Indian Motorcycle Company

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.

1936 Indian Chief