The current range of Indian motorcycles has attracted lavish praise from road-testers. The bikes themselves are quite rare out here in Abu Dhabi, where I’ve seen only one on the road and a few others on the showroom floor. The red one I drove alongside on the highway out of Dubai looked and sounded awesome, and the quality of finish on the models in the dealer was of the highest order.
Indian today is a respected brand that is doing great things and looks set to flourish. However, the history of the marque is littered with failed attempts at resurrection, some real and at least one fraudulent, in the decades between its demise and its eventual rebirth under Polaris ownership.
The most successful of those efforts came in 1999 when the new legal owners of the trademark produced a bike based initially around a pattern engine from S&S, which was in essence a modified Harley-Davidson motor. Considering the two companies were bitter rivals for the first half of last century, it was a bit like Ducati opting to use Honda engines for a year until its own were ready. In any event, manufacture ceased once again in 2003.
The unveiling of the present-day Indian motorcycle in 2013 had particular significance to a handful of people who were scrubbed down and gowned up in readiness to assist at the rebirth of Indian in 1991. This was an altogether darker event, totally bizarre and ultimately still-born.
In those days I ran a large public relations consultancy in New York. Our clients included Pepsi-Cola, Marriott Hotels, the tourist boards of Egypt and the Bahamas and a raft of other household names. One afternoon in early summer, my phone rang. At the other end was the loudest, brashest American I’d ever heard. He wanted to come in and talk about launching a new product. What made this a little bit special for me, a life-long motorcyclist, was the fact that this new product was an Indian motorcycle.
We met at my office on Lexington Avenue the next day: a colleague of mine called Pat Carle, myself, Philip S Zanghi II, his father and his marketing director. Zanghi was larger than life in every sense of the word: he was physically enormous in every dimension, imposing, loud, opinionated and charismatic. And there was no doubting his passion for the project he was about to undertake.
He told a tale of lengthy legal battles to prove that he held title to the famous Indian trademark, having acquired it, if I recall correctly, from Floyd Clymer, the American publisher of workshop manuals fame. Sure, other people still laid claim to the name, too: one guy in Albuquerque and another in California, but Zanghi claimed to have the only legal title. And he had grand plans for the Indian name.
He had acquired a large, empty factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, just round the corner from the site of the original Indian plant. He would build large quantities of V-twins there, starting with an Indian Chief. The bikes would be designed and built in America using 100% American components. Harleys now used 15% imported components, Zanghi told me in disgust. They were probably all the better for that, I thought, but didn’t dare tell him so.
He had links with the overseas aid agency USAID and planned to produce a single-cylinder Indian trail bike for use by aid workers in the Third World. His contact at USAID was a politician who went on to become a player on the world stage. There would also be a range of Indian clothing – branded leather jackets, T-shirts and the like – all made in America to the highest quality standards. His office in Springfield held a large stock of samples and he was already starting to sell jackets by direct mail.
The dealer network would be special. All the dealerships would be architect-designed glass-and-brass edifices with two floors, top-quality servicing facilities and a built-in coffee bar, which was all pretty advanced for the early ‘90s.
The bikes, he promised would be very special. He described them with evident enthusiasm, although to me he didn’t come across in any way as a motorcyclist. There would be a range of large-capacity V-twin engines with fuel injection, extensive use of titanium, anti-lock brakes, all mod cons. Development was well advanced and testing was about to begin in Texas.
So, he asked, would my firm prepare recommendations for a public relations programme to re-launch the Indian brand and launch the new range of bikes? Would we heck! Zanghi was also talking to at least two or three of our biggest competitors, and we’d have to compete for the privilege of handling the work – what’s known in the business as “a pitch”. Without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed. I wanted this account; not only would it be worth quite a lot of money to the company, but it promised to be more fun than anything I’d done in PR so far.
It helps to understand a little of the history and heritage of Indian. Here was a motorcycle company that was as old as the century. It produced its first machine in 1901, some five years ahead of a newcomer called Harley-Davidson. The founders chose the name Indian because the company’s founders believed it “best typified a wholly American product in the pioneer tradition”. Zanghi’s commitment to a pure, all-American bike 90 years later was rooted more in history than jingoism, although there was plenty of that: he would talk about building bikes “from the US of A, not the US of J”!
By 1902 the factory was already entering and winning hill-climbs and went on to dominate motorcycle sport in the US until the up-and-coming Harley-Davidson started taking an interest in racing in 1912. By that time, an Indian had set a new lap record of 93 mph at Brooklands in the UK, and Indians had taken the first three places in the 1911 Isle of Man TT. By 1910, 60 police forces across the US were riding Indians and the bikes were set to become the most popular and prestigious motorcycles on the American market. Quality was always a trademark and the bikes are cherished to this day, with an estimated 50,000 “old” Indians still running.
The early bikes were either singles or V-twins, and some of the racing models featured such advanced features as four valves per cylinder. In 1920 Indian introduced its four-cylinder Ace, an in-line engine along similar lines to the FN and Henderson fours of that era. Later there was even a Guzzi-style transverse V-twin for the army, the 841, with shaft drive.
The Second World War saw both Indian and Harley supplying large quantities of motorcycles to the US forces. The British Army even ordered 5,000 V-twins after Triumph’s Coventry factory was hit by the Luftwaffe in 1941. After the war, many of these found their way into civilian hands in the UK and Europe.
As the years progressed, so did the proliferation of Indian names: Scout, Warrior, Chief, Cherokee. The company made its own sidecars and diversified into outboard motors. It produced a tradesman’s trike called the Dispatch-Tow and even developed a prototype aircraft engine that mysteriously found fame under another manufacturer’s name – Continental.
Indians enjoyed great commercial success as well as a series of near-death experiences. The introduction of the Ace four in 1920 almost bankrupted the company, and it lived a hand-to-mouth existence throughout the Depression years of the 1920s. The arrival in 1930 of a member of the du Pont family, E Paul du Pont, as owner injected new funds and provided 15 years of relative stability. In failing health, du Pont sold the business in 1945 to a multi-millionaire industrialist, Ralph Rogers.
The new owner suffered problems with his business partners but struggled valiantly to keep the company alive. In 1948 he even installed a Vincent Rapide engine in a Chief chassis with a view to producing a powerful new model, but the project never progressed beyond the prototype stage. The company was finally closed as unprofitable in 1953, although a few Chief models were produced into 1954 and a badge-engineered model, the Indian Enfield, was still on sale in the US until 1961. To all intents and purposes, however, the true Indian lineage died in 1953 with the Chief.
Floyd Clymer tried several times to resurrect the name, including an abortive attempt to produce a Scout in Europe and the marginally more successful Indian with a 500cc Velocette Thruxton motor, which sold in limited numbers – mainly to people still mourning the demise of the Velocette brand.
In 1991, despite all that, the Indian name was still revered among American motorcyclists. If Philip Zanghi reckoned he could bring the name back, then I certainly wanted to be along for the ride. Find out how it went in Part 2.