A strange thing happened at Sturgis last summer. The Sturgis Rally and Races has pretty much been a Harley-Davidson festival since the 1970s, even more so than Daytona’s Bike Week. Sure, you’ll see some metric cruisers, a smattering of Victorys, a trickle of Gold Wings and a handful of sportbikes, but there’s no denying the overwhelming dominance of The Motor Company at the South Dakota rally. Look at the image above of Sturgis’ Main Street for visual evidence of the Harley lovefest.

By my purely unscientific estimate, I’d guess at least 80% of the motorcycles at Sturgis are Harleys. Maybe even 85%. It’s almost as if there’s an unwritten membership bylaw.

Sturgis Rally Scooter

You’re about 100,000 times more likely to see an “exclusive” $30k CVO Street Glide at Sturgis than you are to see one of these.

The Japanese OEMs began building cruisers about three decades ago, and they were generally disrespected by Harley loyalists for styling and execution that didn’t faithfully match up with the archetype established by the Milwaukee juggernaut. Abbreviated resurrections of Excelsior-Henderson and Indians never really made a dimple in H-D’s market supremacy.

2014 Indian Chief – Reinventing an Icon

More recently, Victory’s expanding portfolio of products have been elbowing in on The Motor Company’s territory, especially since the introduction of its Cross platform. The Cross Roads and Cross Country that debuted in 2010 have been the Minnesota company’s best-selling models, with a fraction of bar-and-shield faithful acknowledging the performance and touring abilities of the Crosses.

Sturgis Victory Cross Country

I rode this Victory Cross County to Sturgis in 2010. Despite its traditional cruiser layout and its excellent over-the-road competence, it rarely got much more than a passing glance or disinclined acceptance from the Harley faithful.

Helping gain acceptance is the fact that Victorys are built in the USA, which is a big deal to many American cruiser riders. Still, Victory is fighting an uphill battle against the iconic status of any Harley-Davidson, no matter how objectively good a Victory motorcycle is or will be.

Then, last August, the reborn Indian Motorcycle debuted its new lineup of Chiefs at Sturgis. There in Sturgis, likely the largest concentration of H-Ds on the planet, was a crowd eager to see the next generation of new Indians from its parent company, Polaris Industries, also owners of Victory Motorcycles. It was a little surprising to witness adulation for the new Indians from the Harley die-hards in the audience, which comprised the bulk of the audience.

2014 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special vs. Indian Chieftain

Harley Rider Indian Introduction

Despite being proudly adorned with Harley-Davidson attire, this biker was pleased to be at the unveiling of Indian’s new Chiefs.

The next day I rode all three models of the Indian lineup (Chief, Chief Classic, Chieftain) and was impressed by the capabilities engineered into the best chapter of Indian since the 1950s when the original company folded. They feel vintage but modern – a throwback (air-cooled engine, valenced fenders) yet a step into the future, what with their aluminum frames and ride-by-wire throttle control. Polaris learned a lot about cruisers and the market during its 15 years with Victory, and it’s put all those lessons into this new platform.

As I wrote in my Reinventing An Icon piece on the new Indians, “We are convinced the reborn Indians are good enough to steal some sales from the lucrative Harley market. The strong lure of the historic brand combined with a powerful, refined and lovely looking motor are the biggest attractions.”

But more interesting, and more significant, than the Indians’ road performance was the reaction from the Harley hordes to this new player that has the potential to threaten Milwaukee’s dominance in the cruiser realm. Instead of feeling intimidated by Indian, they, by and large, loved seeing this legendary brand get re-introduced to the market and had many complimentary comments about the bikes we were riding. This reaction was unlike any other previous cruiser contenders.

In a way, this was the biggest news story of 2013, as it’s impossible to imagine any other new brand of cruiser having this kind of positive effect on the Harley faithful. Here was an all-new motorcycle that broadly mimics the standard set forth by H-D yet was able to draw in those loyal to the bar-and-shield brand.

You might not have felt it, but a paradigm shift occurred last summer. Indian, despite the forgettable history of the past 60 years, has legions of devoted fans that endure along with its iconic status. Now we’ve got a new Indian with a large engineering company backing it fully. Harley needn’t worry yet, but it would be smart to keep an eye on its rearview mirrors.

2014 Indian Motorcycles Revealed in Sturgis

Indian Chieftan Sturgis

Riding the Chieftain in South Dakota, it impressed for its performance and its curb appeal. (Photo by Barry Hathaway)

  • vtwinsrbest

    Polaris has certainly made a splash with their all-new Indian platform. I’m thrilled to have another choice in motorcycles, especially and American one! Now they’ve got to make inroads with their dealer network as there are far too few at the present time. I live on Long Island in New York. Closest dealer is in Union, New Jersey. I’d have to run the gauntlet that is NYC to get there and back. Next closest is probably up in Massachusetts! Much as I like what I saw in-person at the Progressive bike show last month, I can’t be comfortable with that level of support in arguably the most densely populated part of the country!

    • Kevin Duke

      More dealers will come. The excellence of the Chief’s platform will demand it.

      • vtwinsrbest

        Hope they don’t miss out too much on this Spring’ s annual buying surge! They did spend somewhere north of a hundred million on this venture so far!

    • DickRuble

      Why do you need so much support? The dealership is not your nanny… If the Indian is a decent bike, you shouldn’t worry about a dealership nearby. Unless of course you buy a bike to be close, really close friends with your mechanic… in which case you know what to buy.

