Over on Facebook, I take request for articles, stories, and such. The challenge is enjoyable, and the knowledge is priceless. The question was from Greg Henderson. He would like to know how the company, and bike got the names.
Challenge accepted! Here you will find the answer to Greg’s questions, and more. This is basically a complete histroy of Indian, up to today.
Thanks for the request, Greg! This gives me a big opportunity to cancel some myths, and tell some histroy. There is a lot of confusion in the American motorcycle histroy. This will answer your questions, and shed some light on some facts.
First, the name. By today’s standards, we’ll some people of today’s standards, it should be deemed as racist. That is wrong. Indian motorcycles took the name Indian after the American Native, at the time, known as the American Indian. This was the only name for the entire first people of America.
Beings the Native were first, and Indian was America’s first motorcycle company, they honored them with the names. The Scout was the biggest and baddest of the 1920s, and made up a lot of the Pacer and Cafe racer scene. So, it was a fitting name. I scout hunted down their pray, and so would this bike.
A lot of people think Harley was America’s first motorcycle company, this is not true. Indiand was built in 1897 by a man named George Hendree loved to race. He met a racer who had built his own pacer. Hendree would take the racer, and bike, back to Hendree Bicycle company, and Indian would be born. By 1901 the Indian Motorcycle would be in production. It would be another 3 years before the first Harley Davidson rolled off the line.
Hendree loved to race, and would build his bikes to be the best. By 1911, just ten years after opening his doors, he had become the top of the Isle of Man TT Races. He would have three top finishers, and win the race.
We’re people really small enough for that little bike to carry three of them? By 1912 Indian had became America’s first motorcycle sold around the world. They would continue to be “America’s ” motorcycle until July 11, 1914.
Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. Would join the war efforts, along with Harley Davidson, and many other Americans motorcycle manufacturers. This is not to say that Indian was the first War Bike.
Harley Davidson invented the first Murdercycle. The United States Military would use it in 1916. They would force Panco Villa back into Mexico with it. Harley was the first American military motorcycle.
1916 would also bring a great change to the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. I like to think he was a racer, and a biker. He knew the freedom we feel, hell, he made it American, and could not watch his company go to war. Racing and riding isn’t about these thing. So, in 1916, after carrying his company to the top, George Hendree retired.
Indian Motorcycles would enter into WW1 ready for war. They would fight in Europe. Because they were shaft driven, unlike Harley, they would fight in the Desert Theaters of World War 1.
Another advantage over the Harley was the foot shifter. The Harley of the time had a handshift. Freeing up hands in war is a smart thing.
Government money is good money, but never forget where you came from. Indian Motorcycles would do just that. As Hendree left, they turned all their attention to the war efforts. They would build the bikes, and start schools to train soldiers to repair them.
Harley Davidson would also join the war efforts, but eould not forget where they came from. Unlike Indian, they would continue to focus on customer sells, and products for the public. Unfortunately for Indian, the war would only last 4 years.
After the war, Indian would find it hard to get back the dealers, after they left them out to dry. They would get some back with the Scout, but not many. Harley had picked up a lot of them, and took care of them during the war. Harley Davidson had started to become the American Peoples’ Motorcycle.
Lucky for Indian, one of the best motorcycle riders of the time, to hear Hollywood tell it, road their motorcycle. In 1927, Steve McQueen would ride Indian back into American hearts and minds. He would continue for some time.
In the 30s, Indian started designing for style and comfort. They designed a lot of the looks and styles people remodel bikes to, today. This is a bobber, by today’s definition. I am personally finishing up a bike in this style. The styles of these bikes are why we are talking about them, now. Then old Indians have the looks…
Throughout the 1930s, Indian would regain their popularity with the American people, and knock a decent dent in Harley. But, as you know, in 1942, we went back to war.
Indian would go on to repeat the same mistake. They would quickly retool their factory for their new Murdercycle. They would call it the Indian 841. This bike eould basically be the end of Indian Motorcycles Manufacturing Co. At least the first nail.
Let me introduce to you, the 1940 Harley Davidson Model UL Murdercycle! Hatley learned a lot during WW1. Things like there were two markets for motorcycles. One civilian, one government. Indian retooled the same factories. Another nail.
Basically all Indian could put out was a badass bobber, painted green. Harley, on the other hand, they were in the business of war machines, and had been for most of the companies life. Indian’s was not able to compete. Nail…
On September 2nd, 1945, after the napalm was lit, and the atomic bombs were dropped, the war ended. The bombs America dropped, they were not only overseas. As the war ended, Indian would count their losses.
During the war, Harley Davidson sold 88,000 motorcycles to the war effort, making millions. Indian had no chance. They had shaft driven bikes, that is all. The machine gun side car won the war, for Harley.
Indian, being a shaft driven bike, still had a place in the war. Unfortunately it was a very small place. They only sold 1000 motorcycles. Harley was officially the American Military motorcycle.
Indian would fight hard over the next few years. Their late 1940s product line would include some of the most beautiful bikes ever made. They would even go back to their roots, and try to get into racing.
Still, after the war profit and losses, Indian stood no chance. Harley was able to keep their dealerships during World War 2. Indian failed at this, by chasing government contracts. Nails…
By the 1950s Indian was struggling to make it. They were redesigning everything they could. This made a lot of the 50s models unwanted. Those nails…
That’s a beautiful bike, but that seat? Indian was losing their touch, races, and customers. Sales slumped. People wanted Harley. It had nothing to do with performance, or looks.
Do you know what happens to military surplus when it no longer has a use? It is sold to Hollywood. This mass influx of Harley Davidson motorcycles caused the mass influx of biker movies. Indian lost McQueen to Harley back in the late 30s. They had no place anymore. Yes, I know the picture is from 1963, but it shows my point. The final nails…
In 1953, Indian would take their last swing at a motorcycle for the American people. Unfortunately, their chosen path would not allow the to make it. They failed at keeping up with the people. They failed at engineering for the military. 1953 would be the final nail. Indian would close their doors, ending the first American motorcycle company.
They would go bankrupt. Those nails, it wasn’t a coffin that we built. We built a resting place, a place for Indian to hibernate. For almost 60 years, Indian would sleep. Waiting for someone to come and wake her up. Some tried, but they all failed.
As AMF did for Harley Davidson back in 1969, and Hero Motorcycles is doing for Harley in India, someone stepped up to carry Indian into the future.
In 2011, Polaris closed their own motorcycle line, Victory Motorcycles. They would bring back the American classic, Indian Motorcycles. If Indian is lucky, one day they might, once again, stand as their own American company. AMF worked for Harley. Maybe Polaris will work for Indian.
That’s all I got for today! Thanks, Greg, for the idea, and thank you all for reading!