The year is 1897, and a young George Hendee opens the Hendee Manufacturing Company. The company makes bicycles, quality bicycles that grab the attention of the general public with fancy monikers like ‘Silver King’ and others. But one particular bike name has a place etched in history: the ‘American Indian’. Hendee didn’t have any idea that the simple shortening of that name, to ‘Indian’, would not only become the name of his brand, but would also be one of the most iconic names in motorcycle history someday.
Flash-forward to the present. It’s 2019, and the Indian brand-name has put its bicycle-making days in history books and Internet articles. Now it is known for something much bigger and much more bad: Motorcycles. But the company’s trip up the ladder hasn’t always been the proverbial smooth one. It has endured fame and fortune, near-crash-landings, and a rise from the flames and ash rivaled only by the phoenix itself. Today, the one-time bicycle makers’ name is synonymous with the much-loved American tradition of motorcycle riding, and they hold their own in the good old USA against very formidable competitors. But the biggest of those competitors, another American motorcycle icon, has made the road for Indian a bit bumpy, causing distractions that have taken the public’s eye off this company’s product to the point that many aren’t nearly as familiar with the motorcycle models Indian has made as they ought to be.
But now Indian Motorcycles is changing all of that. In the last ten years, Indian has designed, manufactured, and released some beautiful new models that have caught the eye of an entirely brand new generation, giving main rival Harley-Davidson a run for their money. Entering the modern mainstream market hasn’t been easy, but I would venture to say it has been well worth the wait for all of us, and for America’s very first motorcycle company as well .
But there is a reason this company has pulled through it all and survived its personal storms: The bikes. To only focus on those produced in the last decade is a grave mistake; indeed, an injustice and a travesty. Indian has made so many incredible models and lavished them on us that the only thing to do, the required obligation we face as fans of the motorcycle, is to take a long, hard look back at some of them and pass down the heritage of Indian Motorcycles by recognizing the incredible models that have come to us from this company over the years.
That is what we intend to do here. We will give credit to Indian Motorcycles with a retrospective, and sometimes current, look at the mark they have made with their bikes. Not only have they influenced countless individual lives, but an entire country, and yes, the world as well.
So, without further ado, let’s get to it. Let’s travel back in time and then begin the return journey with some brand new knowledge about an old, yet young-at-heart, company that is loved by many, if not all. Thank you, Indian, for giving us the following bikes…twenty of the very best you ever produced over the course of your incredible lifetime. We salute you!
20 of the Very Best Bikes Ever Made By Indian Motorcycle Company
20. 1910 Indian Single, Model A
We all know, or at least suspect, that as time passes, improvements are made. But sometimes we just need to go back and pay recognition to the roots of the amazing tree we grew, and that is why the 1910 Indian Single Model A makes our list. This was the beginning of the real motorcycle deal, and it sold like hotcakes, its simplicity speaking for itself. The Model A had a four-stroke single-cylinder engine, and was classified as an ‘All round’ motorcycle. Featuring a carburetor fuel system and overhead intake side mounted exhaust, it was slim and light, basically a bicycle with a motor, as we know. But people went crazy for it, and it started a much-loved craze that many of us obsess over and indulge in to this very day: The love of the motorcycle. This basic bike really was the granddaddy of the entire deal, and was essentially the forerunner of all we have today. That’s saying a lot, and credit needs to be given where it’s due.
19. 1904 Indian Humpback
When I look at pics of this bike I can almost feel tears of sentimentality in my eyes. Somebody truly had a dream, and we can see it when we gaze at the 1904 Humpeback. In many ways it looks like nothing more than a glorified Schwinn, but what do we expect from a machine built 115 years ago? This was another All round bike, with a four-stroke single-cylinder engine, but it had pedals, so any concerns about running out of gas could be put completely aside. In my younger years, bikes with motors and pedals were mopeds, but this was considered a motorcycle. Yep, a true classic, the Humpeback might not look like much, but you’ve gotta love it for breaking ground. Just looking at it, I simply can’t leave it off the list; it was the very thing dreams were, and are, made of.
18. 1915 Indian Model C
Visually, the Model C makes motorcycle evolution in action very clear when compared to the Humpeback. The Model C was still a simple machine, but it was a step up, with a 994cc 2-cylinder engine. So, we know it had a bit more power, at least. Aesthetically, we can begin to see things taking shape for the future, literally. The bike is obviously a bit more bulky and heavier than those before it, and from what we can tell by the seat and what we learn about the motor beneath it, probably more comfortable for the power increase. In 1913, only two years prior to this model’s manufacture, Indian was the largest motorcycle company in the world, and were marking their territory, so this bike held its own back then.
