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History of the Indian Motocycle

The Indian Saga

by Jerry Hatfield

Jerry Hatfield has written about American Motorcycling history for nearly forty years, including articles for The Antique Motorcycle, The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, The Classic Motor Cycle, Classic Bike, American Rider, Vintage Motorcycles and American Heritage. Jerry has also written many books about Indian Motocycles, Harley-Davidsons, American motorcycling in general and one biography, Flat Out-The Rollie Free Story. He is a member of the Trailblazers Hall of Fame, The Indian Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Jerry is a life member of the American Motorcyclist Association and an honorary member of the Indian Motocycle Club of Australia. In over the 50 years of the Antique Motorcycle Club, the 10,000 member organisation has awarded only 17 honorary memberships, and Jerry Hatfield is one of these honorees.

We are very grateful that Jerry welcomed the chance to write about the history of Indian for this website.

Indian was America's smartest motorcycle company from 1901 through about 1905, the latter a year in which over 250,000 Americans bought bicycles. These pedal-bike enthusiasts looked at the "camel-back" Indian F-head single and at once identified with the Indian's bicycle heritage. The frame was essentially a beefed-up bicycle structure. The rearward sloping single cylinder functioned as a frame member, so that the bicycle shape was obvious. So the Indian didn't look menacing to shoppers. Although its top speed was a breath-taking 48 kph, its typical cruising speed of 30 kph was only just above the efforts of champion bicyclists. But the ride was effortless! Surely there was the occasional accident, but at pedal-bike speeds a spill usually yielded only minor injuries. So the public wasn't yet afraid of motorcycles. The camel-back was, by far, the easiest powered two-wheeler to sell during the transition from pedals to engines.

The company continued to grow through issuing stock. This meant that founders George Hendee (president) and Oscar Hedstrom (designer) were minority stockholders. Although Indian built their machines in Springfield, Massachusetts, the company was controlled by financiers in New York City, and the money men weren't motorcycle enthusiasts. So the firm was slow in recognizing the emerging market for more powerful two-wheelers designed from the ground up as motorcycles and owing little to bicycle evolution other than two equally sized wheels. Indian's conservatism opened the door for more sporting concepts such as the Flying Merkel and the Harley-Davidson. While Indian continued with a rearward sloping cylinder that functioned as a frame tube and gave the pedal-bike look, new sportier Merkels, Harleys, and others, featured a loop frame with plenty of room for a larger vertically situated cylinder. In 1907 came the first production V-twin Indian, but the motorcycles still looked like bicycles. Without a moment to spare, in 1909 Indian introduced loop-frame models. In a burst of engineering development, the company produced faster and faster models for sport and racing.

The year 1911 saw the peak of Indian prestige. Their sponsored riders finished one-two-three in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (termed "TT"), already the world's most prestigious motorcycle race. An Indian established a new transcontinental record of 20 days 9 hours and 11 minutes. On July 4, American Independence Day, Erwin G. Baker won The President's Race at Indianapolis, Indiana. For the only time in American history, the President of the United States (William Howard Taft) presented the winner's trophy. Baker later set many motorcycle and car long-distance records, including a transcontinental record aboard an Indian in 1915, these glories yielding the nickname "Cannonball Baker." At the end of 1911, Indian held all 121 American speed records!

Indian also dominated America's unique board-track racing, winning the great majority of races on tracks that varied from a fifth-mile to over a mile in circumference. The dominant Indian racer of the era was Jake DeRosier, a master of both board tracks and dirt tracks.

Opinion: In my view, Indian was too successful during their first decade. The company used "pull demand" strategy. They repeatedly enlarged the "Wigwam" (factory). They spent a lot of money on national advertising and on a very successful racing program. Indian's 1911 sales of over nine-thousand made them by far the best selling brand. In the same year, their nearest rival was Harley-Davidson with sales of less than four-thousand. Indian believed the factory was due all the credit for sales leadership. With such an outstanding product, Indian dealers had simply to process the sales paperwork on sales the factory had made for them. In this approach, the early Indian company was like IBM in the early personal computer market. IBM felt they could sustain high sales prices because of their prestige; dealers were lucky to have IBM computers on the shelves because the IBM factory was assuring success. Indian and IBM saw only one set of customers: the retail market. But in early motorcycling America, Harley-Davidson saw two sets of customers: dealers and then riders. It was Harley-Davidson's main job to sell to dealers, not riders. The company was practicing "push demand." The Harley factory helped this approach work by not spending money on designing models that were out of the main stream. Harley made F-head (ioe) singles and twins that were derived from the pioneering De Dion Bouton singles, and Harley kept making them with incremental improvements. Harley-Davidson worked hard to satisfy dealers with attractive discounts and a full line of accessories that could be readily sold at high markups. Harley continuously aimed at converting multi-brand dealerships to exclusively Harley-Davidson dealerships. The continuing failures of dozens of motorcycle factories helped Harley in this process.

