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
Within weeks of the black Chief’s arrival—about the time it took for me to stop riding like an idiot—I got an e-mail from Hendess with a one-word message: “Argh!” Web site down, the phones disconnected, the new Indian company had gone under with barely a whimper, leaving me with a peculiar kind of orphan, one of the biggest, most expensive, and, suddenly, most collectible cruiser bikes in the world.
It was much to ponder. Amid my garage’s clutter of skis, mowers, shotguns, snow tires (basically, none of the things you’d see in the kind of garage this bike was obviously meant to sit in), the black Chief sat in kickstand limbo. For the moment it belonged nowhere—not with me, not with a dealer, not with the factory.
I found these events had a double-edged effect: First, there was morbid fascination. It took Indian 50 years to get out of hock, 5 years to claw back into the market, and yet the company still managed to blow it! It was the exquisite cut-your-throat style of falling short only a longtime Red Sox fan could fathom.
My cycling friends were quick to lend advice: “Tell ’em it’s been stolen.”
Second, there was a ghoulish kind of excitement. I thought there was an excellent chance that this particular press bike, so far away from home and in the midst of such chaos, would somehow fall through the cracks and become my own.
My cycling friends were quick to lend advice:
“Move it out of state!”
“Tell ’em it’s been stolen!”
“Part it out!”
I meditated on the situation every day. I couldn’t avoid it. The black Chief was an Exotic, a $25,000 glamour bike, stranded far from home. During its stay I’d managed to chip its fender on the tailpipe of my vintage. One of Tobin’s friends muddied the tank with his sneakers, and one of the boys—it was never clear which—bent the ignition key, trying to start it up. The truth was the bike was in the way. What’s more, I couldn’t figure out my feeling for it—what it was to me or how far I was prepared to go to keep it. But instead of riding, I mostly let it sit.
A month passed before an e-mail broke the spell. It was vaguely clandestine, yet to the point: The black Chief was scheduled for pickup “inside of a weak [ sic ].”
I was stunned. It was all so low-rent! However faulty my reasoning, I really had expected to keep it awhile—at least until spring.
Within an hour a whiskey-voiced truck dispatcher from Santa Anita called for directions to my house. I hedged a moment, then grudgingly gave them up.
“Great.” She chuckled. “So we know how to get there. Now who the hell’s gonna pay for this? You?”
“Wow!” I said. “That’s a good one. How about the guys that want it back?”
The dispatcher snorted. “Know what? It’s hard to get hold of folks when their number’s disconnected.”
Time was tight. I hung up the phone and made for my garage. I swung the door open, propped it with a gas can. For a second, I was surprised to see the black Chief there. Somehow I had already imagined it gone.
October 2003 was as gorgeous as August had been dreadful. For weeks the air stayed warm and fragrant, the skies fair and open, the mountains bathed in sunlight. The month was like a gift, one could think, for hanging in through the fires.
I didn’t know where to ride or how long. I knew only that it would be a strange swan song. That in the course of it, I might figure things out. Or not.
In the end I chose Route 200, the kind of rolling scenic blacktop winding east along the Blackfoot River for its first 50 miles, then rising steadily into the Rockies. I’d ridden my vintage bike on this route several times. Loping along at 60 in the absence of traffic, I always imagined Route 200 was just the road it was built for.
And yet my last vintage ride had been a travail. Forest fires and construction made for stop-and-start traffic, and 10 miles out, my ’47 began to stutter. The farther I rode, the rougher it ran, so by Mile 20 I U-turned and limped home, all the way berating myself for whatever bit of maintenance I had once again failed to perform.
The black Chief started, idled flawlessly. While I sat warming it up, I realized how I’d come to believe there was something heroic in riding vintage, that there was something banal in a new bike. That, without even meaning to, I was now conducting a comparison test: the best of the present versus the worst of the past. Simply put, my vintage is a ride that makes demands. To keep it running and ride it well requires a fierce concentration along with a certain suspension of disbelief. And while it’s true my vintage has never broken down on the road, the possibility has kept me from taking many long trips.