Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

A Brief History Of Indian Motorcycle Part 2


Onward Indian Warriors: The Roaring ’20s & Beyond

Of all the inspired “wrenches” who picked up Indian’s engineering reins after Oscar Hedstrom’s departure, the two most remarkable were Hedstrom’s long-time assistant Charles Gustafson and Charles B. Franklin, an Irish immigrant who had ridden for the “Indian Rules” team that swept the Isle of Man TT in 1911.

Under their leadership, Indian celebrated the War’s winding down by firing a broadside that resounded throughout the entire racing world, the introduction of the first dedicated board-track factory racer ever offered for sale directly to the public.
Featuring a four-valve-per-cylinder, overhead-valve engine and a lightweight rigid frame without such “nonessentials” as brakes, fenders or throttle (the bikes were run with the carbs wide open), the Model H carried a top speed of over 120mph and a sticker-shocking price of about $375, roughly a third more than a fully equipped Chief of the era. Because not many club racers were both wealthy and brave enough to buy and race one, relatively few were built, but those few –particularly when “loaned” to professional riders by the factory — took home trophies and track records almost everywhere they competed.
Equally revolutionary, but a lot more practical and affordable, post-war Chiefs and Scouts were based on Gustafson’s side-valve, 42-degree, v-twin Powerplus engine. Arguably the most influential motorcycle engine design in history, the Powerplus forced other v-twin makers, including Harley-Davidson, to abandon their OHV designs and develop side-valve motors to compete with the Indians’ power and reliability.

The Powerplus platform, in displacements ranging from 37 to 74 cubic inches and chassis engineered by Franklin, remained the gold standard in v-twin design for decades and continues to inspire us at Indian today.

The first significant Powerplus-era street bikes were the 1920 Scout, featuring a 37ci motor, and the 1922 61ci Chief. The low-riding, long-wheelbase Scout , with its innovative semi-monocoque construction, three-speed transmission and helical-gear drive, was an immediate hit with street riders and dirt track and endurance racers and became even more popular after the frame was lowered and the engine bumped to 45ci in 1928.

During the same period, the Chief and the Big Chief, introduced in 1924 with a 74-cubic-inch Powerplus prime mover, began earning the reputation that would soon make the words “Indian Chief” synonymous with “world’s best touring motorcycle.”
Another Indian milestone of the era was the introduction of the Indian Four in 1927. Featuring an inline four-cylinder engine derived from a design Indian acquired in a buyout of the Ace Motorcycle Company, the new model was initially marketed as the Indian Ace and rebranded the Indian Four after being given an advanced suspension, high-stability frame and more durable motor in 1928.

(In one of the many ironies arising from Indian’s pioneering role in motorcycle development, the Four was the progenitor of the transversely mounted inline fours with which Honda — whose founder, Soichiro Honda, was an avid Scout rider before starting his own company — revolutionized the sport-touring market in the early ’70s.)

While Indian’s engineers, assembly line workers, sales reps, factory racers, and customers were soaring through the ’20s celebrating race wins and milestones such as becoming the first manufacturer in the world to produce over a quarter-million motorcycles (1923), the front office was equally busy roaring through the company’s cash, credit and corporate goodwill.
Whereas Oscar Hedstrom’s heirs in Indian’s engineering and manufacturing departments were motorcycle devotees of ability, vision, and passion, those who succeeded George Hendee in the executive suite were mediocre mercenaries at best and white-collar pirates bent on looting and plundering at the worst.

Under their misdirection, the highly profitable Indian motorcycle division was bled white to support money-losing “diversifications” into non-motorcycle-related companies, many of which were suspected of being secretly controlled by cronies of the very Indian executives who made the decision to invest in them.

That Indian survived a full decade of financial machinations in the face of powerful competition from Harley-Davidson, Henderson, Excelsior, etc. — not to mention the even stronger competition from the Model T Ford and other newly affordable four-wheelers — is a testament to the quality and durability of its motorcycles, the pride and dedication of its dealers and riders and — to be the truthful — the gung ho, prairie oysters-to-the-wall economy of the Jazz Age.

Given the rot at the top, there is simply no way Indian — which was already losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually during the good years — could have survived the Depression or even, in all likelihood, the first two years of the Depression, without a miracle.

Fortunately, miracles sometimes happen. Indian’s miracle — which went by the name of Eleuthere Paul duPont — occurred on the very eve of what was, to the vast majority of American citizens and businesses, the start of an almost 12-year-long national nightmare.

In late 1929, shortly before the Stock Market’s “Black Tuesday,” E. Paul duPont persuaded his brother Francis to merge the family’s luxury car business with Indian and cease production of — surprise, surprise — cars!
Though this decision seems bizarre, especially considering that many American motorcycle firms had already been bankrupted by the public’s infatuation with the automobile, the fact seems to be that E. Paul, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, was simply more interested in bikes than cars. As a kid he had converted his bicycle into a motorbike by mounting a handbuilt engine of his own design to the frame and he later owned and modified several Indians while still in engineering school.
Then, too, he and Francis had been Indian shareholders since 1923 and had both seen enough to convince them that the only way to recoup anything on their original $300,000 investment was to take over the company and spend as many millions as it took to put it right.

One of duPont’s first moves after becoming Indian’s president was to the pull the plug on all non-motorcycle operations. One of his next — and perhaps even more significant — moves was to lure two extraordinary men, Briggs Weaver and Loren Hosley — into the Springfield Wigwam.

Chief Designer Weaver eventually parented what almost every motorcycle fanatic alive considers the classic Indian look — a sweeping, streamlined, timeless style which looks as vibrant and exhilarating today as it did 60-odd years ago. And Hosley, as production manager, converted Indian into a highly efficient manufacturing company with record-breaking income in less than a decade.

Along the way, they — with E. Paul duPont working hands-on in every area from engineering to test riding — introduced dozens of new technological advances, virtually dominated AMA Class C racing and made Indian an integral part of the march toward World War II preparedness.