Indian Motorcycles has taken a tremendous beating in the decades since the 1953 closure of the factory proper, but the nobility of the brand is so deep and the cultural imprint so strong that it has endured. In recent years, Indian was a bit like watching a tough but aging prize fighter getting his ass kicked in his “comeback,” to the point that you almost wished he’d just go down and get his suffering—and that of his loyal fans—over with.
But there’s just too much heart in Indian for anybody to give up.
Prior to the Polaris purchase, the effort that made the most effort was the most recent made by London-based private-equity firm Stellican, which worked on the existing platform it inherited from the Gilroy days to produce the 2009 Chief and its variants in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. We had one here to test (November, 2009) and, while pretty, the bike left me (the photo model) wanting in most elements of its riding experience. Polaris was well aware of the situation with those machines, to the point that it would not provide the press with test units once it owned the brand. Stellican had successfully revived Chris-Craft boats, so its heart was in the right place. But relaunching Indian with expensive cruisers on what was essentially Harley aftermarket architecture right when the economy collapsed was not good timing.
Not that the market in 2011, when Polaris bought Indian, was ripping along beautifully. Nor is it amazing now in 2013 as Indian makes it debut, but Harley-Davidson is still doing more than $1 billion per quarter in motorcycles only (not including gear, parts, clothing, etc.) on three engines and five chassis, with target shipments of new bikes set around 260,000 units. You just can’t ignore that. Which is why everybody makes a Harley knockoff of some kind, all looking for a piece of this very big action.
But this Indian is not a Harley knockoff. It is American-made, powerfully linked to Indians of yore through its styling and all-new from the ground up. And while a huge amount of damage has been done to the brand over the decades, its strength has endured. Now it rolls forward, back by world-class engineering and manufacturing.
Why the Chief and not, say, something sportier like a Scout? “A couple of different reasons,” says Gary Gray, director of product for Indian. “One is we did a lot of research on the heritage of the brand and where it left off in 1953, and looked at what consumers remember. The Chief is at the top of what people think about when they think about Indian Motorcycles, so that’s where you start. Two, as much we like to think about this as glamorous, and art and fun to do, it’s a business at the same time. When you look at the motorcycle market today, heavyweight cruisers and baggers are huge right now. So from a financial standpoint, it also looks really attractive. Those two things together drove me to say, this is the place to start, to use that as a foundation for the brand. Once we’ve developed a strong foundation, once we’ve heavily tied us and our consumers back to the heritage of the brand, we can look at spreading out from there.”
It’s not a small job to start from nothing and deliver running, all-new motorcycles in the span of just over two years. It doesn’t hurt that Polaris built Victory from scratch 15 years ago and that key people involved back then are in place with Indian. Gray is one of those people, first hired as an engineer at Polaris in 1996. He was part of the design team on the first Victory, the V92C, and has been working on motorcycles there ever since.
What lessons were learned from Victory and applied to Indian? “Every one of them!” Gray says with a laugh. “In the beginning, there wasn’t a ton of motorcycle experience at Polaris. We had to develop a lot of it. We were developing a new bike, test strategies, validation strategies and go-to-market strategies all at the same time for the very first time, and that’s a lot of work.”
Gray cites the progression from V92C to Vegas as one of the great leaps forward, then Vegas to Vision as the next, with a smaller jump from Vision to Cross Country. I’ve ridden all these bikes over the years and, in every step, the improvements from aesthetics to refinement to overall performance have been very clear. You also see it on the manufacturing and design side with the cast aluminum frames, for example, an element in play on the Chief, despite its “heritage brand” positioning.
Continues Gray, “The jump when we got to do a new engine and a ground-up new bike for Indian is another huge one, bigger than from V92C to Vegas or Vegas to Vision because there is a whole new engine and a much bigger team and undertaking. It’s a much bigger leap forward in terms of refinement, driveability, low-speed handling, high-speed handling.”
All of this showed in my first ride on the Chieftain bagger and Chief Vintage, the latter with leather bags and copbike-style windscreen. I flew to a secret location. Okay, I flew to an airport (coughminneaopliscough), then drove to a secret location where the black bikes awaited, their identifying badges and war bonnets taped off for stealth. As if no one would recognize those valanced fenders.
Thumbing the starter on these keyless bikes immediately lets you know that the jewel of the package is the Thunder Stroke 111 V-Twin. This is one of the best sounding engines in a motorcycle, period. Exhaust and intake notes are fantastic, with the engine delivering its own sonic signature.
“We did tons of work in sounds and refinement,” says Gray. “We have a guy with a pretty good musical background who is our NVH [noise, vibration, harshness] engineer, and he’s going to the level of putting gear sets in musical thirds and fifths, so, while we took all the noises out that we could, the tiny bit left, they’re complementary sounds. It’s a whole other level of refinement and detail.”
Power is ample, with torque at a claimed 119.2 foot-pounds at 3000 rpm. You feel that peak as the tach runs through 3K, and acceleration is vigorous for what are pretty heavy bikes. Throttle response across the range is excellent, but the return spring feels a bit light with a somewhat indefinite “on” feeling to indicate when the ride-by-wire butterfly will first react. The gear primary drive features a large wet clutch with excellent feel. I repeatedly launched both bikes hard with no change in friction performance. The 49-degree Vee demands a balancer for smoothness, but there is ample mechanical personality communicated through the bars and floorboards, particularly under power. Serene, smooth cruising at 60 mph shows 2250 rpm.
