The Oldest Motorcycle Company in the U.S.
The Indian Motorcycle Company, located in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, is the oldest motorcycle company in the United States. At one time, it was also the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The company’s most popular models were the Scout—a pre–World War II design—and the Chief, which was hugely popular from 1922 to 1953. Indian was founded in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1901. The headquarters is also stationed in Springfield.
Former bicycle riders and founders of Indian Motorcycle Co. George M. Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedström teamed up to make a motorcycle together. The first one had a 1.75 bhp and a single cylinder engine. Sales of these motorcycles increased in large numbers over the next decade. In 1902, the two men designed streamlined motorcycles that they set the world's fastest motorcycle record with—56 mph. They started selling these “Diamond Framed” motorcycles to the public. In 1904, the production of the bikes went from over 500 made per year up to a record-breaking 32,000 in 1913! Indian's first V-Twin motor was built in 1907 and set even more speed records. A man named Erwin “Cannonball” Baker rode an Indian motorcycle from San Diego to New York in a record-breaking 11 days, 12 hours, and 10 minutes.
The Scout and Chief came out in the early 1920s and quickly became Indian's most popular models. The reputation for Indian Scouts and Chiefs was strength and reliability. In 1930, Indian joined forces with duPont Motors, at which point duPont stopped making their automobiles in order to concentrate on Indians. Since duPont had connections in the paint industry, Indians became available in more than 24 colors. The motorcycles made during this time had the head-dress logo on the gas tank, which led to most of the company’s Native American–themed advertising. Also, Indian and duPont manufactured bicycles, boat and aircraft engines, and air conditioners.
The Indian Scout: 1920
The Scout debuted in 1920. Scouts originally had a 596 cc, 37 cubic inch engine, but were later upgraded to a 745 cc, 45 cubic inch engine in 1927. The most popular Scout model was the 101 Scout made in 1928. The 101 Scout had improved handling due to its lower body frame. Cost cuts led to the Scout using the bigger, heavier frame made for Indian Chiefs. This led to the creation of the Sport Scout in 1934. The Sport Scout included a lighter frame, Girder forks, alloy parts, and more improvements. Different variations of the Scout made from 1932 and 1941 include the Scout Pony, Junior Scout, and the Thirty-Fifty. Scouts also helped the United States Army get around during World War II.
The Indian Chief: 1922
Introduced two years after the Scout, the 1922 Chief started out with a 1000 cc, 61 cubic inch engine. However, in a later year, the Chief came equipped with a fully featured 1200 cc, 73 cubic inch engine. With a motor this big, Indian added a front brake to the Chief in 1928. Chiefs started dozens of Indian trademarks, such as large skirted fenders which made the chief visually appealing, and a sprung frame which increased smoothness while riding the motorcycle. A well tuned Chief in 1940 could reach speeds of up to 100 mph, and 85 mph stock. If not for the somewhat heavy weight of the Chief, the acceleration would have been greater. In 1950, the Chief was fitted with a whopping 1300 cc, 80 cubic inch engine for even more power. Unfortunately, these Chiefs were too expensive to build, and the Chief was discontinued in 1953. The Indian Chief was such a great historic motorcycle that it was featured on a special edition set of U.S. 39-cent stamps; part of a four historic motorcycle set.
Indian Four: 1928
In 1927, Indian purchased Ace Motor Corporation. Indian received Ace’s name, facilities, and rights. For one year, Indian had a motorcycle called the Ace, but the name was changed to the Indian 401 in 1928. The 401 replaced the Ace’s leading-linked forks and central coil springs were all updated to Indian’s trailing-link forks and quarter-elliptic leaf spring. In 1929, the 402 had even stronger frame bases like the ones on 101 Scout, and sturdier five-bearing crankshafts than the previous three-bearing found on the Ace. Eventually, the demand for luxury motorcycles declined, but Indian kept improving on the Four series. The Fours, like the Chiefs, were given large skirted fenders and improved suspensions in 1940. Also as in addition in 1941, the old-style 18-inch wheels were replaced with 16-inch wheels with balloon tires. The Indian Four was eventually discontinued in 1943.