But to the casual observer Indian had no problems. The year 1913 saw the firm build 32,000 motorcycles in a recently enlarged factory capable of turning out 60,000 motorcycles per year. Nobody knew that Indian would never again build that many machines in a year. Chief Engineer Hedstrom retired, leaving President Hendee the lone board member who might sustain the enthusiast perspective.

In 1914, Harley-Davidson ditched their no-racing policy and established a factory racing team of salaried riders. Beginning in 1915, their riders "owned" the Dodge City 300, with four consecutive victories (1915, 1916, 1920, and 1921). More spectacular was the entire 1921 season: Harley-Davidson won every national championship race! President Walter Davidson was losing interest in racing, and grumbled about the Dodge City police department sticking with Indians after Harley's spectacular success in the local big race. It was the old story: can't see the forest for the trees. Surely Harley-Davidson's great racing program helped them to at last outsell Indian.

The chief engineer reins had been passed from the famous Oscar Hedstrom to the obscure Charles Gustafson Sr. However, in 1914 or 1915 Indian made a great engineering decision. They scrapped the world famous Hedstrom F-heads and replaced them with the 1916 side-valve "Powerplus" models. These engines were more powerful and more reliable. Reliability was better because all the valve train components were now internal. Oil mist no longer coated the outside of the engine and gathered dust to form an unofficial grinding paste that kept F-head inlet push-rods and rockers in need of frequent adjustment.

In mid-1916 cofounder "Big Chief" George Hendee retired. He was replaced as the on-scene factory boss by Frank Weschler, whose reputation was so good that he had long been termed "Little Chief." Perhaps Hendee had seen an impending disaster, in the form of a board room decision to seek military business at the expense of civilian business. After the United States entered WWI, Indian turned over all 1917 and 1918 factory capacity to the production of army motorcycles. The company made a lot of money, posting in 1917 their second-most prosperous season. But the quick and easy one-customer setup left Indian dealers without motorcycles to sell and hastened the flight of dealerships from Indian to Harley-Davidson.

Meanwhile the engineering staff was strengthened by the addition of Irish immigrant Charles B. Franklin in November 1916. Franklin apparently had little if any role in the decision to introduce for 1916 the 221 cc two-stroke single-cylinder Featherweight that was so unpopular it was dropped after one year. Likewise, Franklin arrived too late to have done the detail work on the 257 cc Model O horizontally-opposed twin, which was offered for the 1917, 1918, and 1919 seasons.

Charley Franklin had for over a decade been Ireland's top motorcycle racer. Among his many accomplishments was his second-place finish in the 1911 Isle of Man TT, behind Indian winner Oliver Godfrey and ahead of Indian third-placer Arthur Moorhouse. In 1912, at Brooklands race track in England, Franklin rode an Indian eight-valve twin to the first 300 miles in 300 minutes, a world record. (His many racing victories are too numerous to mention, and amount to a significant part of Franklin's Indians, a new large and must-have book that's just been published). Franklin's resume also included running his own Indian dealership from 1910 to 1914 in Dublin, Ireland, and running Indian's Dublin Depot from 1914 to 1916. Educated as an electrical engineer, he could scarcely have been more qualified to take on engineering tasks at the Wigwam.

To Franklin we owe our pleasures aboard Indian Chiefs and Indian Scouts! Perhaps 90 percent of surviving pre-1954 Indians are Chiefs, and perhaps 5 percent are vee twin Scouts. The Scout came first, as a 600 cc 1920 model, followed by the 1000 cc 1922 Chief and the 1200cc 1923 Big Chief. The 1920 Scout power plant consisted of a transmission bolted to the rear of the crankcase, and coupled to the engine by helical gears running in a cast aluminum oil-bath chain case. The engine was a 42-degree side-valve V-twin. A double-loop rigid frame protected the engine from damage incurred by spills. The power plant was secured to the frame with a single mounting bolt at the transmission and a double mount arrangement near the lower end of the twin front down-tubes – as secure as any tripod. The 61 cubic inch Chief and the 74 cubic inch Big Chief were basically larger versions of the 37 cubic inch Scout, and were billed as such by the advertising department.

