- 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
Gradually, in my mind, the sepia-toned ambience of my ’47 was being eclipsed by the sheer excess of these new Chiefs, which were big and shiny, fast, scary, and larger than life. Movie stars had discovered these bikes. Arnold Schwarzenegger even ran his into the back of a city bus. Once again, Indians were happening. And if my ’47 was a slow, difficult putt down memory lane, with twice the horsepower the new Indians were a screaming, bat-out-of-hell run down some shimmering, existential blacktop.
By June 2003 I could stand it no longer. I called the Indian publicist Martin Hendess (an Audax-appointed M.B.A. from Villanova) and asked him for a demo bike.
“But you write about vintage Indians,” he said.
“Yeah. But now I want to write about a new one.”
“Wow. Well. What do you want to write about it?”
“I dunno, I haven’t ridden it yet.”
“But you will write about it?”
“Hell, yes, Martin. If I can ride one, I’ll write about it.”
And so it happened that on a sweltering August evening two years ago, when the air was blue with forest-fire smoke, an enormous high-rise semi crept up our quiet Missoula street and rolled to a stop. The truck, a brand-new snow-white Kenworth, was so big it rendered toylike the modest bungalows of our neighborhood. Painted on its cab was a winged grand piano, and a rolling flight of keys unfurled along the oversized trailer.
The driver bounded out. He was young, ginger-haired, clad in shorts. He punched a button at the back of the trailer and lowered the hydraulic lift to the pavement.
I glanced at my five-year-old son, Tobin. We were waiting for a motorcycle, not a piano, so we must have looked perplexed.
The driver climbed aboard the gate, grinning at us. “You guys coming up or not?” he said.
The three of us rose grandly to the trailer door. The driver unlatched it briskly and opened it with a flourish.
A scrim of road dust hung briefly in the air and there was a pungent pharaoh-scent of cedar chips and high-priced lacquer. It was dark as a tar bucket back there, but when our eyes adjusted, we caught a flash of chrome, a wink of headlight glass coming from between two Steinway crates way to the front. The three of us made our way toward it.
It was hard to get a good look in that gloom, but the bike sat upright, strapped to a wheeled pallet something like a skateboard. I helped the driver, a moonlighting journalism student, slide crates around to make a path. He told us that his company’s forte was high-end pianos, but that sometimes motorcycles rode shotgun to fill up a load.
“Big bikes and concert grands?” I said.
The driver shrugged. “My boss, he’s a total cycle freak.”
We locked the pallet wheels down, gently ferried the big machine toward the lift gate in the back.
By now kids, passersby, and neighbors had gathered to see what was up, and when the bike finally emerged, there was a faint collective gasp.
“That’s no piano,” someone finally whispered.
Glistening there beneath the streetlights, poised to descend, was a hulking, coal black, fringed, dressed, and studded Indian Powerplus “Chief,” a machine that, for all practical purposes, had been extinct for 50 years.
Looking back, what impresses me most is that the bike came with no manual, license plates, or instructions of any kind.
What impressed my son most was the fact that there was no kick starter. He had yet to learn bikes could have electric starting.
After we’d landed on the ground, I climbed on the bike to steady it while the driver released the tie-down straps.
I thought Tobin’s point—that there was no apparent way to start it—was well taken: Beyond the fact it had two wheels, the black Chief resembled my ’47 about the way an F-16 does a biplane. But I managed to roll it away without incident while the driver stored the lift. The bike felt long, wide, and slightly top-heavy.
“Crank it up!” someone said.
“Yeah, see what it’s got!”
These weren’t exactly suggestions. Wow, I thought. What a tough crowd! For me to ride this bike without a clue was almost too dumb for words. Yet with an entrance like this I somehow had no choice.
The driver grinned, showed me the starting drill.
In a moment the bike was idling robustly beneath me while I sat and blipped the throttle like a boob.
The driver cocked his head. “You do have a valid cycle permit. Don’t you?”
I’d been meaning to get one of these for some time—about eight years, to be exact. For a moment I was sure he knew this, but I said, “Of course! Jesus! Are you out of your mind?”
With that I slipped the clutch, bumped off the curb, and blasted off just as fast as I could go, through the worst fire season Montana has ever had. I downshifted badly for a traffic light, sailed through the yellow, then tweaked the throttle hard. Holy Christ, I thought, my face is flying off! This is what’s been missing!