Very few people know about a possible merger between two Goliaths in the motorcycle industry that could have changed the face of motorcycling as we know it
The successful relaunch of the Indian brand by Polaris Corp. marks the latest chapter in 115 years of tribal turmoil representing the fortunes of America’s oldest and most historic motorcycle marque, ever since the Indian Motocycle Company was founded back in 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts. This time around, though, Indian really is back for good and already poses a serious challenge to the two-wheeled supremacy of its two years younger Harley-Davidson rival.
But imagine shoehorning a Ducati V-twin superbike engine into the rolling chassis of a modern 2016 Indian Chief, replacing its pushrod overhead-valve (OHV) motor with a smaller-capacity yet higher-performance powerplant aimed at securing bragging rights over its Harley-Davidson rival. Unthinkable, right? Yet that’s today’s exact equivalent of what happened seven decades ago, when Indian combined with Britain’s illustrious Vincent marque – the world’s leading sportbike brand – to create the one and only Vindian.
Rivals at War
The fact that Indian survived the Great Depression, which left only Indian and Harley still standing out of the 20-plus American manufacturers at that time, was thanks to wealthy investor E. Paul DuPont, who bought the company in 1929. In DuPont’s hands, Indian matched Harley-Davidson for production volume and profitability throughout the 1930s, with 8,883 bikes built in 1939, which was 500 more than Harley. But after building 42,044 Indian Scouts for military use in the Second World War, the end of hostilities left Indian in no condition to resume its pre-war battle with Harley for market supremacy. With a rundown factory and decrepit tooling worn out under the demands of the war effort, along with DuPont’s health in decline and serious financial problems, the company’s very survival was at risk. Few examples were built of the single model available: the pre-war flathead 74 cu. in. Chief with the large skirted fenders that had become a company trademark. The popular Scout was dropped from the lineup in 1945, a foolish decision that caused outrage among the returning GIs with money in their pockets and no Indian to spend it on. Just 6,974 Indian Chiefs were built in 1946 – against 15,554 Harley-Davidsons – shrinking to 3,000 in 1949.
In October 1945, Ralph B. Rogers, a 35-year-old investor with no experience in the motorcycle industry, purchased Indian from the DuPont family. He decided to focus on building small and midsize British-style bikes, and instructed his team of engineers to create lightweight singles, like the 13 cu. in. (213 cc) Arrow 149 and 26 cu. in. (426 cc) Super Scout 249, leaving Indian dealers unable to meet the huge postwar demand for traditional heavyweight V-twins. Production began the following October, after what proved to be a suicidally short development time, which meant that it was the company’s first customers who discovered Indian’s new Torque engines wouldn’t stand up to hard use. The production shutdown, and the time and money lost in addressing these problems only added to Indian’s financial plight.
A Merger to Save the Company
But what Indian’s dealers and customers wanted most of all was an OHV V-twin to replace the ageing flathead Chief, preferably one that would let them regain the performance bragging rights they’d enjoyed over their Harley rivals throughout the 1930s, when the Indian Sport Scout had dominated the early days of racing. But Indian’s poor financial health meant it couldn’t afford the huge expense of developing an all-new engine. So instead, Rogers made a deal with Philip Vincent, owner of Britain’s Vincent marque, for the supply of 50-degree V-twin Vincent engines created for him by the brilliant Australian engineer Phil Irving.
This design made the Vincent the fastest production bike in the world, as reflected in the endless succession of race victories and speed records achieved by postwar Vincent riders. These included Rollie Free’s
150.313 mph world land speed record for non-supercharged motorcycles, obtained at Bonneville in September 1948 wearing only a pair of swimming trunks, and lying prone on his stomach aboard his stock Vincent Black Lightning with his legs extended out the back, all to reduce drag.
This feat made Vincent motorcycles famous in America, and to take advantage of this, Rogers agreed with Vincent to create a prototype Vindian by sending a complete Indian Chief in April 1949 to the Vincent factory at Stevenage, north of London, to be fitted with a Rapide engine. A draft agreement was signed for the British firm to supply 50 Rapide V-twin engines per week for installation in Chief frames at Indian’s Massachusetts factory. Unfortunately for Vincent, though, Rogers had managed to keep secret the fact that Indian was close to bankruptcy.
Phil Irving (who passed away in 1992) takes up the story, as recounted in a self-penned 1975 magazine article for Australian Motorcycle Action.
Indeed, after being fitted with a completely stock Series C Rapide engine, the Vindian was ridden for about 3,000 km on the road before being taken to Vincent’s test strip at Gransden Lodge airfield 50 km away. There, works tester George Brown covered the flying quarter-mile in 8.2 seconds, with a top speed of 105.70 mph, apparently winning Vincent a sixpence bet he’d made with Rogers about the performance of the bike.
Elated by this, Vincent doubled-up on orders for engine castings, forgings and other material from his suppliers. But on September 19, 1949, the British government, in those fixed exchange rate days, devalued the pound by 30 per cent, from $4.05 to $2.80, thus creating a comparable reduction in the export price of British-built motorcycles so that they could be sold for far less in the United States than the equivalent locally made Indian. This completely killed off the Vindian’s commercial prospects, and so the Rapide engine was removed from the Chief frame, replaced with the original Indian engine and shipped back to the States. Rogers then resigned as president of Indian.
Australian motorcycle enthusiast Peter Arundel is widely recognized to own the finest collection of Indian motorcycles in the world today – the Melbourne-based property developer has one of every single model Indian ever built, and even one it didn’t, namely the Vindian. No, not the real one, which was broken up when the project was cancelled, but an identical replica he built in the mid-’90s after getting to know Irving 10 years earlier as a fellow member of the Vintage Motorcycle Club of Victoria.
