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The Indian riding an “Indian” motorcycle is an iconic picture on the internet. You see it all the time. The picture is actually part of the State Library and Archives of Florida whose goal is to illuminate the state’s history and culture.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information about the picture. What we do know is that it was taken in front of the C.T. Kruse motorcycle shop in Deland, Florida around 1916. On the state’s website, we also find pictures, that we believe are dated earlier, that show the building being used as a bicycle shop.
The photo elicits a variety of responses. And, many ask, how did Indian Motocycle get their name?
The Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company was founded in 1897 by George M. Hendee as the Hendee Manufacturing Company, making bicycles. The first bicycles were produced in Middleton, Connecticut. In 1901, Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom teamed up to produce their first motorcycle. This prototype and subsequent production was manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 1928 that the name was officially changed to the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company. And no, I did not spell motocycles wrong. This was how the company chose to spell it.
When Hendee introduced his first line of bikes in 1897, he badged them under the brands “Silver King”, “Silver Queen,” and the “American Indian.” Hendee quickly shortened “American Indian” to just “Indian” because it was producing better name recognition and response in export markets. Using images of American Indians was not considered a slight by any means, especially in foreign lands. Quite the contrary, American Indians were looked upon as noble, hardy, and extremely resourceful. All qualities companies wanted to bestow upon their products. The “Indian” brand became Hendee’s most popular and successful.
In 1911, three “Indian” factory racers competed in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy and subsequently took first, second, and third place. The Isle of Man TT motorcycle race first took place in 1907 and is arguably the most dangerous race in the world. The Isle of Man is an island, a self-governing British Crown dependency, located between Ireland and Great Britain in the Irish Sea.
Soon after winning the Isle of Man TT in 1911, Indian Motocycle became the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. They would continue to dominate the industry until near the end of the first World War (1919), when the company made the unfortunate decision to supply the United States government with most of its production, thus starving its network of dealers much needed inventory for domestic sales. As the 1920’s began, Indian found it had lost it’s U.S. market domination to rival Harley-Davidson.
The Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company would never again regain its status as the number one manufacturer of motorcycles. Finally, in 1953, the company filed bankruptcy and the company was simply no more.
Various organizations have tried to revive the Indian brand name over the years and have met with limited success. In 2011, Polaris Industries purchased the brand and moved production from North Carolina to Minnesota and Iowa. While Harley-Davidson still owns 50% of the market, at the time of this writing, Polaris has made great strides in growing the Indian brand while Harley continues to struggle. Polaris has taken Indian’s classic traditional styling and modernized it mechanically. However, a lot of Polaris’ success can be attributed to the strong brand name “Indian” evokes.
So, when you see the “Indian” logo, or historical pictures of Indians sitting on or around one of these vintage bikes, know that around the world people view the “Indian” brand positively. And, in this humble writers opinion, that’s a positive tribute to the American Indian people.