Dec 8, 2020

The History of Indian Motorcycles

Jo Kelley

The Timeline of Indian Motorcycles History

When it comes to time-honored American motorcycles, Indian is definitely a contender for the top spot with loyal fans and riders around the world. But what is the history of Indian? Take a ride with us as we explore the creation and adversity of an American favorite.

1897: George M. Hendee founded his bicycle production company and called it the Hendee Manufacturing Company. One of the brand name bicycles was called the American Indian, which was eventually shortened to be called “Indian” and declared as Hendee’s primary brand name. The name stuck, and so a legend was born.

1901: This was an important year for Indian. It was in May of this year that the first gasoline-engine Indian bicycle was completed by Oscar Hedstrom who was tasked by Hendee to design an engine-powered bike to pace bicycle races. The machine was completed in May of that year and soon established Indian’s reputation as a robust and reliable machine. This same year, Indian also built its first factory in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts.  

1902: The first motorcycle under the Indian name, which featured a chain drive and single-cylinder engine, was sold to a retail customer. That year, Indian had its racing debut, where it won an endurance race from Boston to New York City. A soon-to-be award-winning history of racing was established.

1903: Oscar Hedstrom, who was the company co-founder and chief engineer, rode one of his Indian designs a record-setting speed of 56 mph.

1904: While the first bikes were only available in Royal Blue or black paint, Indian soon released a new color option that became a staple for the brand: Indian Red.

1906: Indian built their first V-twin factory race bike and continued to add a string of racing victories to their name. Soon, a version of the racing engine was seen on consumer 1907 models. The 633 cc, 42-degree V-twin was the first American V-twin production motorcycle engines.

1910: In the years between 1906 and 1910, several advancements were made including a “loop frame” similar to racing design, leaf-spring front fork, and an automatic oil pump. This year also saw the creation of the famed Indian script logo which is still found on their motorcycles today.

1916: The company introduces the Powerplus engine, a legendary 1000cc engine with a 42-degree V-twin flathead with side valves for cleaner and quieter operation. The Powerplus produced more power and resulted in machines that could have a top speed of 60 mph.

1917: When the United States entered World War I, Indian Motorcycle dedicated its production abilities to the war effort. The company provided the U.S. military with motorcycles based on the Indian Powerplus model, and almost 50,000 motorcycles were used by the troops.  

1919: The first of a legacy, the Indian Scout, was produced. The Scout, a mid-sized model that was fast and highly maneuverable, had a 606 cc side-valve V-twin engine.  

1922: Indian introduced what they considered a “Big Scout,” the Indian Chief. The bike had a 61ci, 1000cc engine that was based on the Powerplus. One year later, the Big Chief was released. It had a 74ci, 1200 cc engine and quickly became the industry’s best-seller.


1927:  Indian released the Police Special which ran a 45ci, 750cc V-twin engine on a Scout frame. This particular model would become known as one of the best engines ever built by Indian Motorcycle.

1928: The new Series 101 Indian Scout replaced the original Indian Scout. The Series 101 featured a 45-ci, 750cc V-twin engine, longer wheelbase, lower seat, and a new frame with more fork rake.

1934: Although the company introduced annual model lineups around Labor Day each year, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Motorcycle sales suffered, but the company introduced such models as the Sport Scout, Motoplane, Scout Pony, and Model 203 Scout.

1938: An Indian Motorcycle club called the 'Jackpine Gypsies' out of Sturgis, South Dakota, held a race called the Black Hills Classic that grew to become the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

1940: The world was inching closer to war, and Indian produced 5,000 units for the French government to use in the early days of WWII.

Indian Motorcycles in WWII: Just as Harley-Davidson had the WLA, Indian produced the Model 841 for the U.S. Army. It was powered by a 45-ci, side-valve V-twin air-cooled engine. Indian focused primarily on the war effort, and very few units were produced for consumers.


1948: Company President Ralph B. Rogers toured the country to introduce the new vertical single, 220cc Indian Arrow models as well as the vertical twin, 440cc Indian Scout models. These sporty, lightweight motorcycles were seen as great competition against imports.

1951: Famed Indian racers such as Bill Tuman, Ernie Beckman, and Bobby Hill dominated the dirt track in the late 40’s and early 50’s as part of the “Indian Wrecking Crew.”

1953: Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company ceased operations and discontinued production of all models.

As any fan knows, after the halt in operations producing motorcycles, Indian continued to make their mark in history by dominating the track and making the record books. In 1967, 68-year-old Burt Munro and his modified 1926 600cc Indian Scout set a world record of 184.087 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The record still stands to this day, and Munro’s story was later told in the popular movie, “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

In 2003, the company declared bankruptcy and were bought and sold a few times through the coming years. Not much of Indian was heard until 2011 when the company was acquired by Polaris Industries. Since then, the company has regularly been unveiling new models, designs, and advancements to their lineups. By continuing to produce versatile additions to their historical roster, Indian Motorcycles have managed to hold onto the history of the company with vintage design elements that add soul to their looks.


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