When Steve Menneto, vice president of motorcycles at Polaris Industries, unveiled Indian's all-new Thunder Stroke 111 engine at Daytona Bike Week in March, motorcycle enthusiasts were giddy with anticipation. Polaris bought the nearly dormant Indian Motorcycle brand in 2011. Would the company be able to revive it? The undeniably beautiful piece of engineering didn't disappoint. But Indian's new Thunder Stroke also represents something deeper for throttle twisters: the restoration of one of America's most iconic motorcycle brands.
The original Indian motorcycle company was once a superstar. After its founding in 1901, Indian's bikes went on to win major international racing victories, and by the 1910s the company was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Indian was technically innovative, too, introducing the first electric starter in 1914 and its first four-cylinder bike in 1927, providing serious competition for its principal American rival, Harley-Davidson.
Then disaster struck when management made a series of terrible business decisions, plunging the company into bankruptcy in 1953. For decades the brand foundered, with rights to the name changing hands numerous times and no all-new bikes being made until the late 1990s. Despite paying homage to the original Indian's flamboyant art deco styling, with its deeply valanced fenders, these newer Indians lacked advanced engineering and sales subsequently lagged.
"When I started at Polaris in 2008, we brought in the consulting firm McKinsey," Scott Wine, CEO of Polaris Industries, says. "Their analysis said we built great bikes but could use a great name. That led to the acquisition of Indian." Using experience from its modest-selling Victory motorcycles and successful portfolio of off-road vehicles, Polaris began a fast-paced program to completely reengineer the Indian bikes and their engines, forgoing any parts sharing between its two motorcycle brands.
Every memorable motorcycle is built around a great engine, and Polaris has made a large investment in making the all-new Thunder Stroke 111 motor a force to reckon with. The engine's architecture and exterior sculpting echo classic Indian engines with their parallel pushrods and downward-facing exhausts. Engineers say it will produce a ground-pounding 115 lb-ft of torque, and it's no accident that the 111-cubic-inch V-twin is slightly bigger than Harley's grandest engine, the 110-cubic-inch twin cam.
Menneto is confident in Indian's future prospects. "We're capable of giving Harley a run for their money in technical features," he says. The all-new Indian bike, set to debut in August at the Sturgis, S.D., bike rally, will bear the brand's heralded Chief model name. With the price starting at $18,999, Indian executives say they can break even by capturing just 4 or 5 percent of the heavyweight cruiser market. That's not enough to cause panic in Milwaukee, where Harley oversees the company's 57 percent overall market share, but the bosses in Wisconsin can't be sleeping easy with the thought of their old rival and freshly engineered Indian machinery hitting the roads.
Read more: Born Again: The Return of Indian Motorcycles - Popular Mechanics
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