2014 Indian Chief – Reinventing an icon

Breaking down the design, engineering and development behind the biggest cruiser news in years

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We’ve now ridden the new Indian Chief and confidently predict that it will make a massive splash in the cruiser market. Our full review will soon follow, but there’s a lot of ground to cover in telling the Chief’s story.

Who Is Indian?

Polaris Industries, owner of Victory Motorcycles, acquired the rights to Indian in 2011 and immediately set out to develop a premium new cruiser platform. Polaris’ 15 years of Victory experience has been used to good effect, creating in the Chief an amazingly refined motorcycle for a clean-sheet design.

And Polaris should not be taken lightly. With recent market domination in ATV and UTV markets from successful Ranger and RZR models, plus Victory Motorcycles, Polaris has become the number-one powersports OEM in North America in terms of market share, beating Harley and Honda et. al.

Classic 1

The 2014 Indian Chief lineup includes three models. Pictured here is the Chief Classic that retails for $18,999. Although it resides at the bottom of the Chief line, standard features include cruise control, leather seating, internally wired handlebars and a multitude of deep chrome components.

After riding Indian’s three-model lineup of Chiefs, we’re sure these bikes are competitive, at the very least, with its market rivals, but Indian acknowledges the steep hill ahead of it in challenging the massively dominant Harley-Davidson cruiser gorilla.

The subject of competing with Harley surfaced during a casual post-dinner convo with Polaris’ VP of Motorcycles, Steve Menneto. Indian’s chief demonstrated great respect for The Motor Company, but he also showed big enthusiasm for the long fight ahead.

“You go find the biggest Sequoia tree, and all you’ve got in an ax,” Menneto analogized, and I’m paraphrasing. “But you swing it and bust off some wood chips, and it’s only a few chips, but you keep swinging. And as long as the chips are flying, you keep swinging and swinging.”

As for how Victory Motorcycles fit into the Indian equation, “We see the brands going this way,” Menneto says, splitting his hands apart. In the future, we’ll see Victory mine a younger demographic with sharper and sportier models than the Indians.

Design

Greg Brew, director of industrial design for Polaris, got tossed an intimidating brief in 2011: Go design an icon. “It scared me to death,” said Brew, who earlier in his career drew the first Rolls-Royce under BMW ownership, the Phantom.

Brew acknowledges that he’s not a great student of motorcycle design history, so he and his team immersed themselves in the brand’s heritage by visiting a vast Indian collection, including riding several different models. ”We became students,” Brew explained. “The trick was not to exclusively look at just one model.”

Indian Vintage-Thunder_Black 3Qrear

For a $2000 upgrade from the Classic, the Chief Vintage adds tan leather seats and saddlebags, windshield, highway bars and chrome fender tips. Bags and windscreen are both quick-release items. The Vintage is only Chief with the “Indian” script tank badges.

For a new Chief, heavily valanced fenders, like the old Chief, were a necessity, as was the “war bonnet” front fender lamp first introduced in 1947. But two other design elements Brew deemed critical proved difficult to achieve. First, Brew wanted the fuel tank four inches lower than the King’s Mountain Chief to better replicate the flatter lines of the 1940s Chiefs. A shapely aluminum frame design made the low tank possible.

More challenging was Brew’s demand for the new engine’s downward-facing exhaust headers, as they were on the original Chiefs. The powertrain engineers resisted because of the difficulty in making this design efficient compared to typical side-exit exhaust routing, but Brew would not be denied. So the Thunder Stroke 111 has the vertically descending pipes thanks to clever engineering solutions, including the use of investment-cast stainless steel elbows. Also replicated are the multi-directional finned valve covers, parallel pushrod tubes and asymmetrical cooling-fin design found in old Indian motors. Brew also mandated the cylinder shape that steps down near its base like the Power Plus Chiefs.

Also troubling was the creation of the new Chieftain, which required a fairing to go head to head with Harley’s Street Glide, the best-selling motorcycle in North America. There was no Indian to reference.

