Call it the company that just won’t die, because Indian motorcycles is rising up yet again — and this time it just might stick.
Launched in 1901 by George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom, Indian produced its first V-twin in 1906, three years before rival Harley-Davidson. And while Indian never attained the level of success witnessed by Harley-Davidson, it was the only American motorcycle company to give the Motor Company any real home-grown competition.
Indian quit making motorcycles in 1953, but the dream to revive the company has never faltered. Sammy Pierce tried in the early 1960s, as did Cycle magazine founder and ex-Indian racer Floyd Clymer with his Enfield and Velocette-powered Indians. Various entrepreneurs purloined the Indian name, splashing it on wholly unworthy machines ranging from mini bikes to mopeds.
The brand got a serious shot at revival in 1998, when the Indian Motorcycle Company of America set up shop in Gilroy, Calif. The Gilroy company initially used H-D clone S&S engines to power its bikes, but it introduced an all-new 100ci 45-degree V-twin, the Powerplus, before it folded in 2003.
That engine was acquired by British private equity firm Stellican Limited when it bought the Indian name in 2004, and Stellican used the Powerplus as the foundation for a new range of Indians that went into production in 2009 at their Indian Motorcycle Company in Kings Mountain, N.C.
Stellican’s timing couldn’t have been worse: Its new bikes went into production just as the global financial crisis hit, and sales of new $32,000-plus Indians were feeble at best. Stellican threw in the towel in early 2011, selling Indian to powersports giant Polaris Industries in April of that year.
A $3-billion-a-year company, Polaris entered the motorcycle market in 1997, when it launched Victory Motorcycles. Following its purchase of Indian, Polaris announced it would build a final, limited edition range of Indian Chief models powered by the Powerplus V-twin. It was no secret, however, that Polaris’ real ambition was to build its own engine to power a new Indian motorcycle.
That engine is now reality, and it’s set to power a new Indian motorcycle in 2014, with engines to be built at Polaris’ engine assembly plant in Osceola, Wisconson, and complete motorcycles at its Spirit Lake, Iowa, facility.
Called the Thunder Stroke 111 for its 111ci displacement, the new engine was carefully crafted to invoke Indians of yore, more specifically Indian Chiefs of the late 1940s. Featuring overhead valves for a low profile, the new air/oil-cooled 1,811cc 49-degree V-twin boasts sequential electronic fuel injection and a 6-speed transmission. Polaris hasn’t given horsepower figures, but pegs torque at a healthy 115ft/lb. The two-valve-per-cylinder pushrod mill features three camshafts (one for each intake valve, with the exhaust valves sharing a cam). Primary drive is by gear, like early Indians, with final drive by toothed belt. Polaris claims to have subjected the new engine to the equivalent of a million test miles, with “hundreds of thousands” of miles of onroad testing. Polaris showed off the new engine at Daytona Bike Week, housing it in the “Spirit of Munro,” a custom homage to Burt Munro, who in 1967 broke the under-1,000cc land speed record on a 1920-based Indian Scout.
So will this be the Indian revival that sticks? Given Polaris’ success with its snowmobile and ATV divisions, and its experience launching Victory, we’re betting on seeing new Indians on the road for years to come.