Indian Motorcycle Company History – A legend is born

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Indian Motorcycle Company History - A legend is born
Indian Motorcycle Company History – A legend is born

– Indian Motorcycle Company History – A legend is born

2009 Indian Indian Motorcycle Company History – A legend is born

America’s First Motorcycle: In the Beginning, a Genius Created a Pacer Bicycle

While the 2 3/4 horsepower single and the five horsepower twin have been retained, two new models will be presented and a seven horsepower twin. The radical changes of the Indian, however, will consist in a mechanical oiling device, free engine and two-speed gear, and a new spring fork.

— New York Times, January 9, 1910

By the time the above appeared, Indian motorcycle riders had been roaming the dirt trails and rolling along the wagon-wheel ruts of America for almost a decade. Hitting the road in 1901, Indian was not only the first American motorcycle, it was the world’s best-selling bike and, having introduced the first V-twin motorcycle to the world in 1907, the most technologically advanced. Harley-Davidson 1910 models, by contrast, were all singles, producing five horsepower or less.

The “Wigwam,” as the company liked to call its factory, was in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Indian “chiefs” were George Hendee, a pretty “fair” (winning 302 of 309 races!) bicycle racer/builder and Carl Oscar Hedstrom, an engineering genius who designed and hand-built the first running prototype, a 1.75 horsepower single with a then-revolutionary chain drive, in under six months.

Originally manufactured under the corporate banner of the Hendee Manufacturing Company, which was later reincorporated as the Indian Motocycle Company (an apparent Americanization of the European style of hyphenated motorcycle company names — i.e. Moto-Guzzi), early Indians were inspired by Hedstrom’s work with “pacing” bicycles.

Quite possibly the first application of the science of aerodynamics in racing, pacers were tandem units intended to run ahead of the racers to split the air stream and lessen wind resistance. Even with two ultra-cardiovascularly fit riders peddling like mad, however, early pacers were so heavy and bulky the racers quickly caught up and passed them, thus defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. Designing a lighter, stronger pacer frame fitted with a small gasoline engine to add a bit of horsepower to the riders’ peddle power, pacer bike builder Hedstrom caught the attention of bicycle racer Hendee and the rest, as they say, is history.

And what a history it is.

From 1901 to 1916, three years after a new Hedstrom-designed state-of-the-art, 400,000 square-foot “Wigwam” came online, annual production soared from three to a world-leading 41,000. With more than 20 American motorcycle manufacturers scrapping for business prior to the U.S. entry into World War I, Indian’s market share was a staggering 40-plus percent.

Prior to the new factory’s opening, in fact, Hedstrom’s motors were so successful that Indian couldn’t make enough complete bikes to satisfy demand and licensed the motor designs to numerous other manufacturers. Not surprisingly, most of those competitors quickly disappeared once Indian ramped up its production capacity and began keeping Hedstrom and his successors’ innovations — the first Big Twin motors, the first two-speed transmissions, the first adjustable front suspensions, the first electric lights and starters, and scores of others — to itself.

Then as now, Indians and their riders were bound by emotional ties unusual in relationships between men and machines. In part, this was by design. Almost a hundred years before the buzz phrase Customer Relations Management was invented, Indian’s founders and their executives devoted an intensity of effort to CRM matched only by Henry Ford after the introduction of the Model T.

Thousands of Indian fans thronged dealerships throughout the country at annual Indian Day celebrations, while riders and prospective riders were warmly welcomed at the Wigwam decades before official tours became a staple at everything from sauerkraut plants to firearms factories. And, though it can’t be proven scientifically, there is little doubt that the introduction of Indian’s trademark Crimson Steed of Steel paint scheme in 1904 raised its riders’ pulse rates and spirits considerably more than its major competitor’s “gray fellow” styling of the same era.

There was also an unusual amount of loyalty between Indian and its riders. Hendee Manufacturing and, later, Indian Motocycle prided itself on producing bikes with the best “getting home without a breakdown” record in the then-infant motorcycle industry. In return, Indian riders rarely strayed far from the Wigwam, returning to it regularly for a new ride for themselves, their sons, even their grandsons.

In addition to building their street bikes to the highest standards attainable at the time, the motorcycle pioneers at Indian were strong believers in the theory that racing improves the breed and supported that belief with the most comprehensive factory competition program in the business.

Special racing motorcycles engineered with such advanced features as overhead cams and four-valve-per-cylinder engines were built, and the company sponsored entrants in virtually every major motorcycle event in America and abroad. Impressive results included land speed records, a sweep of the top three positions at the Isle of Man TT, and an unparalleled record of victories in every form of racing from board track to hill climbs.

Though Indian would pick up the competition baton and race it into countless winner’s circles in the decades following World War I, it would do so without either of its founding fathers, Hendee and Hedstrom both having chosen to leave the company rather than continue ongoing trench warfare with dissident investors.

Fortunately for the motorcycle riders of the world, what was arguably the best and brightest team of motorcycle designers and engineers ever assembled in one company remained camped in the Wigwam after Hendee and Hedstrom’s departure. Indian’s greatest years of technological innovation and performance were yet to come.

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.


A History of Innovation – Engineering and Competition Highlights

Prototype and two production units successfully designed, built and tested.

First Indian motorcycles, featuring innovative belt-drives and streamlined styling, sold to public.

Indian co-founder and chief engineer Oscar Hedstrom sets world motorcycle speed record (56mph).

