The Indian Motorcycle company finally appears to be moving in the right direction.
When Polaris Industries purchased the Indian Motorcycle company in 2011, it marked the first time since the original brand declared bankruptcy 58 years earlier that the Indian name belonged to an owner with ample money to invest in the business and a background in building motorcycles.
The last original Indian rolled out of the brand’s factory in Springfield, Mass., in 1953, and in the years between then and the Polaris acquisition, a total of nine entities tried to resuscitate the marque. One attempt culminated in a prison sentence. In 1990, Philip Zanghi II began promoting his plans to build 100,000 Indian motorcycles annually at a Springfield manufacturing facility. He collected more than $800,000 from investors but failed to produce even a single motorcycle. Instead, he sold other items—T-shirts, guitars, and cigars—that displayed the Indian logo. In 1997, Zanghi was found guilty on 12 counts of securities fraud, three counts of tax evasion, and six counts of money laundering.
Other attempts to revive the brand were less nefarious and only slightly more successful. Brockhouse Engineering imported Royal Enfield motorcycles from England and sold them as Indians from 1955 until 1960, when England’s Associated Motor Cycles bought the Indian name. AMC planned to sell Matchless and AJS motorcycles badged as Indians but went bankrupt in 1962. Later, the Indian Motorcycle Company of Gardena, Calif., slapped Indian labels on minibikes imported from Taiwan, and American Moped Associates continued that practice when it purchased the brand in 1978. According to Ed Youngblood, the author of A Century of Indian, prior to Polaris, only two entities made concerted efforts to build new Indian motorcycles since the original company ceased operations. The most recent was Stellican, a private-equity firm based in London. It acquired the brand in 2006 and set up production in Kings Mountain, N.C. But the Great Recession crippled the operation. Polaris bought the company from Stellican for an undisclosed sum and moved it to Spirit Lake, Iowa. “Most people seriously underestimated the task [of reviving the Indian brand],” says Youngblood. “They were either short on capital or short on competence.”
Polaris—the Minnesota-based company that makes snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles and also owns Victory Motorcycles—appears to have an abundance of both. The latest Indian offerings, the Roadmaster and the Scout, debuted at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota this past August. The Roadmaster is a touring bike that emphasizes comfort and takes its name from a 1940s-era Indian model. The Scout is engineered to be the most powerful and maneuverable midsize motorcycle on the market.
“In order to create a viable modern motorcycle that will have a broader market,” says Youngblood, “Polaris must step away from nostalgia and create their own identity with the Indian brand. This is exactly what they’ve done with the Scout.”
What would become the Indian Motorcycle company was originally known as the Hendee Manufacturing Company. It was formed in the late 1890s by George Hendee, the United States’ first national cycling champion. He initially built bicycles, some of which he called Indians, eventually applying the name to the business. Carl Oscar Hedström, a fellow bicycle racer, joined the company in 1900, and together he and Hendee built a prototype motorcycle that they unveiled the following year and began producing in 1902.
(Continues on next page...)