17. 1974 Indian ME 100
Well, this is an Indian model that seems to have something of a stigma attached to it. While conducting research, I found more than one example of this bike being discovered in nearly brand-new, barely touched condition; one actually had less than a mile on it, and it was found ignored and forgotten in storage. Okay, okay, okay, so this was a dirt bike. Keep in mind that in 1974 there were a lot of companies putting out dirt bikes, and Indian was having rough times due to the competition. But now we should be seeing this gem for what it was, and is. In my opinion, dirt bike or not, this is a great piece of Indian history, and very likely a great dirt bike. Unfortunately, it fell by the wayside, thanks to the huge shadows of the pending foreign market boom. I put this bike on the list because it would have been a blast to ride, and likely all the old gems being found still are. It simply was a victim of the perfect storm.
16. 1927 Indian BGE
This is another Sport class Indian, but this one comes from a much more primitive time than the ME 100. In 1927 this type of bike was still a new idea, and I think it’s very cool that Indian was as on top of their game as they were. Features included a V-2 four-stroke with a Magneto ignition, and had a dry weight coming in at just under 320 lbs. Designed by Charles Franklin, this one’s awesome look is what we would call ‘retro’ today, but it was perfectly stylish for its time. Considered perfect for both the track and street riding, the ’27 BGE is looked upon as one of Indian’s finest when it comes to this class. A member of the Scout family, that isn’t surprising; Scouts are one of Indian’s best sellers.
15. 2003 Indian Dakota 4
By the end of the seventies, a series of unfortunate events managed to pretty much bury Indian Motorcycles, but by the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s the company was crawling its way out of the six-foot hole that had been dug for it. The Dakota 4 series got underway by 2003, and 2007 say the release of the Classic, Highway, and 4si models. The 2003 Dakota 4 was a cruiser bike by class, with an in-line four, four-stroke engine that put out 74 horses. It was most certainly a street bike, meant to take on long rides, and was great on the highway. Since Indian was working so hard on a comeback in a day and age when street riding was all the rage, this was a good route to take. Not only that, this bike looked awesome. The exhaust system was designed in a way that made the bike, and its rider, look almost dangerous. Since the whole ‘biker’ thing was really in full swing, the design was spectacular, in my opinion.
14. 1952 Indian Scout 440
This All round model came with all the bells and whistles of the day, including an overhead-valves and a twin four-stroke engine. It’s look? Par for the course, with something of a bony body equipped with what appeared to a bulky motor in contrast. It also featured a spring-supported seat, which aided in comfort, a big issue then. Performance-wise, the bike put out more than adequate power, was dependable, and the general public was still pretty much in love with the Indian brand, even though Harley’s reign of terror was well underway. The Scout 440 earns its spot because of its representation of consistency in quality. It continued to show improvement by the company on a regular basis, and being a member of the Scout family made it a very popular choice among buyers. The look is a thing of beauty, reflecting the early fifties perfectly in nearly every aspect; it even clung a bit to the bicycle heritage it possessed. With a piece of every year that had come before it, the ’52 Scout 440 was one of Indian’s twenty best bikes.
13. 1938 Indian Arrow Streamliner
This bike was classified as a ‘cross/motocross’ bike, and had a very cool look for a motorcycle designed for this type of use. It had the appearance of a larger, fatter bike, with the exception of narrow tires and fenders that matched the body. It was equipped with a train-driven transmission and V2, four-stroke engine as well as overhead valves. This model was once on display at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, and had been raced at the Bonneville Salt Flats against several other bikes. This particular model year ended up losing due to it gaining a severe shimmy when it reached a speed of 135 mph, but the same racer did manage to win riding a couple of other models at later times during the meet. The Arrow Streamliner is an awesome piece of Indian history
12. 1970 Indian Velocette Venom 500
Designed by ‘Cycle’ magazine publisher Floyd Clymer, the ‘Velo’ was originally manufactured for American Motorcycle Company after it purchased Indian, so it had the honor of bearing the name. It was a lightweight and was equipped with a 499cc Venom, or VM, engine. Considered a hybrid due to basically being a cross between an Indian and Velocette, it simply didn’t carry enough popularity to pull Indian out of the hole it was sinking into, and it didn’t do Velocette much good either. It doesn’t matter, though; this baby is an eye-catcher for any motorcycle lover, and was likely a lot of fun to ride in its time. Having been released during a time when Indian was sure to become a company of the past, it deserves some recognition just for representing their tenacity and effort.
