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The History of the Indian Motorcycle

Company Overview

Company Overview

Indian Motorcycle Company Corporate overview 1901 to 1953

Indian motorcycles were manufactured from 1901 to 1953 by a company in Springfield, Massachusetts, initially known as the Hendee Manufacturing Company but which was renamed the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company in 1928. The Indian factory team took the first three places in the 1911 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. During the 1910's Indian became the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. Indian's most popular models were the Scout, made from 1920 to 1946, and the Chief, made from 1922 to 1953. The Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company went bankrupt in 1953. A number of successor organizations have perpetuated the name in subsequent years.

Early years - Hendee and Hedström

The "Indian Motocycle Co." was founded as the Hendee Manufacturing Company by George M. Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedström. Both Hendee and Hedström were former bicycle racers who teamed up to produce a motorcycle with a 1.75 bhp, single cylinder engine in Hendee's home town of Springfield. The bike was successful and sales increased dramatically during the next decade.

In 1901, a prototype and two production units of the diamond framed Indian Single were successfully designed, built and tested. The first Indian motorcycles, featuring chain drives and streamlined styling, were sold to the public in 1902. In 1903, Indian's co-founder and chief engineer Oscar Hedström set the world motorcycle speed record (56 mph). In 1904 the company introduced the deep red colour that would become Indian's trademark. Production of Indian motorcycles then exceeded 500 bikes annually, rising to a peak of 32,000 in 1913. The engines of the Indian Single were built by the Aurora Firm in Illinois under license from the Hendee Mfg. Co. until 1906.

Competitive successes

In 1905, Indian built its first V-twin factory racer, and in following years made a strong showing in racing and record-breaking. In 1907 the company introduced the first street version V-twin and a roadster styled after the factory racer. The roadster can be distinguished from the racers by the presence of twist grip linkages. One of the firm's most famous riders was Erwin "Cannonball" Baker, who set many long-distance records. In 1914, he rode an Indian across America, from San Diego to New York, in a record 11 days, 12 hours and ten minutes. Baker's mount in subsequent years was the Powerplus, a side-valve V-twin, which was introduced in 1916. Its 61ci (1000 cc), 42 degree V-twin engine was more powerful and quieter than previous designs, giving a top speed of 60 mph (96 km/h). The Powerplus was highly successful, both as a roadster and as the basis for racing bikes. It remained in production with few changes until 1924.

Competition success played a big part in Indian's rapid growth and spurred technical innovation, as well. One of the American firm's best early results came in the Isle of Man TT in 1911, when Indian riders Godfrey, Franklin and Moorehouse finished first, second and third. Indian star Jake DeRosier set several speed records both in America and at Brooklands in England, and won an estimated 900 races on dirt and board track racing. He left Indian for Excelsior and died in 1913, aged 33, of injuries sustained in a board track race crash with Charles "Fearless" Balke, who later became Indian's top rider. Work at the Indian factory was stopped while DeRosier's funeral procession passed.

Oscar Hedstrom left Indian in 1913 after disagreements with the Board of Directors regarding dubious practices to inflate the company's stock values. George Hendee resigned in 1916.

World War I

As the US entered World War I, Indian unnecessarily sold most of its Powerplus line in 1917 and 1918 to the United States government, starving its network of dealers. This blow to domestic availability of the motorcycles led to a loss of dealers from which Indian never quite recovered. While the motorcycles were very popular in the military, post-war demand was then taken up by other manufacturers to whom many of the previously loyal Indian dealers turned. While Indian shared in the business boom of the 1920s, it lost significant market share to Harley-Davidson.

Indian Scouts in police service, 1920s

The Scout and Chief V-twins, introduced in the early 1920s, became the Springfield firm's most successful models. Designed by Charles B. Franklin, the middleweight Scout and larger Chief shared a 42-degree V-twin engine layout. Both models gained a reputation for strength and reliability.

In 1930 Indian merged with DuPont Motors Company. DuPont Motors founder E. Paul DuPont ceased production of duPont automobiles and concentrated the company's resources on Indian. DuPont's paint industry connections resulted in no fewer than 24 colour options being offered in 1934. Models of that era featured Indian's famous head-dress logo on the gas tank. Indian's huge Springfield factory was known as the Wigwam, and native American imagery was much used in advertising.

In 1940, Indian sold nearly as many motorcycles as its major rival, Harley-Davidson. At the time, Indian represented the only true American-made heavyweight cruiser alternative to Harley-Davidson. During this time, the company also manufactured other products such as aircraft engines, bicycles, boat motors and air conditioners.

