- 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
I flipped down my face screen, rode out in this magic autumn. I ran east with the cool of the Blackfoot River, burst through the shadows of the Lubrecht Forest, plunged down toward the Potomac Valley plain. A twist of throttle sent me blazing past semis and road whales, and the Swan Range, 50 miles ahead, sprang toward me with each acceleration. I downshifted, banged a left at the concrete Hereford colossus marking the Clearwater junction, then shot north up 87, into the Swan River valley. The sun behind me now, my shadow pooled ahead like dark water as I sped along the glacier-pocked ridges I’ve hunted half my life.
The farther I rode, the less I thought about getting back. What’s more, I was beginning to get the whole piano connection: My old bike was ragtime on a barroom upright. This new bike? The Emperor Concerto on an ebony concert grand. I knew I couldn’t keep it, yet I was falling in love with it anyway, which made us fated, star-crossed. Mostly, I was beginning to think of how wrong I’d been about these bikes. That, with the company out of business, maybe, after all, they were real Indians.
The following afternoon, October 21, a pair of movers from North American Van Lines arrived, six hours late. They were sheepish, solemn as pallbearers. I was annoyed from waiting and did not conceal it. They parked their seedy-looking van in the alley while I opened my garage and rolled the black Chief out. The day had grown dreary, and I told them I would leave now, that it would be hard to watch them load. They allowed they understood.
“Are they taking the black bike?” Tobin asked.
“So where’s the piano truck?”
I thought it was a pretty good question actually.
Half an hour passed before I went out to check on them. The movers had been joined by a third man, and they all circled the bike warily.
“Hey, man,” the oldest one said, clearly embarrassed, “can you give us a hand with this? None of us ever been on one before.”
When we’d finished loading and they’d buttoned up the truck, I stood in the alley, watched this slipshod outfit pack the black Chief away to wherever unsuccessful motorcycle revivals finally end up.
There are many good reasons why the second-generation Indians failed: They were too pricey. They were overmarketed, underproduced. There were quality issues, and there were too many car guys in the mix. But mostly, the new Indians stayed too derivative for too long.
Still, when I realized what I’d let slip through my fingers, it was tough. Someone had finally built an Indian that would start on the button, cruise at 80, stop on a dime, and give you an odds-on chance of getting where you wanted to go. Whatever its exact pedigree, the black 2003 Powerplus Chief was one hell of a ride.
Ford or Chevy, Bud or Miller, Harvard or Yale. Fifty years ago there was Harley or Indian too. With most things American, you always have that choice, so maybe Indian’s indomitable mystique can be best explained as a kind of phantom-limb syndrome.
Basically Indians are machines to bear stories. That is what they do best.
The name alone sold millions’ worth of Canadian sportswear but fell well short of being the billion-dollar brand name Murray Smith envisioned. Depending on who you talk to, Indian came wrenchingly close to the Rip Van Winkle comeback so many had hoped for.
On a closing note, one deposed executive told me that before he joined Indian in 2001, he did his own “mother-in-law” survey, an informal name-recognition test to see how many people knew of these bikes.
“Considering Indian hadn’t made a machine since the Korean War, the recognition factor was off the charts,” he said. But what impressed him more than that was the volume of stories his survey produced.
I thought of the many tales I’d heard over the years, the way they changed from the apocryphal to something like to oral history. Like that of the San Diego grandmother whose family had fled the Dust Bowl in 1934. She recalled how her brother had loaded his Indian sidecar with household stuffs “till it looked like a damn pack mule.”
Or like that of the Orange County defense attorney, who high-fived the photo of his uncle on a flattrack racer whenever he tried a difficult case. Or the Nevada rancher whose granddad rode an Indian in France during World War I and whose father rode one in Burma in World War II.
“Not only was the recognition there—there were these amazing stories to go with it.” The exec shook his head. “Really, what I was getting from these folks was something more akin to religion.”
By which he probably meant a uniquely American motorized kind of Shinto, in which whole twentieth-century family histories were intricately connected with Indian bikes.