It’s so nice when a plan comes together, especially one bound together with the tiniest thread of logic. The Brenham, Texas, tourism people were promoting their lovely Washington County and the upcoming Bluebonnet Festival (a member of the Lupine family), and they invited us to cover it. Then we remembered that our Indian press relations guy is based in Austin, not too far from Brenham. And that Indians are available in Springfield Blue. Bluebonnets! Blue Indians! Red State! Bingo!
I’m on the case. Every time I’ve been to Texas, everybody’s always been just gratingly pleasant, the BBQ is usually outstanding, and my favorite part is just the basic largeness of the place. In fact, that’s probably why everybody’s nice; there’s still a little elbow room in Texas, once you get out of Houston anyway, whose sprawl is continually expanding and whose George Bush Airport I flew into. That’s how it works in the 21st century. Everybody’s super nice, then they book you the cheapest, most inconvenient flight.
The woman at Dollar rent-a-car was super nice too, but almost insisted I pay another $117 for a new kind of stealth insurance – after I told her I wanted none. Arizona and Texas just passed a law that you’re liable for the car’s downtime if it has to go in for repairs, she said, and the VISA people would want me to have it. Online, my total had been $189. At the counter, she had it cranked up to almost $400. I felt like I’d won when I got back to $225.
Anyway, I drove the Ford Whatever to Cibolo, just outside San Antonio, and collected my Indian Chief. The Chief is your bare-bones Indian, except mine wasn’t, because it was in Stan Simpson’s shop having a prototype windshield put on it along with some soft saddlebags – which effectively made it an Indian Chief Vintage. Either way, those two bikes share the same dimensions, 68.1-inch wheelbase and 6.1 inches of trail, for a super-stable ride. The third Indian, the full-boat Chieftain, tucks its front wheel in a bit tighter and runs a shorter, 65.7-in. wheelbase.
I was glad to have the windshield, because it was 52 degrees on the bike’s thermometer that morning on Texas 290 on the way back to Brenham. The 111-inch Thunderstroke V-Twin doesn’t seem to have too hard a time pushing the 812-pound (with 5.5 gallons of fuel) Chief along at 80 mph; the rear cylinder head didn’t even generate enough heat to warm my fingers. There is an oil cooler up there between the downtubes just in case it ever does warm up.
Cruise control is part of the Classic package, and is among the things I can’t remember how I lived without. At 80 mph, the Chief’s tachometer (which you can cycle through on the LCD display along with a voltmeter, the aforementioned ambient temp gauge, etc.) indicates 2950 rpm and the fuel consumption gauge usually says 36 or thereabouts. My mileage dipped to 33 once, but was 37 or 38 every other tankfull.
The Chief’s happy enough at that speed, thanks to its rubber-mounted floorboards and handlebar; it’s even happier and more relaxed at 70 or 75, but it’s against my principles to drive the speed limit. Crank the 49-degree V-Twin up to 3750 rpm and 100 mph, though, and the vibration from those 3.976-inch pistons will whoa you right back down as efficiently as any speed governor. Anything above 90 is pretty unpleasant really, which is sort of anticlimactic for a thing that displaces 1.8 liters. I suppose they had to make it that big to outdo the 110-cubic-inch competition, but even so, the Chief doesn’t feel all that fast off the line (a more aggressive linkage that didn’t make you have to grab such a big handful of throttle would help). And though the specs say max engine speed is 5500 rpm, I felt the limiter cut in at as little as 4800 (according to the tachometer) in some gears.
But maybe that’s just me. It’s a cruiser, man, and that means cruising and taking in the scenery, a thing with which I have no problem in a place as pretty and green as eastern Texas at the end of a long drought. Seventy or 80 mph are plenty once you get off onto one of Texas’s thousands of miles of meandering FM (farm-to-market) two-lanes. Just leave it in sixth, and rumble along on the 119 claimed foot-pounds of torque, which works out to just about 100 real-world contact patch ones at 2700 rpm. Indian’s sound guys did excellent work: The noise coming out of the twin tailpipes is just enough without being too much.
In fact, anybody who looks down their nose at cruisers just needs to spend a little time in a place like Texas. I don’t think there’s a corner tight enough this side of Austin to get your knee down no matter how fast you’re going, but there are plenty of nice flowing sweepers, not to mention thousands of miles of dirt roads to explore. On them, you’ll be glad you’re on a thing with a 68.1-inch wheelbase and 6.1 inches of trail instead of a twitchy sportbike.
