The American motorcycle is a rich historical topic for those motorcycle enthusiasts interested in the early beginnings of the motorcycle and its role within industry and the military. For the most part when you think about American motorcycles the name Harley Davidson comes to mind, but few people are aware of the Indian motorcycle and its rich heritage in American culture
The Indian motorcycle enjoyed great popularity and success from the early 1900’s until the 1950’s as a rugged do it all kind of American motorcycle. While Harley Davidson had all but cornered the law enforcement and military markets, the Indian motorcycle was considered a working mans machine and saw duty as the motorcycle of choice with racers, stuntmen and daredevil record setters and breakers.
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By the 1950’s the decline of the Indian motorcycle company began rapidly tearing at the fragile corporate fabric due to poor product design and engineering and by the late 1960’s the Indian motorcycle was all but forgotten and only remembered in passing by post WWII historians and educated motorcycle enthusiasts.
Originally known as the Hendee manufacturing Company, owned by George Hendee in 1897 the company manufactured bicycles. The bicycles were marketed as the “Silver King” and “Silver Queen”, and both had marginal success, but it wasn’t until the “American Indian” line was introduced that the company realized real success. The American Indian bicycle became highly popular and quickly was simply referred to as just “Indian” which was a huge success in export markets.
In 1900 Carl Oscar Hedstrom joined the small company. Both Hendee and Hedstrom were bicycle racers but they had teamed up to build and market motorcycles. They developed a 1.75 bhp single cylinder engine model in Springfield Massachusetts. Their motorcycle was successful and sold well into the next decade.
In 1901 a prototype as well as two production motorcycles were designed and tested, and in 1902 the first motorcycles manufactured under the name “Indian” were sold to the public. These early models were eye catching with their unique diamond shaped frames, chain drives and a slick streamlined style. In 1903 co-founder and chief engineer Oscar Hedstrom set the world motorcycle speed record at 56 mph.
In 1904 Indian introduced their new motorcycle line with the deep red paint that would become the company’s life long trademark. Production of Indian motorcycles steadily increased form roughly 500 motorcycles annually to a peak of 32,000 in 1931. Indian licensed the manufacturing of the Indian single engine until 1906 to an Illinois company the Aurora Firm.
From 1905 through 1925 Indian enjoyed probably it greatest moments of success with the introduction of their first V-Twin factory racing design that was used in 1906 in highly aggressive racing and record breaking victories. While Harley Davidson was focused in marketing their motorcycles to law enforcement, the military and municipal governments, Indian had a full time racing and stunt team that was in the wind setting and breaking records, the extensive amount of road and track time helped Indian gain a substantial edge in technical advancements making their motorcycle far superior than their competitors.
From 1911 to 1924 the shear amount of winning races and motorcycle racing records broken by the Indian Motorcycle Factory racing team made the Indian far more popular than all other American motorcycles, including Harley Davidson within the ranks of professional motorcyclists, stunt riders, and dare-devils.
From the outside looking in, the Indian Motorcycle Company looked like an invincible force within the motorcycle industry whose factory racing team remained unbeatable, which was reinforced with the company’s superior dominance in both technical advancements and innovation. Looking at the company from a financial and managerial standpoint brought up questions of how could a company lacking any real business management skills have made it this far without going bankrupt.
In the midst of the long list of amazing motorcycle speed and distance records set by the Indian factory racing team, turmoil within the company’s management and directors brewed and in 1913 chief engineer and co-founder Oscar Hedstrom left Indian after it was discovered that the board of directors were involved in nefarious scheme to inflate the company’s stock prices, and only 3 years later Indians other co-founder George Hendee resigned from the company.
While technical advancements and innovation flourished at the Indian Motorcycle Company, poor marketing and management decisions continued to weaken the company’s financial stability and reputation. At the onset of World War I a decision was made to sell the majority of its Powerplus motorcycle inventory to the United States Government leaving their substantial customer base of Indian motorcycle dealerships high and dry. This patriotic but foolish decision would hot the company hard creating yet another financial hardship that Indian never recovered from.
