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- Written by Carole Nash Editor
- Created: 08 May 2008
The Indian story is a saga of triumph, betrayal, fraud and fantastically fat motorcycles - and that’s just the first 20 years of the company’s life!
Perhaps the finest Indian was the Chief, a four stroke V-twin with the strangely attractive 1940s art deco styling so beloved of American juke box designers. The Chief was also an innovative and durable motorcycle, which eventually made it a prime candidate for the retro revival entrepreneurs of modern times.
Whoever eventually wins the battle to use the Indian name on a volume production run of V-twin motorcycles, certainly has a lot to live up to with any 21st century Chief.
The handlebars are massively wide, the bike itself is long, low and heavy, and its big V-twin engine thuds away gently down below. If I lean forward over the shiny chromed headlamp nacelle I can make out the huge skirted front fender with its running light in the shape of a warrior in head-dress. And this bike I´m riding isn´t some Japanese copy of a two-wheeled American icon, it´s the real thing - a genuine, brand new, 1999-model Indian Chief.
At least, it certainly seems that way. The legal battles are not yet all over, and there are people who say that the first new Indian for more than 45 years is nothing more than a Harley clone with old-style badges and a set of fancy fenders. But be that as it may, this Chief is being built by the Indian Motorcycle Company right now, in a big factory near San Francisco, and if you´ve got $24,000 to spare you can go out and buy one.
After years of being dragged through the dust by a succession of cowboys, Indian is fighting back.
The tangled and often sordid Indian story reached a climax last November at a court-room in Denver, Colorado, where two rival groups, each claiming rights to the famous old name, met in a heated confrontation. When the smoke cleared, a Scottish-born Canadian named Murray Smith, leader of the Indian Motorcycle Company, emerged holding the scalp of his rival Lonnie Labriola, whose Eller Industries group had originally been awarded the name, and whose prototype Chief now seems unlikely to reach production.
The fuss surrounding Indian is easy to understand because this was one of the great American marques, and the last of Harley´s rivals to go under.
Indian was founded in 1901 by former bicycle racers George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom, and rapidly became successful. Early board-race stars and record-breaking long distance riders such as Jake De Rosier and Erwin ‘Cannonball´ Baker helped make the firm from Springfield in Massachusetts the biggest American manufacturer in the early Twenties.
Famous V-twin roadsters including the Powerplus, and later the middleweight Scout and large-capacity Chief, kept Indian healthy into the Forties. The firm also built an in-line four, after taking over Ace in 1927. But a move to vertical twins in the late Forties proved disastrous. Sales and profitability of the V-twins also dropped, and Indian ceased production in 1953.
Although the Indian name was used to sell bikes made in Britain by Royal Enfield and Matchless, and later small bikes built in Italy and Taiwan, its use faded in the Eighties.
Interest in Indian reawakened in the early Nineties when, with Harley sales booming, it became clear that there was room in the market for its old rival. Here´s where the story gets messy.
Two men independently claimed the Indian name, each with the stated intention of producing high-quality V-twin motorcycles. Unfortunately they not only failed to build any bikes, but showed no sign of intending to do so.
First came Philip S Zanghi II, a Californian businessman who in 1990 claimed to have bought rights to the Indian name from the last person to use it for selling mopeds in the Seventies. Zanghi announced plans for an exotic new Indian Chief, to be built in numbers limited to 100 and sold at a high price. He began selling Indian merchandise, ranging from leather jackets to jewellery, and toured the world selling Indian import rights - for which he had no proof of ownership - for tens of thousands of dollars apiece.
Zanghi gained a rival in Wayne Baughman, a former non-franchised car salesman (you couldn´t make some of this stuff up!) from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He also claimed Indian rights, and announced plans for a new Scout model, powered by a 1410cc V-twin engine. When I visited him in January 1993 he insisted that the Scout would be in production within six months. As his only prototype comprised an old Indian engine fixed to an aftermarket Harley frame by plastic zip-ties, this seemed optimistic (although his Indian tee-shirts and jewellery were nice).
Needless to say, neither of these characters built any bikes. Zanghi ended up in prison for a variety of offences including fraud, and Baughman extracted several million dollars from investors and enthusiasts, without producing anything in return.
Two years ago the much-abused Indian name ended up in the hands of the Sterling Consulting Corporation, a Colorado-based receivership. Sterling´s Rick Block attempted to resolve the ownership issue, and to reimburse all those owed money by various Indian enterprises by selling the name for $20 million.
Enter Lonnie Labriola, who raised several million dollars, pledged the rest, and formed a deal with the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians, to build bikes on their land in Oregon.