Indian's Role in World War II
Indian During World War II
Chiefs, Scouts, and Junior Scouts were all used in the U.S. Army, but not as much as the Harley-Davidson WLA. The Army did, however, request many experimental motorcycles specifically for desert combat. Indian responded with the 841. It was based off the BMW R71 which was the motorcycle used by the German Army. The Harley-Davidson XA was also based on the BMW R71. The Indian 841 was not a copy of the R71, but it was similar in that they both had a tubular frame, the same rear suspensions, and drive shafts. They were different because the 841 had A 90-degree longitudinal crankshaft, and V-Twin engine. After all of the hard work by both Indian and Harley-Davidson, the U.S. Army decided that Jeeps were better suited for use on the battlefield.
The End of Indian
Ralph B. Rogers purchased a part of Indian in 1945, and on November 1 of that year, duPont gave Rogers control over Indian. Rogers cancelled the Scout, and made cheap, lightweight motorcycles like the 149 Arrow, Super Scout 249 IN 1949, and the Warrior 250 in 1950. These motorcycles made Indian suffer from poor quality and lack of development. Indian stopped manufacturing in 1953.
Floyd Clymer bought the Indian name in the 1960s. He put the Indian name on imported minibikes made by Minarelli under the Papoose name. These featured a 50 cc engine and were unbelievably successful. Clymer told them to build full-sized Indian motorcycles, with a Italjet Griffon design and a Royal Enfield Interceptor 750 cc parallel-twin engine. Some were made with a Velocette 500 cc single-cylinder engine. Clymer died in 1970, and his wife sold the Indian name to a Los Angeles attorney Alan Newman. Newman continued to import Italjet minibikes made in Taiwan. The greatness did not last forever, and in 1975 sales dropped dramatically. In January 1977, Indian was officially declared bankrupt.
A new company in 1999 began making motorcycles under the Indian name in Gilroy, California. The motorcycles were basically newer versions of the Chief and Scout, and one called the Spirit. The engines were stock S&S engines and the bikes made then are often called Gilroy Indians. After a major investor turned out in 2003, Indian went bankrupt yet again.
Indian Motorcyles Today
A Future for Indian?
In July of 2006, Indian Motorcycle Company announced its new home in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Indian is now trying to restore the old Indian Motorcycle Company to what it used to be. Focusing on quality, performance, and craftsmanship, the new Chiefs are produced in small numbers. The new 2009 Chief features a new Powerplus V-Twin, 105 cubic inch engine. Everything about the new Indians is new and updated. Technology has improved so much that the motorcycles produced today are near perfection on every level. Indian plans to have 50 dealerships open across the United States by the end of 2011.
Kev P on August 14, 2019:
You have to think to your self why the Gilroy era went bust. They were unreliable simple as that.
Chuck Mincks on June 24, 2019:
This article is so outdated, that it could easily be misleading to those not familiar with motorcycles. Polaris has been producing Indian Motorcycles in Spirit Lake, IA for 5 years. Their mass production line, leaving sales to more easily profit off higher volumes, has allowed Polaris to offer its large bikes for 30% or more LESS cost than King’s Mountain. Don’t be surprised if you get an earful from a Polaris rep when they see this.
stefan on January 20, 2019:
I ask you Indian owners ! Is the 2003 Indian Chief roadmaster 100 + a very good bike without any mistakes ? If the bike has too mutch mistakes ? ore it is better to buy a harley ? because in europe you became more new Indian Chief with uggly motors ! This Indian motor 2003 is beautifull ! only the sound is smaler than harley sound ! I have a horror vision if the new E-Bike came ! so I find a bike must have a sound like old harleys do ! Everyboddy ho like motors ,want a sound of a motor ! Loud pipes save life !
dan mosley on January 19, 2019:
1901-1953. end of story!
