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Early Indian Motorcycles: Leaders of the Racing Pack

by priceminer (07/13/09).

An example of an early Indian motorcycle. With a pedigree as a fine racing machine, Indian sales skyrocketed in the first two decades of the 20th century.

An example of an early Indian motorcycle. With a pedigree as a fine racing machine, Indian sales skyrocketed in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Oscar Hedstrom was probably the first American to literally incorporate an internal combustion engine with a bicycle. Oscar, a former bicycle racer, was a capable engineer. In 1899 he produced his first motorized bicycle, setting the stage for creating an American icon—Indian motorcycles. When George Hendee, another former racer who lived in Springfield, Ma, saw Hedstrom’s work, he quickly saw the commercial potential of the combined technology. Hendee was also a bicycle manufacturer, so he was in a perfect position to team with Hedstrom. The two men became friends almost immediately, and soon after were business partners in a joint venture.

In 1901, Hedstrom and Hendee founded Indian, and started producing hand-built machines similar to Hedstrom’s first prototype. The Springfield-based company first made 1.75 hp single-cylinder motorbikes, using the engine as an integral part of the frame replacing the central downtube. This variation on the successful Werner’ 1901 Paris-built model remained the Indian mainstay until the company started using loop frames in 1909. Hedstrom’s design was sensible and also sophisticated for the early 1900s, and the high quality of these motorbikes made them excellent sellers.

The first motorcycle endurance race in the United States was scheduled for July 4 and 5, 1902, and Indian cycles entered their first public competition at this event. Three Indian motorcycles participated on the route from Boston to New York, and each finished with a perfect score. Weighing only 110 pounds, these early Indians had a measured speed from five to 40 miles an hour.

An Indian Eight-Valve Racer, 1912.

An Indian Eight-Valve Racer, 1912.

The following year, the second American endurance run was scheduled for July 3-5, over a course from New York to Springfield and back. George Hendee, serving as president of the company at the time, rode to victory on an Indian. The nation’s first long distance race, run on New York City’s Brighton Beach dirt track, occurred on September 5, 1903. Holden rode an Indian for the 150-mile, four-hour race, notching another victory for the company.

Another Indian milestone occurred several months later in at Ormond Beach, Fla. on January 29, 1904, when an Indian motorcycle sped a mile in just over a minute, for a top speed of almost 60 miles an hour. By this time, the general public knew Indian motorbikes had arrived. Improvements the following year included a twist-grip throttle, modeled after the Curtiss motorcycle, and spring forks on the competition models. That year, the company produced more than 500 units, and offered a new color besides basic black—the red that eventually became the Indian trademark.

Then in 1906, the Indian company introduced the engine that made their fortune and built the legend—the V-twin engine. Before giving over the old line, however, Stanley Kellogg won the fifth annual endurance run riding an Indian motorcycle. Finishing second in the July 4, 1906, race was a familiar face riding another Indian—Indian’s engineer and co-founder, Oscar Hedstrom.

Indian Motorcycle Parts 1901 tin sign (replica).

Indian Motorcycle Parts 1901 tin sign (replica).

Another version of an Indian Motorcycles tin sign (replica).

Another version of an Indian Motorcycles tin sign (replica).

A third Indian Parts & Service Tin Sign (replica).

A third Indian Parts & Service Tin Sign (replica).

A more "modern" Indian sign; a 1934 edition.

A more "modern" Indian sign; a 1934 edition.

A 1938 advertisement for an Indian Junior Scout.

A 1938 advertisement for an Indian Junior Scout.

An early legend in motorcycle history was by this time a permanent fixture on Indian motorcycles at the races. When Jake DeRosier first walked into the Indian plant in 1902, several months after production began, no one there could predict the association between this extraordinary man and equally extraordinary machine. He built a reputation very soon as the man to beat at the first races and hill climbing events. In the earliest days of Indian’s new V-twin, DeRosier rode one in several races to test the new motor. Fitted onto the standard diamond bicycle frame, the engine performed well enough for the company to decide to make it available to the public in the 1907 model year.

Two of the first new V-twins went to long-distance racer George Holden of Springfield, Ma., and Louis Mueller of Cleveland, Ohio. On Sept. 12, 1906, the pair left New York City on their new machines. Their destination: San Francisco, Calif. They covered the distance of almost 3,500 miles in 31 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes, a record for transcontinental travel in 1906. Not content to conquer only the United States, the next year T.K. Hastings became the first American to enter an American machine in a British motorcycle race. This 1907 Indian victory in England’s Thousand Mile Trial (later known as the International Six Days Trial) introduced Indian motorcycles to European racing circles, and enhanced Indian’s reputation back home.

The next several years Indian saw increased competition in racing at every level, and the company responded with new, innovative design changes. Before 1908, Indian was content to rework its bicycle-style frames with modified engines, but in this notable year, Indian introduced its first production racing cycle. Available in both single-cylinder and V-twin models, this diamond frame machine demonstrated Indian’s strong interest in racing. Both models featured new mechanical valve systems, an improvement over the automatic valve system used previously.

