- 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
To come up with such a design quickly, Smith needed somebody who knew a tailpipe from a tank top. To this end he engaged the talents of Rey Sotelo, a California-based builder of high-end custom Harley-Davidsons. With receivership proceedings just a few months away, Sotelo dove into the project head-first. Using $50,000 worth of after-market Harley parts, fabricated sheet metal, and Indian badging, in just eight weeks he created a stunning black and red modern-day Chief, a bike that was not only faithful to the traditional Indian lines, not only plausible in appearance, but drop-dead gorgeous to boot. Sotelo’s bike was no mere mockup but a bike you could bring right into a federal courtroom.
Talk about a winning argument. According to one account, the presiding judge, Vita Wineshank, was so taken by Sotelo’s handiwork that she actually came down off the bench to swing a leg over it and hop on board.
Sotelo, at least, was under no illusions about what he’d done. There’s a huge difference between building a single “replica” bike and creating a genuine original-equipment-manufacturer revival. Still, Sotelo’s motorcycle was so persuasive, so thoroughly Indian-looking, that the next day Murray Smith, haberdasher and visionary, wrote a check to the Colorado Federal Claims Court for $26 million. The Indian marque was his, free and clear. Now came the hard part.
There’s a huge difference between a “replica” bike and a genuine revival.
Early in 1999 the rejuvenated Indian Motorcycle Company, formerly of Springfield, Massachusetts, set up shop in a converted garlic-processing plant in Gilroy, California, not far from the San Andreas Fault. Flushed with success, the new company pledged, as many had before, to reinstate a true American classic. But the honeymoon was short.
In its first year IMC built 2,500 motorcycles, but what the buyers were getting was essentially the same Harley-powered kit bike (one composed of after-market parts) that Sotelo had rolled into the courtroom the year before. Cycling press and public alike were unkind. For many, an Indian motorcycle with a Harley-designed motor was more than a disappointment; it was an anomaly akin to a Ford-powered Corvette.
By the end of 1999, facing increasing public skepticism, Indian Motorcycle needed to move quickly toward a proprietary motor, yet the board of directors was deadlocked on how to proceed. Murray Smith thought the estimated $250 million needed for the Indian’s OEM motor should be generated by his lifestyle-brand paraphernalia. Other board members disagreed. They felt they had enough on their hands just reviving the motorcycle and that the OEM funding should come from going public. After much dispute, it was decided that Smith would complete an IPO offering that fall. Alas, the board tarried in hope that the booming pre-Millennial market would rise even higher. With the collapse of 2000, the newly reborn Indian Motorcycle Company was in trouble.
Eventually, Indian turned to Audax, a Massachusetts-based investment group, for the much-needed cash infusion. Audax was good for $100 million—but only pending Indian’s complete corporate overhaul, and there followed in Gilroy a period of major transition that one disgruntled worker characterized this way: “The blue jeans all left, and the suits came to stay.”
Still, another two years would pass before Indian finally delivered a 100-cubic-inch high-performance proprietary motor it called the Powerplus. Redesigned around this engine, the 2002 Chiefs finally had a new motor to go with their retro-pizzazz styling. The new Indians were fast, elegant, powerful. After stumbling badly, the operation finally seemed to have its own motorcycle, and by 2002 orders were coming in, production was ramping up, and the motor press was beginning to take the rebirth seriously.
Up to this point these new Indians were easy to dismiss. Many was the cocktail party where I damned them with a sniff and the following line: “They’re not a real Indian, they’re a custom EVO motor on a soft-tail frame.”
And yet there was something subversive about IMC’s latest efforts. From all accounts, these new Indians ran great. What’s more, they looked right. But mostly, the new Indians managed to sow seeds of doubt whether my ’47 Chief was really enough fun.
In fact, the whole vintage experience had become a bit shopworn for me. Everyone knows that vintage Indians are the ultimate real-deal bikes. They are handsome, proud and studly. Yet five years past my restoration and its accompanying feel-good themes, there had come the inevitable back-swell of reality.
Many is the ride I’ve failed to take simply because my vintage bike wouldn’t run. Sometimes it was a glitch—a short circuit or bad battery—and sometimes it was more serious, like a leaky gas tank. I find its cold start drill as intricate and unforgiving as a sobriety test, while a total mastery of its left-hand throttle and “suicide” tank shift remains as elusive and unrewarding a proposition as mirror writing or Esperanto. If my vintage Chief was indeed a kind of metaphor for getting on with your life, well, it wasn’t the kind of metaphor you rode very far from home.