Crimson Steed of Steel paint scheme introduced; Indian wins Gold Medal for Mechanical Excellence at St. Louis Exposition

Indian releases first American production V-Twin after several years of development and testing; 101 years later V-Twin remains most popular cruiser-motorcycle engine design

New York Police Department selects Indians for first motorcycle police unit

Indian “loop frame” positions gas tank on front horizontal frame member, other makers eventually follow suit; basic configuration still used by virtually all motorcycles.

Indian sweeps top three positions in first Isle of Man Mountain Course Race

First swingarm and leaf-spring rear suspension in the industry is introduced.

Indian debuts world’s first motorcycle with electric lights and starter; Cannonball Baker sets cross-country speed record on an Indian V-Twin

61-cubic-inch Powerplus side-valve engine is introduced

An overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder Powerplus racing motorcycle tops 120 mph

First use of semi-monocoque engine/transmission/frame construction; Indian Scout introduced

Indian becomes first company in America to use “leakproof” aluminum primary cases; competition retains leaks for decades.

74-cubic-inch Big Chief V-Twin introduced

Four-cylinder Indian Ace introduced.

Indian Rider Ed “Iron Man” Kretz wins inaugural Daytona 200; Indian introduces first motorcycles with dual carburetors

Indian pioneers use of “plunger” (spring coupled to an oil-dampened shaft) rear suspension; introduces trademark full-skirt fenders (aka valences).

Indian begins production of advanced shaft-drive, four-speed military motorcycle

Indian wins Army-Navy Production Award

First Daytona 200 held on new beach/road course won by Indian rider Floyd Emde



Leaders of the Track

The Indian men with the trophies. Even their nicknames have devolved into legend: Iron Man, Cannonball, Speck, Silvers, Fearless, Millionaire Morty. Even the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, raced Indians when he wasn’t busy chasing bad guys around the rocks in Lone Pine, California.

And then there was Burt Munro.

“At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb,” Munro recalled. “To slow her down I sat up. The wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head. We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down — a few scratches all round but nothing much else.”

What makes the story both poignant and typical of the dedication and love Indian racers had for their bikes is this: New Zealander Munro was a 68-year-old grandfather in 1967 and he was “going like a bomb” at 206 miles an hour on a 40-something Indian Scout at the time.

Today’s motorcycle enthusiasts can learn all about Burt Munro and the race wins and land-speed records he racked up on that Scout by renting a DVD of the 2006 Anthony Hopkins film “World’s Fastest Indian.” You have to look a bit further — but not very far — to find the rest of the story. The story of the most dominant motorcycle in the golden age of motorcycle racing. A time when every decent-sized city in America hosted either board track, dirt track, paved oval, hill climb, TT, or endurance motorcycle competitions.

Detailing Indian’s street-and-track competition triumphs would require a book (or three or four), but it owns one winning record that will never be surpassed. In 1911, the American Federation of Motorcyclists published statistics showing the top winners in 126 categories of motorcycle racing. Indian topped the list in every category.

New math or old, winning 126 out of 126 classes equals 100 percent. That record may someday be tied, but it can’t be broken.

From 1902 through Burt Munro’s class-setting land-speed records in the 1960s, Indians carried factory riders, semi-pro privateers, and “just plain folks” to uncounted thousands of local, national and international winners’ circles. To the right are just a few of the highlights.

Racing Highlights

Indian enters three first-year models in the Boston-New York Marathon race. All three finish with perfect scores.

George Holder and Louis Muller ride an Indian from San Francisco to New York City in 31 days, breaking the existing record by 18 days.

Erwin “Cannonball” Baker rides an Indian to victory in the first race ever held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Indian Rider Jake DeRosier sets a quarter-mile board track record of 68.2 mph at the Paterson, New Jersey velodrome. DeRosier goes on to set dozens of records and win hundreds of races on his Indian.

Indian finishes first, second, third, fifth, and sixth in the world’s most prestigious road race, the Isle of Man TT.

Cannonball Baker breaks Holder and Muller’s cross-country speed record by an astounding 20 days, riding his Indian from San Diego to New York in 11 days, 12 hours, and ten minutes.

Bob Armstrong wins three consecutive national hill-climbing championships on an Indian

Fred Ludlow, riding a Sport Scout, wins the Los Angeles Speed Trials on Muroc Dry Lake with an average of 128.57 mph. Now integrated into Edwards Air Force Base, Murdoc Dry Lake is currently the high-speed landing strip for the Space Shuttle.

Indian factory rider Ed “Iron Man” Kretz wins the first Daytona 200 by over a lap. Continuing to race into the 1950s, the Iron Man — who trained recruits to ride purpose-built Indian 841 desert-fighter bikes during World War II — racked up nine AMA National titles, numerous West Coast titles, and hundreds of Indian victories.

Floyd Emde rides a 1947 Indian Scout to victory over 152 other competitors (including five former winners) in the Daytona 200. Leading from flag to flag, Emde sets a new race record of more than 84 miles per hour.

Herbert “Burt” Munro rides his self-modified 1920 Scout to an under-1000cc land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Forty years later, Munro and his Indian’s record still stands.


About Michael Le Pard 3369 Articles
"Mr. Totalmotorcycle". Owner and Founder of Total Motorcycle. Supporting over Motorcyclists and Motorcycling for 19 great years. Total Motorcycle is my pride and joy and being able to reach out 300 million people has been incredible but I could not have done it without the support of my visitors, readers and members, thank you so much! You are making a difference to millions of riders worldwide. Thank you.

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