“I often used to have a chat with Phil about the Vindian,” Arundel says, “and he told me how the motor fitted straight into the frame, what colour it was – Sea Foam Blue was the official name – and what it was like to ride. He said it was fantastic, a real missed opportunity for both Indian and Vincent, so then after he passed away in 1992, I thought it would be nice to recreate the bike in his memory. It took a couple of years to buy a Series C Vincent Rapide motor, by which time I already had a spare 1948 Indian Chief chassis. But when I tried to put the engine in the frame, I discovered there was no way it was going to fit!”
Initially dismayed, Arundel persevered and, with the help of Wigwam Engineering’s Lindsay Urquhart, eventually managed to shoehorn the Vincent engine into the Chief chassis. “I reckon Phil Irving had gilded the lily just a touch there,” he says, smiling, “probably because Vincent badly wanted to do a deal with Indian, so they needed to make it sound as if it all went together easily. In the end, I had to cut the tube from beneath the tank and raise that two inches, then gusset the steering head area for reinforcement. I also had to take half a litre out of each side of the fuel tank to make room for the rocker box on the right side, and on the left to let the carburetor tuck up beneath the tank. It was very far from being a simple bolt-in job.”
The Vindian’s Real Test
Arundel completed the Vindian in 1996, and the following October took it to the United States for a two-week ride along the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco, then inland via Yosemite and Death Valley to Las Vegas, and back to LA. The Vindian ran flawlessly throughout the 3,200 km trip, and came back for more in 2002, with a 2,900 km ride to Utah and the Grand Canyon, again with no dramas.
After the bike survived two such gruelling marathons in one piece, a sunny winter afternoon ride through the Victorian countryside north of Melbourne in my hands was just a taste, not a test…
Riding the Hybrid
I’ve ridden several Vincents, including the 1950 Series C Rapide I once owned, and also a postwar Indian Chief, so to ride two at the same time, so to speak, was a hybrid experience to savour. After carefully choosing the compression stroke with the kick start, the Vindian started first kick provided I gave it a healthy prod. Having done so, I gave thanks that in spite of Arundel being a hardened Indian rider, thus accustomed to the standard Chief’s foot clutch and period arrangement of a reverse-direction throttle on the left grip (rotate your wrist forward to go faster), and a twist-action ignition control on the right, he’s done just the same as Irving did on the original Vindian, and reversed them on his replica.
Moreover, the left-foot clutch pedal has now been converted to changing gear, as per the original, which it does via a rocker system that has you pushing down with your heel on the rear of the pedal to select bottom gear on the one up/three down shift pattern, while working the now conventional but slightly sudden clutch lever mounted on the gracefully curved cowhorn handlebar, then tapping the front pedal with the toe of your boot to gear up.
Apart from the engine’s appearance, the looks are unquestionably Indian, with its trademark valanced fenders surmounted by the distinctive Indian headdress running light and a luggage rack; the riding position is unmistakeably American, with that tall, pulled-back handlebar, footboards instead of footrests, and the ultra-comfortable sprung solo throne replacing the prototype’s buddy seat. Indeed, even with the frame’s stiffly sprung plunger boxes that barely give a couple of centimetres of wheel travel, riding the Vindian was pretty luxurious by the standards of the era thanks to the sprung seat and the shock-absorbing sidewall cushion of the 160/60-16 Metzeler Marathon ME88 tires fitted at both ends.
Also doubled-up are the seven-inch single-leading-shoe drum brakes front and rear, which proved surprisingly adept at slowing such a massive piece of metal weighing 257 kg and its rider from the 90 mph I saw on the speedo mounted on the top of the two-piece fuel tank. By the way, Arundel has seen 105 mph on the clock and feels plenty more was available.
The Masterpiece Performs
It’s that torquey, great-sounding 998 cc V-twin engine that’s the real star of the Vindian. Producing 45 hp at 5,300 rpm, it makes every one of those horses count, delivering a more than satisfactory level of performance that would have been truly impressive for potential American customers back then. Even though the Vindian is 50 kg heavier than the original Rapide, acceleration is sprightly despite all that weight, although it takes time to master that sudden clutch and to learn to pace your gearshifts just right.
With the healthy crack of the two separate exhausts (rather than the normal Vincent two-into-one system) echoing mutedly in your ear, it’s a real thrill to wind open the light-action throttle and feel the wind intensify as the needle cranks around that white-faced speedo. There’s no tach, but because the engine’s so torquey as well as responsive, it pays just to change up when it feels right and surf the waves of torque that Irving’s masterpiece engine delivers. No wonder nothing else could live with a Vincent on 1940s roads – or later.
The Vindian is a true mid-Atlantic motorcycle, for while the engine is as peppy and eager for action as any other Vincent, the chassis it’s housed in feels much more laid back. Its low-speed handling is distinctly ponderous, and the flip-up footboards ground out at even modest lean angles, making this strictly a point and squirt package compared with the more assured handling of a Vincent-framed Rapide. It’s definitely impressive for an American motorcycle by the standards of 70-odd years ago.
What Could Have Been
No question, if this motorcycle had ever reached production at an affordable price with the Indian name on the tank, it would have outperformed anything Harley ever made for another 30 years. Its 45 hp delivered to the gearbox sprocket at 5,300 rpm was easily lifted to 55 hp on the Black Shadow, and it’s evident that this could have been Indian’s passport to supremacy in the American market – and elsewhere. And, even more poignantly, had the Vindian ever reached production, the supply of engines it would have required would have underpinned Vincent’s continued survival long after its 1955 demise, and even into the present day.