The rivalry between American motorcycle brands Indian and Harley-Davidson dates back over a century. Today, thanks to the 2011 revival of Indian and its 2016 return to racing under parent company Polaris, the competition between the two companies, in dealer showrooms and on American oval tracks, is back. Next month, the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles will open a new exhibit, “Harley vs. Indian,” that promises an in-depth look at America’s “two most celebrated motorcycle manufacturers.”
Indian is the older of the two brands, founded in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1901, by George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom. Both had a background manufacturing and racing bicycles, and their initial motorcycle prototype was constructed to pace bicycle races. In 1902, the first Indian Motorcycle, powered by a 1.75-horsepower single-cylinder engine (produced under contract by the Aurora Automatic Machinery Company) was sold to the public.
Harley-Davidson was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. The pair’s work on a motor-bicycle powered by Harley’s 7.07-cu.in. single-cylinder engine began two years earlier, but the prototype proved too under-powered to negotiate the area’s hills. The pair’s next model used a 24.74-cu.in. single (developed with help from outboard engine builder Ole Evinrude), mounted in a loop frame similar to that used by Merkel. In September of 1904, this prototype was ridden by Edward Hildebrand in a race held at Milwaukee’s State Fair Park, and by early 1905, Harley-Davidson was offering engines and turnkey motorcycles through its growing network of dealers.
Indian used racing to promote the brand as well. In 1902, an Indian won an endurance race staged from Boston to New York City, and in 1903, company co-founder Hedstrom set a motorcycle speed record of 56 MPH aboard one of the company’s bikes. Later that year, he competed in (and won) an endurance contest that stretched from New York City to Springfield, Massachusetts, and back again.
At the start of the 1910s, both manufacturers faced serious competition from other brands, as roughly 150 companies were building motorcycles in America. Indian enjoyed the largest market share, and in 1911, it proved its merits on the global stage, finishing first, second, and third in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race. As Indians grew in displacement, power and technology, so did Harley-Davidsons, and the brands’ on-track battles helped to advance the sophistication, features, and reliability of bikes offered in dealer showrooms.
Both brands supported the war effort during World War I, but Harley-Davidson found itself in a stronger financial position in the postwar years. The Great Depression forced the companies to branch out into new products, with Indian debuting its three-wheel Dispatch Tow in 1931, followed by Harley-Davidson’s similar Servi-Car, which appeared in 1932. World War II saw both produce motorcycles for Allied armed forces, but it was Harley-Davidson’s WLA models that received the bulk of the government contracts.
That left Indian in a weakened state by the end of the war, and in 1945, the company was sold to a group headed by Ralph Rogers. Rogers took the company in a new direction, dropping the traditional Scout in favor of small-displacement bikes like the Arrow, the Super Scout and the Warrior while reducing production of large-displacement Indian models (like the Chief). By 1953, production ceased, though in 1955 the Indian name was revived to sell rebadged models from Royal Enfield, a venture that lasted until 1962.
Harley-Davidson stayed the course, enjoying successes and failures alike over the decades. Several attempts were made to revive Indian with varying degrees of success, but in 2011 established powersports manufacturer Polaris acquired the brand, relaunching a series of Indian models that successfully blended nostalgic styling with modern technology and features.
Today, Harley-Davidson dominates sales in the category, but Indian continues to expand its customer base and dealer network. Earlier this year, Polaris announced the closure of its Victory brand, a move that will likely strengthen Indian’s market position in the coming years. The firm is back into racing again as well, announcing a flat track program (with the Indian Scout FTR750) for the 2017 season, where it will run head-to-head against Harley-Davidson’s well-established racing team, and its new XG750R motorcycle.
Motorcycles to be shown in the Harley vs. Indian exhibit include a 1920 Indian Daytona racer; a 1922 Harley-Davidson with a period-correct sidecar; a 1936 Indian Dispatch Tow trike; a 1936 Harley-Davidson EL “Knucklehead;” a 1939 Indian Sport Scout; a 1948 Indian Stylemaster scooter; a 1963 Harley-Davidson Topper, the only scooter ever produced by the brand; a 2017 Indian Scout FTR750 flat track racing motorcycle; and a 2017 Harley-Davidson XG750R flat track racing motorcycle.
Harley vs. Indian opens with a reception at the Petersen on Thursday, March 2, from 7-10 p.m. Guest speakers include Nevin Pontious, creative director of Deus Ex Machina, and Petersen board member Richard Varner, founder of Motoamerica. Tickets are priced at $25 for Petersen members, and $35 for non-members, and can be purchased at Petersen.org/MuseumEvents/.
The exhibit, staged in the museum’s Richard Varner Family Gallery, opens to the public on Saturday, March 4, and runs through early February 2018. For additional information, visit Petersen.org.