11. 1926 Indian Prince
As they were for most everyone, the twenties were a little hard on Indian Motorcycle Company. But during this decade they certainly weren’t quitters, and in 1926 they released the Prince model. This bike, like many other Indians, resembled a bulky bicycle, but it was manufactured basically as a ‘starter’ bike. The Prince made learning to ride the motorcycle simple, making the pastime fair game for most anyone. It was the hope that once a rider learned to ride on the Prince, they would be back for something bigger and better. Basically, the Prince was a smart marketing strategy that fell through due to hard times. But this was a great bike, with a Flathead single engine that weighed only 265 lbs. The 1926 model ended up better than those that came before it, with improvements like longer handlebars, a gas tank that was a new shape, and a lower seat, all of which made riding easier for those smaller in stature or with less experience. This great bike is a good example of how the minds of those in charge of Indian worked at the time.
10. 1941 Indian Series 441
The same year this bike was first produced, Indian Motorcycle Company also began making bikes for the armed forces, and you can see where the inspiration for it came from. While four-cylinder bikes like this one were popular at the time, for some reason, the Series 441 didn’t do all that well, and it was only made for a few years before Indian threw in the towel on it. Nonetheless, we recognize that war time is a hard time, and believe that this bike deserves a salute. Many smaller, cheaper models came after this one, but it was the very last four-cylinder model made in the USA, and that means something. Still a thing of beauty that reminds us why we love classic bikes, the 1941 Series 441 comes in at number 10.
9. 1912 Indian Roadster
A bit reminiscent of the Humpeback by Indian, the 1912 Roadmaster could have been mistaken for a bicycle, if it weren’t for the small V2 four-stroke that was attached. It is a motorcycle that reflects everything about the beginnings of this company, as well as the ingenuity and creativity involved in what they were doing for the future of motorcycles. The frame, obviously, is a bit narrow and odd-shaped, which lends even more to the bicycle illusion, but this bike was all motorcycle for the time. With a top speed of 89 mph, the Roadster definitely was able to hold its own in 1912, and certainly belongs on our list.
8. 1923 Indian Big Chief
When the first Big Chief was released in 1922, the Indian Motorcycle Company was at the height of their success. Riding on the shirttails of the highly successful Scout, this bike had a lot to live up to, to say the least. While the Big Chief’s design was based on that of the Scout, it more resembled the smaller version than that of the Power plus, but it did have the same 61ci (1000cc) engine as the latter did. It had a sliding gear three-speed transmission and could reach up to sixty-five miles-per-hour. The ’23 model had improvements over the Chief made in ’22, including better air flow to the engine and a smaller frame. Those changes made the 1923 Big Chief the new money maker over the Scout that year, and that was a fairly big deal. The 1923 Big Chief proved that Indian deserved the recognition they were getting, and the public affection the bike garnered earned it the number eight spot on our list
7. 1921 Indian Power Plus
Since we’re on the topic of the Power Plus model, the 1921 model comes in at #7. Equipped with the 61ci engine and the Schebler race carburetor, this baby is said to have competed in the British Isles during the 1920’s. The original Power Plus was brought before the world’s eyes by a stuntman by the name of Cannonball Baker, who actually rode a prototype in 1915 for more than 1,600 miles, and he did it in just over three days, traveling from Vancouver to Tijuana. At the time of its production, the 1921 Power Plus was state-of-the-art, with all the power one could desire, along with other additions that made it top-of-the-line. This great bike is well deserving of the number seven spot, not only holding its own reputation-wise, but setting the stage for bikes to come. To put it simply, it was the granddaddy.
6. 2001 Indian Chief (Centennial Edition)
This cruiser-class bike is only the second motorcycle on our list to be released by Indian in the last twenty years, and is more modern in design than the most listed here. But true to Indian form, it stays faithful to its trademark fenders, making it easily identifiable as an Indian product. This is one of my favorite of the more modern Indians, because it is not only a very cool looking bike, but it is also made for longer-distance street riding. It came standard with a V2 four-stroke that put out 74 horses and reached a top speed of 105 mph. Marketed to sell as the 100th Anniversary Edition, Indian really put some love into its production, and they should have. After all the company had been through to that point, getting to celebrate its one-hundredth birthday was something to recognize by all. Beautiful to look at and powerful to ride, this great motorcycle earns spot six.
