Our new Road Test Editor from Australia gets the true American experience in his first week in America on the Indian Chief Vintage. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREA WILSON
It’s been two weeks since I landed in this fine land, after my wife Annabelle and I decided Sydney life was growing stale. A dream job at Cycle News beckoned. And to my surprise, so did a date with an Indian.
But it’s not the kind of date that would see me in the divorce court quicker than a hangover with Charlie Sheen. This Indian Chief Vintage would become our transport while we settled into our new digs, got used to the surroundings, to the people, to life in the USA. There are worse ways to get around.
I’d had fleeting moments with an Indian while in Australia. Moments of cruising the coastline between Sydney and the Gold Coast on a Chief where the only thing I had to worry about was whether I’d make it somewhere to watch that night’s MotoGP. But that experience lacked the authenticity of an Indian in the Land of the Free, the land of its birth. For the Indian marque is one so dear to American hearts—it’s part of the subconscious that makes up the American identity, like big burgers, Marilyn Monroe and yes, Harley-Davidson.
One hundred years ago Indian made the fastest machines in the world. Machines of speed and lust that saw men like Ralph Hepburn and Jake De Rosier hurtle around wooden bankings at speeds that made them heroes for not just their’s but generations to come. If you’ve never seen an Indian board racer in the metal, put it on your bucket list. It’ll give you a new appreciation of the fortitude of our motorcycling forefathers. These were real men.
But those days are long, long gone and Indian’s torrid past full of businessmen with good and bad intentions alike has meant this storied brand could have been lost forever had it not been for the mega dollars of Polaris and a nostalgic board that could see the value of the past.
Even though this is a new machine, you get swept up in that feeling of riding on history with an Indian, especially if you’re a foreigner like myself riding one in America. And I also get a sense that the locals are bursting with pride now that this most American of brands is back on the road where it belongs. And rightly so.
There’s 1811cc of American muscle pumping away underneath us as Annabelle and I take the coast road in rather heavy traffic down to San Diego to do the tourist thing. Lions and polar bears can be found at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo but they seem more impressive here. As do the crowds. But within an hour the gazelles and snakes have lost their charm and all I can think of is getting back on the Indian. Like the brat in the cafeteria next to me who constantly begs for pizza, eventually the wife gives in and we’re back, heading east to Julian and a meeting with apple pie. There are lots of bikes here but the looks the Indian gets outstrip them in spades.
We roll into town and vacate the steed immediately, stand back and people watch. Riders on pipe-wrapped choppers, R6 knee draggers and Italian nakeds all come for a quick look-see. The Indian Chief Vintage is a statement bike if ever there was one. All leathery bits and sixties paint and chrome to blind. It might be brand new but its mind is from another generation. And all the time they walk past with the pervading smile and nod that says, “nice bike…” It’s the same wherever we ride, and in Laguna Beach the reaction is like people have never seen a bike before—in amongst the shops that sell stones twice the value of the Indian, it’s a 10-minute job just to get through the conversations to get the helmet on. The American pride shines through. Heads turn.
After we stuff the remaining apple pie away we hit the Julian twisties, which in hindsight is not the ideal environment for the Indian. Turn in is slow and quick direction changes are delicate at best with two people and full saddlebags. Like telling a wrestler to take on 100-meter hurdles, this is not the Indian’s forte. The lack of backrest for Annabelle means she’s moving around a fair bit so I back off and still hear the scrape of the undercarriage matched to the clunk of the downshift. Whereas in the past I found the scraping a badge of honor in some juvenile way, like I was a better rider for it, doing it on the Indian feels almost disrespectful, especially as it’s easily avoided by just backing off a bit and letting the Indian do its thing in peace. Taking this attitude will reward you. This is a cruiser, after all, not something you’re going to do your local TT on. Kick back, relax, what’s the hurry?
The Chief was a hit at the Shake Shack in sunny Southern California.
Out of the kind of roads I normally go searching for, the Indian starts to come alive. Stretching the engine out on the run back to Irvine, keeping with traffic but still slightly faster than permitted in SoCal, the 1811cc V-twin goes from stressing about the next downshift to relaxed like it’s on vacation, the two pistons thumping away in harmony matched to sixth gear and a Californian afternoon. Everything chills out—the ride is nicer as the suspension soaks up the motorway’s corrugations, the seating position feels right, my wife’s content. And as the sun sets to our left across the entry to the Pacific Ocean, our homeland some 7500 miles away, Annabelle and I sit back, enjoy the ride, and revel in an American moment.
