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The Indian Motorcycle Co. - Bicycle Beginnings

Based in Springfield Mass, the Indian Motorcycle Company was founded in 1901 by George M. Hendee. The original name of the company was Hendee Manufacturing Co. and began manufacturing bicycles in 1897. In 1900, Hendee joined forces with fellow bicycle racer and manufacturer Carl Oscar Hedstrom. The duo teamed up to create their first motorcycle which consisted of  a 1.74 horsepower single cylinder engine mounted in the frame of a simple bicycle. From the creation of this new motorcycle, the company was off and running. Their simple design rose quickly in popularity and sales of their basic motorcycle increased exponentially through the 1910's. They played with a few company names including American Indian but ultimately decided on just "Indian" as it was easily recognizable in several markets - thus, the name, and a company was born.

1941 Indian "Four"

So as with Triumph last week, we're going to skip over a lot of company history which includes racing wins at the Isle of Man TT, participation in World War I, World War II and ultimately lots of corporate politics leading to the bankruptcy of the original company in 1953, then the several attempts to re-release the name ever since. We've got hardware to talk about and in particular, we're focusing our sights on the Indian Chief - one of Indian's most popular motorcycles.

The Indian Chief - first released in 1922  was equipped with a 1,000cc engine taken from the Chiefs' predecessor, the Powerplus. In 1923, the engine size was increased to 1,200cc for a little extra "oomph".  We all know that motorcycles can be dangerous and that mothers and loved ones would rather we not ride them, but we can at least tell mom our bikes have front brakes nowadays.  The Indian Chief originally had no front brake almost no suspension, hard to believe but it was true. It wasn't until 1928 that the Chief received a front brake.  Over the years, there were many improvements made to the Chief and in 1940, all Chiefs were sold with a skirted set of fenders which ultimately became a company trademark. In the same year, the Chief was fitted with a fully sprung frame which offered a far superior ride to its hard-tailed rivals.

   

1950 Indian Cheif - Photo courtesy of Yesterdays

The controls of early Indian Chiefs consisted of a foot-operated clutch and a hand-operated shifter. Also, one handgrip was the throttle and the other was a manual spark advance, so one needed to be rather coordinated to operate one of these bikes. This is a pretty interesting control set up considering that today the clutch is hand operated, and shifting is taken care of by your left foot. Spark advance? Not found on today's bikes!  The 1940's Chiefs were able to reach speeds of 85mph from the factory and well over 100mph if a competent tuner had time to turn some screws. 1950 brought about another engine size increase - now at 1,300cc. In addition, a telescopic front fork suspension was added in place of the "springer" style set-up. As stated above, the company closed its doors in 1953, making 50's era Chiefs quite rare. The bike still lives on in the collections of a fortunate few. You can usually find an Indian Chief at a high-end car show or if you're lucky - at a local cruise night. Be sure to have a close look at the bike if you have the opportunity to. Ask the owner how it is to ride and they'll tell you "its like nothing else".

Jeff Walker

About Jeff Walker

Jeff Walker is a Classic Car Insurance Specialist and financial services professional; As the son of a Drag-Racer and auto restorer, he was born with a wrench in his hand and learned the trade at an early age. His specialty is 60’s and 70’s American Muscle but his mechanical ability has afforded him the opportunity to work on all types of cars from Alfa-Romeos to Gullwings and everything in-between. Jeff is also a motorcycle fanatic and maintains his own stable of classic & collectible bikes. He is happiest when a car or motorcycle project is underway in his garage.

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