2014 Indian Chieftain and Chief Vintage Test
As we meander our way through life, we occasionally come across so-called defining moments in time. Sometimes we recognize them immediately; on other occasions we only realize their significance afterwards.
Of course, a defining moment in time is a highly personal thing—something that you decide is of exceptional significance may just be a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders to others.
As I rounded the corner headed up the hill from Keystone in South Dakota’s Black Hills, Mount Rushmore suddenly appeared in front of me, with sharp early morning light illuminating it from the heavens to the east. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see — I’ve seen the pictures, too — but I certainly was not expecting the four Presidents to be so dramatically lit, and to make such a powerful impression on me.
An involuntary “holy [expletive]” (in a good way) was uttered and I pulled the new Indian Chieftain over into a small lay-by kindly set aside by the road planners, presumably for just such a moment. As a proudly naturalized American citizen (thanks for having me), I was momentarily overcome with emotion. At that moment, Mount Rushmore symbolized a large part of what is great about America for me.
Now, I am not going to claim that the reveal of the new Indian motorcycle had the same effect on me. How- ever, for many motorcycle enthusiasts everywhere, it was an absolutely significant event, and perhaps a defining moment in time. Standing there on a warm evening in Sturgis — the heartbeat of American motorcycling — the covers came off the new Chief.
Strobes fired, spotlights blazed, and a very enthusiastic, not-entirely- sober crowd, all went wild simultaneously—quite rightly. This was the re-birth of a significant motorcycle brand, and that doesn’t happen every day.
Founded originally in 1901 – the first 1,901 new Indians will have an engraved numbered plate – the company has a checkered history, yet it has remained a part of the public consciousness. To many enthusiasts, the “real” Indians were produced during the 1940s and early-’50s, until bankruptcy swept them away in 1953. Since then, several brand and copyright owners have given it their best shots. More recently, Indian had short-term stays in Gilroy, Calif. (the so-called Garlic Indians), and then Kings Mountain, N.C., until purchase by Polaris in 2011.
Skeptics will scoff, assuming that the newest iteration of the Indian Motorcycle Company will last about another four years and then once more crash and burn. This doesn’t take into account that the new owner — the highly profitable Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn. (market cap: $7.8 billion) — has such incredible financial muscle, resources, and passion, that this time, I am confident the cynics will be proven wrong.
To say that Polaris has taken its new acquisition seriously would be an understatement of epic proportions. Believing that “Indian’s rightful home is with Polaris,” Steve Menneto (VP- Motorcycles), drafted in Greg Brewfresh from designing the new Rolls Royce at BMW — to come up with the new Chief.
Brew immediately contacted owners and collectors, and talked to everyone he possibly could about the heritage and standout features of the brand, as well as machines from the past. Several items quickly made their way to the top of the must-include list and, despite serious engineering challenges, Brew’s new Indian Motorcycle vision took shape with every must-have included.
To accomplish this in two-and-a-half years is highly creditable; to have produced such a well-rounded (dare I say mature?) product, with three models in the line-up, and seemingly every nuance accounted for, is downright astonishing.
The launch of three new machines — the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage, and Chieftain — includes an impressive line of accessories, a cohesive and informative website, and a highly creative ad campaign, all built around a reverence for the brand that borders on religious zealotry. Yes, I would say Indian has found its rightful home at last.
The heart of any motorcycle is of course its powerplant, and the new 49-degree V-twin, air-cooled, Thunder Stroke 111 certainly looks the part. Purists will note the cross-directional finning, fat parallel pushrod tubes, and downdraft exhausts that give more than a mere nod to the classic original motor. The oil reservoir is cleverly integrated into the rear of the engine, and only a single supply is needed to keep all the internals, including the six-speed gearbox, well lubricated.
The three-cam, two-valve-per-cylinder motor is balanced, not rubber-mounted, so vibration is enough to make the motor feel alive, yet pleasantly damped so that no extremities go to sleep on extended rides. Despite being completely smooth at highway speeds, as a big-inch V-twin (101mm bore and 113mm stroke, 1811cc) the engine feels unhurried and capable of carrying you however far you feel like venturing.
The EFI system is very good, and the fly-by-wire throttle connection is excellent; meandering down Main Street, Sturgis, at 10 mph, between literally thousands of motorcycles, posed no problem whatsoever.
Brew and his engineering team did more than get the motor’s look right. They researched the sound they wanted from the exhaust, and using a professional audio engineer they made iteration after iteration of those twin mufflers, until they had that ideal throaty burble sound. Indian claims the engine outputs a monstrous 119 ft/lbs of torque at a leisurely 3000 rpm, and having toyed mercilessly with several other bikers on the Sturgis highway, I’m inclined to believe them.
Rolling on in sixth gear from 70 mph produces a solid shove of acceleration that will have any red-blooded biker salivating — or beside himself with humiliation — depending on which brand of bike he is riding. A big bore kit for more power? No need, thanks. I have enough.
Wrapped around the spectacular motor is a cast aluminum chassis that is backbone style, and also incorporates downtubes to maintain the authentic look. The 46mm cartridge fork and single rear progressive linkage shock (with pneumatically adjustable preload on the Chieftain) have plenty of travel. This nice supple suspension feels firm enough to provide sporty handling, yet it absorbs bumps well on the Chief Classic and Chieftain I rode, both of which tip the scales at over 800 pounds fully fueled.
