It is the oldest motorcycle brand founded in the United States. It invented the v-twin motorcycle engine, but it also manufactured in-line fours. It swept the podium at the Isle of Man TT, and had an unparalleled racing record among American manufacturers during the early part of the last century. We are talking about Indian Motorcycles, and 2013 is the year everyone will talk about Indian, from cruiser enthusiasts to road racers, and everyone in-between. Why?
Let’s start from the beginning. The first Indian motorcycle was manufactured in 1901, a single cylinder. Indian built its first v-twin motorcycle in 1905, not for the street but for racing. That’s right, racing. It was racing Indian was known for, not cruising or strolling. Great characters like “Cannonball” Baker set records, and Indians swept the podium at the Isle of Man TT in 1911. Indeed, Indians found the podium nine times at the Isle of Man, and dominated board track racing with riders such as Jake DeRosier, who won at least 900 races before his death from injuries at the age of 33.
After purchasing the Ace Motor Corporation in 1927, Indian manufactured a bike it called the 401 for the 1928 model year, featuring an in-line, four-cylinder engine. Indian manufactured at least one four-cylinder model through the 1942 model year. The four-cylinder received many innovative technical changes during its lifespan, and was eventually honored with a US commemorative stamp in 2006.
When new ownership took over Indian in 1945, operations went downhill, and the company eventually went bankrupt in 1953. The next several decades saw many attempts to revive the brand, but none of them had the resources necessary to duplicate the cutting-edge, state-of-the-art machines that were so successful racing early on. Heavy cruisers with heavily valanced fenders were the theme of these mostly underfunded efforts.
Less than two years ago, Polaris Industries acquired Indian Motorcycles. Polaris owns Victory Motorcycles, and now has extensive experience manufacturing two wheelers. Victory Motorcycles have topped JD Power quality ratings more than once, and have a well earned reputation for innovation, particularly when it comes to styling, in the cruiser category. Although less than 15 years old, Victory Motorcycles has also earned a reputation for quality engine design and manufacture, and high performance within the cruiser category.
Polaris industries is the first owner of the Indian brand in modern times to have the financial resources to return the brand to its roots, i.e., class leading technology and design. Polaris made its name in the snowmobile industry, and as a manufacturer of ATVs. Now, however, in addition to motorcycles, Polaris has entered the electric automobile segment.
Polaris has annual sales exceeding 2.5 billion dollars, and has seen profits increase rapidly in recent years. Polaris also has a significant business supplying vehicles to the military.
Polaris has some of the latest design and testing equipment for new products. The best CAD design facilities, and testing facilities that can duplicate accurately different environments and elevations, as well as accelerate wear characteristics in a laboratory setting. Its reputation for quality products is no accident.
Victory motorcycles will live on, but Indian motorcycles will be positioned above Victory, and Indian will have its own staff. Although Polaris has owned Indian less than two years, 2013 will be the last model year of the legacy models, with entirely new models, designed and engineered by Polaris, to be introduced in late 2013 for the 2014 model year.
Recently, MD had the chance with other journalists in Long Beach to meet with Polaris and Indian executives to discuss their plans for the brand. Polaris is very much aware of the performance heritage of Indian. Obviously, the models inherited by Polaris upon its purchase of Indian are purely cruisers, without performance pretensions. Although the company will not reveal any details, we expect that to change.
Conceivably, Indian motorcycles could produce modern, cutting-edge sport bikes and maintain a direct tie to its heritage. Although this may happen eventually, we expect the first Polaris-designed Indians to fall within the cruiser category, but nevertheless pay homage to the high performance heritage with unique technology, and performance goals not commonly found in the segment. Indian has a sound file on its web site, which allows you to listen to its first Polaris-built engine. We think it sounds like a twin, with a somewhat lighter flywheel and higher redline than most large cruiser engines.
Given the quality, design, fit and finish of current Victory machines, we have extremely high expectations for the new Indian designs. Don’t expect a cookie cutter cruiser line-up to be unveiled by Indian next Fall.
Could Polaris eventually return Indian to the top of the world stage in terms of technology, design and performance? Only time will tell, but we think Polaris has the resources, and track record to do it. We know Polaris itself expects nothing less. We could see it in the eyes of Indian’s new staff, and sense it when they spoke about the responsibility of moving this storied marque into the future.