Inside Indian

A visit to the new Indian factory.

Cycle World

Cycle World

Stephen Julius, known hereafter as The Man Who Would Save Indian, swings into the company parking lot at the new Indian Motorcycle headquarters in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. The jet-setting captain of industry, with homes in London and Italy, could easily ensconce himself in the glove-leather seats of a Bentley or Ferrari; instead, he's at the wheel of an ordinary Ford F-150 pickup, one with a well-used trailer hitch.

Not only does TMWWSI commute from Europe to the U.S., but when he's over here he also splits time between Kings Mountain and Sarasota, Florida. Julius and partner Stephen Hesse (a.k.a. "The Two Steves"), through their investment house Stellican Ltd., purchased the bankrupt Chris-Craft boatyard in 2001—hence the tow package—and soon steered it back to profitability. They now hope to do the same with Indian after buying the intellectual rights to the company in a 2004 bankruptcy auction.

The Two Steves committed $30-some million of Stellican's money to the Indian (re)restart, much of that going into a stem-to-stern re-engineering of the previous Chief retro-cruisers. Some of the funds went to purchasing the Kings Mountain facility, 30 miles west of Charlotte on the North/South Carolina state line. Clean and tidy, it's a former paper warehouse, and in no way ostentatious. File that under Lessons Learned: When the Brothers Hanlon tried unsuccessfully to bring Excelsior-Henderson back to life last decade, their showy, soon-to-be-shuttered factory had a computerized assembly line, a gift shop, a museum, a research library, robotic welders and a state-of-the-art paint shop.

None of that at Kings Mountain, just 40,000 square feet of steel-sided utility set on 11 acres—plenty of room to grow, says the ever-optimistic Julius. In fact, it's not a factory at all, certainly not in the classic sense of the "Wigwam," as the original Indian's delta-shaped brick structure in Springfield, Massachusetts, was nicknamed. It's really an assembly plant where components sourced from around the world are bolted together. Frames, forks, fuel-injection and brakes, for example, come from vendors in Italy.

Since December of 2008, when production of the '09 Chiefs commenced, a 40-person workforce (including management, R&D; and the front office) has been turning out about three bikes a day, starting with empty engine cases.

My visit prior to taking delivery of a Chief Vintage for an exclusive Cycle World road test included the reveal of two new models—one I can talk about, the other I really shouldn't (think 101 Scout power-cruiser...). The limited-edition Bomber (lead photo), an homage to WWII aviation, is now on sale but at the time of my tour was undergoing final mockup. The question of the day was whether the instrument panel that runs the length of the gas tank should be painted black like the fork shrouds, headlight, muffler and luggage rack, or be color-matched to the gas tank and fenders.

Julius argued strongly for body color, while others made the case for black. When it came time for a show of hands, the blacks had it overwhelmingly. Julius may have convinced his crew to diverge from career paths at other bike-makers, notably Harley-Davidson and Victory, but he has not surrounded himself with a bunch of yes-man toadies.

Having said that, as you can see, Julius got his way with the dash. Rank does have its privileges...

It might be easy to call Julius a control freak. In fact, he's a quality freak. Earlier in the day, we visited Charlotte Indian, a model dealership in nearby Lowell. Part showroom, part museum, part clubhouse and part Gap retail store, it's a wonderful little motorcycle shop (see photo gallery). The exterior, inspired by American roadside diners of the 1950s, is dominated by a two-story entrance done up like a big Chief fender complete with headdress running light. Julius had a hand in all aspects of the dealership's design, from signage right down to metal finishes and masonry choice. Inside, he takes a nice Indian-logo leather jacket off the rack. "Not a button goes on that I haven't approved," he says.

"I know he has a degree in the classics and an MBA from Harvard," says one of his management team, "but if you told me he also holds an industrial-design degree, I'd find it totally believable."

That kind of attention to detail, plus an infusion of Stellican's dollars, has brought a much-improved Chief to market, albeit at a price—the base bike is $26,000, and if you get a little crazy with the accessories catalog, $40K quickly hoves into view. Not an easy sell as the Great Recession trudges on, but Julius is convinced there's a profitable niche for his low-volume, heritage-brand Chief. He sees a lower-priced Scout in the near future, and maybe even a four-cylinder flagship if all goes well.

"I find it intellectually challenging to buy companies with glorious trademarks that are broken and wounded but then fulfill their promise through good design and technology," Julius told the U.K.'s Financial Times.

As I leave Kings Mountain for my flight back to California, Julius and his team are gathered outside around a picnic table looking at paint samples in the sunlight. He wants a new two-tone, something in a light green and cream, he says, like a classic old Austin-Healey sports car.

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

2009 Indian Bomber

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian's original "Wigwam" factory was closed in 1953. Today, much of it is gone, though this portion was converted into apartments.

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC

Indian Headquarters, Kings Mountain, NC