As the oldest brand of American-made motorcycles, born in 1901, Indians have always carried a special cachet. Although production grounded to a halt in the Springfield, Mass., plant in 1953, the Indian name and mystique lives on among passionate enthusiasts, who keep more than 25,000 pre-1953 bikes registered and running on American roads.
1942 Indian Sport Scout
Indian Sport Scout courtesy of Daniel Schoenewald. (Click images to enlarge)
Among them is this 1942 Indian Sport Scout, ridden surreptitiously by its current owner because he refuses to have it licensed in his name. “I don’t want to give away my title with Steve’s name on it,” says Daniel Schoenewald of the first of dozens of Indians owned by Steve McQueen. “This was the bike he could get on and be Everyman, not Steve McQueen the Hollywood actor, and that’s what he liked about it.”
While it keeps both hands and feet employed in a flurry of motion, activating the clutch, shifting gears, accelerating, braking and tinkering with the mechanical advance for the timing, Schoenewald says, “It’s quite fun to drive. It sounds like a hot rod when you fire it up.”
Indian Motorcycle Company served admirably in World War II, contributing more than 40,000 military-style motorcycles to the Allied effort, but fell into bankruptcy by 1953. The ensuing 45 years were filled with schemes—some legitimate, others outright fraudulent—to revive it. During that time, the Indian logo found itself on everything from Royal Enfields imported from Britain to small dirt bikes from Taiwan.
Indian Chief courtesy of Michael Sarrail. (Click images to enlarge)
The rebirth of the Indian Motorcycle Company came in 1998 when an investment group was awarded rights to the name and began production in Gilroy, California. While the first models offered the cosmetic appeal of early Indians, they were considered little more than Harley clones, pieced together with aftermarket parts and powered by S&S engines. Reliability wasn’t their strong suit, either.
Just as Indian seemed to be hitting its stride, the money ran out. And 13,000 motorcycles later, Indian again closed its doors in 2003, precisely 50 years after the original factory shut down.