- 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
My own story began in 1996, when I undertook the restoration of a postwar Indian, a basket case that was little more than a large box of parts. In the throes of midlife burnout—I and my motorcycle were both in our fifties, lending a curious urgency to the project—the deeper my involvement got, the more convinced I was I’d find answers there. In 18 months’ time, with the help of biker friends and a mechanical aptitude I’d not known I possessed, I rebuilt a fringed and studded vintage 1947 Chief in dazzling midnight blue. Wherever I rode, my ride turned heads, but beyond this, the process seemed to precipitate a joyous and surprising string of events, for along with the bike came a new baby, and with that a new outlook and, in short order, a book about these adventures, Rebuilding the Indian , that ultimately brought me to what was likely the first-ever book-signing event the great Sturgis Motorcycle Rally ever hosted. It had become easy to see my life in two phases: Before the Indian and After.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in this sort of thinking I’d gained membership in a particularly crusty tribe of Indian zealots, most of us old enough to have seen these bikes in their heyday. For years we ate, slept, and breathed old Indians, trailered our restorations around to “Indian Days” rallies, swapped maintenance tips like banana-bread recipes at a bridge club. We had these bikes to ourselves for so long that we came to feel like those stalwart monks who’d kept Christianity alive through the Dark Ages. We were the keepers of the Indian faith and, as such, authorities on whatsoever was Real and whatsoever was Fake.
There was something special about these bikes right from their beginning. The Indian was designed by a Swedish immigrant named Oskar Hedstrom in 1901, two years before the birth of Harley-Davidson. The similarity of their large-bore V-twin engines somehow inflamed brand loyalties, and the two marques grew up through America’s motor adolescence as the bitterest sibling rivals. If Indian stroked its motor, Harley followed suit. If Harley had a new transmission, then Indian made one too. Always slightly faster, Indian posted speed and endurance records Harley chased for years. As for style, there was no machine to match the full-dress Indian Chief. With their graceful, valanced fenders and brilliant color schemes, there is an innocence, an exuberance about these bikes that is almost touching. Tricked out with enough studs, fringe, and frippery to be at home in a Hopalong Cassidy movie, the 74-cubic-inch Chiefs were a wonderful blend of the preposterous and the fabulous—equal parts cow pony, fire-breathing dragon, and mechanical wizardry—and when Indian went bankrupt in 1953, the bikes became an instant classic.
Quickly the marque was snatched up by Britain’s robust Associated Motorcycles Ltd., which, for the next five years, marketed its British-made bikes in this country using the Indian nameplate.
It was all terribly confusing, but it only got worse. Over the next few decades a succession of crackpots and rip-off artists worked the bereaved Indian faithful like third-rate mediums. Conjuring Indian “prototypes” out of pot metal and duct tin, they conned thousands of believers with the promise of, as one hustler put it, “the return of an American icon.”
The scams happened so regularly you’d think the fans would get wise. Yet so potent was the idea of an Indian revival that by 1998, 45 years after the business had folded, the defunct Indian marque still managed to sell $26 million in worthless stock and nonexistent bikes. Such blind and unwavering faith made us restorers deeply cynical, but it also managed to bring about the first “serious” revival attempt yet mounted.
In the late 1990s a Denver attorney named Rick Block thought to assemble dozens of Indian rip-off claims into a single receivership, the idea being that thenceforth whoever wished to use the trademark would first have to pay off the debt. Of all who contended for the name, perhaps the least likely was the Canadian entrepreneur Murray Smith, who had just purchased a growing Canadian concern called the Indian Manufacturing Company. Contrary to what this implied, Indian Manufacturing actually produced an extensive, Hilfiger-style line of sportswear, over 300 items ranging from Windbreakers to camisoles, all bearing the distinctive retro script and warbonnet logo of the Indian motorcycle. Despite the fact that the Indian Motorcycle Company hadn’t made a bike in close to half a century, the Indian Manufacturing Company was worth a cool $16 million when Smith bought it in 1997. He figured if a defunct American classic could sell that many BVDs, it didn’t have to stop there. In fact, Smith became so convinced of its marketing potential that he envisioned a billion-dollar global “lifestyle brand,” one that would go head-to-head with Harley-Davidson’s. The resurrected Indian marque would include not just motorcycles but cigars, after-shave, bottled water, oxygen bars, and a chain of bistros modeled on the Hard Rock Café.
There was a hitch: To prevent the chronic pie-in-the-sky fraud long associated with Indian revival attempts past, prospective buyers were required not only to demonstrate their fiscal accountability but also to produce a feasible, viable, bona fide motorcycle.