"A wholly American product in the pioneering tradition"
The Indian Motorcycle Company began life, as so many companies do, quite modestly. A young engineer named Carl Oscar Hedstrom built a 'pacer' for use in training racing cyclists. He used an existing engine and designed a new carburetor. His design caught the attention of George Hendee, an entrepreneur from Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they built a small manufacturing plant, which began production in 1901, with their first motorcycle, the 1901 Single. The 1.75 horsepower engine may not sound like much today, but Hedstrom's design was a marvel, incorporating an all-chain drive rather than the rubber belts which were the standard for the time.
Hedstrom's engineering skills and Hendee's business drive helped the company take off quickly. By 1904, production stood at 596 cycles, and they had won a Gold Medal for Mechanical Excellence at the St. Louis Exposition.
Many design advances were implemented over the years, many of which were industry firsts: fully adjustable front suspension, V-twin engine, electric starter, cradle-spring frame. (For example, the Hendee Special, with an electric start and modern electrical system, was produced in 1913 (the same year that Hedstrom left the company.)
Wins and Awards
In 1907, their 39-cubic inch Twin won the first 1000 Mile Reliability Trail (now the International Six Day Enduro) in England. This helped to publicise the Indian marque in Europe and abroad. In the same year, NYPD began using the Twin.
Indian motorcycles won at the Isle of Man TT and many other races over the years. Unlike Harley-Davidson, they had always relied on race wins to encourage development and get in the public eye.
By 1913, Indian had captured nearly 42% of the US market, with production at 31,950 machines, and by 1916, this had risen to over 41,000, mainly supplying the war effort.
The new engineering brains, Charles Franklin, began development work in 1919 on the famous Indian Scout, a long-wheelbase, low-slung cycle with a three-speed gearbox and a V-twin lump capable of pushing 60 mph. This bike picked the market up following dealer disappoinment during the war years, and won hearts, minds, race wins and endurance records worldwide.
Sadly for Indian, the gains made in the export market in the post-war recovery were slashed in 1925 when the British Government imposed a 33% surcharge tax on imported motorcycles, to encourage and support their domestic manufacturers, BSA, Norton, Triumph and others. Indian's attempts at recovery included the classic and much-loved 101 Scout, a 20hp V-twin capable of 75 mph. With this great top speed coupled with superb acceleration, it quickly became the preferred machine for "wall of death" stunt riders.
The Depression and War
The 1930s brought the Great Depression, and Indian retooled and rethought their marketing strategy to meet the economic conditions. Cheaper and more economical machines were developed and produced, and Indian survived, with Harley-Davidson their only remaining US competitor.
With the Second World War, emphasis shifted once again to supplying the war effort. The French Government's order for 5,000 Chief cycles buoyed the company up, enabling it to continue development of better technology and styling. 1940 saw the famous valanced fenders, and other design improvements including plunger rear suspension. Indian was again at the front edge of the American motorcycle industry, and 1943 saw yet another award, the Army-Navy Production Award. The 841's 90° experimental V-twin engine was developed, a design which surfaced again years later in Moto Guzzi bikes.
1945 saw the first of a series of changes, when the company began a merger with the Torque Engineering Company, to aid in recovery from the recession. Despite an increased market size, Indian had little to offer - the only model to survive was the Chief, using suspension features from the 841, but people were taking more interest in imported lightweight British bikes, and Indian's attempts to meet the market failed due to design flaws and production problems. These issues were compounded by the devaluation of sterling in 1949, making British imports even cheaper.
That year, the company was split - the Atlas Corporation took over manufacturing, and a new company, the Indian Sales Corporation was responsible for marketing and distribution. Despite a newer, bigger Chief, the company was forced to cut production in the 50s, and the company slipped into near-obscurity.
Rescue and Rebirth
There have been many attempts to rescue the name and the marque, all unsuccessful due to legal issues over the trademark, until a 1998 merger involving Indian, the American Indian Motorcycle Company and the California Motorcycle Company. The new Indian Motorcycle Company began manufacturing again in 1999 with the Limited Edition Chief. This has helped to re-establish the name, and whilst in many respects, the company is a shadow of its former self, it can once again hold up its head in pride.