Hits and misses
Two weeks with a machine is more than enough to help you draw some basic conclusions. And I assure you it’s not all shakes and sunsets. A couple of issues stand out. I’m far from a fan of the un-lockable leather panniers—with as much luggage space as they have you should be able to lock them. I also think the brown leather will fade pretty quickly with weather (it was happening on our test bike) so these are something that you’ll have to take extra care off. Also, the bend of the massive one-piece bar gives my long-suffering shoulder a bit of discomfort over a distance like that between Irvine and San Diego via the long way home.
Chrome has never been high on my priority when purchasing a bike, and after two weeks on the Chief Vintage I know why. Riding this bike everyday, as many owners will no doubt do, helps to make the bike intolerably dirty thanks to everyday grime and crud coming from the road surface. The flipside of gorgeous, gleaming chrome is that when it’s not, it can make the bike look average—so cleaning is high on the list with a Chief Vintage.
The gearbox action on the downshift can sound pretty rough, no matter how gently I try to coerce the lever down. It’s strange because after a day or so I worked out how to smooth the upshift right out, even on hard acceleration. So there are definitely two personalities to the gearbox. Likewise the front brakes aren’t the best but the rear is brilliant, offering a more connected feel than the front as well as exceptional stopping power.
One thing I’m totally in love with is that 1811cc V-twin. That thing is a big ‘ol lazy beast, chugging up and down the rev range thanks to the fairly wide top three ratios and offering plenty of torque for two-up riding. It’s so smooth and thanks to the rubber covered grips, ’pegs and floorboards the vibrations are kept to a minimum. The throttle is nicely mapped and the ease of use with the cruise control makes it hard to resist on motorways, although when the throttle is gunned I’d have liked a bit more of a roar.
Another highlight factor of the Indian is the paint—that oh-so-cool green and cream color scheme mixed with whitewall tires and massive front and rear guards—this thing calls on its heritage in serious style that makes people stop and stare and in many cases, corner you and ask about every other detail.
There’s a certain amount of brand awareness on an Indian Chief Vintage. Just how much, you ask? Well, the word “Indian” is stamped no less than 37 times (it’s probably more, but I gave up looking) across the machine. It’s like the designers just want to make 37 times sure you and everyone around you know what you’re riding. Yet somehow this extreme branding doesn’t feel overpowering, just very noticeable. If they put the word Indian on the underside of the panniers then that’s it, too far. But on the other side that branding makes the Indian proud to be what it is. This is a bike with its own personality, it’s a bike that looks and feels like it has been here all along and yet we’ve somehow missed it.
For me, my two-week date with the Indian Chief Vintage highlighted both the good and annoying side of a cruiser. Sadly, Annabelle’s critique of the passenger seat is best left unmentioned so if I were to buy this machine it’d be one for me, rather than the two of us. That’s really where this bike excels—as a single rider cruiser with a couple of full saddlebags. There are plenty of other bikes out there that accompany a pillion better than an Indian Chief Vintage.
I can’t help but feel a certain subjective passion for this bike—probably more than anything as it served as our introduction to this incredible country—but also because the more I ride it, the more I get this style. I’m probably a few years off from owning an Indian myself, but I can certainly see the appeal in having that famous war bonnet staring back at me when I open the garage door.
2015 Indian Chief Classic
Engine: Liquid cooled 4-stroke 2-valve DOHC V-twin
Bore x stroke: 65 mm x 42.5 mm
Torque: 119 ft-lbs @ 3000rpm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Fuel system: EFI, twin 54 mm throttle bodies
Frame type: Steel cradle
Front suspension: 46mm inverted forks. Non-adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, preload adjustable
Front wheel travel: 4.7 in.
Rear wheel travel: 3.7 in.
Front brake: Twin 300mm discs, four-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 300mm disc, twin-piston caliper
Front tire: Dunlop American Elite 130/90B16 67H.
Rear tire: Dunlop American Elite 180/65B16 81H.
Wheelbase: 68.1 in.
Seat height: 26 in.
Wet weight, no fuel: 801 lbs.
Fuel capacity: 5.5 gal.
Colour: Thunder black, Indian red, willow green/ivory cream, Indian red/ivory cream, Indian red/thunder black