For nearly two decades the Indian Motocycle made Springfield, Mass., the center of the global motorcycle business.
From 1902, when the first customer bought the first Indian Motocycle, to 1917, when World War I broke out, the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Co. dominated the motorized bicycle business. About 150 motorcycle manufacturers came and went during that time.
The war took a toll on the motorcycle industry, and only about a dozen stayed in business after it ended. Only two U.S. companies survived the Great Depression: the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Co., and Harley Davidson, Inc.
And then after the Korean War there was only one.
Birth of the Indian Motocycle
The world-famous Indian motocycle came into existence because of a lucky encounter at Madison Square Garden.
George M. Hendee was there to watch the bicycle race.
As a teenager from Boston, he had ridden a high-wheeler to the first national championship in America. He won 302 of the 309 races he entered and, in 1886, set a speed record that wasn’t broken for six years. Bicycle racing back then was a huge spectator sport, and Hendee sometimes raced in front of 30,000 fans.
By the turn of the century Hendee had retired from racing to manufacture Silver King bicycles in Springfield, Mass. But that day at the Garden, Hendee was impressed by the speed and smoothness of a motorized bicycle built to start bicycle races.
He quickly found out the motor was made by Oscar Hedstrom, a Swedish immigrant who designed and cast his own engines in a small shop in Middletown, Conn.
In less than a year they were partners.
That first year, Oscar Hedstrom hand built the prototype Indian motocycle. It was not much more than a bicycle with a motor attached. But it had a streamlined frame and a motor with an all-chain driver, an unusual feature at a time when most machines had belt drives. On May 10, 1901, it made its public debut on Cross Street in Springfield, Mass.
Now it was Hedstrom’s turn to shine at racing. In 1902, he achieved a perfect score on a 254-mile endurance run between New York and Boston.
In 1903, he set the world motorcycle speed record at 56 mph.
By 1904, the company introduced its trademark deep-red color and sold 500 machines in one year.
And in 1911, the factory team took the first three places in the 1911 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy – the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world. In 1914, Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker rode an Indian from San Diego to New York in a record 11 days, 12 hours, 10 minutes.
The 1910s were the glory years for the Indian Motocycle, which by then had a strengthened motorcycle frame. It was the best-selling motorcycle in the world, its ‘Indian’ name setting it apart as an American product.
But then the United States entered World War I. The company sold most of its popular Powerplus line to the U.S. military in 1917 and 1918. Its dealers, starved for product, turned to other companies — especially Harley-Davidson. Indian never quite recovered.
The company soldiered on, but without Hendee and Hedstrom. Hedstrom quit in 1913 over a disagreement with the board over watering stock. He retired to his estate in Portland, Conn., until his death on Aug. 29, 1960.
Hendee left in 1916 over a disagreement with the board and retired to his farm in Suffield, Conn., where he raised Guernsey cattle and white leghorn chickens.
Death and Rebirth
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, state police popularized an expensive Indian Motocycle model, the Four. The company sold many models to the U.S. military in World War II. But as Collectors Weekly noted, Indian paid too much attention to its military contracts and lost its public profile.
In 1953, Indian stopped production, mourned by ardent fans of the quintessentially American motorcycle. Only Harley-Davidson, two years younger than the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Co., was left.
Various companies have since made and sold motorcycles under the Indian brand, but Indian’s presence in Springfield is limited to the Esta Manthos Indian Motocycle Collection at the Springfield Museums.
To see a video of an unrestored 1908 Indian motocycle, click here.
This story was updated in 2017.