    • Kevin

      The North East especially is a hard place for potential Indian customers, not only for distance to dealers, but availability as well. My closest dealer is in E-town, PA, 3 hours away and currently has 1 Chief Classic in stock. The next closest dealer is 4.5 hours away in Union, NJ and they have a whopping 10 bikes in stock.

  • Jed Wheeler

    Personally, if I was going to buy a cruiser I’d buy a Triumph – the Thunderbird blows any comparable american cruiser out of the water. The Motto Guzzi California is another great european cruiser for people who want a classic look on a brand with some history. Indians and Harley’s are for old guys with too much money and not enough sense.

    • Kevin Duke

      I also like the Euro cruisers, but they’ll have a tougher time prying open the wallets of the well-heeled consumers like the way the new Indian will.

    • DickRuble

      I am not a cruiser enthusiast by any means. I think the euro cruisers also miss the mark as an obvious attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole. They take good technology (in relative terms) they have developed for street bikes and apply it to a style that’s foreign to them. The result is better handling bikes that monkey HD at a similarly high price. The only cruiser I would want to ride is some Kawasaki I saw on the highway once. I believe it was an 800cc though am not sure and everything in design, rider posture, and size appealed to me. It screamed “effortless”.

      • Jed Wheeler

        A lot of the metric cruisers are obvious HD knockoffs. The two I mentioned very much are not – both companies have been around for ages and both have engine setups that are totally different from the standard HD/Victory/Indian/Metric Clone v-twin. The Triumph’s inline engines give less vibration on the handlebars and look very distinctive and the Guzzis sideways twin impacts every aspect of the ride. And saying that the cruiser style is foreign to either brand given their respective histories is just silly.

        • DickRuble

          I am willing to agree I am being silly if you point to me cruisers built by Triumph or Guzzi prior to 1990. Otherwise, just because they jumped on the cruiser bandwagon for the sake of cashing in on the American market would make me think that they are just “me too”s. Being from Europe I don’t tend to think of 10 years or 20 years as ‘history’.

          • Jed Wheeler

            Marlon Brando’s Thunderbird 6t in “The Wild One” from 1953. It’s overtly the inspiration for the the modern Triumph Thunderbird.

          • DickRuble

            You look at the Tunderbird 6t and tell me with a straight face that’s a cruiser? If you call that a cruiser, then the Zundap ks500 is the mother of all cruisers.. not to mention all BMW’s up to 1970 and all british motorcyles and … well pretty much any motorcyle up to the 70’s.

          • MartinBones

            How about Guzzi´s California, built since 1971 till 2011, that was used by LAPD Traffic Division back in the 70´s? Ain´t that a cruiser either?

          • DickRuble

            I don’t know… the 70s model doesn’t have that “cool” riding “cruiser” position, feet forward, that says “I have a prostate the size of a watermelon”. So no.. the 70’s models don’t really qualify as cruisers

    • Tony C

      Said the young guy who can’t afford the HD or the Indian. When you have to resort to ageism it’s a sure sign your argument is weak cupcake.

  • di0genes

    Why the surprise?

    The majority of HD buyers are not so much motorcyclists as cult members.

    Metric, Victory and Euro cruisers are for the people who have rejected Harley-Davidism, they are apostates or even (gasp) atheists.

    Polaris Indian has a chance of succeeding because they have performed an honest to goodness resurrection, a miracle of sorts, perfect for sustaining a cult 🙂

  • allworld

    I am not a cruiser guy, but choice is a good thing. I would love to see Polaris take Victory into other markets, like sport bikes, nakeds, and adventure touring bikes. Potentially Polaris could compete head on with Honda and not just HD.

  • DickRuble

    If you think the HD, Victory and Indian are cool… then what about this one.. and it doesn’t even pretend to be a cruiser


    • Oslo Norway

      OK, now that’s just cool…

  • Ken

    The closest Indian dealer to me is 200 miles away. I rode there with a friend who really wanted one because of the low seat as he has a short inseam. When we got there, neither of us could reach the sidestand to retract it. If you can’t reach the sidestand, you can’t use the bike. The bikes were beautiful and a good value but not for the short of inseam. I wrote Polaris and they responded that they would make the engineers aware.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Cruisers are largely about the engine and it’s personality/appearance. The Indian engine is quite impressive to look at, a beautiful engine. That alone is worth quite a bit in this class. No doubt it’s performance will be refined further as time goes on.

  • Papá Kokopelli

    My second motorcycle was an Indian. I now ride a Harley. i have many fond memories acquired while ridng these two machines. But i´d go back to an indian in a second, not because of any deficiencies of the Harley, but because of the ultimate cool of the indian.

  • The reason they welcome indian is that HD has become too commonplace and therefore diluted in some way. It’s not so special anymore. Having a competitor brings comparison and differences and therefore some small piece of uniqueness. It’s a good thing.

    • Kevin Duke

      I agree partially with you, James, but if that’s all there was to it. Victory would be selling way more bikes.

      • Implied Kevin is classic looking bikes. Victory looks like something designed from the Ness LSD bowl. They are somewhat an acquired taste, especially the Vision. The Indian is a classic looking bike as is HD.

  • Goose

    I’m sorry but both the author and most of the posters don’t seem to have a clue about cruisers. Sure beauty is important but it means nothing if the bike isn’t perceived as authentic. The guy riding a Harley may be the biggest phony in town but he sees his bike is the real deal.

    Victories and the Japanese stuff are (or at least are seen as) imitations of Harleys. The Indian has its own past and roots as deep as a Harley. I own two Harleys but I welcome Indian and hope they have great success, even if some of that comes out of Harley’s sales. Hell, once Indian gets a bigger tank on the Scout I can see an Indian replacing my XR1200.