Showing his continuing focus on the trans Atlantic scene, Franklin designed the 350 cc (21 cubic inch) side-valve Prince single in time for the 1925 season. The wedge shaped fuel tank, typical of Continental and British practice, was replaced in 1926 by a more obviously Indian inspired tank. Another foreign influence on the Prince, was the so-called (in America) "keystone" frame in which the power plant did some of the stress bearing chores, so that the power plant had no frame tubes beneath it.

In late 1926 Indian bought the four-cylinder Ace rights, spares, and tooling, and in April 1927 began to sell the Ace from Indian dealerships. To oversee Ace development, the Wigwam hired former Ace engineer Arthur Lemon to oversee development of an improved Ace.

Indian had always been strongly represented in police departments across the nation. Despite its relatively small engine, some of the police departments agreed with the Wigwam's advertising department, which stressed the east of handling the Scout and the notion that 600 cc offered plenty of power for most occasions. When a 750 cc (45 cubic inch) "Scout 45" was offered in the 1927 lineup, the larger Scout begin to replace the Big Chief in other departments. This was detrimental to Indian because they made less profit on the Scouts than on the Big Chiefs (hereafter, simply "Chiefs"). Pleasure riders were discovering the same thing as police departments. Paved roads were rare outside of large and mid sized cities, so it was difficult to find opportunities to enjoy the extra five or ten miles per hour that might be on tap with a Chief.

Opinion: Other than for pulling sidecars, the power advantage of the early Chiefs over the Scout 45 motorcycles seemed less and less obvious. The Wigwam reduced cost by using the Scout 37 castings as the basis for the Scout 45 castings. Consequently, the larger Scout 45 bore came surprisingly close to the valve heads. This violated period dogma, as practiced by Harley-Davidson and Super-X, the two firms believing that either an air space or more metal should divide the valve pocket from the rest of the cylinder, in contrast to the Indian practice of keeping the engine narrower. According to Harley and Super-X, the Scout 37 was already subject to overheating. Well, as they used to say, "Suck it and see, sweet or sour?" Although the Scout 45, was 25 percent larger than the Scout 37, the 45 produced about 35 percent more maximum power. Quite sweet, thank you! Years later, Harley conceded the argument by reducing the space between the valve heads and the bore of their racing Model WR. Harley-Davidson did this by, in the front view, inclining the valves toward the bore. To sum up, with the Scout 45 Indian fell into just plain good luck.

The year 1928 brought minor cosmetic changes to the "Indian Ace, with Indian Red replacing Ace green. Smaller diameter wheel rims yielded a lower saddle. The big news was the mid-season Series 101 Scout. By stretching the Scout wheelbase about three inches, the Wigwam was able to place a lower and more attractive curve to the upper frame tube that was visible above the tank. This made possible a slightly smaller but much more attractive fuel tank, and a lowering of the saddle by two inches. The longer but lower "101 Scout" seemed an impossible combination of improved stability and improved agility. Throughout the 101's performance era, 1928 to 1931, the Wigwam could never keep up with orders. During this era unethical business practices by the board included under-the-table consulting block-grants with the grantees allowed to keep all surpluses after performing their "services." This fraud resulted in $106,000 ($17,733,800 in today's money) being drained from the company.

New ownership came on the scene in 1930. Francis du Pont and his brother E. Paul bought controlling interest in Indian. Paul was a practical engineer, having designed one of the engines used in his own make of automobile, the Dupont. He had the embarrassing habit of finding fault with the Indians in his personal stable, then recommending engineering solutions that worked. He made a particularly thorough study of Indian Four cooling and came up with a solution that seemed counterintuitive. He opined that thicker cylinder walls would conduct heat more readily into the cooling fins. It worked! I'll admit I don't understand this, because longtime Harley-Davidson dealer Red Wolverton told me that the later 74 cubic inch flathead Harleys overheated because Harley-Davidson used the same casting for the 74 flathead as for the 80 flathead. The cooler running Harley 80 had thinner cylinder walls, in other words. Go figure.

Sometime in1931, President E. Paul du Pont decided to reduce costs by replacing the popular Series 101 Scout with a new "Scout" that consisted of the 750 cc power plant in the frame designed for the Chief. Indian dealers weren't happy about this. Incidentally, by this time "blue printed" Scouts had earned a reputation for outrunning Harley Seventy-fours (1200 cc). Unfortunately, the faster Scouts also outran Indian Chiefs!

Charley Franklin left the Wigwam in August 1931 due to illness. He died in October 1932. Three models arrived after Franklin's departure: the Scout Pony, the Motoplane, and the Sport Scout. They all had the British and Continental look, with under-slung power plants that hung in the middle of keystone frames. It seems likely that Franklin got these projects off the ground.

