It and all the lavishly-executed moto creations from an American brand that was born in 1901, two years before Harley-Davidson, have been known to command a variety of visceral reactions.
From an aesthetic perspective – even though the new Indian Motorcycle Company only bought the name in 2004, and produced its first bikes in 2009 – it could be argued that this bike already deserves a page on a wall calendar of beautiful motorcycles.
From a nostalgic view, all the new Indians have been said to evoke memories for old-time riders and those who had fathers or uncles or grandfathers who rode an original one decades ago.
And from a critical perspective, some are wondering whether the upscale motorcyles made in the name of a once-great marque can be revived in this economy, and in spite of failures by others who have tried to restore Indian before.
Like every one of the seven variations of the Chief, the Vintage is hand assembled by a pair of master bike builders – “craftsmen” – at Indian’s factory in Kings Mountain, N.C., which was established in the fall of 2006 by its owners, London-based Stellican Private Equity Group.
Among its approximately 45 employees, the company has three of these two-man teams to assemble the engine and the rest of the bike. In all, they can produce two motorcycles per day, and Indian expects to turn out a total of 500 Chiefs (of all sorts) this year.
All of these bikes are based on the same chassis, 105 cubic inch engine, and six-speed transmission. They are built to order, and able to be outfitted in a variety of paint schemes, fender styles, wheel options, leather saddle and bag designs, and more.
Our Chief Vintage – a factory demo on show at this year’s Daytona Bike Week – wore perfectly applied Plains Sky Blue and Winter White paint, one of nine color choices. While all versions come with leather saddles, this one had a $499 optional fringed “distressed leather” saddle and bags and backrest.
Its acre’s worth of chrome was so flawless, we wondered whether Indian had found alchemists who’d replaced mere chromium with magically-applied liquid mercury instead. “This might be the best quality chrome on a production bike I’ve seen to date,” quipped Pete on the Chief’s high-luster shiny stuff.
Likewise, the leatherwork looked and felt like it had been produced by a high-end boutique. The seat is actually supplied by Milsco, the same Milwaukee-based saddle-maker that had outfitted early-1940s and later Indians for some time before the original company ceased production in 1953
In short, the more we examined, the more it became apparent that fastidious attention to detail is being applied to every aspect of this and all the Chief sub-models. And while everything is new to these machines, the company consistently asserts itself as a bona fide producer of authentic American motorcycles and boasts of its heritage.
In keeping with its purchased pedigree, Indian’s one engine is named after an early-20th century trademark design, the PowerPlus. In present form, it reportedly delivers about 72 hp at 5,000 rpm and 100 ft-lb of torque at 3,200 rpm at the crank. It is actually based on a Harley-Davidson 45-degree pushrod V-Twin that in turn had been modified by the previous owners of the Indian name that operated from 1999 to 2003 in Gilroy, Calif.
According to Chris Bernauer, GM at the North Carolina factory, the new company’s engineers left nothing untouched in an effort to radically improve quality in a design that had been plagued with reliability issues. “Pretty much everything in the engine had to be rebuilt,” he says, “The entire engine from tip to tail has been completely redesigned.”
Many of the company’s 20 or so engineers had been experienced hands at Harley-Davidson or Victory, Bernauer says, and they threw the parts book at the project along with untold man hours of R&D time to get it right this time around.
Included in the engine’s makeover was an overbore of the formerly 100 cubic-inch powerplant to 3.966 inches in diameter, and it cycles through a 4.25-inch stroke. The two-valve-per-cylinder mill now uses forged pistons running in Nikasil-lined bores instead of cast-iron sleeves. They are mated to a plain-bearing crankshaft via knife-and-fork style connecting rods.
Bernauer also pointed out that they went with a new heat-treated flywheel, oiling system, redesigned cylinder head, new valves, seals, keepers and more.
The engine utilizes no counterbalancers, is rigidly mounted, and is fed by a Magneti Marelli EFI system via a single 52mm throttle-body, which is mounted Indian-style on the left instead of on the right as H-D would do it.
Its “Coke bottle cap” style rocker covers were retained, and Bernauer said overall, the engine was left visually similar to the Gilroy design, although there are very few interchangeable parts.
“We love the styling of it,” Bernauer says, adding that while some air-cooled V-Twin experts were recruited from other companies, several asked to be part of the ground-up revival of this historical brand. He said a lot of pride and passion has therefore gone into creating a labor of love while attempting to cut no corners.
According to Indian’s President, Steve Heese, this design philosophy is in keeping with Stellican’s formula for success familiar to himself and the equity group’s CEO and driving force, Steve Julius.
Together, they have revived other distressed iconic brands, and with Indian, they do not aim to compete head to head with H-D or Victory, but instead Heese says, “We’ve carved out a niche above their heads,” and they aim to let Indian’s products speak for themselves.
Heese notes the move up-market, against otherwise formidable competition, was the only viable way to go for the small company.
So to give the impressive engine an equally impressive bike to push, the $35,499 (base price) Chief Vintage is rounded out by such features as a Fox rear gas shock and Paioli inverted 41mm fork set at a relaxed 34-degree rake.
It has a sturdy steel backbone frame to tie it all together, and state-of-the-art electronics to keep things running reliably.