Ed Manner on July 11, 2017:
Owner of Gilroy Spirit Deluxe 2002...Nice with an S&S 88 that "pops" after turning the ignition off then hitting the kill switch. Any know why the pressure is released that way or designed that way? Stay safe
Bob on April 17, 2017:
I have a 2002 Indian Scout that has about 3,400 miles on it. I just put new tires on it and it's a wonderful ride. I hate to do it, but I may have to part with it. Does anyone know a good place to list it?
Marco on July 15, 2015:
One thing cody, do try to find a bike with an electronic speedometer. The early Gilroy Indians did have issues with the original mechanical speedometers going bad AND misreporting the speed. To my knowledge the problem didn't exist with the electronic speedometers. Although they do make conversion kits for the bikes with the older mechanical speedometers.
Marco on July 15, 2015:
cody turnbaugh, if you haven't already (given it's been 13 months) I wouldn't hesitate to buy a Spirit. I have a 2001 Spirit and I love it! It has been easy to get any work done on it BECAUSE it does have that S&S engine, which is basically a clone of the EVO 88 engine. So far I've only had some normal maintenance such as replacing some seals, but it's been easy to find places in my area willing to work on it. I have multiple bikes, and I had to have the same type work performed on those other brands too. So people who try and scare you with stories from friends who knew someone who had one and had trouble.....they're misleading you. Sure you can have some issues with it, but the same applies to any bike/brand out there. Again it's fairly easy to get work done on the S&S and you can still find parts fairly easy. Check out Indianmotoparts.com. Hope this helps and good riding!
johntayl on March 13, 2015:
I have a 2002 Indian Spirit and its s great ride. I have alresfy had tonreplace the 5th gear. But i enjoy the ride. As soon as i get it back together i will ride it over my harley
cody turnbaugh on May 27, 2014:
I am very seriously considering purchasing a 2002 Indian Spirit with an S&S motor. Would anyone mind listing some pro's/con's for this bike (am curious about the power train, tranny so on)? I have always owned, and wrenched on, Harleys. I am not happy with anything they have released for a long time, and am ready for a change. Any and all info, advice, warnings, etc. Is incredibly appreciated. Thanks.
Randy Apt on October 20, 2013:
I just bought a 2003 Chief Vintage Indian Motorcycle and was wondering how many were made that year. Can anyone tell me? I have looked through several sites and am unable to find the answer I am looking for. Thank you in advance for your help.
Karla Holsinger on April 08, 2013:
This rare find of an authentic Indian Chief Motorcycle Zippo. I'd love to know more about it? I know it;s worth something, at least i hope it is. Please contact me @740-286-0465!
Karla holsinger on April 08, 2013:
I have an old Indian Chief Zippo, and it has ther picture of an Indian Chief motorcycle on it. Says made in the U.S.A. on the bottom. It's authentic and probably very rare to find one?
dave on July 19, 2012:
2002 and 2003 and the couple 2004 chiefs used the power plus 100 engine only. i have not seen a spirit with anything else then a S &S engine
Blackhawk on June 11, 2012:
From 02 - 03 the Gilroy Indians came with both engines, the S&S and the Powerplus. I know because I have an 03 Spirit Roadmaster that came with a Stock S&S......
Javier Vidaurre on April 02, 2012:
I read on the WWW that Indian never recovered first place after they sold the majority of their production to the US Army during World War I thereby harming their dealers.
Wytebear on February 20, 2012:
From 2002 -2003 the Gilroy indians came with a powerplus 10 bottlecap motor, not the S&S.
Wendy Arndt on February 13, 2012:
looking for info on the special edition...
2006 117 indian cheif on February 08, 2012:
how do i have a 2006 117 indian chief when they did not release any that year
Daniel H. Ernst on December 27, 2010:
I have not been able to find anything about a 1950 or 1951 Indian Warrior 500 twin with a very beautiful sky blue paint job, got any ideas?
parkerk393 (author) from Arlington, Texas on March 28, 2009:
johnb0127 from TX on March 28, 2009:
Great hub, very informative.