Indian Chief

The first 1922 model Chief had a 1000 cc (61ci) engine based on that of the Powerplus; a year later the engine was enlarged to 1200 cc (73ci). Numerous improvements were made over the years, including adoption of a front brake in 1928.

In 1940, all models were fitted with the large skirted fenders that became an Indian trademark, and the Chief gained a new sprung frame that was superior to rival Harley's unsprung rear end. The 1940's Chiefs were handsome and comfortable machines, capable of 85 mph (136 km/h) in standard form and over 100 mph (160 km/h) when tuned, although their increased weight hampered acceleration.

In 1950, the V-twin engine was enlarged to 1300 cc (80 cu. in.) and telescopic forks were adopted. But Indian's financial problems meant that few bikes were built. Production of the Chief ended in 1953.

Indian Scout

The Indian Scout was a motorcycle built by the Indian Motocycle Company from 1920 to 1949. It rivaled the Chief as Indian's most important model.

The Scout was introduced in 1920 with a 606 cc (37ci) engine. The engine size was increased to 745 cc (45ci) in 1927 in response to the popularity of the Excelsior Super X.

Indian 101 Scout

The 101 Scout was an evolution of the Scout that had been introduced in 1920 and enlarged to forty-five cubic inches in 1927. drop centre rims 1929-31

The 101 Scout was replaced in 1932 by a model that used the contemporary Chief frame.

In 1932, cost cutting led to the Scout's using the heavier Chief frame, which was less successful. The negative reaction to this Scout led to the creation of the Sport Scout of 1934, with a light frame, Girder forks, improved carburation and alloy cylinder heads. The Sport Scout won the first Daytona 200 in 1937.

Smaller 500 cc (30.5ci) Scouts were also built between 1932 and 1941, known as the Scout Pony, Junior Scout and Thirty-Fifty.  Many Scouts were used in the Second World War, but the model was dropped when the civilian production restarted in 1946. In 1948, Indian built just 50 units of the Daytona Sports Scout, (The "Big Base" Scout), one of which took Floyd Emde to victory in that year's Daytona 200 mile (322 km) race.

Smaller 500 cc (30.5ci) Scouts were also built between 1932 and 1941, known as the Scout Pony, Junior Scout and Thirty-Fifty.

Refer to the Indian Scout Pages for a detailed overview of the scout.

The Indian Scout was built from 1920 to 1949. It rivaled the Chief as Indian's most important model.

Indian Four

Indian purchased the ownership of the name, rights, and production facilities of the Ace Motor Corporation in 1927. Production was moved to Springfield and the motorcycle was marketed as the Indian Ace for one year.

In 1928, the Indian Ace was replaced by the Indian 401, a development of the Ace designed by Arthur O. Lemon, former Chief Engineer at Ace, who was employed by Indian when they bought Ace. The Ace's leading-link forks and central coil spring were replaced by Indian's trailing-link forks and quarter-elliptic leaf spring.

By 1929, the Indian 402 would have a stronger twin-down tube frame based on that of the 101 Scout and a sturdier five-bearing crankshaft than the Ace, which had a three-bearing crankshaft.

See here a photograph of a 1939 Indian 4, in the "World's Fair" colour scheme, in commemoration of the 1939 New York World's Fair. On display at Clark's Trading Post, Lincoln, New Hampshire.

Despite the low demand for luxury motorcycles during the Great Depression, Indian not only continued production of the Four, but continued to develop the motorcycle. One of the less popular versions of the Four was the "upside down" engine on the 1936-37 models. While earlier (and later) Fours had IOE (inlet over exhaust) cylinder heads with overhead inlet valves and side exhaust valves, the 1936-37 Indian Four had a unique EOI cylinder head, with the positions reversed. In theory, this would improve fuel vaporization. In practice, it made the cylinder head, and the rider's inseam, very hot. Dual carburettors, fitted in 1937, did not help. The design was returned to the original configuration in 1938.

Like the Chief, the Four was given large, skirted fenders and plunger rear suspension in 1940. In 1941, the 18" wheels of previous models were replaced with 16" wheels with balloon tires.

The Indian Four was discontinued in 1942.

Recognition of the historical significance of the 1940 four cylinder model was made with an August 2006 United States Postal Service 39-cent stamp issue, part of a four panel set entitled American Motorcycles.