Eller Industries, Labriola´s firm, commissioned James Parker, best known for designing the forkless front end of Yamaha´s GTS1000, to create a prototype Chief model. Roush Industries, famous for its work with NASCAR racers, was hired to develop its V-twin engine.
At last things were getting serious. High-profile names including Bob Lutz, recently retired Chrysler vice-chairman, were on board as consultants. Parker´s prototype, built following a $1.5 million investment, looked stylish and innovative. Roush´s work on an aircooled, 1480cc V-twin was well under way, although the prototype due to be unveiled last November had an engine cast from resin.
Then came drama, as Rick Block, the receiver, got a restraining order preventing the Eller bike from being shown, claiming the firm had defaulted on payments. In November a court in Denver, Colorado instead awarded the rights to the rival Indian Motorcycle Company, based in Toronto, Canada. That firm´s boss, Murray Smith, had succeeded in merging several Indian-related firms, raising $17 million to pay the receiver, and taking over the California Motorcycle Company (CMC), whose 1998 output of 1500 bikes, powered by S&S V-twin motors, made it the largest of the ‘Harley clone´ manufacturers.
By the time of the court hearing Smith´s group had also built the first few dozen examples of the Limited Edition 1999 Indian Chief at CMC´s fast-expanding factory in Gilroy, California. Like some CMC bikes the Chief is powered by a 1442cc Harley Evo-based V-twin. Given the traditional rivalry between Harley and Indian owners (summed-up by the old rhyme: ‘You´ll never wear out the Indian Scout, or its brother the Indian Chief. They´re built like rocks to take hard knocks, it´s the Harleys that cause the grief´), its no surprise that some people are unimpressed.
What is surprising is that 53-year-old Smith, who emigrated to Canada from Dundee with his family as a child, accepts their point of view.
"The people who are calling the Chief a Harley clone tend to be the real Indian enthusiasts, and I don´t disagree with them," he says. "This is a short-term measure. Trade-mark law works on the basis of `use it or lose it´, so we´ve come out with a motorcycle. In the meantime we´re working on a completely new engine, which will power the 2000 model year Chief that we will release in August."
Smith, who has owned a number of companies including several radio stations, seems refreshingly different from the likes of Zanghi and Baughman. He says he´s a genuine motorcycle fan who acquired the Indian name in Canada, and has now raised a total of $53 million to pay the receiver, buy and invest in CMC and new models, and consolidate the trademark in many countries including the States.
Although Eller has twice appealed, and could do so again, Smith´s victory seems complete - to the disgust of Lonnie Labriola.
"I got screwed in a federal court-room," he says. "The receiver pulled our contract out when we were seven days late on payment." Labriola insists he could have found the necessary money, especially as an extension to the deadline had been verbally agreed, and that the verdict is suspicious. He says he intends to proceed with development of a range of bikes designed by James Parker. But both he and Parker accept that this will be much harder without the Indian name.
Receiver Block is unrepentant, and convinced that the better side won.
"Eller was in default; they never had the money. Murray Smith stepped up to bat with cash in the bank, and started writing cheques immediately. His group had resolved some trademark issues in Canada and elsewhere, and had a motorcycle ready that day. They´re in business right now with a motorcycle in the market, which certainly would not have been the case with Eller."
For the Indian Motorcycle Company the Limited Edition Chief, of which 1100 units will be built this year, is merely the start of an ambitious campaign to become a high-volume manufacturer, and to expand interests in Indian-branded clothing and cafes.
Smith says the new motor, due in August, has been under development for over two years. "It´s an aircooled, 42-degree V-twin with pushrods and fuel-injection, in 88 and 100 cubic inch [1442 and 1640cc] capacity."
Power output is estimated at 75bhp.
Next year´s production target is a hefty ten-fold increase to 11,000, rising further to 25,000 in 2001 and 40,000 the following year. Smith plans to set up 250 dealers in America, and to establish an export network as soon as rights are agreed. He´s currently negotiating with a firm that claims UK rights, but declines to say who it is.
"I´m hoping we´ll have that resolved and will be shipping bikes to Britain within 30 to 90 days," he says.
"We own rights in Canada, the US, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, and we´re in negotiation with a lot more, including several in Europe. For Indian´s 100th anniversary in 2001 we´ll introduce a Scout model, a sportier V-twin with a smaller frame, that will be more suitable for European roads.