“We had to think about what they would be thinking about back them, what they would use for inspiration,” Brew explained. The design team took inspiration from the streamlined designs of 1950s-era locomotives to create the Chieftain’s softly rounded nose.

indian2

The range-topping Chieftain retails for $22,999 and includes a wealth of added features. The fairing was wind-tunnel tested and features an electrically adjustable windscreen (the first powered screen in a bar-mount fairing), integrated driving lights and LED turn signals. Also included is a Bluetooth-enabled 100-watt audio system, remote-locking and detachable hardshell saddlebags, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

Engineering

Polaris says it typically requires about 40 months to create a new large-displacement motorcycle from scratch, but the Indian team took just 27 months to bring the new Chief to life. It was fortuitous that Polaris had nearly two decades of cruiser engineering to lean on, with Victory’s products teaching valuable lessons along the way.

Engine-eering

The most difficult part of creating a motorcycle is designing and developing a new engine from scratch – Indian’s Thunder Stroke 111 shares zero parts with Victory’s 106 cubic-inch Freedom V-Twin, and it’s the first clean-sheet Indian motorcycle engine in more than 70 years.

Engineers settled on a 49-degree vee angle for the Thunder Stroke (1 degree tighter than Victory’s), using a single-pin crankshaft for a traditional V-Twin rumble, forged for strength and relative lightness. Forged con-rods were chosen for the same reasons. An undersquare bore/stroke of 101mm and 113mm, respectively, yields 1811cc of displacement.

ThunderStroke111 engine1

Indian’s Thunder Stroke 111 is perhaps the prettiest modern cruiser engine we’ve ever seen. Intake valves are actuated by the chain-driven center cam, while two outboard gear-driven cams trigger the exhaust valve of each cylinder.

A three-cam system actuates two valves per cylinder via dual pushrods and self-adjusting hydraulic lifters. Quiet helical-cut gears drive a counterbalancer, allowing the engine to be used as a stressed member rather than being mounted with rubber bushings. Unit-type construction shares engine oil with the transmission, a substantial 5.5 quarts to allow 5000-mile oil change intervals.

Shedding heat from more than 100 cubic inches of power by air-cooling can be troubling – just ask a Harley owner about “parade mode,” H-D’s method of shutting down the rear cylinder when stuck in traffic to alleviate excessive heat. And yet Indian has done a very good job of isolating a rider from the 905.5cc cylinder between his thighs. Headers with a ceramic coating keep more heat inside the pipes, while strategically placed exhaust shielding further isolate exhaust temperatures. Dual-layer valve covers also insulate a rider, while an oil cooler lowers lube temps.

The result is a 119 ft-lb torque peak at 3000 rpm, rated at the crankshaft. Harley’s Twin Cam 103 is rated at a max of 98.7 ft-lb, also at 3000 rpm, a significant deficit. Indian recommends using premium fuel (as does H-D) for optimum performance, but a knock sensor will dial back ignition timing when detonation is sensed.

Alloy Ally

Cradling the Thunder Stroke is a surprisingly complex aluminum frame made from vacuum-cast components and CNC-machined forged pieces, rather than traditional tubular steel. Indian says it weighs 58 pounds, a remarkably low number for a bike like the Chieftain that boasts a 1385-lb GVRW.

frame-3

The Chief’s aluminum frame is exotic in the world of cruisers. The Chieftain uses a different backbone section and triple clamps to deliver sharper steering geometry: a 25-degree rake and 150mm of trail versus the Classic/Vintage’s 29 degrees and 155mm of trail.

The steering head/backbone piece is vacuum-cast (as are the side-plate sections) for a smooth surface and to incorporate air channels for the engine’s intake. Indian says half the airbox volume required for the Thunder Stroke is contained in the frame’s backbone section, which results in a smaller air cleaner area that is ergonomically friendly to a rider’s left knee.