While the engine is common among the three models, the naked Classic, Vintage and Cheiftain, the frame is not. The Chieftain’s headstock and backbone are a different casting that changes the rake angle. Other than that, the alloy bits are all the same, down to the swingarm.
Suspension for both bikes is surprisingly taut and controlled but not harsh. The fork is a stout 46mm cartridge unit with dual-rate springs. The shock’s preload is adjusted mechanically on the Chiefs and via air pressure on the Chieftain, Schrader valve located under a sidepanel.
On the road, the real difference between the Vintage (and Classic with its identical chassis geometry) comes down to steering feel and cornering behavior. The Vintage’s “cruiser” geometry of 29 degrees and 6.1 inches of trail definitely tips it toward the stable side. Gray says that rider feedback from the target customer dictated this. It makes the steering heavier than on the Chieftain with its 25-degree rake and 5.9-inch trail. Further, the Chieftain uses negative-offset triple-clamps because of the greater loads expected on this more-touring-oriented model. This offset places the fork tubes behind the steering head to put more weight on the front contact patch, which gives more consistent handling when carrying greater loads.
Despite the heavier, fork-mounted fairing (with highly effective electrically adjustable windscreen), the Chieftain (65.7-in. wheelbase) has much lighter steering and better agility than the Vintage (68.1). I did about 80 miles on my riding day and also earlier spent some time at a racetrack (yes!), and even under pretty severe cornering and braking loads (within their design confines), both bikes behaved very well.
Gray says one of the greatest challenges was getting that desired steering feel with those steel valanced fenders and, particularly on the Chieftain, with its fairing, which incorporates a good-sounding stereo and the electric motor for that windscreen. “We worked very hard to concentrate the mass up there as close to the pivot axis as possible. It’s also why we included the light bar and incorporated the lights into the Chieftain fairing. We knew customers would want these things and we wanted to control their placement.”
As the stable, consistent handling showed, the aluminum frame is quite rigid, despite the bare piece weighing just 64 pounds. GVWR is 1385 lb., providing excellent load capacity given the 812- to 848-lb. fully fueled weights.
All bikes come with ABS, cruise control, keyless start, a light bar (or riding lights for the Chieftain) and leather seats. The Vintage adds extra badging, windscreen and leather saddlebags, both items quick release. The Chieftain gets the aforementioned stereo, Bluetooth-push-to-talk hands-free calling and tire-pressure monitors. All these at pretty impressive prices in the segment.
Indian also worked very hard on getting the details right. The real leather seats on the bikes I rode were extremely comfortable. The paint and chrome were both smooth and deep. But one thing we really need to talk about is the oil-filler cap. This is a beautiful chrome piece with nice heft, and it is indexed so that when you screw it in, the Indian head on it faces upright. The first time I noticed it, I mentioned it to Gray. He was immediately defensive yet amused, and said, “Who told you to say that?!” I found out that the first dipstick was plastic, “like something you’d find on your lawnmower,” he said, and that he made a huge push to get this quality piece added, damn the much-increased cost. It became “Gary’s Dipstick.”
|Indian Chief Classic||Indian Chief Vintage||Indian Chieftain|
|INDUCTION||EFI 54mm throttle body||EFI 54mm throttle body||EFI 54mm throttle body|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||46mm cartridge fork||46mm cartridge fork||46mm cartridge fork|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Single shock, preload adjustment||Single shock, preload adjustment||Single shock, preload adjustment|
|FRONT||Dual 300mm disc w/ ABS||Dual 300mm disc w/ ABS||Dual 300mm disc w/ ABS|
|REAR||Single 300mm disc||Single 300mm disc||Single 300mm disc|
|TIRES:||Dunlop American Elite||Dunlop American Elite||Dunlop Elite 3|
|SEAT HEIGHT||26.0 in.||26.0 in.||26.0 in.|
|WHEELBASE||68.1 in.||68.1 in.||65.7 in.|
|TRAIL||6.1 in.||6.1 in.||5.9 in.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||5.5 gal.||5.5 gal.||5.5 gal.|
|CLAIMED DRY WEIGHT||778 lb.||801 lb.||815 lb.|
My ride was short, but the first impression of the new Chief models is that they are world-class cruisers at competitive pricing. In Thunder Black paint, the base Chief starts at $18,999, the Vintage at $20,999 and the Chieftain at $22,999. For Indian Motorcycle Red or Springfield Blue, price jumps $400. Final judgment will have to wait until we get testbikes, but the Chief is legit. Where to next?
“I can really see the brand going anywhere and everywhere, and we want it to,” says Gray. “We don’t want the brand to pinned down into cruisers, baggers and touring like everyone probably expects. We want to go beyond that. That won’t be a quick process. It’s not going to happen next year, it’s going to happen over fives and tens of years.”
I’ll finish with a conversation that I had with the Indian crew and Polaris Motorcycles VP Steve Menneto over dinner after riding the new Indian. We had wide-ranging discussion about the industry, riding and the great big bet made when Polaris bought the brand, at which point the board told Menneto, “Don’t f*** this up.” After a pause in the conversation, Menneto asked me, “Do you think we’re making history? We’re so close to it, it’s sometimes hard to be sure.”
Yes, you are. This is not just a real motorcycle, but a great motorcycle that does justice to the name. Here’s to the next fives and tens of years.
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