The History of Indian Motorcycles

Apr 26, 2024


picture of 1928 Indian motorcycle in field history of indian motorcycles

From the inception of the brand in 1890 to its launch, groundbreaking advancements, bankruptcy, acquisition, and revival- Indian Motorcycle has had QUITE the history over the last century. In this blog, we’ll learn about the United State’s very first motorcycle company, timeline, and FAQ on the history of Indian Motorcycles.  

So get ready, because this is a long one. 

The Evolution of Indian Motorcycle: From Bicycles to Post-War

The journey of Indian Motorcycle, a legendary name in the annals of American motorcycling history, began with the visionary George M. Hendee. In 1897, Hendee established the Hendee Manufacturing Company, marking the dawn of a new era in bicycle and, subsequently, motorcycle production. This venture, initiated with Oscar Hedstrom, transformed into a cornerstone of innovation and motorcycle culture in the United States. Let's explore the captivating timeline of Indian Motorcycle, highlighting its pioneering beginnings, significant milestones, and the fascinating story behind its unique branding.

Oscar Hedstrom with 1st prototype of Indian Motorcycle history of indian motorcycle

The Foundation and the Rise of a Motorcycle Giant

In the late 19th century, George M. Hendee, a figure renowned in the bicycle racing scene, foresaw the potential of motorized bicycles. The formation of the Hendee Manufacturing Company in 1897, followed by the opening of its first factory in Springfield in 1901, marked the inception of what would become a powerhouse in the motorcycle innovation. The collaboration with Oscar Hedstrom resulted in the creation of gasoline-powered bikes that were not only reliable but also powerful, setting a high standard for performance.

The period from 1897 to 1952 witnessed Indian Motorcycle's dramatic growth and its profound impact on fostering an authentic American riding culture. Notably, in 1923, the company underwent a rebranding from The Hendee Manufacturing Company to The Indian Motocycle Company, intriguingly omitting the 'r' in 'motocycle.' This unique spelling became a distinctive feature of the brand, reflecting its originality and historical roots.

Unveiling the Mystery: Why "Motocycle" Without an 'R'?

The choice to spell 'motocycle' without an 'r' was more than a mere typographical novelty; it was a statement of uniqueness and distinction. At the time of its naming, "motocycle" was used exclusively by Indian, underscoring the brand's innovation and setting it apart from its competitors. This distinctive branding decision contributed to Indian's identity, making it a memorable and iconic name in the motorcycle industry.

Key Figures and Landmark Achievements

George M. Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom: The Pioneering Duo

George M. Hendee's expertise as a bicycle racer and manufacturer and Oscar Hedstrom's engineering brilliance laid the foundation for America's first motorcycle company. Their collaboration produced machines that were celebrated for their exceptional performance and reliability. Hedstrom's design of the motorized pacing bicycle catalyzed the company's rapid growth, while Hendee's strategic vision steered it toward early success.

Racing Success and the Indian Motorcycle Wrecking Crew

Indian Motorcycle's racing pedigree was established early on, with significant achievements in endurance rides and speed records. The company's competitive edge shone on racetracks, notably when Ed Kretz clinched the first Daytona 200 race on an Indian Sport Scout in 1937. The late 1940s saw the formation of the Indian Motorcycle Wrecking Crew, a trio of racers who left an indelible mark on dirt and road courses.

War-Time Contributions: A Legacy of Service

Indian Motorcycle's commitment to the war effort during World Wars I and II demonstrated the brand's resilience and patriotic spirit. The company dedicated a substantial portion of its production capabilities to providing motorcycles for the military, significantly aiding the Allied forces. These efforts not only showcased Indian's manufacturing prowess but also its dedication to supporting soldiers on the front lines.

Indian motorcycles production at wartime history of indian motorcycles

Milestone Models: The Icons of Indian Motorcycle

close up of a motor on a indian motorcycle history of indian motorcycles

The Advent of the V-Twin and the Scout Legacy

In 1906, Indian Motorcycle introduced the first V-twin factory race bike, setting a precedent for American V-twin production motorcycle engines. The release of the Indian Scout in 1920 further solidified the brand's reputation for producing fast, reliable, and maneuverable bikes, captivating many enthusiasts.

The Chief and the Ace: Foundations of Growth

Following the Scout's success, the Indian Chief emerged 1922 as a new platform fortifying the company's expansion. The acquisition of Ace Motor Corporation led to the launch of the Indian Ace in 1927, a model that quickly became integral to Indian's lineup, underscoring the company's innovative edge.

In Retrospect: Indian Motorcycle's Enduring Legacy

From its inception in 1897 to the dawn of the 1950s, Indian Motorcycle navigated through periods of significant growth, adversity, and transformation. The brand's enduring legacy is a testament to its pioneering spirit, technological advancements, and contribution to motorcycle culture in America and beyond. Indian Motorcycle's story is not just about machines; it's about the people, the passion, and the unwavering drive to push boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on the history of transportation.