Showroom

The descriptor “premium” was used during the Chief’s launch more than any other word, and that also extends to the dealer experience. Indian is carefully selecting dealers who are willing to invest in a high-end retail environment and is on pace to have 125 to 140 North American and 70 international dealers by the end of the year. Only Victory dealers who are willing to step up to dedicated Indian flooring will get a franchise. Interestingly, some Harley dealers have committed to creating stand-alone Indian dealerships. A nice gesture: Military personnel get $1000 off Chief MSRPs.

Indian1

We rode all three Chiefs in the Black Hills of South Dakota and 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. Also notable are the relatively long-travel rear suspensions (3.7 inches for the Classic and Vintage; 4.5 inches with the Chieftain), which provide a smoother ride than most contemporary H-Ds. When similarly equipped, the Indians are less expensive than comparable Harleys.

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  • Mark Vizcarra

    Here is my million dollar question. Did you experience any buffeting on the Chieftain? Or am I just going to have to wait for the full review?

    • Kevin

      I don’t know but I’m betting the 4 in. height adjustment which is electrically controlled, will do a lot to mitigate it. It works really well on the Vision.

    • Kevin Duke

      The transition zone from non-buffeting to buffeting can be really small, which is why the adjustable windscreen is an excellent addition to a touring cruiser such as this. For my 5-foot-8 body, I experienced zero buffeting.

      • Mark Vizcarra

        Given the amount of money I have spent on windshields and other items to reduce buffeting for my RoadGlide Ultra. I might have to check this out.

        • Kevin Duke

          The Chiefs are worth checking out even if you don’t want to buy one!

  • Rick Vera

    Does anyone remember when the Vision came out? Victory had all of these promotional videos on their website talking about their simple aluminum “backbone” frame that was superior to the convoluted, weld and/or bolt-intensive cradle designs. Or when they had a Harley and Star 103 engine apart alongside their Freedom 106, they were lambasting the “heavy” pushrod setup of their competitors. It’s funny, I can’t find those videos on their website anymore.

    Now that Polaris owns Indian and are apparently looking back far enough with this marquee, let’s hope this opens the floodgates for Victory to really start looking towards the future. There’s only so many ways you can dish out a transversely-mounted, air-cooled, V-twin and still be interesting. Next generation Vision with a water-cooled, V4 engine? Yes please.

    • Kevin

      I’d rather see Victory improve the brakes on all of their bikes before they start messing with something that isn’t really broken.

  • RandleMcMurphy

    Comfort. The older I get the more I appreciate it and I immediately liked the seats. They look very plush and, well, beautiful. I think every one of these models look delicious. They could have easily just dropped a Victory engine in these and made a few cosmetic mods to give the old school look but, they are to be applauded for what they’ve done here.

    Never thought I’d be saying something like this but, they’ve managed to keep the prices very competitive at $20k or so as well. I’m impressed. Made in the USA too. Hats off to Polaris.

  • rjfinva

    I’m sure it’s a great bike, but outside the $$ reach of many. After owning a Kawasaki Vulcan 1500, which was a good bike, I yearn for a decent vertical twin by the Japs. I’m sure a Harley would be fun, in fact jus the Street Bob fits me perfect. Kawasaki is making an 800 twin (like the 650) but not bringing it here. I know there are a lot of people out there into the image of Harley’s, etc. but you know what – I don’t give a crap about that. Give me a good mid size bike with plenty of torque, dependability, and a comfortable riding position. The problem with Triumph is they don’t have enough dealers and it’s a problem.

    • Kevin Duke

      Re dealers: Just be glad you don’t dig the Guzzi California… ;)

    • RandleMcMurphy

      “Japs”? Really?

    • Don Falloon

      If you’re looking for something around 800cc, give the Suzuki M50 a serious look. Love mine (2008 M50 Special Edition now with 38K on the clock). A little buzzy around 80mph, but the ergos work well for me (5’11″, 175).

  • Craig Hoffman

    That is a very cool looking engine. Interesting and I think good strategy on Polaris’ part. They will have two “brands” that they can differentiate. The Victory line has always had a bit of a hot rod performance image. I like that. With Indian, they can do the heritage thing, freeing up Victory to be even more bad ass. Go to it boys.