Before the introduction of a racing line, Indian used its modified stockers or experimental machines in racing to determine their future product line. In July 1908, for instance, DeRosier rode an experimental loop frame to a speed of 68 mph. Performed on a bicycle track in Clifton, NJ, in the later three-mile race DeRosier won at an average speed of 60 mph. It was an indication of Indian’s dominance, and also forecast the future direction for Indian frame design. After this short-track performance, DeRosier became part of the official Indian racing team, but longer races also went to Indian riders. T.K. Hastings, riding an Indian V-twin, repeated his 1907 victory in England’s Thousand Mile Trial in 1908. The 980-mile New York to Chicago victory was taken by B. A. Swenson, known as “The Terrible Swede,” who finished on an Indian in 33 hours, 26 minutes.

Across the country from Springfield, the Coliseum Motordrome opened in Los Angeles. Jack Prince, an early racing promoter, built this track specifically for motorcycle racing. With 25-degree banked corners, the short oval wooden track copied much of the concepts of velodromes, the earlier bicycle tracks. Prince lured DeRosier and his Indian to the west coast, where a series of races was arranged. Riding head-to-head against Paul Derkum, a local favorite riding a Reading-Standard side-valve, DeRosier won every race. Despite the poor showing of the Reading-Standard, these historic races ushered in the era of board track motorcycle racing.

This exciting venue of racing took the country by storm, and soon board tracks began appearing in more and more communities. Indian and Prince together commissioned a track in Springfield, which quickly became a site for establishing speed records. In October 1909, two Indian riders set a series of time and speed records there. Charles Gustafson, Jr. and Charles Spencer managed to erase previous records for three- through 24-hour-distances, and also broke the 200- through 1000-mile time records. It was a great month for Indian motorcycles. Interestingly enough, Gustafson’s father, Charles Sr., was the designer of Paul Derkum’s Reading-Standard, and came over to a very successful career at Indian.

Early in 1910, swelled by the success of his earlier motordromes, Prince opened another track in Playa del Rey, a seashore community near Los Angeles. This one-miler was much longer than Prince’s previous tracks, and encouraged faster speeds. DeRosier quickly set the 100-mile record in one hour and 26 minutes — despite running out of gas on the last lap and pushing his trusty Indian the final five minutes! On Feb. 7, 1911, DeRosier turned in his most astonishing performance on the same track. Attempting to better his previous times, Jake rode his Indian 90 miles in an hour and six minutes. The British record for the same distance at the time stood at one hour and 50 minutes. All official European records lagged far behind Indian.

1911 was a banner year for Indian racing teams. While Indian motorcycles were winning most races on dirt and board tracks, Don Johns turned an amateur 20 mile record at Playa del Rey on April 4. His average speed of over 83 mph easily eclipsed the best English record of 56 mph. To accomplish this feat, Johns borrowed DeRosier’s motorcycle, making the amateur qualification a little questionable—and Johns certainly rode like a pro (he later was hired for a four-year stint on the Indian factory racing team).

July 1911 would prove to be the greatest month of achievement by Indian motorcycles to date. A few days earlier, Volney Davis left San Francisco June 26, 1911, riding his Indian twin toward New York City with the goal to break the transcontinental speed record set by Mueller and Gustafson in 1906. On July 3, when Davis woke up in Salt Lake City at 4 a.m., DeRosier and the rest of the Indian team were lining up at 11 a.m. to start the Isle of Man TT race in Douglas.

Indian's top racer, Jack DeRosier

Indian's top racer, Jack DeRosier

This LeMans-style motorcycle race was probably the most famous in the world at the time, winding through hundreds of turns and a number of small villages over the mountainous course. Running his machine with the style that made him famous, DeRosier turned in a first lap in 46 minutes, handily leading the field. Jake was completely off his race, however, having suffered six spills in practice runs. After a spectacular crash on the third lap, he staggered to a 12-place finish. It hardly mattered to Indian fans, who witnessed an Indian sweep of the top three finishes. Riding cycles “sleeved down” to meet the 585 cc displacement regulation, Oliver Godfrey won the race, followed by Charles Franklin and A.J. Moorehouse.

The very next day, back on Davis’ side of the Atlantic, 40,000 people gathered in the racing capital of the world for an Independence Day celebration. One of the events in Indianapolis was a five-lap “President’s Race,” where Johnnie Sink rode his Flying Merkel head-to-head against Erwin Baker on an Indian. After posting a victory, Erwin met with President Howard Taft in Taft’s private box, making national news for the Indian team. The Indian-Merkel duel at Indy was an indicator of the popularity of match races in early motorcycle development.

Four days later, DeRosier climbed back on his famous #21, and with a clear head challenged England’s Brooklands oval concrete track. The British press offered numerous reasons DeRosier would be unable to replicate his record mile distance in England, the most interesting being a theory regarding altitude and atmospheric conditions. On July 8, 1911, De Rosier roared to a mile in 41 seconds, equaling his best time in the United States. On July 15, a week later, DeRosier ran in a series of three match races against Englishman Charlie Collier, who rode a British Matchless. DeRosier took two out of three against Collier, who had been disqualified at the Isle of Man race for an unauthorized fuel stop.

