Relevancy, excitement, and bottom-line sales figures matter most to large motorcycle manufacturers. Design cycles are longer than most people think (three to five years), and those tasked with bringing emotion into the mix spend thousands of hours with boots on the ground and pencils in hand, visiting custom shows, independent builders, and other influencers.

One of the more successful designers of our era has just returned to the brand where he began 17 years ago, and Ola Stenegärd sees nothing but blue skies ahead for Indian Motorcycle. His bloated passport will see plenty of action, and he's more than ready for the challenge since taking the reins of director of product design in early March.

Ola, have motorcycles truly changed since you were a young, impressionable kid? What's old is new again, based on renewed love for bobbers, choppers, and flat-trackers.

On one hand, yes! Just think about superbikes, touring bikes, or two-stroke motocrossers. Odin’s beard! The things we rode and dreamed about when I was a kid, all light years away from what you can ride today! Just thinking about a R500 Gamma that could not wait to buck you off in the first corner. Today traction control and cornering ABS helps you relax on the track; you don’t have to worry about highsiders that hurt like hell.

Childhood sketch
Ola Stenegärd has been doodling and dreaming of custom motorcycles his entire life, as evident in this sketch from his childhood.Ola Stenegärd

And then on the other hand, chops and bob jobs—I almost picture it as this big spotlight. At times it’s aimed at a certain scene or trend. Then it swings away. But that doesn’t mean the particular scene just drops dead because they are now in the shadow. It’s still active and it still evolves. Maybe slower. But the curators of this corner just turn a light on and continue to wrench away.

Then as time goes by, as things come and go—as trends pop up and fade away like flashes in the chrome—then all of a sudden for one peculiar particular reason or another, the spot swings back. Maybe guided by a new generation looking for the roots of what they are doing. Then all these gearheads, who’ve been for years in the shadows, find themselves smack in the middle of this great beam of light again! They kinda blink surprised for a moment, but then keep on wrenchin’. This is kinda the bobber and chopper scene to me right now. Last time was when Jesse [James] guided that spotlight. He made long forks cool again.

Childhood sketch #2
Put spoked wheels on this and it would probably make the cover of Cycle World.Ola Stenegärd

And now it’s being rediscovered by a new generation and they wanna learn from the past. They educate themselves, research, learn the chords and notes, and then they start to build their own. Start to improvise. Make it their own story. And they build stuff I could never imagine! They create their own rock and roll which takes the whole scene and style to the next level. That’s Born-Free, that’s The One Show. That’s vintage flat track and hooligan racing. That’s Wheels and Waves and Glemseck 101. And it’s friggin’ awesome!

Roland Sands said you're a frequent visitor to his shop. How can a company like Indian tap into what he and other custom builders are doing to offer dynamic and exciting affordable bikes available at dealers?

To me, it’s about respect. Respect and understanding of the trade and respect for the knowledge a guy like Roland sits on. What I mean is, as an OEM with presence in the cruiser or custom scene, you gotta keep your ear to the ground. Understand what goes on in the street and in the workshops. Because cruisers are based on customizing, and customizing was never invented in a development department. It came from, and was always driven by, the street. And it should be like that. I mean, how often does a stock bike end up on the cover of a custom rag? And how often was a far-out OEM “custom” successful? You can’t build a chopper in a factory.

The trick for us on the OEM side is to supply the right base that gets customizers’, as well as customers’, creative juices flowing and they see a blank canvas that they wanna attack and make their own. That’s why I believe you gotta stay close and listen to guys like Roland and all the customizers out there. ’Cause if they don’t see the opportunity and possibility to create killer customs and products based on the bike you having roll out the factory door, the likelihood of that bike just fading away is painfully real.

Roland is of course exceptional, in my opinion. Extremely talented. I’m not saying this because he’s a very close friend of mine, but because it’s true. Plain and simple. He constantly has a finger on the pulse of what’s going down. In every segment. His radar catches all kinda two-wheel waves. And he has a natural eye for good design and proportion.

And all this is wrapped up in one simple fact, that he just loves creating, riding, and wrenching on motorcycles. All the rest, the fame and fortune, isn’t the reason he’s doing this. That’s not his driver. He’s not a custom builder just so he can say that he is one at the local bar at night; Roland just lives and breathes motorcycles on every possible level.

Working for Indian is a homecoming of sorts. What was it like working for Indian when it was based in Gilroy, California, 15 years or so ago?

You can’t really compare. It was a wild start-up back then. Many of us went there because we loved the brand and the idea to bring it back on the road. So did guys like Rey Sotelo and the original funders too. But the big-buck backing that came in was probably the wrong one, in my opinion. They were just looking to turn around and make a quick buck. They were just bean counters. And did not understand the industry. Developing and building vehicles is hard work; you need stamina and longevity, knowledge and experience. Motorcycles are strange and complicated animals; you can’t just walk away when you hit a bump in the road or run a flat tire.

Stenegärd sketches an Indian Chief
Seventeen years ago Stenegärd envisioned a modern Indian Chief.Ola Stenegärd

Today it's very different. Indian is in the right hands. When Polaris bought it back in 2011 I thought to myself, "There you go! That's a perfect match. These guys get it, and they will handle the Indian Motorcycle brand with the respect it deserves. And finally this great brand is done getting abused." The Polaris backing is solid and based on powersport and pure passion. They have a dedicated motorcycle team that built up a ton of experience with Victory. And long-term planning and commitment for Indian is understood and in place. Everyone is amped. Pushing.

Will we ever tire of looking at boardtrackers?Ola Stenegärd

And there’s a really inspiring pioneer spirit, a very fundamental American way where everything is possible. You build your own road, write your own story. This is the spirit that built America! This is cool and it just rocks more than anything in my book. No segment is out of bounds. The brand can go anywhere it wants to. And it’s a purty dang sweet ride to be part of.

Indian’s heritage dates back to 1901, ending in the early ’50s. Touring cruisers weren’t as much of the original company’s output as racing machines. How can you remedy that moving forward in the form of bikes accessible to non-racers?

I think racing is always a good base and library of experience and knowledge for a company. That’s where good OEMs used to develop their machines, and I believe that concept still works. There’s always a certain spirit in racing, right? Go faster, go farther. And there are always features or tech that you can bring to the street. But it’s also the pure soul and image of racing itself; racing means progress. And that progress can also reflect the core value of a company that wants to move the needle. Racing will take you a long way.

Looking back over your design career, what are some of the concepts you’re most embarrassed by and why?

Hmm, wow, that’s a tough one. I dunno. Honestly, I’m quite at peace with myself on this topic. I kinda always tried to do my best under the circumstances and budgets and context given. And you’re always part of a team. That doesn’t mean that everything was great or that I’m super proud and happy of all I was involved in, but you also gotta reflect quite soberly on the facts given. Of course, you can always say, “Oh, we shoulda spent more time…” or “Oh, that looks so dated now” or “If we had only known…” but when you’re in there—for that moment in time and the money and the resources that was at hand—when I look back at these facts, I just realize that we all did the best we could.

And some things went to the stars, and some went straight in the darkness of the basement. Some turned out to be timeless and some were just made to follow trends. It’s all just the nature of the beast. But one thing for sure, you should never be scared to fall flat on your face. If you wanna move things forward you gotta be prepared to take some blows before you find the right path. And you can never aim to create a classic because only time will tell where that spotlight will swing.