The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars | Review

The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars by Allan Girdler | Rider's Library

Among legendary rivalries in motorcycle history, perhaps none has deeper roots than that between Harley-Davidson and Indian. Those brand names came to define American motorcycles virtually from the very beginning of motorcycle production in North America and the end of the original Indian Motorcycle company in 1953.

It is a classic and uniquely American saga that is well-told by one of the top moto-journalists of our time, Allan Girdler, in his latest book “The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars.”

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We gave you a taste of Girdler’s work in our review of his book “The Illustrated Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide Since 1965.” Girdler, a regular contributor to Cycle World over the years, also wrote “The Illustrated Harley-Davidson Buyer’s Guide, 1936 to Present” as well as “Harley-Davidson Sportster” and “Harley-Davidson, the American Motorcycle.”

That experience helps paint the dramatic and sometimes convoluted history of this industry rivalry with clarity and in detail. “How much detail?” you may ask. Try this—Girdler reveals that Indian, in the days before telephones and faxes, when the telegraph was the only form of electronic communication and, therefore, very pricey, invented its own communications code! The idea was to be able to send messages to its dealers nationwide without having to pay for long, wordy messages. For example, BALK stood for “Model E-3, single-cylinder three speed service,” and GET meant “answer by wire.”

Girdler dissects the long history of the two companies in the context of the history of the industry. The tale extends from the earliest days of bicycles with engines from a few innovators to many brands and designs being spawned and the eventual thinning of the field.

He recalls not only the glory days of racing of the two companies, but the many stumbles along the way: for example, when Indian stepped up to add a battery lights and electric horn (or as it was called then “the electric signal”) in the 1914 model year.

While the design was a huge innovation and would have set the brand apart, it proved to be a step too far ahead at a time when road conditions and owners were too rough for sophisticated and somewhat delicate equipment. The bikes ended up recalled, retrofitted with kickstarters and the idea of electric starters disappeared for years.

From Harley-Davidson’s “Silent Gray Fellow” to Indian’s Chief and Four to Harley’s Knucklehead and Hydra-Glide, through the epic days of factory racing teams and land speed records by both companies, Girdler relates some of the most well-known achievements as well as reveals aspects of the story not widely known.

For fans of Harley-Davidson and Indian, or any motorcycle fan who wants the inside story on a special part of America’s motorcycle glory days, Girdler’s The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars is an essential edition to the library.

The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars Fast Facts

  • Author: Allan Girdler
  • Published: 2016 hardcover, 180 10” x 10” pages, more than 200 color and black & white images. First published in 1997.
  • Publisher: Crestline, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group
  • ISBN: 978-0-7858-3418-2
  • The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars Price: $30