None but the Brave
THE ALTERNATIVE AMERICAN: There’s a very strong vee-twin motorcycle club to be found right here in South Africa…and if you were to own an Indian motorcycle like the one pictured here, I’m sure you’d be made very welcome.
Author: DAVE FALL
Jaco, the barman - a newcomer to two wheels - seemed a little more confused than usual: "You mentioned a motorcycle called a Red Indian or some such in your bike column recently, was there really a bike with back and front names like that," he asked as he poured me a beer.
I’m always happy to talk bikes and thus enlighten Jaco about the iconic Indian brand (I’m not sure where he came up with the Red part of the name). Seeing it was late afternoon and there weren't many customers in the bar it seemed a perfect opportunity to talk about Indian bikes — a marque that still exists to this day.
Everybody, it seems, has heard of Harley-Davidson, but very few people know much about America’s other two great marques: Indian and Excelsior - the latter I’ll cover some other time but don't confuse it with the British Excelsior… a very different animal!
'ORIGINAL' AMERICAN BIKE...
From the turn of the 1900’s through to the great Depression (1929) there was an amazing choice of motorcycles to be had in the US - 143, actually - but don’t ask me to name them from memory!
The Big Three survived to continue trading, with Excelsior falling away between the two world wars. The Indian brand, the main thrust of this story, pre-dates Harley by several years. Indeed this year (2011) it is celebrating 110 years of manufacturing unique, classy and powerful vee-twin bikes.
Accolades came easily to the brand in its formative years: 100 years ago, in 1911, a trio of Indian bikes took the chequered flag 1-2-3 at the Isle of Man TT races; in 1907 it sold the New York police force its first fleet of motorcycles; in 1914 it was the first bike company to introduce electric lights and fit a starter motor thus negating the need for a kick-start.
The one technological advancement that always sticks in my mind when talking ‘Indian’ is the addition of leakproof primary chaincases - as far back as 1922. Why didn’t Triumph, and for that matter virtually every other British motorcycle manufacturer, do the same!
320km/h ON A 750!
Based in Springfield, Massachusetts (think TV’s 'The Simpsons'), the Indian head office and factory were perhaps unsurprisingly known as the Wigwam. At the height of motorcycle popularity stateside Indians commanded a 40% home market share. Over in the UK they found huge popularity in Scotland - though I’m not sure why this should have been.
Across the globe New Zealanders and Australians took the brand to heart with kiwi speed-king Burt Munro achieving incredible success at Bonneville Salt Flats with a 320km/h top speed on a ‘cooking’ 750cc version.
Indian Motorcycles even dabbled with four-cylinder versions back in the 1930’s and many of these bikes found their way as far afield as Japan. Indeed, Soichero Honda himself was an avid Scout rider before he even contemplated motorcycle manufacture.
I like to think it may have been the Indian brand that sowed the seed for the mighty Honda Motorcycle Corporation and its penchant for manufacturing well-made, multi-cylinder, oil-tight touring bikes!
'IF I WIN THE LOTTERY...'
But most kudos must go to Kawasaki South Africa which imported a few dozen Drifter Indian look-alike cruisers from Japan about 12 years ago, each with maroon coachwork.
The looks of the bike were unquestionably similar to early Indians by having 800 or 1500cc vee-twin engines and really looked the part with their deeply valanced mudguards, a central speedometer in the tank, and wide, heavily chromed, pull-back handlebars reminiscent of a classic Indian Scout from the 1930's.
Meanwhile, Jaco’s bar was filling up with customers, it was time to take my leave. "If I could just get the right combination of numbers for the damned lottery I’m going to get rid of my scooter and get me one of those," he said.
And I hope he does win it - he can buy me a beer for a change!