INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE THE EARLY YEARS OF COOL INNOVATION

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Circa 1937– Springfield, Massachusetts. Since the creation of the Indian Motorcycle, the Indian Factory (the Wigwam) has been the greatest of its kind in the world. The tremendous facilities of this factory are laid out over 12 acres of floor space– nothing short of an actual visit will enable you to visualize the manufacture of today’s Indian motorcycles. In making a tour of the 35 departments of the factory, a person would walk a distance of 7 miles. The row upon row of machinery, if placed end to end, would alone stretch out over 1 1/2 miles. Indian leadership has been maintained thru the years by that manufacturing expertness which finds its outlet in making each new Indian better than the best Indian which has gone before it. When you ride on an Indian, you ride on the Best. — Image by © Lake County Museum

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When you think of classic American Iron, two brands typically come to mind– Harley-Davidson & Indian. Well, Harley-Davidson always comes to mind– and if you know a thing or two about bikes, then hopefully you’re familiar with Indian too.  For those of us that came along after the heyday of American manufacturing, it’s easy to overlook that in the early days there were literally dozens (some even say hundreds) of companies producing motorcycles right here in the US.

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Indian co-founder Oscar Hedstrom on left, CA. 1902.  And I suspect that’s him on the right, ca. 1901.

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Dig around and you’ll find an amazing archive of stories behind companies like– Ace, Cleveland, Crocker, Cushman, Emblem, Excelsior/Henderson, Flying Merkel, Flanders (mainly accessories), Iver Johnson, Marsh, Pierce, Pope, Reading Standard, Schickel, Sears, Thor, Whizzer, Yale, just to name a few.  Out of the crowded pack, two iconic brands emerged, and for years went head-to-head for dominance on the race tracks, and in the hearts of the American motorcycle enthusiast.  In the end, one clearly came out on top.  And while we all know who won– it’s interesting to glean from the many missteps that would eventually lead to Indian’s demise.

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A vintage Indian motorcycle on display at the Guggenheim Las Vegas. -- Image by © Ted Soqui

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Indian is recognized as being the first major player on the scene, rolling out production (all of 3 bikes) in 1901– two years before Harley-Davidson.  Started by Oscar Hedstrom & George Hendee, a couple of bicycle racers and self-taught engineers, they set out by essentially bolting Hedstrom’s small engines on to Hendee’s bicycles, and from there they quickly honed their craft to create some of the best motorcycles of that era.  Indian became the force to be reckoned with, and first-to-market with innovation after innovation– the first V-Twin engine, the first two-speed transmission, the first adjustable front suspension, the first electric lights and starter, and many more.  Indian was clearly dominant in the marketplace, and on the race track– setting and breaking speed records hand-over-fist.

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Indian originally began manufacturing under the corporate banner of the Hendee Manufacturing Company, which was later reincorporated as the Indian Motocycle Company (an apparent nod to the European style of “Moto” motorcycle company names — i.e. Moto-Guzzi), early Indians were inspired by Hedstrom’s work with “pacing” bicycles, see below–

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Circa 1910 -- A track cyclist is shown in practice behind an early Indian motorcycle. -- Image by © Underwood & Underwood.

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Competition with Harley-Davidson in the early days was fierce, and factory sponsored racers were expected to be loyal– it was pretty unheard of for guys to switch allegiances back then without controversy.  Legendary Indian riders over the years like Bobby Hill, Bill Tuman, Ernie Beckman (all a part of the legendary “Indian Wrecking Crew” of the 1940s & ’50s) Ed Kretz, Burt Munro, and Mad Max Bubeck were motorcycling Hellcats in their respective days, and their exploits and success became synonymous with the Indian brand.

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Circa 1914– “Baker and O’Brien, transcontinental motorcyclists, back of White House.”  –How American is that, I ask you? Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker (right)– After the record-setting five-month, 10,000 mile transcontinental run by Baker on an Indian motorcycle in 1914, a New York newspaper writer compared Baker to the Cannonball Express train and he picked up the famous moniker that would stick with him the rest of his life.  Harris & Ewing. (images via Shorpy).

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You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in motorcycling history more interesting than ‘Cannonball’ Baker. His record attempts often put him directly in harm’s way.  In one three-flags record attempt back in 1916, Baker had to change routes several times to avoid vast forest fires. In another run he took a turn at a high rate of speed and came upon a herd of cattle in the road. In trying to miss the herd, Baker turned sharply, hit a hole in the road and was thrown off his motorcycle into a fence– which in turn bounced him right onto the back of one of the cows. The surprised cow bucked him off and he ultimately landed in a ditch off the side of the road.  Baker took his skills overseas and set numerous records in foreign countries, most notably Australia and New Zealand.  Baker began shifting his focus and most of his record attempts were in automobiles.  In 1922, he ran in the Indianapolis 500 and finished 11th.  Baker also worked for Rickenbacker Automobiles, which was owned by the famous World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Eventually he became an AMA race official, and later was named national commissioner for NASCAR. Not a bad run, eh?