In case you were wondering, dirt and gravel roads are the reason why “classic” American motorcycles took the long, low form they did. With the Chief’s 46mm cartridge fork providing 4.7 inches of travel and its rear shock serving up 3.7 inches of wheel travel, it shows no mercy when dealing with potholes and bumps. And whatever its suspension can’t handle is crushed beneath its massive weight and thick, cushy seat. Just keep the gas on and steer with the wide handlebar.
The other thing its massive weight had no mercy for was its rear Dunlop American Elite tire. On my way to College Station one bright morning, I felt a wiggle that felt like a flat and pulled onto the shoulder, where I was enveloped by a cloud of rubber smoke. What the? No flat kit was going to fix the exit wound in this tire, so I was relieved I hadn’t brought one. The very nice lady at AAA informed me over the phone that since I hadn’t paid the extra $7 for motorcycle and RV coverage on my policy, I was on my own. The flatbed driver was nice as could be, but it was a $200, 20-mile ride to Mancuso H-D on the Houston outskirts. They were nice as hell at the massive Harley-Davidson dealership, but also apologetic that they had no 180/65-16 tires in stock, which is surprising since that’s a really common size on all kinds of Harleys.
They were kind enough to kick me up the road to Global Motorsports, where it at first appeared that my valve stem had somehow gone missing in action, until it became clear that it was in fact the stem and the inner tube it was attached to that were all gone. Ed and crew were not only nice as all get-out, they even fixed me up with a new blackwall Dunlop and tube for $321.33, which didn’t seem entirely unreasonable given they had to drop everything they were doing and remove a muffler to get the tire off and on. On the positive side, if you’re going to spend most of a day dealing with a blow-out, maybe it’s good to have it happen on one when you were scheduled to visit the George Bush Presidential Library.
Other than the blow-out, I have few complaints. As a 5’8” 150-pound guy, the whole 800-pound Indian-chilada is for me bigger than it needs to be, but then this is Texas. It’s fine once you’re rolling, but I for one don’t want to be pushing a motorcycle this big around the garage all the time. The handlebar could come an inch or two more rearward to better suit my buggywhip arms, or the seat bolster could move that distance forward to better fit me, but if you’re a big guy you’ll probably find the ergos spot-on.
Wait, what am I saying? Slap me. This is Texas, and if it ain’t American, we’re not interested. Compared to a tractor motor instead of a motorcycle one, the Thunderstroke 111 is cutting edge. As a matter of fact, I did get to stay on the Texas Ranch Life compound during this little excursion, a real-live 1800-acre working ranch/ B&B run by one John Elick and his much prettier wife Taunia. John’s a very serious horseperson and has been for about the last 60 years, with more than a few bronc-riding and cutting-horse trophies to show for it. After not completely disgracing myself during a ride aboard his old cutting horse, the aptly named Cochino, I got him to sit upon the Chief for a quick photo op. When we were done and I wanted my bike back, he didn’t want to get off.
“Say, ahhh, how’s this work anyway? How do you ride one of these?”
It’s hard to imagine a 68-year old Texas dude who loves horses and the outdoors could live that long without riding motorcycles. Mr. E seemed genuinely interested, and I liked him even more because of it. Since he likes to talk and is a litigator in Austin, I resisted the urge to point out to him that the iron horse had superseded his flesh ones a long time ago everywhere but Texas. I showed him the throttle, the brakes, the clutch, etcetera. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it would do to send him off on an 800-pound bike for his first ride, and he’s had enough horses fall on him to know better anyway.
There was definitely a cowboy and Indian attraction though, and I don’t know if it would’ve been the same with a BMW or a Diavel. Whether you like the Chief or not (I’d love it if I lived in Brenham, Texas instead of SoCal, and had a big circular driveway on 1800 acres), you have to give it to Polaris for creating such an authentic machine. I’d be tempted to use the word “iconic” if Indian hadn’t already used up the year’s allotment of that word on its website.
Bikes like this are in our wild-West American jeans, even if your people only got off the boat last year. Genes. What with the horses and hats and longhorns and women in chaps, and all the barbecue and beer, it’s almost enough to make you proud to be an American. Maybe even a Texan.