Indian Chief Classic review – First of the Mohicans

SINGAPORE – As it is in the car industry, ancient/classic/extinct motorcycle brands do sometimes get resurrected, and with very mixed results. Triumph is a great example of the right way to do things without an unlimited budget. Other recent (and still existing) examples include Husqvarna and Ariel, which operate as off-shoots of a bigger manufacturer or operation.

When it comes to motorcycle heritage though , few can match the sepia-tinted force of the Indian brand. There was a time when American motorcycle meant only one of two things: Indian or Harley-Davidson.

First In Line
Hendee Motorcycles (becoming Indian Motocycles in 1928, yes, spelt without the ‘r’) is the oldest American motorcycle brand. Founded in 1901, Indian had a string of American motorcycle engineering firsts and racing wins.

The 2005 film ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ brought back memories of this in pop culture. It chronicled Herbert “Burt” Munro’s achievements with his self-modified 1920 Indian Scout in the Under-1000cc land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats between 1962 and 1967. His records stood for 40 years, although that’s perhaps more a testament to stubborn Kiwi innovation, than anything else.

Less known is the fact that Indian released the first American V-twin motorcycle in 1906 and dominated every American speed and distance record, including sweeping the top three positions in first Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Mountain Course Race in 1911.

Indian went on to produce motorcycles for both World Wars, but succumbed to financial insolvency and shut in 1953. Through a series of disastrous moves, Indian didn’t survive the post-war boom, unlike H-D’s more savvy fortunes. Indian has been in the past decades, much like an Italian supercar marque, with numerous attempts at cashing in on the badge, but all failing largely due to ambition being disproportionate to actual budgets.

In 2006, the brand was revived with equity-firm backing and did well enough that it attracted the interest of a serious buyer. In 2011, Polaris Industries (a powersport conglomerate which also owns Can-Am and Victory) acquired Indian Motorcycles, and moved operations from North Carolina and merged them into their existing facilities in Minnesota and Iowa.

A Sound Of Thunder
This spouted the Thunder Stroke 111 (V-twin) engine at Daytona Bike Week in March 2013 and the unveiling of the Indian Chief at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August 2014.

With a name like Thunder Stroke 111 (cubic inches, or 1,811cc to us metric users), you’d expect bags of torque, and that’s exactly what you get, a diesel-like 139Nm at just 2600rpm. The engine mapping is spot on, and mated with fly-by-wire throttle, the result is smooth, linear power delivery. 

Being on partial-throttle is surge-free and applying the throttle liberally results in a delightful forward thrust, surprising given the 370kg kerb weight. For an engine this size (over 900cc per cylinder, just look at the bore and stroke figures), the Thunder Stroke 111 is smooth and well damped, with the usual V-twin vibes feeling as if they were engineered into the engine.

Cruising at 90kmph sees just 2000rpm in fifth gear  (sixth is overdrive, and too tall for city riding, but it bodes well for touring). Purists might bemoan the civility of the Thunder Stroke 111, but believe me, a smooth engine and predictable power delivery is what you’d want at the end of the next Iron-butt ride up north.

Whilst the styling hails from the 1940s, with the iconic full length fenders, called valences, hiding the 16-inch spoked wheels (and baby blue walled tyres), the Chief comes with modern suspension featuring 46mm cartridge forks with dual rate springs, and single rear shock. Mounted to a cast aluminum chassis (with integrated airbox), the Chief exhibits a supple yet controlled ride, luxurious in fashion like an executive sedan. Speed strips and road irregularities were taken with aplomb.

The Chief is newbie friendly, with a low seat height of just 660mm, hiding its size (length?) and bulk at speeds above walking pace. When cranked over, the Chief handles well, albeit with conscious application of pressure on the inside handle. Most welcome is its ground clearance of 140mm, allowing for decent amounts of lean. I managed 30 degree leans (measured with a Speedangle GMOS J1100S lap timer) in both left and right turns without decking out anything.

Equally impressive is the Chief’s ability to stop, featuring four-pot calipers with 300mm floating rotors upfront; a 300mm rotor and a two-pot caliper behind; and ABS. Commuting around town never required application of the rear brake (in the face of suicidal jay-walkers), the front doing the job confidently.

For its price, the Indian Chief Classic comes with neat features like keyless start (up to 4.5-metres away, so that your pillion can start the bike whilst you secure your helmet chin strap), cruise control, genuine leather seats, signature valanced fenders and warbonnet lighting on the front fender, and (quite literally) chrome everywhere that isn’t painted.

The 20.8-litre tank mounted speedo and digital display supply a host of information including tank range, tachometer and voltmeter.

In case you’re wondering, the warbonnet is the backlit face of the brand’s namesake sitting on the front fender, a bit like a motorcycle version of the Spirit Of Ecstasy, and not a violent baby accessory.

This example is fitted with Jekill & Hyde aftermarket exhaust slip-ons, that by means of an electronic butterfly-valve (push button), gives the rider the option for full-bodied or LTA-friendly exhaust note, resulting in the Chief giving off a bassy, tuned engine note. Very tasty!

Styled from the 1940s, kitted for 2014 (and 2015, of course), powered by a refined torquey engine, sorted in the handling department, plus a luxurious ride, the Indian Chief Classic has a lot going for it. That, and with Polaris’ backing, spell a bright future for the Indian brand, so it’s surely not the last of its kind, as the history of Indian has made so many times before.

NEED TO KNOW Indian Chief Classic
Engine type 1,811cc, 8V, V-twin
Bore x Stroke 101 x 113mm
Gearbox type 6-speed manual
Max power 73bhp at 4500rpm
Max torque 139Nm at 2600rpm
0 to 100km/h Not quoted
Top speed Not quoted
Dry Weight 354kg
Seat Height 660mm
Price $37,500 (machine price)
Front Suspension 46mm telescopic forks
Rear Suspension Single shock
Front Brakes Single 300mm floating disc, 2-piston, ABS
Rear Brakes Single 300mm floating disc, 2-piston

about the author

Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.