5. 1942 Indian 402
This classic from Indian’s ‘Four’ family is another from the ‘All round’ bike class, and was a very popular street rider in its day. Its four-stroke, in-line four engine gave a top speed of 95 mph. With a spring-mounted seat and awesome spiked wheels, it was one sexy beast whose appearance was only made better by its rib cage-style exhaust pipes, which are like the topping on the cake. Definitely one of our favorite classic Indians, it makes #5 easily, especially due to the fact that they kept it true to their roots with its classic Indian aesthetic. Hot!
4. 1953 Indian Chief
If it seems to you that we have an abundance of Chiefs, you’re right; they were such a beautiful and dependable piece of work that the different model years made for easy pickings. Obviously, 1953 was no exception. This was the last year of original Indian production before their initial fall, but they didn’t deviate from their course in my opinion. This is a bike to love, for sure. Equipped with a Big-Twin engine, it was much more powerful than the popular, albeit smaller, Scout, it was better for road riding rather than racing to its heavier, more bulky build. That makes it all the more desirable, especially today, as street riding bikes are the motorcycle in demand. With that being said, just the fact that this was put out in the final production year of the original company makes it a classic motorcycle for the sentimental biker. We love it, and just a glance will make you fall for it too.
3. 1930 Indian Scout 101
We are down to the best three of the best Indian motorcycles of all time, and in this slot is the 1930 Scout 101. Yes, this bike looks good, but it is similar to the rest. It was chosen because it is often referred to as the finest Scout model ever produced by Indian, and that is saying quite a bit. The Scout was their biggest seller, even saving the company from bankruptcy at one point. With smaller fenders and a dual-pipe exhaust, it gave a bit of a different look than normal, which was popular. It had a four-stroke V2 engine and three-speed chain-driven transmission, so it was a great All round bike that people embraced readily. After nearly 80 years, this is still a great motorcycle, keeping the Scout reputation at the top, right where it belongs.
2. 1949 Indian Silver Arrow
This AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer takes #2 easily, with grace, style, and speed. Mechanically equipped with all things that were desired at the time, the Silver Arrow was to be coveted…and ridden. Unfortunately, this particular model was a base-line bike, as Indian thought that a lightweight motorcycle boom was on the horizon after the war. So, the company forsook their bulkier models and went in this direction; it is said that Indian ended up in the red with every single one of these they sold. It’s enough to make one cry, as it helped spell out their demise. But we have to live in the present, and all you have to do is cast your gaze upon this bike to see what they had in mind; it is a thing of beauty. While it still maintained some of the older appearances, it was beginning to take on an entirely new look, and with all of it combined the result was nothing short of gorgeous. Unfortunately, that was not to spell success, and the Silver Arrow was short-lived. It was a great street bike that made even the most fearful want to hop on, and it was just as mechanically sound as it was gorgeous. It’s a terrible thing that it just didn’t work out for this motorcycle; we’re glad that it eventually did for the company that manufactured it. And the winner is…(drum roll, please)
1. The 1940 Indian Chief
It will not take you long to see why the 1940 Chief stole first out from under the noses of its predecessors; this is one beautiful, amazing piece of machinery! This model year saw some definitive changes in appearance, such as deep skirted fenders and new chassis, which gave the bike an appearance that fit its name more than ever. The public loved the more streamlined look that seemed to scream ‘Indian’, and it was a hit. It also came with a fringed seat that took one’s breath away, and as always, had the power to go with the appearance. For me, laying my eyes on this particular bike resulted in love at first sight. This is one of the most beautiful Indians on the list, with almost no exception. Of course, the newer models are very attractive, but when it comes to vintage and antique bikes by this manufacturer, I think the 1940 Indian Chief is second to none. I thought it would be difficult to determine the number one Indian of all time, but it turned out to be a shoe in: The 1940 Chief and all that it encompassed was a shoe-in. Just take a good, hard look and you will understand why this baby made it.
Summing it Up
There you have them…our picks for the twenty best Indian motorcycles of all time. You may have noticed that the majority of bikes listed aren’t modern…only a couple, actually, and even those now have a few years on them. That isn’t a judgment call against new Indian motorcycles; it is simply paying credence to the history of the bike, and showing how the long line of motorcycles that came first led up to what Indian offers us today. Indian still makes great bikes, but there is something about the ones from yesteryear that seem to stick to the soul.
So, if you weren’t an Indian fan before, I hope you are now. They have endured the wind in their face for many years, and pulled through like the troopers they are…just look at how far the company has come! It’s difficult not to appreciate the beauty that is produced by such stamina, and the improvements that have been made in the face of adversity. So, get out there and check out your favorite Indian model today; you may be more than a little surprised at all these amazing motorcycles have to offer.
Ride hard and be safe.