It says much for the strength of the brand that it survived these ignominies, retaining sufficient value to be worth investment into the 21st century, first by California Motorcycle Company (the “Gilroy” Indians); and then by U.K.-based turnaround specialists Stellican in 2006, (producing the “Kings Mountain” Indians in North Carolina). Both of those efforts failed, but Indian’s future now seems secure with solid investment and national distribution courtesy of Polaris Industries, which bought the brand in 2011 and started manufacturing new Indians in 2013.
That’s great for fans of the Indian brand and its heritage, and it means a whole new generation of riders can buy a new Indian. But it doesn’t help owners of classic and vintage Indians needing parts and expert help. That’s where Mike Tomas of Kiwi Indian Motorcycles, Inc. in Riverside, California, comes in.
Mike has been keeping Indians on the road for the last 28 years, through the brand’s various reincarnations. Since opening his shop in 1988, Mike has grown his business steadily, from selling Indian parts and giving advice to restoring Indians and manufacturing a complete range of parts for vintage Indians. And, since 2008, assembling brand new “vintage” Indians to his own designs.
A keen motorcyclist by age 17, Mike discovered Indians in his native New Zealand. It was an Indian that literally turned his head. “I didn’t really care for the Queen’s stuff,” Mike says, referring to British motorcycles. “I wanted something American. Harley just didn’t do anything for me: It looked like a plumber’s nightmare. I saw this bike going the other way, and I was like ‘What was that?’ I turned around and chased the guy down.”
The bike turned out to be a 741, Indian’s 500cc World War II military bike. That’s when Mike decided he wanted an Indian. He found a 741 for $500, restored it, and a year later he bought a 1924 Chief, restoring that, as well. “I was a two-Indian owner,” he says, but that was just the beginning.
In 1982, Mike left New Zealand for North America, riding across Canada and down through the U.S., along the way getting “hooked up” with Indians again. He settled in California, and with his interest in Indians stronger than ever, in 1988 he opened Kiwi Indian Motorcycle Company, selling parts for vintage Indians. As a trained automotive machinist, it wasn’t too hard for Mike to transfer his skills to re-manufacturing Indian engine parts. “Back then you had three or four major suppliers,” Mike says, “and there was a lack of consistent quality. I just figured whoever made the best of anything, I was going to make it better.”
Kiwi Indian kept growing, and now Mike sells everything an Indian V-twin restorer could need from a catalog of around 2,000 items, with everything he sells produced in the U.S. Mike also started taking on repair work on customer bikes, which led to hiring extra help in the shop. He now has three full-time technicians on staff. “We have good guys. We’re very, very conscientious about quality and doing the job right,” he says.
Mike’s desire to keep Indians on the road and make them more usable led to developing new products, including new engine cases. “We put quite a bit of effort into that,” Mike says, “and it was 2000 when I built the first brand new engine since the original factory ceased production in 1953. That was a milestone.” Mike installed the engine in his personal road bike and tested it by riding across the country to New York — and back again.
“A lot of people make stuff and they make claims,” Mike says. “I want people to see my stuff being ridden. I don’t have any backup on the road when I’m testing, because you have that confidence of your approach. That’s my marketing.”
From engines, Mike next ventured into frames and eventually complete replica Indian motorcycles. Many are close replicas of traditional Indian models, but he also produces a board tracker, a bobber and a 101 Chout (a Chief engine in a Scout chassis) to his own design. These can be ordered with traditional components or with Mike’s modern interpretations — like the front disc brake he designed to replace Indian’s ineffective drum. Fans of the brand have taken notice, because his order book is typically full for at least a year out.
Given that Mike builds and sells motorcycles that are branded as Indian, it’s reasonable to wonder how that works with Indian’s new brand owners, Polaris Industries. “Carolyn (Mike’s wife and business partner) and I reached out to them after they bought Indian. We had several meetings with them just to let them know we’re all on the same team, and we have an agreement that we adhere to. My view is we complement one another. We’re not a competitor at all. They’re on a totally different arena, with totally different engineering. There have been a lot of guys who have continued the brand, and it would not be worth anything if it hadn’t been for my predecessors carrying it over those dead years,” Mike says.
Mike is a big fan of Indian’s distinctive Art Deco-era styling, pointing to Indian’s introduction of skirted fenders as a bold styling statement. “You either loved them or hated them,” he says, noting that Indian had “good engineers and good style. Even the engine, the cylinder heads, they flowed with the rest of the bike. In 1938 they integrated the instrument panel and came up with an awesome gauge set. It’s their one-year-only gauge set, but holy smokes, it’s kick-ass beautiful.”
Mike applies that appreciation to the “new” Indian motorcycles he designs and builds. “I’ve always had an eye for detail,” he says, “but I didn’t know I had an eye for style until I was 40-ish. Looking back, that’s what caught my eye about Indians. The design, from the tank and the frame all the way down to the axle, it sort of flows. I introduce some of my own style in there, taking into account the look of the period.”
Mike’s design and engineering philosophy is practical and hands-on. “I do all my engineering behind a set of handlebars. That’s why I ride so much. I’m always thinking of new things. I came out with an electric starter about three years ago. I sold a ton of those, but that’s from riding and understanding. Some new riders are intimidated by a kickstart if it doesn’t go right. That’s where I sell my replica bikes. You’re buying an old bike but with all new technology, you don’t have to worry about it,” Mike says. “Buyers can get our replica rolling chassis kits for around $17,000 — adding options and cost from there — while our complete replica bikes start at around $45,000.”
Mike is also working on a hand-clutch, foot-shift conversion. “The Indian mystique is that handshift. But there are people who don’t like the handshift, foot-clutch deal, so I can open up that market to another bunch of riders.”
While Mike won’t discuss specific numbers, he says that sales of replicas and parts have “exceeded our wildest expectations.” But with the inevitable ageing of his target demographic, does he see a future slowdown? “Sort of. And it probably has to do with price. Indians have gotten up there. That’s why I had to get out of just the parts business. I could see it had plateaued some years ago, and that’s why I had to branch out and do other things. Guys that have old Indians, they need service work, and the replicas are another good staple to our business.”
Mike also sees a revival of interest in vintage Indians among younger riders who are into retro styling that takes its cues from the past, and he enjoys the new bike-builder shows like Born Free and The One Show. “I do keep in that younger arena. There’s a different energy level, and without them we don’t have anything.” Truer words were never said, and thankfully we also have hardcore keepers of the flame like Mike, enthusiasts who dedicate their activities to keeping the old brands alive. MC