Part 3: Indian rebirth 1991 style

Sorry for the delay in posting part 3. I was moving house and the Internet isn’t connected in the new place yet. The story concludes…

Philip Zanghi brought to our first client meeting his 18-year-old son, who was now President of the company, and his 20-year-old daughter, who was head of the clothing and accessories division. They’d both clearly inherited their father’s assertiveness gene, if not yet his girth.

They told us they’d decided to hire not one but two PR firms. Ours would handle the motorcycle launch and everything to do with the bikes and the company; another major New York firm would handle the fashion and clothing side of the business. I pointed out that this was most unusual and would be very confusing for the media, who could find themselves being contacted by two separate agencies to talk about Indian.

Besides, we had people who knew the fashion retail business backwards. It made no sense at all. But Zanghi was adamant. “It’ll keep you both honest,” he said with a grin, implying that the threat of losing the account to the other agency would prevent either one from ripping him off. Coming from him, that was rich, as time would prove.

I had serious misgivings. He was about to hire us, and he didn’t even trust us? But he signed the contract and I thought: “What the heck! This is going to be tough, but it’ll be fun.” Hah!

Zanghi had told us he had acquired a large factory in Springfield, and indeed he had. But this was not where manufacture would take place. Instead, he courted the Governors of both Massachusetts and neighbouring Connecticut to see which would offer him the best incentives to set up the factory in their state. As the weeks wore by, it became clear that a site just across the border in Connecticut was the preferred location. So much for building bikes in Springfield! Zanghi’s solution was that the bikes would be built in Connecticut and shipped a few miles to Springfield for “finishing”.

At one meeting in the vast boardroom of the Springfield offices, Zanghi noticed that one of the spotlights above the huge, highly polished wooden table had blown. Interrupting the meeting, he ordered the company President (remember him? The 18-year-old?) to install a new bulb. We waited while a new bulb was found and said son climbed on to the table in his heavy boots and stretched up to unscrew the old bulb and replace it. This is not how meetings are normally run!

The local media were clearly excited about the imminent arrival of the factory and its attendant 300 jobs. Meantime, I was getting a little bit worried about the bikes. According to Zanghi, they were being tested in Texas. I told him of my eight years as a motorcycle road-tester and my willingness – nay, determination – to help him with the testing. If you’ve reported for years on new bikes that are largely fine but might have been perfect if only the designers had thought of this aspect or that, then the chance to influence the design of a new motorcycle is pretty compelling.

Zanghi kept putting me off, saying the time wasn’t right. Okay, I said, but I’d like to see a photo of the bike. Yes, he promised, that would be taken care of. I reminded him over the next few weeks and was finally rewarded with an invitation to see the pictures at his house in Connecticut one hot Sunday. The temperature was a pavement-splitting 103 degrees Fahrenheit as Pat Carle and I pulled up outside this palatial home, all marble floors and air-conditioning.

Zanghi explained that we’d have to wait a little while – his artist was nearly finished. Artist? For photos? Well, actually, there weren’t any photos but he’d show me an artist’s impression. I had an uneasy feeling about this. If the bikes were actually built and being tested, why no pictures. Maybe they weren’t actually built yet?

While we waited, Zanghi regaled us with tales of his imprisonment years earlier in Italy on “some trumped-up charge” that was all a huge misunderstanding. He described spending weeks chained naked to a cell wall. The vision of some of my past clients chained naked to a wall would have set the pulses racing, but somehow the thought of this man in that state had the opposite effect…

After an hour, a thin young man appeared with a large sketch, which he handed to Zanghi face down. When the artist had gone away, Zanghi held up the drawing triumphantly. “There you are!” he beamed.

I was flabbergasted. What he held up was a large, pencil drawing of a 1953 Indian Chief. The engine made a Ural look modern, the brakes were small drums and the only concession to the late 20th century was a set of indicators attached to the bars.

“Isn’t she a beauty?” he asked.

I was speechless. When I recovered, I said in disbelief: “But that’s an ancient design! What about the titanium alloy? The fuel injection? The anti-lock disc brakes? This is a 1950s bike!”

He looked very uncomfortable, placed the drawing on a table and laid his massive hands over the front and rear brakes. “Look,” he said, “it’s not finished yet. Forget the brakes. Imagine they’re discs.”

At that point, I knew in my heart that this whole thing was a scam. I couldn’t believe that this tracing, excellent though it was, of a 1950s bike was the best he could do. Trouble was, I couldn’t figure out what the scam could be. Zanghi had not, as far as I knew, asked anyone for any money. How could it be a scam? But there was something very fishy going on.

Sure enough, Zanghi didn’t pay his first invoice from my firm when it was due, and despite much chasing still hadn’t paid it four weeks later when the second invoice went out. When I chased him for payment, he went ballistic and all but accused me of fraud and trying to rip him off. It was never intended that he’d pay us until the bikes were in production, he said. We stopped work that day. The invoices were never paid.

The last I heard of Phillip Zanghi was a report in Cycle World that he was back in prison, serving seven years for fraud, although whether he was naked or clothed remained unclear. Motorcycle Cruiser reported that his jail term was for defrauding investors. He certainly did my firm out of $20,000. Oddly enough, the two Indian T-shirts he gave me back in 1991 proved almost indestructible, surviving for more than 20 years before falling apart.

The story of Indian, happily, did not end with Phillip Zanghi. Court battles continued for years to establish legal title ownership of the trademark. The ultimate winner, in every sense of the word, was Polaris Industries, which I should point out had nothing whatsoever to do with the Zanghi era. Instead, Polaris has proved that it has the resources, talent and vision finally to bring the Indian brand back to life.

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