World War II

Chiefs, Scouts, and Junior Scouts were all used for various purposes by the United States Army in World War II. However, none of these could unseat the Harley-Davidson WLA as the motorcycle mainly used by the Army. The early version was based on the 750cc Scout (45 640 compared directly with Harley's offer, the WLA, but was either too expensive or heavy, or a combination of both. Indians eventual offer, the 500cc (30.5 741, was underpowered and could not compete with the WLA. Indian also offered a version based on the 1200cc (74 Chief, the 344. Approximately 1,000 experimental versions mounting the 750cc motor sideways and utilising shaft drive, as on a modern Moto Guzzi, the 841, was also tried.

Indian 841

During World War II, the US Army requested experimental motorcycle designs suitable for desert fighting. In response to this request, Indian designed and built the 841. Approximately 1,000 841 models were built.

The Indian 841 was heavily inspired by the BMW R71 motorcycle used by the German Army at the time, as was its competitor, the Harley-Davidson XA. However, unlike the XA, the 841 was not a copy of the R71. Although its tubular frame, plunger rear suspension, and shaft drive were similar to the BMW's, the 841 was different from the BMW in several aspects, most noticeably so with its 90-degree longitudinal-crankshaft V-twin engine and girder fork.

The Indian 841 and the Harley-Davidson XA were both tested by the Army, but neither motorcycle was adopted for wider military use. It was determined that the Jeep was more suitable for the roles and missions for which these motorcycles had been intended.

Post-war decline and demise

In 1945, a group headed by Ralph B. Rogers purchased a controlling interest of the company. On November 1, 1945, duPont formally turned the operations of Indian over to Rogers.

Under Rogers's control, Indian discontinued the Scout and began to manufacture lightweight motorcycles such as the 149 Arrow, the Super Scout 249, both introduced in 1949, and the 250 Warrior, introduced in 1950. These bikes suffered from poor quality and a lack of development. Production of traditional Indians was extremely limited in 1949, and no 1949 Chiefs are known to exist. Manufacture of all products was halted in 1953.

Corporate successors

Around 1949 the Indian company split into two parts.

One part (mainly the dealer network and goodwill) was wholly purchased by Brockhouse, an English engineering conglomerate who exported Matchless/AJS, Norton, Royal Enfield, Vincent and also made trailers, springs and tools.

The other part was bought by a US firm called Titeflex who would keep manufacturing motorcycles. Presumably it manufactured the Indians until 1953. It is a mystery however because according to an article in Classic Bike (June 1987) it is simply not true that the British Brockhouse corporation controlled the Indian Sales Corporation and the American Titeflex corporation controlled manufacturing. According to this article Brockhouse called all the shots by late 1951 and ordered production of Indians to cease in 1953 after a few years of huge losses on the Arrows, Scout/Warriors, Braves and Chiefs.

Rebadged imported products

Brockhouse Engineering acquired the rights to the Indian name after it went under in 1953. They imported Royal Enfield motorcycles from England, mildly customized them in the US depending on the model and sold them as Indians from 1955 to 1960.

Almost all Royal Enfield models had a corresponding Indian model in the USA. The models were Indian Chief, Trailblazer, Apache (all 3 were 700 twins), Tomahawk (500 twin), Woodsman (500 single), Westerner (500 single), Hounds Arrow (250 single), Fire Arrow(250 single), Lance(150 2-stroke single) and a 3-wheeled Patrol Car (500cc single).

In 1960, the Indian name was bought by AMC of England. Royal Enfield being their competition, they abruptly stopped all Enfield-based Indian models except the 700cc Chief. Their plan was to sell Matchless and AJS motorcycles badged as Indians. However, the venture ended when AMC itself went into liquidation in 1962.

The remaining Indian dealers were forced to sell the popular English "Matchless" motorcycles (without any "Indian" marks on them) in 1961.

Indian Motorcycle Company other lines

Arrow outboard motor;

Indian manufactured an outboard boat motor (called the Arrow). This was a failed venture, not because there was anything unreliable or unattractive about the engine, but it was a planning and marketing error. It was too big and heavy for fishermen who wanted to troll and too small a displacement for people who wanted to tow skiers.

Suspension dampers for cars;

Indian also manufactured suspension dampers for cars (shock absorbers). These proved not to be a success.

Indian Outboard Motor

Carl Oscar Hedström with the first prototype of Indian

Indian 1911

Indian Scouts in police service, 1920s

1920 Indian Powerplus

1928 Indian Big Chief with sidecar

1920 Indian Scout

1928 Indian 401

1939 Indian 4, in the "World's Fair" colour scheme

Indian 841

1942 Indian Scout 500, the 741, used by the US Army

1939 Indian Dispatch Tow, 3-wheeler

Here is an overview of the History of the Indian Motorcycle Company from 1901 to 1953.

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