With all the recent hoopla about the new Polaris Indian models, it may be time to look back on the original Indian models to learn what all the fuss is about.
A great book to have for that purpose is Jerry Hatfield’s “Indian Motorcycles.” Packed with more than 125 specially commissioned color images by photographer Hans Halberstadt, and 25 black and white period photos, Hatfield’s book reveals the original Indian motorcycle in vivid detail.
Hatfield covers the brand from the earliest efforts of founders George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom before the turn of the last century.
Both Hendee and Hedstrom had their beginnings in bicycles, Hendee as an amateur racer; Hedstrom as a professional. In 1900, the two met and, thanks to a mutual fascination with motorized bicycles that were emerging, and in January 1901, Hedstrom, under contract with Hendee set up shop to build motorized bikes—not yet called motorcycles. Instead the term applied to those first machines was “motocycle” but it was a term that stuck with the brand for many years.
Realizing early on the importance of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” the pair put the early Indians on display in competition in the nation’s first endurance event in July 1902, winning the event that extended from Boston to New York. That year, 143 motocycles (Indian’s spelling) were built with single-cylinder F-head engines designed by Hedstrom.
Hatfield carries the story of the Indian forward through company-specific periods of growth, development and struggle. The intersection of the company’s history and world history is a fascinating aspect of the story; for example the company’s success—contrary to rumors—during World War 1 with near-record profits for the plant, but perhaps bad years for dealers who would not have had much product to sell.
Between the wars, Indian racing success and engineering advances kept things moving along, but bad business decisions such as trying to diversify into outboard boat motors, automotive shock absorbers, refrigerators and ventilators, all of which were financial failures weakened the company overall.
Things only got worse through the early 1930s, Hatfield relates, as the Great Depression sucked the oxygen out of the economy. The company soldiered on and by the late 1930s, things were looking up with the Wigwam (the nickname for the huge Indian factory in Springfield, Massachusetts) producing high performance “Daytona” series competition V-twins and imposing in-line Fours.
Then came World War II. 1941, it would turn out would see the end of full-scale production of multiple models at the Wigwam. Raw materials essential to motorcycle production are the same ones essential to war material production—and the war took priority. That didn’t necessarily stop motorcycle production, with Indian getting federal contracts to build motorcycles—the Model 640B and the transverse mounted V-twin with shaft drive Model 841.
Though large-scale production by Indian was never seen through by the U.S. Army—Harley-Davidson won out in prototype testing. However, Indian did manage to win contracts with the British for production of the Model 741.
The immediate post-war years saw Indian producing only the V-twin Chief, hoping buyers would be content with improvements, but no other models to choose from until the 1948 Model 648 Scout and 1949 Model 149 Arrow and Model 249 Scout, but production numbers were small. Despite the difficulties plaguing the company, Floyd Emde won the 1948 Daytona 200 on an Indian.
Hatfield takes the Indian saga from there, including the little-known efforts with CZ and Vincent, the end of the Indian production in 1953, all the way to the various claimants to the Indian or Chief name in the 1990s.
With the Indian name finally finding a home with an organization with extensive engineering, manufacturing, marketing and management capabilities, it would seem some interesting new chapters are about to be written in the history of this iconic brand.
Indian Motorcycle Book Data:
- Title: Indian Motorcycles
- Author: Jerry Hatfield and Hans Halberstadt
- Published: 1996 (1st edition) and 2007
- Publisher: MBI Publishing Company, LLC, Galtier Plaza, Suite 200, 380 Jackson St., St. Paul, MN, 55101, USA.
- ISBN: 978-0-7603-2966-5