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2010 Chief Bomber
2010 Chief Bomber

Cruising

Indian rides again Add to ...

Indian is one of the most storied brands of motorcycles to ever put rubber to pavement.

Formed in 1901 in Springfield, Mass., by a group of bicycle enthusiasts, Indian Motorcycle Co. was actually the first of its kind in North America and, during its lifetime, competed neck and neck with Harley-Davidson, Excelsior, Henderson and other historic American marques in various dirt track, hill-climb and cross-country racing events.

Indian also pioneered a number of engineering firsts, including electric start and lights, swing-arm suspension, leak-proof engine cases and the first V-Twin motorcycle engine built in North America.

In their day, Indians were widely used by law enforcement personnel, saw duty in both World Wars and, it could be argued, engendered the same kind of owner loyalty as Harley-Davidson.

Indian owners have also been known to tattoo the company's brand name on their skin and there are still dozens of owners clubs throughout Canada and the United States.

Until the 1950s, Indian was a force to be reckoned with - it had a widespread dealer network, devoted customers and a model lineup that has since passed into legend. Many regard the 1948 Indian Chief, for example, as one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever built.

But all good things come to an end, and Indian officially ceased production in 1953 - along with virtually every other North American manufacturer, with the exception of Harley-Davidson. In its time, Indian was an industry front-runner, no question, but had the company somehow survived for another 10 or 20 years, you could argue that the Japanese invasion of the 1960s and 1970s would surely have finished it off.

In the late 1990s, the Indian name was resurrected, accompanied by a protracted legal struggle that, at one point, involved almost 100 trademark copyrights. Several companies were fiercely competing for the rights to manufacture the legendary bike.

The legal wrangling that took place over the rights to the Indian "name" make for fascinating reading in their own right and there was a Canadian connection here. In the thick of the fight were Toronto businessmen Murray Smith and Mark Cooper who eventually emerged with the coveted trademark asset rights and Indians were once again manufactured, this time out of Gilroy, Calif.

I rode one of the bikes made in Gilroy, and it was not one of my favourite experiences. Anyway, things soon fell apart in California as well, and the facility shut down in 2003. Indian, it seemed, was once again destined to be a footnote in history.

However, three years later, another group of investors took a kick at the can, and Indians are currently being manufactured yet again by a different company, this time in Kings Mountain, N.C.

The company currently has seven models in its lineup, all variations on a "Chief" theme; all are big, heavy, V-Twin-propelled cruisers with a heavy dose of nostalgia and retro styling.

Power for all models is supplied by a 105-cubic-inch V-Twin that is air-cooled, with pushrods, fuel injection and a six-speed transmission mated to a chain final drive. This engine is known as the Power Plus model and develops some 100 lb-ft of torque.

Unlike Indians of the recent past, it is not a Harley clone manufactured by an aftermarket builder. "It looks much the same as the last generation of engine manufactured in Gilroy," explains Lionel Mercier, Indian director of dealer development, "but it's a brand new unit."

That, of course, is one of the criticisms that has dogged the reborn Indian, in all its various forms: that it's essentially a Harley-Davidson Softail tricked out with fancy bags and paint. The new iteration will apparently dispel that particular misconception.

A few other specs: Dry weight is in the 340-kilogram neighbourhood, depending upon the model; seat height is about 710 millimetres, again, depending upon the model; and tank capacity is about 21 litres. These are big, heavy, boulevard cruisers, no doubt about it.

Although you can only buy them in the United States at this point, Indian recently got its certification from Transport Canada, according to Mr. Mercier, and is setting up its first dealership, in Calgary. More will follow, in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. There are, of course, dealers throughout the United States, but buyers can also order a new bike directly from the factory and pick it up in North Carolina when it's ready.

Prices have not been determined for Canada, but in the United States, they start at just under $26,000 (U.S.), going up to about $36,000 with all the extras.

The company is also attempting to sweeten things by offering its own version of the "cash for clunkers" program; bring in your old bike and it will take $3,000 off the price tag. If that isn't enough, it will also make your first six months' payments for you in the company's "It Pays To Ride" program.

These are not the best of times to be launching a new line of high end cruiser bikes and Indian has definitely got its work cut out for it.

For more info, visit: http://www.indianmotorcycle.com.

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