They were the first, they became the greatest and they lost it all.
A Legend is Born
It was 1902 when the Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts started production of its first motorcycle. It was a 1.75bhp 213cc single-cylinder, with a (then revolutionary) chain drive. They called it the Indian.
It would be another four years before William Harley and Arthur Davidson produced their first motorized bicycle and one year before the Ford Model A started production.
The company was the product of two great men: George Hendee, a bicycle racer and manufacturer of some renown (he won 302 of his 309 races) and engineering genius Carl Oscar Hedstrom who designed and hand-built the first Indian prototype in less than six months.
Under the guidance of Hendee and Hedstrom, The Indian Motorcycle Co. ,as it came to be known, was at the very forefront of engineering, racing and production of motorcycles. In the 1910s it was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
With growth came corporate structure and management, and Hendee and Hedstrom’s company started to slip away from them. In retrospect it should come as no surprise that the decline of Indian began with the departure of its two founders. Hedstrom left in 1913, Hendee in 1916, both because of disagreements with the board of directors over the direction of the company.
With the onset of World War I the board decided to sell most of its line to the US government effectively eliminating domestic availability of the brand. By the 1920s Indian had lost its top spot to Harley Davidson.
Nevertheless, the 20s were a boom period and Indian rode the wave to great success producing its best known models: the now legendary Scout, Chief and Four.
With the advent of World War II Indian tried to get a foothold in the military market. Although they delivered Chiefs and Scouts for the war effort, they were never able to unseat the Harley Davidson WLA as the motorcycle of choice for the military.
In 1945, with the war over the Indian Motorcycle Co. was on shaky financial ground and was sold to Ralph B. Rogers.
The Last of the Indians
Under Rogers’ direction Indian ceased production of the Scout and in 1949 began offering small displacement lightweight motorcycles. Perhaps he was taking a page from BMW who in the same year came back from the brink of bankruptcy thanks to its small displacement bike the R24. But for Indian this was the beginning of the end of what had been the first and greatest American motorcycle company.
Indian developed three new models: The 149 Arrow and Super Scout 249, both in 1949, and in 1950 the 250 Warrior. These models were not developed to the standards of their predecessors, and were plagued by quality and reliability issues. They irreparably tarnished Indian’s reputation.
At the same time the post-war devaluation of the British pound resulted in low-priced imports from the likes of BSA and Triumph. Indian simply could not compete.
It came as no surprise when in 1953 the Indian Motorcycle Co. stopped all production and shut down.
It’s easy to be nostalgic about Indian Motorcycles. It was started by two enthusiasts who, driven by passion, invented something truly new. It’s a simple machine evolved from their first passion, the bicycle. All parts are exposed, carefully engineered, crafted and purposeful. It defined classic American styling, embodying freedom, strength, beauty and truth. Through relentless innovation it became the greatest, and largest.
And it failed.
Perhaps because the control moved away from the founders, perhaps because of strategic missteps, or maybe it was economic forces outside of its control. But it disappeared, and as such will remain a beautiful fleeting memory, an American icon.