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Watch Out, Harley-Davidson--the Indians are Coming Back

Updated on November 4, 2015

There Was a Time When Most Motorcycles were Indians

History--In the old historic city of Springfield, Massachusetts, established shortly after the Pilgrims landed, there still stands on one of the downtown streets a building known as the Indian Motorcycle Building. The city is proud of the fact that the Indian motorcycles were born there and became known all over the globe eventually.

Although it is only an apartment building today, the original factory is a piece of history. The motorcycles manufactured at Springfield's Indian Motorcycle plant became famous all over the world not only for citizens but also for soldiers as well, because the army used Indian motorcycles.

The former factory where Indian motorcycles were manufactured was nicknamed "The Wigwam." In and around Springfield today are companies selling the latest Indian motorcycles, some sporting the traditional figurine of a Native American wearing a glorious, many-feathered war bonnet.

Such a figurine usually is mounted on the front-wheel fender of an Indian motorcycle. The Indian make of motorcycles was the most prestigious bike in the world, long before Harley-Davidson challenged its popularity beginning in the 1920's.

The Indian name became synonymous with motorcycles during the early 1900's due to widespread use and popularity.

These were America's first motorcycles, begun in 1901. During both World Wars, Indian cycles were used by the U.S. forces. There were many years of struggle and setbacks as Indian and Harley-Davidson competed for America's favorite motorcycle manufacturer.

Difficulties and Rebirth--But by 1953 the Indian motorcycle company went bankrupt due to mismanagement by the successors to the original owners. Other owners tried to keep up the Indian name but didn't have much success until finally Polaris Industries purchased Indian Motorcycles in 2011.

They moved manufacturing to plants in Minnesota and Iowa, and recently had their 2014 Indian Chieftain model awarded “Motorcycle of the Year” by Road Runner Magazine.

A wide variety of Indian motorcycle models have been featured at motorcycle shows around the country. In 2005, a movie starring Anthony Hopkins entitled “The World's Fastest Indian” tells a true story of a courageous New Zealand racer who used an Indian motorcycle to set world speed records in the 1960's.

Current production of Indian Motorcycles includes models called the "Chief Classic" and "Chief Vintage," as well as the "Chieftain," "Scout," "Roadmaster," and "Dark Horse." Each model is distinctive and beautiful in its own way, but the "Chief Classic" is Indian's premier motorcycle.

Indian motorcycles are distinguished looking. They are characterized by a large, graceful front fender and low-riding saddle bags in the back. The motorcycles have a very rich and decorative look to them compared to Harley-Davidson bikes.

There are Indian-brand helmets also, which sport the favorite, traditional Indian motorcycle colors of maroon, gold, and black. Those were the colors first used when Indian started a century ago.

The Indian motorcycle enthusiasts have formed something of a cult within the ranks of motorcycle riders. While Harley-Davidson still is a name synonymous with motorcycling around the world, the revival of the Indian brand has been a welcome addition to the world of motorcycles and is admired by many a Harley die-hard as well.

Some Indian motorcycles have windshields along with the many other features, the powerful engines, and the graceful designs. The top Indian motorcycle sells for around $19,000.

Indian motorcycles had a long history of success in dirt-track racing in the 20th Century, often competing with excellent Harley-Davidson racing motorcycles.

Comparison to Harley-Davidson--By contrast to the Indian motorcycle, the Harley-Davidson company also was started around the same time, at the beginning of the 20th Century, but in a mid-western city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In terms of assets and revenue, they grew to be much larger than the Indian motorcycle company of Springfield, Massachusetts.

But at first, Indian motorcycles were favored over Harley-Davidson's. While other companies produced motorcycles, only Indian and Harley-Davidson were left standing after the economic ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930's.

The key distinction of the Harley-Davidson motorcycles was their heavy weight compared to any other brands, including Indian. This gave rise to the nickname "chopper" for the Harley-Davidson design.

While the Indian motorcycles remained the most popular, Harley-Davidson took an early lead in the sport of motorcycle racing. By the 1920's Harley-Davidson was tops in racing, while Indian motorcycles remained popular favorites and were considered more useful in business, as hobbies, and as military vehicles.

During the 1920's the competition between Harleys and Indians was fierce. Harley-Davidson had a hard time overcoming the public's being accustomed to the Indian motorcycle, which had evolved from a company known even before motorcycles were invented. The "Indian" cycle had become a household word, familiar to Americans because the Indian Company used to manufacture bicycles before it turned to motorcycles.


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