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Can the New Indian Motorcycles Duke It Out With Harley-Davidson

The legendary Indian Motorcycle Company – for decades the biggest thorn in Harley-Davidson Inc.’s side in the battle to be the American motorcycle company – want to see those days return as  Indian plans to roll out new bikes with engines made in Osceola, Wisconsin. It won’t happen.

The “Indian wars” between Harley and the makers of “the other American motorcycle company” back in the 1920s were a bitter series of battles fought on the roads, tracks and showroom floors, but the latest resurrection of the company won’t be serious challenger to Harley’s decades-long dominance of the market.

Indian Chief Darkhorse

The original Indian Motorcycles bit the dust in the 1950s. and since then numerous attempts to revive the fabled company have ended in miserable – if noble – failure.

This time around Indian has a real chance to make it as Polaris Industries – a $3 billion company located in  Medina, Minn., bought rights to the brand last year. Polaris is no neophyte in the power sports business and is well known for making snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and perhaps most critically –  Victory motorcycles.

Polaris now is redesigning Indian bikes from a clean sheet of paper. The goal is to capture the spirit of the Chief and other Indians from a half-century ago, but to use a modern engine and other components to make the bikes rider-friendly.

“The bikes will appeal to open-minded Harley riders,” said Indian marketing director,  Darren Bassel.

According to Polaris, the first newly designed Indian motorcycles will be ready to roll off the factory floor late in 2013 sporting engines manufactured in Wisconsin and assembled in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The company had considered moving the Wisconsin operations to Minnesota, Iowa or (heaven forbid for their brand identity) Mexico.

Polaris say they’ve added 250 jobs in Iowa over the past year and a half and plan to add jobs at the Wisconsin plant soon.

“Between Iowa and Wisconsin, these bikes will be made in the heart of America,” said Polaris Chief Executive Officer Scott Wine.

It might seem like a no-brainer to make a brand with the historical importance of Indian here in America, but Wine’s pronouncement and the very idea they might be made elsewhere is an indication of the disarray which has surrounded all the previous attempts to revive Indian. In another savvy more sure to soothe fans of the Indian marque, Polaris says it won’t make Indians clones of the company’s Victory motorcycles. Polaris says they want the new Indian to appeal to riders who want a classic look to their machine.

Polaris have done the leg work in their quest to revive a brand with fierce adherents by visiting motorcycle museums. They company has also done one other thing which will prove critical to the success of the venture – they actually sought out longtime Indian enthusiasts to discover which design elements actually make up the core of what is “an Indian motorcycle” to discover what made them wildly popular a half-century ago.

“It has been a monumental task,” Wine said.

And that may prove to be a massive understatement. Moving motorcyclists to give Indian yet another look will require overcoming years of disappointment and suffering from those of us who love the brand and what it stands for. Polaris hopes the new models can compete with Harley-Davidson’s most expensive lines like the Ultra Classic Electra Glide, and when you’re trying to persuade someone to part with nearly $40,000,  they’ll need to be very persuasive indeed.

The last incarnation of  the Indian brand suffered as engine problems and a shortage of reliable dealerships conspired to make confidence in the marque take a nosedive. As a result, you can still buy a “brand-new” 2003 Indian Scout for a bargain-basement $16,000.

Industry insiders remain hopeful that the company can survive this time around – if they finally get it right and return to what made the company appealing to riders in days gone by.

“I don’t think it’s too late,” said Aaron Frank, an editor at Motorcyclist magazine. “There’s a lot of value in the name and its incredible history.”

If any current maker is up to the task, it may well be Polaris. A relative newcomer to motorcycle manufacturing, Polaris brought out the Victory line of  bikes nearly 15 years ago and the results of their efforts since then have been spectacular in the heavyweight cruiser market. Victory shot past competitors like Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki to assume the position as the second-largest seller of motorcycles with engines larger than 1400ccs ( behind, of course, Harley-Davidson).

Victory and Indian motorcycle sales combined were up about 40% from 2011, but it’s the company’s total sales, which  increased 25% to a high-water mark of  nearly $674 million, that bodes well for the venture.

Harley-Davidson announced $1.27 billion in motorcycle sales for the first quarter, and that’s up 20% from a year ago. Last year, Harley captured 55% of U.S. heavyweight motorcycle sales, and analysts say Polaris can make the Indian venture a success with only a tiny slice of the global motorcycle business.

“Polaris builds a high-quality bike,” says analyst Craig Kennison. “The Indian brand’s been strong in the motorcycle market for a long time, but it’s never had a world-class manufacturing effort behind it.”

The real key to the efforts to resurrect the brand will come from the business side, and it’s there that this attempt to make a “new Indian” will succeed or fail. Polaris boasts a roster of more than 400 motorcycle dealerships in North America, and that compares favorably with Harley-Davidson’s fleet of 635 full-service U.S. dealerships.

If all goes to plan, Polaris could possibly create an Indian dealership network to take advantage of the company’s 1,500 dealers for all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and Victory motorcycles.