We know that there´s resistance to the Indian name because of all the troubles that have gone before, but we´ve not been damaged by it because we´ve put our money where our mouth is,"
"We came to this game with $50 million in our pocket, we settled all the disputes within the estate, we bought a motorcycle company and we built a bike - all in advance of even owning the trademark rights.
I think that by making the investment in bricks and mortar, dealerships, retail stores and more motorcycles that the confidence will return very quickly. We´re the best shot that Indian has for coming back - and we´re going to do whatever it takes."
Riding the new Chief
Logic tells you that this is a marriage made in Hell. The new Indian is nothing more than a Harley clone with big fenders and a host of other styling cues lifted from the real Chiefs that last rolled out of the Springfield factory they called the Wigwam in 1953. Surely these guys cannot be serious?
But when you take a look round the Limited Edition Chief (and the thing´s so big it takes a while), admire that classical shape and drink in the details like the sweep of that big front fender and the little warrior´s-head light on its top, it´s easy to see why the Indian legend has remained so strong for all these years.
And despite all the traditional Indian-Harley rivalry and the merits or otherwise of S&S´s copycat 45-degree V-twin motors, it has to be said that the new Indian firm has done a great job to produce this bike so quickly.
Cynicism draining fast, I couldn´t help grinning broadly as I slung a leg over the incredibly low (610mm) fringed Corbin seat, and reached up to the gleaming handlebars that stretched out and back from the shiny chromed nacelle.
From the quality of the Chief it´s clear that CMC didn´t become the largest of the Harley-clone firms by accident. They know how to make a big V-twin look good, and how important finish and neat details are to people prepared to pay $24,000 for a bike that´s not much faster than the 50-year-old model it resembles.
Period details such as the running lights either side of the distinctively shaped headlamp blend surprisingly well with modern necessities like the indicators. Paintwork comes in a choice of no fewer than ten colour schemes. The simple tank-mounted instrument panel contains just a small speedo and five warning lights. The only things I didn´t like were the plastic fuel tap and the switchgear, the latter a Harleyesque feature that would have been easy to improve on.
The motor is a 1442cc (88ci) S&S Super Stock unit, as used by various clone-bike firms, pushrod-operated, polished and modified with no more than the odd Indian logo and a teardrop-shaped airfilter cover. It is rubber-mounted in a CMC-made twin-downtube frame that uses two hidden, horizontally mounted shocks from American firm Progressive Suspension. The kicked-out, chrome-shrouded forks are from Showa of Japan, wheels are wire-spoked 16-inchers, and there´s a big drilled disc gripped by a four-piston caliper at each end.
With an enormous 1752mm wheelbase, a claimed 295kg of weight and a low-revving V-twin engine, you´d expect the Chief to ride like a two-wheeled Cadillac, and you´d be right. The S&S lump fired up eagerly with a deep roar through its barely-silenced Vance & Hines made pipes, idled happily and pulled from low down with an effortless, ultra-torquey feel.
Peak power is likely to be little more than 50bhp, and my ride through the Daytona streets didn´t give enough space to discover the modest top speed. Not that this bike encourages flat-out thrashing, anyway, although the motor was reasonably smooth. The five-speed box was good, but on the open road you´d only lift your left boot off the board for as long as it took to short-shift into top for a lazy, low-revving cruise.
Handling was not exactly nimble, with all that weight, length and trail, but the Chief was manageable provided it wasn´t hurried. The tiller-like bars made steering quite light despite the geometry, and the low centre of gravity helped stability. Soft suspension gave a comfortable ride, but meant the front end dived when the front brake lever was given the firm squeeze needed to slow the big bike with any speed.
Speed? Handling? What the hell have they got to do with it? Even most cruisers deliver much more performance for a fraction of the price. But the Indian combines laid-back style with a uniquely nostalgic feel that only a bike with that famous curly script on the tank could provide. Even if you don´t accept that this reborn Chief is the real thing, it´s rolling, rumbling proof that Indian is finally back.
Get motorcycle insurance for the Indian Chief with Carole Nash.
Engine Air-cooled 45-degree S&S V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) -bhp @ -rpm
Compression ratio -
Front suspension Showa telescopic
Rear suspension Twin Progressive Suspension shocks, adjustments for preload and rebound damping
Front brake Four-piston caliper, 292mm disc
Rear brake Four-piston caliper, 292mm disc
Front wheel 3.00 x 16in; wire spoked
Rear wheel 3.50 x 16in; wire spoked
Front tyre 130/90 x 16in Firestone
Rear tyre 130/90 x 16in Firestone
Seat height 610mm
Dry weight 295kg approx
Top speed - mph
Fuel capacity 19 litres
Current price £-