The Resurgence of Indian Motorcycle, It’s Downfall, Resurgence, Downfall, and Resurgence Again…

The mid-20th century marked a pivotal juncture for Indian Motorcycle, an era characterized by its cessation of production in 1953 and a subsequent hiatus that would last nearly five decades. This period, fraught with ownership changes and attempts at brand revitalization, starkly contrasts the company's illustrious beginnings. Despite the challenges, the narrative of Indian Motorcycle from 1953 to 2010 is a testament to resilience, culminating in a rebirth under the stewardship of Polaris Industries in 2011. This chapter explores the interim years, highlighting the key figures and events that shaped the destiny of this iconic brand.

The Brockhouse Years: A Temporary Custody

The resignation of Indian Motorcycle's president, Ralph B. Rogers, in 1950 and the subsequent takeover by John Brockhouse marked the beginning of a tumultuous period. By 1953, the production of all Indian Motorcycle models had ceased, and Brockhouse Engineering later acquired the brand name. This era saw the Indian nameplate affixed to imported Royal Enfield motorcycles, a move that, while innovative, signaled a departure from the brand's manufacturing legacy. The business's eventual sale to the Associated Motorcycle Company in 1960 foreshadowed the brand's temporary fade from prominence.

The Clymer Interlude: A Struggle for Revival

The acquisition of the Indian Motorcycle trademark by Floyd Clymer in 1963 heralded a new but challenging chapter. Clymer's vision to rekindle the Indian Motorcycle spirit involved rebranding British motorcycles under the Indian moniker. Despite his efforts and passion, the initiative struggled to gain momentum, and the brand once again found itself in a state of dormancy following Clymer's death in 1970.

Renewed Efforts and Rebirth

Gilroy and Stellican: Steps Toward Revival

The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed renewed efforts to revive Indian Motorcycle. The formation of the Indian Motorcycle Company of America (IMCA) in 1998 and the establishment of a manufacturing facility in Gilroy, California, represented significant steps towards bringing Indian back to its former glory. Although the venture faced financial challenges, leading to bankruptcy in 2003, it laid the groundwork for future success.

The transition to the Stellican era, with the establishment of a new manufacturing facility in King's Mountain, North Carolina, further exemplified the resilience and enduring appeal of the Indian brand. The modest production of bikes during this time kept the spirit of Indian alive, setting the stage for a more substantial revival.

The Acquisition by Polaris of Indian Motorcycle in 2011

The acquisition of Indian Motorcycle by Polaris Industries in 2011 marked the beginning of a renaissance for the brand. Polaris's stewardship heralded a period of innovation and growth reminiscent of India's early years, promising a return to prominence in the motorcycle industry.

Why Polaris?

The acquisition of Indian Motorcycle by Polaris Industries in 2011 was a strategic boon for Polaris, especially in light of its efforts with Victory Motorcycles, a brand Polaris had established in 1998. Indian Motorcycle, with its rich heritage and iconic status, provided Polaris a unique opportunity to diversify and strengthen its portfolio in the competitive motorcycle industry. Unlike Victory, which was a relatively new player with limited historical significance, Indian offered an established brand with a deep-rooted legacy and a loyal following. This move allowed Polaris to capture a broader market segment, appealing to enthusiasts of modern American motorcycles and those drawn to the rich history and classic appeal of Indian Motorcycles. Moreover, leveraging Indian's legacy enabled Polaris to enhance its brand prestige and market position, creating a more formidable presence in the motorcycle market against its competitors.

victory motorcycle history of indian motorcycles

Current State of Indian Motorcycle:

Polaris reintroduced the brand with a focus on traditional styling merged with modern technology, starting with the launch of three all-new models in 2013, including introducing the Thunder Stroke 111 V-twin engine. This engine, notable for its triple-cam design and air-cooled system, became a hallmark of the Indian lineup, underpinning models like the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage, and the Chieftain. Over the years, Indian expanded its range to include 23 trim levels across five models, such as the liquid-cooled Scout engines in four trims and the sportier FTR 1200 introduced in 2019. The brand also ventured into new territory with the Challenger in 2020, featuring the liquid-cooled Indian PowerPlus engine. 

A significant milestone was reached on April 2, 2024, when Indian Motorcycle announced the introduction of five new Indian Scout models, including the resurgence of the 101 Scout,  marking the first major revamp of the Scout family in decades and reinforcing Indian Motorcycle's blend of heritage and innovation under Polaris's leadership.

stock picture of the new indian 101 scout history of indian motorcycles

Rent an Indian Motorcycle with Riders Share

Explore the legacy and dependability of America's pioneering motorcycle brand by renting an Indian Motorcycle through Riders Share. Our extensive network spans across key cities in the U.S., featuring fan-favorite models like the Indian Scout, the Indian Chief, the Roadmaster, and the Chieftain. Each motorcycle showcases a distinct combination of elegance, strength, and innovation, reflecting the storied history of Indian Motorcycle as the nation's initial motorcycle manufacturer. Riders Share offers a seamless opportunity to immerse yourself in the rich tradition, outstanding performance, or advanced technology of Indian Motorcycles, ensuring a memorable ride every time.