- Historic Sites
The Lost Tribe Of Indian
Recently a company tried to harness history by resurrecting a great American motorcycle. What happened is a cautionary tale about business, and memory, and the seductive urge to recapture the past.
August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
On November 1, 2003, I flew to Los Angeles to attend a support rally for the second incarnation of an American legend. Defunct since 1953, the fabled Indian Motorcycle Company was kick-started back to life in 1999. But four years later it found itself, once again, on the verge of extinction. Organized by the Indian Riders Group, the $20 rally buy-in included T-shirt, rally pin, and a 12-mile ride from Indian’s flagship dealership in Marina del Rey to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Hollywood.
By one o’clock hundreds of second-generation Indians were thundering up the ramp to the Petersen’s rooftop parking lot. Manufactured in Gilroy, four hours’ ride north, the new Indians were spectacular in ensemble: multihued, graceful, and powerful-looking. In contrast with the vintage (or first-generation) rallies I’ve attended, there wasn’t a graybeard or leaky old bike to be seen. Indeed, these riders were mostly strapping workingman types, in their twenties and thirties. On arrival, they greeted one another warmly, arranged their bikes for the cameras, swapped the latest gossip about the embattled company’s prospects. But when its deposed CEO Frank O’Connell rose to address them, they fell immediately silent.
Slight, close-cropped, and fiftyish, the former Reebok executive, managing to look almost preppy in his riding leathers, began his remarks tentatively: “As you all know, Indian Motorcycle closed its doors six weeks ago.”
The crowd drew a breath.
“The company’s now for sale, and we’re currently entertaining bidders. We have not yet declared bankruptcy, but it does remain an option… .”
O’Connell surveyed the anxious faces. He seemed pleased by the turnout, pained by the occasion.
“It’s great to be here with you today,” he continued, “because we all know these bikes are not just pieces of metal. That it’s a—a spiritual thing to ride them and that it can’t stop now.”
His voice broke.
“It just can’t. We’ve all come too far… . So, thanks for the support, and let’s hope there’s a way for us to go on from here.”
There was light applause, plenty of murmuring. It’s hard to say exactly what this crowd was looking for. But if it was Moses come down from the mountain, they sure didn’t get it.
A few minutes later I went over to speak to O’Connell and found him fending off the questions of a Harley-riding motor press journalist known as SuperGlide Gail.
“So,” said Gail, in total hardball mode, “I’m thinking these new bikes of yours are basically Harley clones tricked out to look like Indians. Is that pretty much why you guys went under?”
Though her timing couldn’t have been worse, Gail had managed to put her finger right on the second-generation Indian’s biggest problem: credibility.
In the course of his IMC tenure, O’Connell must have fielded this question hundreds of times, and he responded patiently, almost dreamily that while in some ways the new Indians resembled Harley-Davidsons, Indian designers had assiduously and painstakingly made them different enough to earn original equipment manufacturer (OEM) status in 2002 and that whatever resemblance might still remain was now, for a variety of reasons, a totally moot point.
It had become easy to see my life in two phases: Before the Indian and After.
Meanwhile, a catering truck pulled in, and tubs of soft drinks and a sumptuous Mexican buffet were set up on folding tables in the concourse. But before the crowd could descend upon this, a black rider stood on a tabletop and offered a benediction. “In the Bible it says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish,’” he began.
As examples of people who had such spirit, the rider cited Black Elk, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King but stopped well short of including Frank O’Connell. Then the rider proposed a moment of prayer and invoked the gathering to “all join hands.”
The crowd seemed tentative.
“Come on, you guys,” he entreated. “This is tough on all of us. Let’s reach out and touch somebody.”
“No way, man,” muttered a heavyset rider. “This here’s West Hollywood.”
Still, it’s not every day your bike goes extinct right out from under you, and after an awkward minute the group of riders gradually took one another’s hands and, on a rooftop lot in the heart of Los Angeles, proceeded with great dignity to pray for the survival of Indian Motorcycle.
Ontologically speaking, the Petersen rally might seem a spectacularly unlikely event—unless you’ve ever poured heart and soul into such a machine.