Twin Brembo four-piston front brake calipers are mated to a rear Brembo single piston caliper. These put the squeeze on front and rear 11.5 inch (292mm) floating rotors that are specially chromed in the U.S. for Indian. Instead of hollow rivets holding the discs to their carriers, shiny eye-pleasing buttons are used.
Although these bikes are made in North Carolina, all paintwork is done in Arizona because Indian feels its painter there is the best available, according to Marc Pomerantz, manager of sales and marketing.
The majestically appointed motorcycle’s instrumentation is uncluttered; a round analog speedo is accompanied by separate right and left turn-signal lights on the tank-mounted cluster and are hidden – actually somewhat obscured – behind stylish chromed beauty grilles. There is also a neutral indicator, low-fuel light, high beam and oil pressure lights.
New for 2010, a turn-signal cancellation warning indicator has been added, as has more data from the LCD readout which can be toggled from the handlebar to display trip data, engine speed, time, and more.
The easily removable windscreen and saddlebags were designed to leave no trace of unsightly mounting hardware, so if you want to parade your beauty queen dressed with or without her extras, she is just as pretty either way.
How it all comes together
Okay. By now you get the point that this is intended to be a very special motorcycle. But assuming the quality is as good as they say, the bottom line is whether it rides and functions just as well.
The short answer is, yes, it does – in most respects.
The bike fires up easily and settles into a pleasant sounding idle through its stainless steel exhaust system. The heel-toe shifter positively engages first gear, and on the gas, the engine sounds muted but potent. Up shifts (or down shifts) from the Baker transmission are crisp through the range.
Power is adequate for spirited getaways, and on the highway, the engine lopes along in fifth or sixth with enough motivation, and accelerates well enough, but does lack the grunt of some larger H-D models and left us wishing for a little bit more.
While navigating a bike that costs about as much as an entry-level Infinity around the packed streets of Daytona, or out on I-95, the rarefied air I felt I was breathing was confirmed by the admiring comments and questions other riders had regarding the bike everywhere we went.
It is obviously a heavy motorcycle, but its approximately 750 pounds are manageable. Behind the tall windscreen, the sense of being in the bike instead of on it never left me. When exiting the interstate at 75 mph, although it was not intimidating, I didn’t want to push too hard, and imagining what it would be like to throw this massive showpiece away at this speed made for a steady hand that preferred to err on the side of caution.
Around town, its whitewall Metzelers gave enough grip to where I probably could have began scuffing the chrome off the bottom of the footboards, but I did not have the heart to. By the way, our bike’s footboards were not leather fringed, but this high-performance option is available from dealers.
Braking was excellent, and the sound from the drilled Brembos reminded me of a sportbike’s brakes as the machine quietly buzzed to a smooth stop from any speed. Considering some early Indians came with rear brakes only, and no front brakes, here is one place where we were happy for technological progress as applied to a classic design.
“Such good braking performance is remarkable and refreshing in the big cruiser segment, especially so on a classy retro job like the Chief,” said Pete.
Unfortunately, we can not compliment some of the other buzzes this bike’s engine induced. It visibly shook the tank, and audible resonation came possibly from the windshield – or maybe it was just the tank? In top gear at cruising speed with earplugs in, it was still audible. Specifically, the buzz began at around 2,600 rpm, and discouraged us from wanting to rev it anywhere near its 5,250 rpm redline.
After riding the Vintage on the highway, Pete said he felt like his feet might vibrate off the floorboards, but I did not feel this affect as strongly. Further, Bernauer mentioned the company has done work to isolate the floorboards, and the model we rode was made prior to this update, so we don’t know if newer Indians will have this issue.
While the inherent vibration of a large V-Twin does not mean the bike lacks quality, it could be a potentially touchy issue to some, including other motojournalists who have also commented on the Indian’s vibrations.
In response, Bernauer said Indian’s engineers have done as much to reduce the natural vibrations as possible in their close-tolerance build. But he also admitted they are considering a counterbalancer or rubber mounting in the future, although he gave no specifics as to which or when.
It should be noted that Harley-Davidson now either counterbalances its big Twins or rubber mounts them, but it has not always and that never prevented their popularity. Pomerantz pointed out that until 2004, H-D sold around 75,000 Sportsters per year with rigid mounts and no counterbalancers.
Furthermore, Bernauer and Heese both said the new Indians are being raved over by existing customers, and they are “not losing sleep” over things as they stand. “The vibration is in the eye of the holder,” Bernauer says, adding the company’s waiting list for new bike delivery is about two-months.
And it is undisputed that Stellican does have a track record of flying in the face of critics and proving them wrong. Furthermore, by every other measure we were able to research – and according to the company’s own representatives – it seems Stellican is on its way to doing it again in spite of the recession.
According to Bernauer, the future “looks bright,” as Indian focuses on top quality, sticks to its guns, and lets the top-of-the-range Chief Vintage lead the way toward continued pride in the company’s slogan: “America’s First Motorcycle.”
We found much to admire during our time on Indian’s flagship, most notably its impeccable build quality that compares favorably with Harley’s vaunted CVO series of high-end cruisers. And its expressive, big-fendered styling never failed to draw attention, even among jaded Bike Week riders.
However, it’s difficult for us to rationalize the significant vibration emitted by the non-counterbalanced PowerPlus V-Twin. The vibes won’t be an issue for someone who buys the Chief for short casual rides, or profiling down at the coffee shop, but some riders who are serious about covering a lot of miles at a gulp may wish for something smoother.