New for 1932 was a 500 cc (30.50 cubic inch) twin called the Scout Pony. It was joined in 1933 by the one-year-only 750 cc Motoplane, which was replaced in mid-1934 by the 750 cc Sport Scout. Former Indianapolis dealer and Indian record-setter Rollie Free told me the Sport Scout was an easy motorcycle for a guy to tinker with and find extra speed, more so than the 101 Scout. But Rollie still preferred the 101 style cradle frame. He wanted the Sport Scout engine in a cradle frame and he was not alone.

To Chief Engineer Franklin, and to his engineering successor Briggs Weaver, and to President E. Paul du Pont, we owe the popularity of the Indian marque today. Franklin seems to have gotten his due credit, especially with the recent publication of Franklin's Indians. Weaver's greatest contribution was his uncanny gift for styling. It was Weaver who devised the lovely striping and "Indian-head" paneling of the open-fender models, and Weaver who developed the famous skirted-fender styling. The drum hasn't beaten loudly enough for Weaver. We seem even less appreciative of the money man, E. Paul du Pont. On one bleak Friday in 1933, Mister du Pont borrowed on his personal line of credit $10,000 ($167,300 in today's money). He needed his own money to meet the Indian payroll! In the struggle of the Great Depression E. Paul du Pont could have easily made a hard-nosed business decision to halt production at the Wigwam. But he stuck it out. Another under appreciated man is Loren "Joe" Hosley, the General Manager whose dynamic leadership was largely responsible for Indian's survival during the trying economic period of 1930 through 1941.

Indian's contribution to the WWII effort was equipping allied forces with a beefed up 500 cc side-valve twin called the Model 741. Over 20,000 of these little olive drab motorcycles left the Wigwam. But Harley-Davidson captured all the American military orders, about 80,000 motorcycles and/or parts amounting to that number.

During the 1930s, and in 1940 and 1941, Indian enjoyed a rebirth of its racing reputation, thanks to the deep breathing and fast revving Sport Scouts and great riders. Although Harley-Davidson outsold Indian two to one, the iron redskins won most of the national championship races. Ed Kretz Senior was the nation's outstanding rider, especially in the so-called "TT" races that were the era's equivalent of motocross. A few – and no I don't know the number – Indians were built in 1942. Unknown at the time, these would include the last Fours, Sport Scouts, and 500 cc twins currently called "Thirty-fifty" (formerly Scout Pony and Junior Scout).

Opinions: Over the Dupont years, Chiefs made up over 53 percent of production; Scouts and Sport Scouts amounted to 35 percent; Fours amounted to 8 percent, and 500 cc twins amounted to 4 percent. Data upon request.

During the du Pont era, 1930 to 1946, the company made a profit in about half the years, but profits were small and losses were large. E. Paul du Pont had grown tired of this roller coaster ride, and so in 1946 he sold out to thirty-something Ralph B. Rogers. In 1946, Indian was producing but a single model, the Chief. Rogers assured dealers that a new improved Sport Scout was planned.

Rogers turned out to be a man with the right idea at the wrong time, and the right idea with the wrong motorcycles. Rogers knew that outside of the USA motorcycles were far more popular. He reasoned that part of the problem was that American motorcycles had become too big, too expensive, and too difficult to ride. Rogers bought the Torque Manufacturing Company of Plainfield, Connecticut. There, former Indian engineer Briggs Weaver had been developing a lightweight single and a lightweight vertical twin along Continental lines. Pictures of the prototypes, as well as an the international industry tradition of certain engine sizes, suggest the following opinions: the prototype singles displaced 175 cc and the prototype twins displaced 350 cc. These attractive motorcycles were enlarged to 220 cc and 440 cc as development continued at the Wigwam. The lightweights would be known as the Arrow and the Scout.

Rogers knew that Indian's machinery was obsolete and badly worn. To lower the cost of the lightweights, Rogers took a big gamble by borrowing much money in order to buy much new machinery. In his view, this was the key to establishing a highly automated union of parts delivery and manufacture – "materials as needed" was the later Harley-Davidson term. I find it interesting to compare Rogers' machinery shopping with that of Harley-Davidson, which was also looking for more machinery. Indian was cash poor; Harley-Davidson was in fine financial condition. Yet, while Indian was buying new machinery, Harley-Davidson shopped around for used machinery that was available because the war had ended.

Rogers established the lightweights production line in East Springfield, miles from the historic Wigwam. He hoped to sell the Wigwam, which he regarded as completely unsuitable for modern production. Meanwhile, Chief production dropped from 12,000 in 1947 to 3,000 in 1948. These 1948 Chiefs were the last Indians to be completely built in the Wigwam. Rogers then decided to cancel Chief production for 1949, because he couldn't afford to build Chiefs while he was building a new factory.