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Circa 1911–  Motorcyclist Oscar Godfrey poses with his Indian motorcycle during the B.M.C.R.C. trials at Brooklands. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection.  Indians fast growth was fueled by early and impressive wins, such as the Isle of Man TT in 1911– when Indian riders Godfrey, Franklin and Moorehouse finished first, second and third. Indian star rider Jake De Rosier set several speed records both in America and at Brooklands in England, and won an estimated 900 races on dirt and board track racing.

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Circa 1914, Brooklands — J.C. Brooke sitting on his Indian motorcycle at the Brooklands Easter Meeting in Scotland. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection.

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Circa 1920. Herbert McBride, who recently broke the world’s motorcycle record for amateurs on his Indian.  His time was 105:24 miles per hour, which beats the old professional speed record. — Image by © Bettmann.  Speaking for myself, shots like these give me the chills.  The beauty of form and function coming together simply in all things, in a way that’s matter-of-fact and with a sense of pride, but not boastful.  The practical mix of quality apparel and accessories that are no nonsense and get the job done– all topped of with a neckerchief (tucked-in of course, so as not to flap in one’s face)– a nod to more civilized times. *

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With all their success early on, sadly Indian soon began a slow descent stemming from several changes in ownership and top management over the years. While great innovations continued at Indian, they often went unappreciated by a market that simply wasn’t willing or able to pay the steep prices that came along with them.  Bikes like the Model H– the first true board-track factory racer ever offered for sale directly to the public. It was loaded with features like a four-valve-per-cylinder,  overhead-valve engine and a lightweight rigid frame that was free of racing “nonessentials” such as brakes, fenders or a throttle (the bikes were run with the carbs wide open).  The Model H carried a top speed of over 120mph along with a whopping price tag of $375, roughly a third more than a fully equipped Chief of the era. Problem was that not too many club racers had that kind of dough to part with, and the motorcycle-buying public also lacked the finances, but also didn’t have the balls to get on the beast– so relatively few were built. But for Indian, it still notched a moral victory of sorts.  For those few Model H bikes were pure Hellcats in the capable hands of their sponsored riders, whom they “loaned’ them to with great success– bringing home trophies and track records almost everywhere they competed.  Still, perhaps there was an important lesson there that Indian should have filed away for future consideration–

Know your market, and what they’ll pay you for– and what they won’t.  Meaning that you should resist over-engineering a commodity product far beyond the end-user’s expectations– without their buy-in, and at their expense.  Always fully understand the specific needs you aim to address with your product, along with the price ceiling associated, and focus on delivering against that.  Don’t go cutting corners, but also be careful not to be driven by vanity to take it to the extreme where it’s no longer relevant (in terms of practicality or value) to the consumer– that is, unless you want to own them all.

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More proverbial writing was on the wall, when in 1913 Oscar Hedstrom left Indian after heated disagreements with the Board of Directors regarding their questionable accounting practices  that inflated the company’s stock values.  Co-founder George Hendee was not far behind, with him resigning in 1916.  The “powers that be” at Indian tapped Hedstrom’s long-time assistant Charles Gustafson and Charles B. Franklin (an Irish immigrant and former rider for the “Indian Rules” team that swept the Isle of Man TT in 1911) to pick up the company’s top engineering duties.  In the years that followed, Indian released Franklin’s iconic V-twin powered designs that would become the hallmark of the brand.

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Circa 1922, Los Angeles, California -- Speed demons beware... the Los Angeles motor corps with their new fleet of Indian motorcycles all ready and waiting to set out after Californian motorists who like to step on the gas. -- Image by © Bettmann.

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To be continued… click here

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10 thoughts on “INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE THE EARLY YEARS OF COOL INNOVATION

  1. I just got my motorcycle license and I’m chompin the bit to experience the road on two wheels! I actually found a 1972 Honda on it’s way to the dump reluctantly perched on a salvage truck. I’m restoring the old classic and having a great time!
    Thank You for this post, a bit of history and inspiration indeed.

  2. That is the most interesting reading in a long time!!! This is priceless! I love all the history behind this bike!!

  3. My Dad was top salesman for Indian motorcyles in the 1920′s and rode a bike across America whilst he lived in Springfield Mass. as a visitor from Australia. Are there any sites that I can read more about those times? he died a few years ago in his 90′s.

  4. Pingback: INDIAN | AMERICA’S FIRST MOTORCYCLE – THE GOLDEN POWERPLUS ERA « The Selvedge Yard

  5. Pingback: PHOTOGRAPHY OF BOB MAGILL | EPIC IMAGES OF AMERICAN MOTORCYCLING « The Selvedge Yard

  6. i have almost 30 books on the indian,so as ever you manage to bring some new pictures i never saw-respect

    and an ivy rorsacth photo feast-you read minds-obviously-thanks.

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