  • Madmax190

    I’ve had many motorcycles..an old school Vmax, a Hayabusa, a Stratoliner, and now an Electraglide (which I love). Thies new Indians are remarkable and with the same engineers designing the 111 motors who designed the Victory motors, it just seems too good to be true. Victorys are known for their reliability and low maintenance.
    Ethanol killed my Stratoliner after just 60,000 miles. I look to get at least one Indian because the reliability should be on par with the Victorys. Can’t wait…anticipation is high.

  • Frank Misco

    Well guys, here’s the problem: Harley people. The Victory is a fine bike. Honda, Star, Kawasaki, and Suzuki all make really good cruisers. This new Indian looks to be an excellent motorcycle. Polaris needs to start giving free tattoos, shirts, and baby diapers with the bikes. Harley people are so ingrained with Harley everything that the bike is irrelevant. I once had a Harley Road King and was scorned, nearly shunned, by the Harley crowd because I had installed Maxxis tires on the bike instead of the Harley brand. My cousin named his dog Harley while a friend named his son Harley David and his daughter Harli. So good luck cracking into these nuts. Try opening a coconut with a feather. You need to market stuff. The Indian name does give you a jump but remember, Indian fans are mostly dead by now, not to be resurrected. You need to concentrate on infiltrating Harley groups by zeroing in on those disgruntled and dealer abused Harley riders who are sick of high costs for everything related to Harley. Good luck with that.

    • Kevin Duke

      I beg to differ. Sturgis is concentrated with pro-Harley people to a greater extent than almost anywhere else in the world, and the new Chiefs turned a lot of heads and brought forth many questions about them.The Indian name still carries a lot of weight.

      • Frank Misco

        I live near Daytona. When bike week rolls around the HD riders show up in big numbers. They go to the race and look at the sport bikes. But they don’t buy them. They ride the strip trying to look the part and making noise. All are sporting HD clothes and tats. They also tend to crash a lot.

    • RandleMcMurphy

      Truth is that both H-D and now Indian are white collar bikes. H-D’s were associated with rabble rousers and scrappers that wanted to be heard from miles away. The whole anti-everything persona. Now, people like myself can only dream about a non-Sportster big twin. Living in the northeast US, I just can’t bring myself to make payments through the winter and then pray for a decent summer.

      I think the whole H-D wallet-with-a-chain thing is becoming cliche now. Lawyers who think they’re Dennis Hopper on the weekends. Polishing, polishing….polishing. I think, if anything, Indian will instead become the anti-H-D bike. Honda-like reliabilty, bad ass looks, American made. As I see these bikes, I don’t see the need for any “extras”. They look fantastic as is. That Chief’s Head on the front fender alone is beyond cool along with the headlight nacelle. Add in that state of the art frame and it’s a no brainer.

      I think you’ll see Indian owners as the ones sneering at H-D riders now. I say this tongue-in-cheek of course but, think about it. No shame in riding an Indian and H-D is surely sweating a bit right now.

  • John Banger

    As a long time Harley rider who was looking to buy a new Glide this Fall I have decided to instead buy that Vintage. I am one of those “disgruntled” owners tired of the division in the Harley ranks between “RUBS” and “real bikers” and especially the way Harley has decided to use cheaper wheel bearings and the heat issues are laughable. Yeah I have the T shirts and the bar mirror in my garage. But I think I will be able to get ride of the bike life and use the jack instead and the Garage needs repainting anyway, I ride with a lot of Harley guys and more than a few admittedly are changing their tune. This is not Victory II as far as I can see and how people are talking. Polaris did a great job and just maybe Harley will not do what GM did and sit on their laurels. When the money who kept Harley alive decided they are not “cool” anymore a lot of bike will go unsold. Fads have a halflife. Real quality lasts forever.

  • Doug Sanders

    first I just want to make sure they will not have parts for it like the v92c I own. thanks Polaris

  • Fred Beaver

    Who actually made the 113 Indian engine ? Can the new Indian be lowered and how much ?

  • unclestan

    Sounds extremely interesting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!