On open roads through the Black Hills, I had the good fortune to see and exploit some of the most fabulous scenery and blacktop I have ever come across. The Indian handling is very good, and there is a ton of ground clearance; it took a lot of effort to touch down the fixed floorboards.
In addition to the stable chassis, Dunlop deserves serious credit for the perfectly matched and superb grip of its American Elite whitewall tires. The fat 130-section front has plenty of footprint, and a 180mm rear helps put all that torque to the ground and turn the bike efficiently when asked.
Sporting riders will be well acquainted with Dunlop’s racing credentials; it is comforting to know that the knowledge and expertise that created the superb Q3 is leveraged into their cruiser tires as well.
The faired Chieftain, with its centrally lockable hard bags, obviously carries more weight than its siblings, so the rake has been tightened to 25 degrees, from a leisurely 29 degrees on the Chief Vintage; this helps speed up the steering a little. Riding the bikes back-to-back, the Chieftain’s easier turning is immediately noticeable. Yet, the Chief Vintage model doesn’t feel ponderous or slow in any way. It has excellent, neutral, confidence inspiring handling in the corners, while also feeling stable and planted in a straight line.
Purely out of um… “journalistic integrity”, I felt it necessary to briefly push the Chieftain to a three-figure speed on the highway. As expected, the motorcycle exhibited no ill effects whatsoever, and remained as sharp and solid as it did at much more regular (and legal) speeds.
Braking is handled by twin drilled floating discs and four-piston calipers at the front, and a single two-piston caliper and floating rotor at the rear. The ABS-equipped brakes have excellent feel and more than enough power to rapidly slow the half-ton projectile with me aboard; at no point did I have any cause to question their efficiency.
Beyond the unique motor, the Indian heritage demands certain visual cues, and Brew was very much in tune with Indian motorcycles of yore. The valanced fenders are the most obvious, and help with the aerodynamics of the bike, though they add more weight. A single pin running through the rear of the chassis allows the entire rear wheel and suspension to be dropped away in one piece for maintenance. It’s a neat solution everyone will appreciate when it is time to change the tire.
The beige face retro-style clocks, 5.5-gallon teardrop gas tank, and fully enclosed right side belt drive are further visual cues from the past, as is the large, left-side mounted air intake, and primary cover with its distinct three centers of rotation.
There are three non-metallic color schemes, and each model comes in a choice of Thunder Black, the instantly identifiable Indian Motorcycle Red, and in homage to the birthplace of Indian — Springfield Blue — with the latter two colors running a few hundred bucks extra.
It has to be said that the base prices starting at $19,000 for the Classic to the $23,000 for the Chieftain are much lower than anyone expected. This must have come as an unpleasant shock to competitive brands, given that the Indians include such “extras” as internally wired fat bars, cruise control, ABS, and real leather upholstery.
Differences between the models are plainly visual. The Vintage is the Classic equipped with a quickly detachable windshield and soft leather-fringed saddlebags. The flagship bagger Chieftain is the first Indian ever to come with a fork-mounted fairing and hard bags, and that fairing is the first to have an electrically height-adjustable windshield. Underneath, however, they are the same basic motorcycle.
I didn’t love the homogenized look of the Chieftain fairing, especially with the large Victory Vision-esque LED lights/turn signals that I found a bit incongruous; however once I understood Brew’s design inspiration came from the art deco streamliner trains of the 1930s, I did applaud the thinking.
Whether you like the look of the fairing or not, there is no denying it functions extremely well. Many hours spent in a wind tunnel have paid off, and the cocoon of relatively still air behind the screen makes for a very pleasant ride and means the wonderfully audible sound system rarely needs full volume.
Instrumentation on the Chieftain — in fact, the electronics on all three models — is very much not the 1940s. The instrument cluster includes an electronic speedometer, tachometer, and fuel gauge with odometer, dual trip meters with distance and time, fuel economy, and fuel range. Additionally, there is a clock, ambient air temperature and gear position indicators, tire pressure readout, engine hours of operation and engine oil life percentage, plus average speed, and battery voltage.
Both Bluetooth and USB accessibility are integrated into the 100-Watt radio stereo system; and a handy cigarette lighter power socket is there to power a GPS, phone or other item. An accessory handlebar-mounted stereo system is available for the Vintage and Classic models if you need your tunes while on the move.
It is crystal clear. The heritage has been respected, the specifications are impressive, the looks are just right, the price is reasonable, and the motorcycle performs far beyond expectations.
But does the new Indian have soul? That is the question. It needs to have that indefinable character, that je ne sais quoi that will translate to a bright future of big number sales, from more than just the early adopters or those interested in the novelty.
Ridiculous as it may sound to an outsider, a motorcycle has to become part of you; it has to become almost an extension of who you are—after all, people judge you by your ride. So, the answer to that question lies within you — not the motorcycle.
Indian has provided the perfect platform, the ideal raw machine with a definable DNA, and you will need to get it home and make it your own. Accessorize it, tweak it, and above all, ride it, ride it, and ride it some more. Then you will be able to answer that question.
For me, having ridden the new Indian now for several days, the answer is an unequivocal yes. It does have soul, and this is a defining moment in time.
- Helmet: HJC RPHA Max
- Eyewear: Maui Jim Lahaina
- Jacket: Joe Rocket Reactor 3.0
- Gloves: River Road Laredo
- Jeans: Levi’s 501
- Boots: Toschi Motard
Photography by Barry Hathaway & Tom Riles