The Indian was the quintessential American motorcycle. Founded by the Hendee Manufacturing Company in 1901, Indian was up and running a full two years before the formation of Harley-Davidson. The Springfield, Massachusetts, company was an early innovator, introducing electric starters and lights in 1914 and the Powerplus engine in 1916, which was later to become the basis of Indian’s first famous model, the Scout.
The earliest Indian was basically a motorized bicycle. Known as a Camelback for the way in which the combination fuel-and-oil tank followed the contour of the rear fender, the bike had a single concentric carburetor and could achieve a top speed of 25 miles per hour (it’s estimated that the Camelback got about 70 miles per gallon). A cylinder filled with batteries was mounted to the frame’s front downtube. The bike had pedals and a chain, and beneath the frame was a small muffler. Sales in 1902 topped 140 units.
By 1905, spring forks were added to Indian bikes, and the throttle and ignition controls were moved from the engine area to the handlebars. The company offered its growing number of customers a V-twin engine in 1908, and in 1909, the basic Indian was completely redesigned around a loop frame with a torpedo-shaped gas tank mounted between the handlebars and the seat.
Now Indians were beginning to look like what we think of as motorcycles. Rear suspension was added in 1913, and the fire-engine-red Powerplus appeared in 1916—its three-speed transmission produced a top speed of more than 60 miles per hour. Indian also made lightweight motorcycles in the 1910s, including the Model O twin and Model K, an even smaller two-stroke single.
The successful Chief, Big Chief, Scout, and Prince models dominated the company’s output during the 1920s. The Chief, which retailed for $435 in 1922, was marketed as a bike that could pull a sidecar. And it certainly could, thanks to a powerful 1000cc engine.
In 1923, Hendee reorganized and renamed itself Indian Motocycles (that’s right, with no "r"). One of the first bikes from the newly named company was the lightweight Model L Indian Prince, which was manufactured until 1928.
That was also the year the 101 Scout was introduced. Widely considered to be Indian's finest motorcycle, the 101 Scout had a more graceful shape that the Scout that preceded it, ...
The other Indian milestone of the 1920s was the purchase in 1926 of a 4-cyclinder-motorcycle-maker called Ace. The very next year, Indian literally gave the existing Ace line a new coat of paint, lettering the words Indian and Ace on the sides of their gas tanks. That dual branding was probably the reason why many people referred to these bikes as Indian Aces, even though the bikes were sold as Indian Fours.
The handsome Sport Scout followed in the 1930s, which, despite the Great Depression, was a productive decade for Indian. Among the bikes produced in the 1930s were a three-wheel cargo bike called the Dispatch-tow and several models of four-cylinder bikes (the 436 and 438 were two of the best). Indian also branched out from its traditional red paint jobs, incorporating the profile of a Native American chief in full feathered headdress on the sides of its gas tanks—a speedometer and other instruments were bolted to the top. By the 1940s, Indian Fours were favorites of state troopers, but when police contracts ran out in 1942, production of the expensive machines ceased.
During World War II, Indian made a lot of motorcycles for the military—the Indian 841, designed for desert warfare, is among the most collectible Indians around. The 1940s also saw the launch of several bikes for the general public. Chiefs from the 1940s, both pre- and postwar, had gorgeous cowl-like fenders that gave the bikes a streamlined look (decorative fringe below the seats was optional).
Arrows and Scouts brought the company into the 1950s, which was also the decade when the 500cc TT Indian Warrior and its smaller cousin, the Brave, were introduced. But Indian had perhaps put too much of its wartime attention into military contracts, so its profile with the general motorcycling public was low by the end of 1945. In 1953, after several years of changes in ownership and management, the original Indian ran out of gas. Today, since 2006, an entirely new company produces motorcycles bearing the Indian name.