Duke's Den - Indian Acceptance

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

A surprisingly warm welcome for Indian in the crucible of Sturgis

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.

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.

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

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

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

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4 of 26 comments
  • Jim L Jim L on Jan 21, 2014

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • Jim L Jim L on Jan 26, 2014

      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 Goose on Oct 08, 2014

    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.