An Indian Power Plus Twin.

An Indian Power Plus Twin.

The day after DeRosier won the best two of three against Collier, Davis arrived in New York City. He recounted his crossing as an adventure in touring: stopping for leisurely meals, sleeping four to six hours each night, and having to perform an engine overhaul. Davis managed to “hoist a few” with other bikers along the way, and also took the time to stop in Cleveland to see Louis Mueller, who held the previous record with George Holden. His new record of 20 days, nine hours and 11 minutes eclipsed the old record by more than 11 days, and he did it as a gentleman riding his Indian cross-country.

This particular string of victories and records in only one month set a precedent for Indian motorcycles, and the company enjoyed the benefit of very favorable press—except in England. Smarting from the Indian sweep at the Isle of Man TT, English motorcycle journalist B. H. Davies wondered (in print) whether the road race should continue. Citing the costs involved, Davies nevertheless said in “Motorcycle Illustrated,” “I do not see how it can be decently abandoned after such a smashing foreign victory.”

Part of the early Indian racing success, reflected in the product line, was the direct involvement of company engineers and designers, along with their families. George Hendee raced Indians, as did co-founder and engineer Oscar Hedstrom. When Charles Gustafson, Jr., started setting records riding Indians, it spirited his father away from Reading-Standard to work for Indian. Charles Franklin, who placed second on an Indian in the first Isle of Man victories, went on to design the 600 cc Indian Scout, which debuted in 1920, and the 1,000 cc Indian Chief, which first appeared in 1922. Both models became best sellers for the company, and after the 1,200 cc Big Chief was introduced in 1923, it quickly outsold the Scout. In 1927 the Scout was equipped with a 750 cc engine, and the next year the 101 Scout was introduced. It featured a lower frame and a front brake, making it more of a rival to the popular Chief, which received a bigger 1,300 cc engine in 1950.

Inexplicably, George Hendee dismissed Jake DeRosier as a factory team rider late in 1911. By that time, Indian held all the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) records in a total of 121 categories. Whether it was distance or speed, amateur or professional, Indian had them all. It was the most dominating performance in any season of racing by a single manufacturer. Indian never repeated the feat, while DeRosier went on to ride for Excelsior. In 1913, DeRosier was injured in a board race collision with “Fearless” Charles Balke. Balke continued racing, becoming Indian’s ace rider, but Jake needed three operations for his injuries, and died shortly after the third one. At age 33, DeRosier had racked up some 900 racing victories. When his funeral procession passed the Indian factory in Springfield, the flag was lowered to half-staff and production was halted out of respect for his contribution to Indian racing. On March 1, 1913, the day DeRosier was buried, Oscar Hedstrom retired.

The Pioneer Flight Museum has a 1917 Indian motorcycle, VIN 73J740, with a sidecar. It was restored in the mid-1990s by Bill Wiseman of LaVernia, Texas, and is painted in a period military scheme. This bike is in running condition, and in fact is fast enough to be scary!

The Pioneer Flight Museum has a 1917 Indian motorcycle, VIN 73J740, with a sidecar. It was restored in the mid-1990s by Bill Wiseman of LaVernia, Texas, and is painted in a period military scheme. This bike is in running condition, and in fact is fast enough to be scary!

While the company and personnel were changing, Indian remained on top in several areas. In 1914, Erwin Baker left San Diego on an Indian and made it to New York City in a record 11 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes. After erasing the mark set by Volney Davis, Erwin was tagged with the moniker “Cannonball,” lending rise to the coast-to-coast challenge immortalized by many racers since.

Despite being the world leader in motorcycle sales (Indian sold a remarkable 32,000 units in 1913), trouble was on the horizon. While leading in American motorcycle sales up to the Great Depression, Indian was challenged by Harley-Davidson and Excelsior/Henderson as number two and three respectively. Excelsior and Henderson, made by the Schwinn company in Chicago, ceased production in 1931. By then Harley-Davidson posed the most serious threat to Indian, both on the road and the track. The best advantage Harley-Davidson held appears to be family ownership, since both Hedstrom and Hendee got out of Indian in the teens. When the investors who owned Indian were reluctant to offer design changes and improved products, the Milwaukee manufacturer forged ahead.

After World War II, the company suffered from some poor choices in marketing, and despite repeated attempts to upgrade the product line sales slipped. In 1953, Indian ceased production. Indian Motorcycle Company, of Springfield, Massachusetts, was no more.

—originally published in the American Antiquities Journal

This yellow 1948 Indian Chief Roadmaster motorcycle sold for $25,300 at the Don Fiedler living estate sale on May 2-3, 2009 in Cedar Point, Ill.

This yellow 1948 Indian Chief Roadmaster motorcycle sold for $25,300 at the Don Fiedler living estate sale on May 2-3, 2009 in Cedar Point, Ill.

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