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Motorcycles: Hail to the Chief

<< Back to Robb Report, August 2002
  • Bill Stermer

At first, Carl Dietz didn’t notice his pursuer. Dietz had recently purchased a 2002 Indian Chief, the first all-Indian cruiser in 50 years, and was breaking it in around his neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs. He leaned into each corner, carefully downshifted at each stop sign, and shifted through the gears on the longer streets.

After a quarter-mile, he noticed a pickup truck behind him. With each turn Dietz took, the truck followed. For nearly a mile, despite the circuitous route Dietz navigated, the truck tailed the Chief. Somewhat concerned, Dietz pulled into a shopping area and parked the Chief in a busy parking lot. The truck pulled up alongside and its driver got out.

“Is that an Indian?” the driver asked, staring at the bike. Dietz said yes, and the driver continued to stare at the machine. “I heard they were coming back,” the driver said. “That’s a beautiful bike.”

The comeback was not complete until Indian mated the 2002 Chief with the Powerplus, a 100-cubic-inch (1,638cc), 45-degree, air-cooled, V-twin engine. Indian, originally launched in 1901, folded in 1952, and was relaunched in 1998. However, to begin production immediately on the Chief and Scout bikes, Indian purchased 88-cubic-inch V-twin engines made by S&S Manufacturing. S&S builds engines for motorcycles commonly known as clones, or custom bikes that resemble Harleys. Although the engines were reliable, enthusiasts dismissed the reborn Chief and Scout models as clones, arguing that they would not be authentic Indians until they were powered by Indian-designed engines.

The Powerplus-driven bike pulls like a locomotive, says Dietz, but power isn’t the Chief’s only attribute. The Chief has huge valanced fenders, giving the bike a look straight out of the 1940s. Combine its classic lines and brawling feel and you have a motorcycle that distinguishes itself from the cruiser crowd. “I can’t say enough good things about it,” Dietz says. “The Chief handles really well, and the torque is amazing—it has a lot of pull. People constantly come up to me and say, ‘That’s a really beautiful bike.’ ”

I’ve heard the same reaction. I recently tested the Chief on the Pacific Coast Highway, turning heads and winning admiration. The Chief feels low, solid, and heavy, and at idle, its power pulses thump through the frame. Chunk it into first gear, let out the clutch, and the massive torque lunges the Chief forward. Take it up through the gears, and the seat back shudders from heavy vibrations as the pipes thunder. It shifts easily for such a big bike, turns readily, and is smooth at cruising speeds. Other riders on the PCH did double takes, unsure if they were seeing an antique Indian or a new one.

Ironically, Dietz almost bought an antique Indian 20 years ago. He was attending a motorcycle show near Chicago and spotted a 1948 Chief. The seller already had a buyer, who promised he’d return at 5 pm that day with enough money for the motorcycle. Dietz remained at the show, and when the hour arrived and the buyer hadn’t returned, he thought he could buy the Chief himself. Fifteen minutes later, the buyer came back with his money, leaving Dietz empty-handed.

He lost the Indian back then, but now he cruises on his new Chief— serial number 0004. “I have a feeling I’ll be hanging on to this,” Dietz says. “Everything is just perfect.”

Indian Motorcycle Corp., www.indianmotorcycle.com

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