Indian Motorcycle Company - Indian Returns

Back On The Warpath

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Tom Riles

The magic of the Indian name remains as strong as ever, a reminder that there once was a second great American brand, founded in 1901--two years before Harley-Davidson. Unlike The Motor Company, however, the historic Massachusetts-based marque went broke the first time half a century ago. Successive steps down the comeback trail have all ended in disaster--none more so than the late-2003 collapse of the Gilroy, California-based Indian Motorcycle Company.

Now, the latest attempt to set Indian on the warpath again is reaching fruition with the delivery of the first motorcycles produced by the born-again Indian Motorcycle Company--an entirely new entity with no corporate connections to the previous firm, beyond the rights to the hallowed name. And this time around things may be different, for Indian's 49-year-old Executive Chairman, Stephen Julius, and his partner, 48-year-old President and CEO Steve Heese, have a proven track record.

Julius' London-based Stellican Ltd. focuses on reviving distressed companies with well-known brand names, where the principals not only invest their money to promote a turnaround, but also play an active management role. "The crucial element in our strategy is that it's our money that funds the turnaround, which means we can work to a scale and a timeframe dictated by us, rather than by outside investors," says Heese.

In '04, the pair turned their attention to Indian. "I have a particular interest in heritage brands, and a speciality in both bankruptcy and in deals involving trademarks," says Julius, who until acquiring the company had never owned a motorcycle, but now has a collection of Indians and rides regularly. "Indian was all of that, and it especially has a great name with substantial heritage. We purchased all of the Gilroy Indian intellectual property and trademarks, including all of the engineering drawings. Then I spent two years developing a business plan addressing major strategic issues."

That two-year planning period entailed a thorough grounding in the motorcycle industry. "One of the benefits of total ignorance is you have to educate yourself from scratch," says Julius. "We studied all the revival or start-up projects--what John Bloor has done at Triumph; what Polaris did with Victory; plus Excelsior-Henderson, MV Agusta, MZ and, of course, the Harvard Business School studies on Ducati, and the decline of the U.S. and UK motorcycle industries."

In July 2006, they bought a factory in North Carolina. "We wanted to avoid all the excesses of the previous Indian, but needed a self-contained facility where we could build our own engines," says Julius.

It's a mark of Indian's focus on the product that of its 48 employees, 23 are engineers, headed by Romanian-born Nick Glaja, formerly the Principal Engineer for Powertrain Technology at Harley-Davidson, and before that Powertrain Group Manager for Victory.

"Initially, we had three choices," explains Julius. "One was to go and buy someone else's engine, but we wanted to develop a serious company with genuine credentials, which meant we had to have our own powerplant. But do we start from scratch or take the Gilroy Indian and put it right? We decided to take what Indian already had: the Power Plus motor. We stayed true to the design, which I think they got right. It was a classic air-cooled V-twin, but it needed to work properly. We've spent the last two years completely redoing all the internals, and although the engine looks similar to before, it's 90 percent brand-new."

The result of that strategy is the four different 2009 Indian Chief models that kicked off production in December '08. These are available in 23 different guises using a single platform, and are all powered by the same air/oil-cooled, 45-degree Power Plus V-twin. Nicknamed the "Bottlecap" on account of its fluted rocker covers, the '09 motor has been slightly cubed up via an overbore, and now measures 3.966 x 4.25 inches for a capacity of 105 cubic inches (1720cc), up from 100ci (1638cc) in Gilroy format. Its distinctive round-finned, polished-edge aluminum cylinders house forged, three-ring, flat-top Mahle pistons with pronounced valve inserts and short wristpins to reduce mass. These run in Nikasil-plated bores that replace the previous cast-iron liners, while the plain-bearing crank features Harley-style knife-and-fork conrods and heat-treated flywheels to increase tensile strength. The two valves per cylinder, each with a single beehive-shaped progressive-rate spring, are pushrod-operated via hydraulic tappets, with a single four-lobe camshaft gear-driven off the crank. The valves are set at an included angle of 51.5 degrees in the four-stud cylinder heads and measure 48.28mm for the nitride-steel intakes and 41.02mm for the exhausts made from Inconel 751--an exotic, heat-resistant, light-alloy material extensively used in World Superbike racing, here employed to counter high exhaust temperatures. A similar strategy lies behind the extensive dual squish areas of the wedge-shaped, 9:1-compression combustion chambers, which speed burning and thus reduce the time that metal components are exposed to high temp-eratures.

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