2014 Indian Chief Classic Test
So, I’m standing in line at The Hat, a pastrami stand in Alhambra, Calif., that dates back to 1951 — two years before the original Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company went bankrupt. Parked a few feet away is the new Indian Chief Classic I pulled up on.
A dressed-for-success buxom brunette a decade or so younger than me gets an eyeful of the Chief Classic and says to her companion, “That makes me want to get a motorcycle.” Her young female friend smiles and nods, maybe betraying the slightest eye-roll.
The two women get in line behind me, noticing my vintage-style River Road Roadster jacket and Bell RS-1 with the eye-catching RSD Flash Bronze graphics. If I were better looking, you would think I was in an ad.
“I love your bike,” the brunette says to me. I thank her modestly. “Where are you riding to?” she asks. “Nowhere in particular,” I respond unhelpfully.
Her reply? “Take me with you.” I blush, and mention that she doesn’t have a helmet, a perfect escape plan that keeps me out of trouble. Yes, the Indian Chief Classic is that kind of bike.
The funny thing is, I have the same romantic attachment to the bike that the young ladies had. This motorcycle is something special, and it’s not just the way the Classic looks. As emotionally stirring as it is to gaze at, this is a bike that simply makes you want to go for a ride.
There isn’t any one aspect of the Classic that stands out — everything is exactly what you want in a big-inch cruiser. How the engineers at Indian were able to make this motorcycle so right the first time is probably worthy of a book. Regardless, when you are sitting on the comfortable seat, you will not care how it happened. All that will matter is that you are at the controls of a fantastic bike.
Pulling double-duty on the Indian Chief Classic — which is the same under the skin as the Chief Vintage bagger and Chieftain tourer — is the stump-pulling Thunder Stroke 111 powerplant. Air- and oil-cooled, it looks the part with the distinctive 1948 Chief-inspired cooling fins on the valve cover and downdraft exhaust valves, and thanks to a bore just shy of four inches and a stroke nearly a half-inch longer, the undersquare motor cranks out prodigious power without breaking a sweat.
From the warmly thumping idle to the gently enforced 5500 rpm rev limit, the pushrod Thunder Stroke never stops putting out gobs of power. You cannot get the bike off the three cams, and the peak torque of 119 ft/lbs comes at 3000 rpm.
This means that roll-on power is always available and never fails to stir the soul.
The 54mm throttle body EFI, is flawless. The Thunder Stroke motor has plenty of rotating mass, so while the push is strong, it is predictable, controllable, and enjoyable. Turn the throttle and it accelerates well; twist it hard and it gains momentum impressively no matter which of six ratios you’re in. It may be the best powerplant in the world of cruising.
Surrounding that spectacular motor with a chassis that does it justice must have been quite a challenge. Fortunately, the engineering team did not cut corners.
Up front, you get 46mm cartridge forks with dual rate springs. This feature earns its keep on the rough, potholed roads you’ll find in the less-fortunate parts of Los Angeles. Even in the tony Hollywood Hills, parts of storied Mulholland Drive look like a live fire zone where grenades are tested. The front end sucks up the big stuff, while gliding over the small imperfections.
With the Classic’s extensive bodywork, Indian was able to install a modern rear suspension system with a single shock and a satisfactory 3.7 inches of travel. In all my riding on bad roads, not once did the Indian jolt my arms or spike my spine.
Handling of the fully fueled 800+ pound machine is effortless. The Dunlop American Elite whitewalls are on 60-spoke 16-inch wheels and, thanks to the 130/180mm combo and a reasonable 29 degrees of rake, the Classic has no problem with the twisties, taking on rapid-fire direction changes eagerly. Cornering clearance will satisfy all but the most aggressive rider, and confidence is doled out generously.
The ABS works as you would expect — not transparently, but efficiently. I stuck with the rear brake almost exclusively. When necessary, the twin front discs with calipers hidden by the deeply valanced fender can be effectively employed.
On the open road, thanks to the 68-inch wheelbase and low center-of-gravity — the seat sits at an even 26 inches — stability is unquestioned. The meaty front of the bike pushes a lot of air out of the way, so you don’t have to hang on for dear life. It is not a touring bike, though you can easily add the Vintage’s quickly installed (and detached) windshield as an option, if you like. Cruise control is standard, though it feels superfluous on a naked cruiser like this.
Ergonomically, the Classic feels like it was made with my 5′ 10″ frame in mind. The floorboards and fat handlebars are right where I want them, though why Polaris eschews heel/toe shifting on their Victory and Indian motorcycles, I’m not quite sure. On the upside, the transmission shifts smoothly and reliably.
The balanced motor delivers wonderful vibrations, though not enough to blur the functional mirrors. The exhaust note is so muscular, I wonder how it meets DOT standards. Oddly, the tank is rubber-mounted and moves around enough to be distracting — the Classic’s only significant flaw.
In the intervening 63 years between the bankruptcy of the original makers of Indians and the rebirth in 2014, there were quite a few motorcycles that had people asking, “That is an Indian?” Magic has been performed—the new Indian Chief Classic has changed the punctuation following those four words and people are now saying, “That is an Indian!”
Photography by Barry Hathaway
Story from the March/April issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine. For subscription services, click here.