Even though Indian enjoyed its share of the profits from the 1920’s business boom; the company’s decision to neglect their network of Indian motorcycle dealerships in favor of selling their motorcycles to the U.S. Military during WWI caused Indian to lose its position as leader in the U.S. market to Harley Davidson.
It seemed as with every leap forward the company made with technical innovations it took multiple steps backwards as the result of poor management decisions.
The 42-degree V-Twin Scout and Chief were introduced to the general public in the 1920’s and both quickly because Indians most successful models, earning the reputation as sturdy and dependable motorcycles. While Indians innovations and technical advances continued to flourish and prove time after time that the Indian Motorcycle Company was definitely a leader in motorcycle technology at every turn the company made in technological advancements was followed by missteps in management, which slowly helped to drain the company’s finances and development resources.
The one saving grace that helped Indian continue to keep its corporate head above water was the amazing feats the factory racing team accomplished in setting and breaking motorcycle racing and speed records.
One of the most popular and talked about members of the Indian factory racing team was George “Cannon Ball” Baker. He was the most famous Indian factory racer who set long distance racing records. His 1914 long distance run from San Diego to New York in 11 days 12 hours and 10 minutes was like a double-edged sword that affirmed his racing prowess while demonstrating to the world that the Indian motorcycle was an indestructible American made motorcycle powerhouse!
As the general public was clamoring to see these wild and daring motorcycle stuntmen perform death-defying acts traveling carnivals and sideshows roamed across the country performing their motorcycle stunts to packed crowds. Similar to the early 1900’s Motordrome in Coney Island fearless motorcycle mad men performed a variety of stunts and tricks to an ever-gasping audience. In the 1920’s the infamous “Wall of Death” was invented where motorcyclists raced around the inside of a vertical wooden track as the mesmerized crowd watched on.
Because Indian had a first class reputation as the leader and champion in motorcycle racing, the motorcycle of choice for these daring sideshow motorcycle stuntmen was naturally the Indian, and it seemed that one of the unspoken perks of purchasing an Indian motorcycle was that it came with plenty of help and information on customizing it for various uses in racing and performing stunts.
Among the death defying men who risked life and limb performing in those carnival sideshows included a few daring women as well. The 1920’s wall of death in Coney Island featured Hazel Watkins, with Cookie Ayers-Crum in the later 1920’s and 30’s.
The preferred Indian motorcycle for almost all of these wild and daring stuntman and stunt woman was the Indian Scout.
The Indian motorcycle company continued to flourish as the motorcycle of choice for those daring American men and women who wanted the best in motorcycle technology and performance, and while Harley Davidson was considered more popular by the working class, they just couldn’t meet the level of competition that was owned by Indian.
What Indian lacked was a marketing and promotion savvy management team because at every turn Harley Davidson was being promoted as the true American motorcycle and for whatever the reason Indian couldn’t muster the marketing angle that would help them propel past Harley.
By the end of WWII the legacy of the Indian motorcycle was all but finished, while there were a multitude of failed attempts to resurrect the Indian name, each attempt failed and there was even a major scandal when it was discovered that Floyd Clymer who had been promoting an Indian motorcycle line from the early 1960’s until 1977 was actually doing so without legal standing to the name or trademark.
In 2011 Polaris Industries bought the Indian name and trademark and began production of their 111 cubic inch “Thunder Stroke” model featuring an S&S engine which made its debut in March 2013 and will be unveiling the all new Indian Chief at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally this August.
The Indian motorcycle is a true American classic with a rich and full history of technology and innovation that was unmatched for many years, and while when you think of “outlaw” or biker type motorcycles the name Harley Davidson comes to mind, but ask any old school motorcycle lover and chances are you will also hear the name Indian!
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