Unfortunately, Rogers hadn't anticipated the British decision to devalue the pound-sterling in September 1948. Overnight, this lowered by 25 percent (as in 4 to 3) the prices of British motorcycles in the USA. The lightweights entered the market with this severe handicap. It was one thing to pay the same or a bit more for an American motorcycle as an act of patriotism. It was another thing to pay one-third more (as in 3 to 4). Customers found many problems that had gone unnoticed by management. The worst problem was that the production magnetos didn't provide the same strong sparks that the prototypes had produced. Indian was wasting money on repairs of customers' lightweights. Also, dealers didn't agree that they should stop supporting racing. The oddball twin size of 440 cc unnecessarily handicapped this model in American racing which pitted 500 cc overheads against 750 cc side-valve Indians and Harleys. For the 1950 season, Indian offered the 500 cc Warrior and sold off the leftover Arrows and Scouts with minor cosmetic changes which allowed the company to call them 1950 models. The off-road "Warrior TT" was very popular and successful with off-road enthusiasts but this was a pitifully small market. What passed for a racing department, a supervisor and a couple of machinists, attempted to warm up the Warrior engine for racing. As events proved, they could produce either a reliable but slow racer or a fast but unreliable racer, but they couldn't build a Warrior racer that was both fast and reliable.

But visions of the old racing glory appeared now and then. A prewar Sport Scout won the 1947 Daytona 200. In 1948, Rogers allowed 25 Sport Scout racers to be built (or 50, or some other number, much controversy!). One of these model 648 machines won the 1948 Daytona 200. But an inevitable process had begun. Indian race entries were being effectively replaced on a near one-to-one basis by British motorcycles. The old Sport Scouts had become just that, too old.

In December 1948, Ralph Rogers went to England to secure a badly needed loan from J. Brockhouse and Company. In April 1949, along with the money came Brockhouse representation on the Indian board of directors. In November 1949 Rogers worked out an arrangement for Indian dealers to sell alongside Indians, the following British motorcycles: AJS, Douglas, Excelsior (no connecting with former American make of the same name), Matchless (except California), Norton, and Vincent. In December 1949 came the great blow of former Indian west coast distributor switching allegiance to the English BSA brand.

In January 1950 the Brockhouse-dominated board ousted Rogers from his presidency. Limited Chief production continued, with various interpretations of the numbers built for the 1950 through 1953 seasons. In a couple of years the board minutes indicated only 500 were to be produced each year. However many 1950-1953 Chiefs were built, even by the most optimistic judgment Chief production was far below historic levels.

A trio of riders won national championship races from 1951 through 1953 aboard Sport Scouts. Bobby Hill, Bill Tuman, and Ernie Beckman did the honors. Beckman won the very last national championship race for Indian in October 1953, a dozen years after the end of major Sport Scout production.

In December 1953 Indian cancelled production. In 1954 Indian dealers offered only the Royal Enfield line. For the 1955 through 1959 seasons dealers sold cosmetically reworked Royal Enfields that were labeled Indian. The Indian theme was emphasized with such model names as Arrow, Woodsman, Apache, Trailblazer, Tomahawk, and even Chief (a 692 cc vertical twin Enfield).

In 1960 the British firm Associated Motorcycles bought the Indian trademark. Dealers hung up new signs that read "Matchless/Indian. The Matchless models weren't cosmetically altered, but they were given catchy Indian names like Arrow, Mohawk, Pathfinder, Pinto, and Papoose. This distributor network closed down in the summer of 1962.

Since then several attempts have been made to resurrect the Indian as a new motorcycle. One fledgling company designed unique power plants and running gear, but lost out in a legal dispute over the trademark. To date, the other attempts have been inspired by Harley-Davidson designs.

How did Indian, such a financially challenged company, last as long as it did? I'll let the late Harry Sucher explain it with his words from "The Iron Redskin." As the essence of motorcycling is inextricably combined with the emotion of personal freedom, and surrounded with an aura of adventure, enthusiasts often come to view a certain make of machine as an extension of their own personality. With such deep rooted affection, troubles at the factory or conflicts among its management fade into an impersonal remoteness that simply cannot tarnish the machine itself. So it was indeed the unswerving loyalty of so many really dedicated enthusiasts, whether riders, dealers, or certain individuals in the factory itself that made possible the production, sale, and purchase of sufficient machines to ensure the survival of the company through many dark hours.


Amen, Harry!