Story and photos by Ray Seidel
In what is intended to be the largest gathering of Indian motorcycles west of the Mississippi, the 3rd Biennial Indian Day West was recently held in Pomona, CA. celebrating the 110th anniversary of Indian Motorcycles. Pre-1980 classic motorcycles got free entry, and on hand was The World’s Fastest Indian (which was fired up a number of times throughout the day) plus a screening of the movie. In conjunction with all this was the Flat Track World Finals.
A sampling of Indians from an early camelback to the Gilroy era Chiefs was on display, including a couple of Rainbow Chiefs from Starklite Cycles and the new reproductions from KIWI Indian. Indian, so often ahead of its time, was moving to vertical twins in the late 40’s / early 50’s, and an example of one of these was on display – an Indian Warrior TT. (Think Honda Scrambler of the late 60’s.) Mike Tomas of KIWI brought a few examples of his bikes…what one would want if they’re in the market for, say, a brand NEW 1938 or 48 Indian, among others. Though these flatheads look like the real things, form, fit, and function are all 21st century. Another jewel on display was a 1915 model with sidecar that took 15 years to restore and in the same hands for the last 27 years.
As interesting as all the old bikes were, the highlight of the day was to hear District Sales Manager of POLARIS – Indian’s new owner – Rob Fassett give an update on what’s in store for Indian. So what are some of the keys things we’ve learned?
Polaris is well aware of what made Indian the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles: styling, quality, innovation, a premium bike. And an extensive racing history. Is that something Indian may do again? Polaris, which makes Victory motorcycles, does not support racing at this time, but considering Indian’s storied history, and it really did clean up in racing, there may be a return after over 60 years.
The most recent owner of Indian, Kings Mountain, NC, was clearly undercapitalized, not making a lot of bikes, and the dealer network was suffering, dropping from 19 to 16 since the Polaris acquisition in April. In California there is now only one dealer left, in Fresno. Polaris knows Indian dealers need a lot of work – and wants them to be like a LEXUS experience for new owners. Thus, not every Polaris outfit that sells lawn & garden equipment will sell Indians. At present there are no dealers in Utah, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, or Arizona, which Polaris wants. These will all be a priority, getting into the metro areas of these states. Also more dealers for California. The new limited production Indians under Polaris for 2012 will be numbered 1 – 110 (for the 110 year history) with a special badge and certificate – a possible collectable as the first run made under Polaris rather than Kings Mountain. For 2013 production will likely be under 300 copies. And THAT, friends, will mark the end of the “bottle cap” Power Plus 105 engine – the design introduced by Gilroy Indian in California. Engines are built in Wisconsin; bikes are assembled in Spirit Lake, Iowa, same as Victory. For 2014 Indians will have an all new designed engine! Production numbers will depend on orders from the dealers around that time.
Speaking of Victory, the differences as envisioned by Polaris are that Victory is to be innovative, have edgy styling, high performance, Indian will be a premium brand with a racing heritage and distinctive styling. Polaris is aware they bought a “BRAND” and as such has serious long term plans to stick with it for the long haul. Victory Motorcycles started in 1999, the first motorcycle of Polaris, and just now is seeing a return on its investment. Many know the success of the Japanese is because they’ll happily take a loss today if they can see making a fistful of money years ahead, and Polaris likewise is looking to the future to see a profit which they know will come. A first step in taking over the Kings Mountain bikes is to consolidate the five Chiefs to three: the Roadmaster and Blackhawk are to end their run… too much redundancy in the lineup. (They’re all Chiefs with different window dressing). This will leave the Vintage at $38, 899, the Darkhorse at $27,999, and the Classic at $26,499. But these are not the SAME bike as KM. Polaris has done a complete reverse engineering, and these will not have the quality issues Kings Mountain had. Case in point: KM bikes had a side stand issue where it wouldn’t stay up when riding (a recall which Polaris will honor) as well as a headlight switch with electrical problems.
Indian plans to offer much more than the Chief. A new Scout? A new Indian 4? All under consideration. A strong range of Indians for the future, made to Polaris quality standards. So why acquire Indian when they already have Victory? There are now different price points, different market coverage, and 2 product lines. Will Indian still be called Indian, or called Victory? These will be completely separate brands, engines – repeat ENGINES, their own models, designs, accessories, and merchandise. Polaris has already closed down the KM plant (with very few jobs lost) and has hired Indians own separate Product Development Manager, General Manager, and Sales/Advertising force under the Polaris umbrella. So no, there will be no ATVs with an Indian headdress on it. The plan is to bring Indian back as if it had never gone out of business, knowing what it was originally.
As for older Indians, there are no plans for parts for bikes older than 2008. Gilroy owners already have sources for aftermarket parts, as do those with Springfield bikes. (It’s actually easier to get a part for a 70 year old Indian than a 10 year old Japanese bike). 2008 and later Indians will be supported by the new Indian.
Initially no Owner’s Group may be expected – Polaris is not yet geared up for that. Again, there is no timeframe for payback – 110 years is a very old company. Polaris is a $2.5 billion company – 1500 dealers for Polaris, 360 for Victory, and 150 for Indian coming to large Metro areas. One thing that will also happen, as Polaris bought a BRAND, is they are going to crackdown, HARD, on anything with the name “Indian” on it that is not genuine. Everyone pays top dollar for the real thing, and they’ll be going after the low hanging fruit first [read: EBAY], then the rest.
One concern some have, me included, is the Polaris position that Indians must be “exclusive.” Indian founders George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom must be spinning in their mausoleums over that, as this was not their idea in starting this company – they made a large variety of bikes for every size pocketbook. Eventually from a single cylinder 2-stroke to the Indian 4, and everything in between. A “premium” bike need not be an “exclusive” one – the higher attention to quality alone will separate it from the rest of the pack. Initially however, Polaris is running with the KM philosophy of a high priced motorcycle until the market says otherwise. And while there ARE a lot of parts dipped in the chrome tank and BREMBO brakes, the economy of scale ought to bring that price down to where the top end Harley or even Victory are. Another challenge is how do you be an innovative brand again with a marque that is 110 years old? Indian had a long list of “firsts” in the business, and many of us were disappointed in seeing the new Power Plus, though beautiful (and arguably THE most beautiful engine out there), still an Evo engine. Polaris thinks Indian owners don’t want overhead cam, 4 valves per cylinder, water cooled, shaft drive. Well, Indian HAD shaft drive, and water cooled may be impossible to avoid under new EPA requirements, so innovative firsts and racing bred performance may yet come to play eventually. In any case, Polaris has done a lot of homework on just who Indian owners are and what their expectations are, and seem eager meet those expectations going forward. Here’s to another 110 years at the new Spirit Lake WIGWAM.