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.

Each engine is hand-assembled in-house. While Indian resisted the temptation to tread too closely in the path of tradition by reverting to the hallowed 42-degree cylinder angle of vintage Tomahawk engines, today's Power Plus 105 motor has its Magneti Marelli EFI's single 52mm throttle body mounted on the left--same as the Indians of yore, and the opposite of the older Harley Evolution 45-degree V-twin motor, which it otherwise resembles. There's a single injector per cylinder, and a separate lambda probe oxygen sensor in each exhaust header, so the EFI effectively treats the twin as two singles. The bright, double-skinned, stainless steel, 2-into-1 exhaust system has chrome outers and a three-way catalyst in the forward part of the right-side silencer. The six-speed Baker gearbox bolts to the back of the motor, with a chain primary and Gates Kevlar/carbon belt final drive. Indian claims an output of 72 bhp at the crank at 5000 rpm, with 100 lb.-ft. of torque peaking at just 3200 revs.

The Chief's robust steel single-tube backbone frame bifurcates at the bottom of the front downtube to form a duplex cradle, into which the engine and transmission are solidly bolted. The 41mm Paioli fork is set at a kicked-out, 34-degree rake with 5.9 inches of trail, and delivers 4.25 inches of travel. The Fox gas shock is offset to the left to provide space for the battery box, and is operated directly off the substantial box-section steel swingarm without benefit of a link, providing a taut 2.9 inches of rear-wheel movement. The single Brembo 292mm floating disc up front is gripped by a two-piston caliper from the Italian benchmark brake specialist, with the same-size rear disc operated by a single-piston caliper--surprising in view of cruiser riders' penchant for using only the rear brake. Wheelbase is 68.4 inches, while dry weight for the base-model Chief Standard comes in at 738 pounds.

Okay, there's the canvas--now paint the picture. That was the task awaiting Indian's in-house style council, headed by none other than Julius. "I'm not an engineer, so I leave that to Nick and his team, but I have very strong views on aesthetics," Julius says with some passion. "After extensive study of Indian's heritage, I knew what I wanted to achieve in terms of styling the bikes, and I think we've got there. I hate 'retro,' because that's a fashion term. I'd compare what we're doing with Indian to a modern Aston Martin or Bentley motor car. The design references to the brand's historic past are all there, but in a modern context, with an accent on the quality of manufacture, and of the materials used."

Indian has delineated four distinct, styled-up sub-sections of the Chief family, all carrying the same chrome-caked triple-headlamp front end. Starting at $30,999 is the single-seat Standard, available only in red or black, with short fenders. A thousand dollars more buys you the Deluxe, a dual-seat version with upgraded hardware like chrome brake calipers, while for $33,999 there's the Roadmaster tourer, another dual-seat version with more modern styling that includes a windshield. Top of the line is the fully loaded Chief Vintage at $35,500, an exquisitely detailed testament to Indian's yesterdays also fitted with a windshield, but complete with all the relevant period design cues headlined by those deeply valanced full fenders derived from the 1940 Chief model. Alongside that comes a two-tone paint scheme combining any of the 10 tints on the Indian color cards, plus Metzeler whitewall tires and clip-on QD leather saddlebags (with optional fringes). An option on all models is a leather seat in any one of five colors made by Milsco in Milwaukee--the very same firm that produced seats for Indian back in 1937, and still has the blueprints for the designs of yore. All the hardware on the Vintage is available as an option on the other three versions, plus there's room for bespoke color schemes and add-on upgrades.

Without the pressure of outside money eager for a fast payoff, the reborn Indian plans to ramp up production gradually. It aims to deliver just over 600 units by July 2009, 1500 in 2010 and 2200 the year after that. As part of that growth, in 2011 Indian plans to revive another storied name from its past: the Scout, priced around $25,000, using the same Power Plus 105 engine on a different platform, recalling the pre-WWII Scout as a smaller, lighter, sportier bike. This will be aimed at shorter male riders and females--but still with the same accent on quality.

"I want to sell solid, beautiful, well-made bikes that have every attention to detail taken care of, using the best quality materials like leather and deeply chromed metalwork," says Julius. "I look at one of our motorcycles not only as a performance product, but as a piece of jewelry--so the Indian headdress lamp on the front fender is made of solid glass, not plastic, and the instrument surround on the tank is metal, not polymer." With 20 dealers around the nation opening their doors by July, the first overseas distributor established in Paris this summer, and the brand set to debut its bikes at the Milan Show in November, the Indian revival is clearly spreading its wings.

But with the present economic downturn, can a start-up luxury brand like Indian hope to survive? "Virtually every company on this planet will get through these difficult times, and Indian is one of those," Julius states confidently. "We're still as convinced as we were when we first bought it that Indian has a great future. Our business plan has not changed one iota as a result of what's happening right now. But we're prepared to stand or fall on our product--it's the only thing we have. We expect to be judged purely by our motorcycles, and how the public views them."

Funny, that's exactly what John Bloor said back in 1990, on the eve of his re-launch of Triumph...

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