New Bike Evaluation: 2014 Indian Chief Classic, Chief Vintage, Chieftain

CIndianThe mere fact that you’re looking at pictures of the new Indian motorcycles within these pages is actually an incredible achievement. Perhaps not on your part, but it is on the part of Polaris and the team at Indian Motorcycle. The motorcycle you see before you was imagined, developed, tested, and produced in an astonishingly short time period: 27 months, to be exact. As a former employee of an automotive parts manufacturer, I can personally attest that this time frame is amazing. When I was in the industry, I found that sometimes one machine component could take three years to go from drawing board to driveway. And Indian did an entire vehicle in a little over two years? To me, that’s astonishing!

Bear in mind, this isn’t an extension of the last two attempts at reviving the Indian Motorcycle brand. This bike is a clean sheet build, and you’re not looking at some cobbled together test mule. That’s me riding the actual bike, and as you read this, new Indian Chief Classic, Chief Vintage, and Chieftain are on showroom floors. I cannot sum up how impressed I am by that feat and by this trio of bikes.

BSure, technology has come a long way since the days I worked for an auto parts company and that may be part of the reason this motorcycle is in the flesh so quickly. But teamwork, passion, and a positive attitude on the part of the Indian employees are what made it happen. Git ’er done is more than a comedian’s catchphrase here. These people got it done! No meetings on when to schedule a meeting. No infighting. Make a decision, use the technology available to make it work, move onto the next phase. I’m sure there were plenty of late nights at the office, pissed-off spouses, weekend hours, and skipped vacations in order to do so. But it has resulted in a truly amazing machine that runs and rides well, pulls hard from any throttle angle, instills pride in the rider, and is a fitting extension of the fine Indian Motorcycle brand.

Excuse me if you think I’m gushing here. And no, I’m not on the Polaris payroll. It is my opinion that if these bikes had taken five years to develop (which is what I was estimating), I’d still be impressed with them. But 27 months? And the end product is so good? I gotta give credit where it’s due. But for now, enough of that, I’ll move on to what’s so great about the new Indians. The three models available are the Chief Classic, an appropriately named cruiser that I dare not call naked or basic for it’s loaded with features and trim; the Chief Vintage, which comes with what I consider the quintessential Indian look, thanks to tan leather saddlebags and a clear, tall windshield (all quick release); and the Chieftain, a modernized interpretation of what a loaded touring bagger would be had Indian not gone out of business so many years ago. Each is available in the three classic color offerings of Thunder Black (base price), Indian Motorcycle Red, and Springfield Blue (red or blue available at additional cost). While all three are great looking on this bike, the red just screams Indian to me. But I must admit that the black Vintage model, with the buckskin-colored bags and seat, is quite tasteful.

DAll three are powered by the same Thunder Stroke 111″ engine backed by a smooth-shifting six-speed transmission and a belt final drive. The Thunder Stroke 111 is fed by an electronic fuel-injection system drawing air from the left side of the bike as Indians so famously used to do. The small chrome cover on the right side is a stylized electronics cover. Straight pushrod tubes, downspout exhaust pipes, and finned valve covers were all staples of the Indian look and are represented here in modernized fashion. The valve cover is actually a valve cover inside a valve cover to reduce transmitted heat; much attention went into reworking the exhaust ports for that down-exiting headpipe, and the actual pushrods inside the tubes are angled slightly to work with the three-camshaft system of valve control. The 111 is balance shaft equipped, and the rotating mass was kept low with the help of slim beam con rods. The engine holds 5-1/2 quarts of oil, there’s no separate primary so it’s a one-fluid engine, and the oil bag is not a separate tank at all; it’s a cast-in portion at the rear of the engine. Engineers set a goal of 115 ft-lbs. of torque, which they proceeded to obliterate with an actual 119 ft-lbs. production, and 91 octane fuel is preferred. 5,000-mile service intervals (after the initial 500-mile service) will be appreciated by owners. I’ve been asked by many folks about my impressions of the new Indian and the fact that it’s “hard to lug” always comes up. This engine pulls hard from anywhere in the rpm range.

The engine isn’t vibey at all, quite smooth. There’s no audible transmission noise and, in my opinion, the Indian is a nicer shifting bike than its Victory cousins. A note on that: there are no shared major components between the Indian and Victory bikes, and they are assembled on separate assembly lines. For that, I won’t call the two brands sisters, rather distant cousins. During the press event in Sturgis, South Dakota, I even joked that Polaris needs to send the Indian transmission engineers over to help the Victory guys out. If you’ve ever been disappointed in the way a Victory transmission shifts (as I have), you won’t find any of those problems here.

EWhile all three Indians share the same engine, you’ll find differences in the chassis layout. The Classic and Vintage are direct clones and have the same rake and trail figures of 29 degrees/155mm. However, the Chieftain benefits from a steering geometry change for quicker handling and better lowspeed maneuverability. It has a 25-degree rake and 150mm trail leading a shorter wheelbase. The chassis is a component aluminum frame with double cradle downtubes, which bolt to the steering head. Kudos to Indian for the way the components cleanly came together. The hardware is hidden, the frame is clean and downright attractive, even featuring an Indian logo embellishment near the headstock. I found all three to be well-balanced bikes as we played “don’t put your foot down/slow race” at intersections. The rear shock is preload adjustable, mechanically on the Classic and Vintage, while the Chieftain is pneumatically adjustable. All three models benefit from a rear suspension pull pin, which allows the rear suspension to drop down extra far for easy rear tire service. One qualm I did have with a chassis-related item is that the kickstand was difficult to find with my heel. I kept pushing on the clutch pivot point instead by accident. It’s just something to get used to. On the plus side, it’s actually difficult to touch floorboard to pavement during tight turns and maneuvers, making the Indians fun to charge through corners. Whitewall tires on wire wheel rims are standard on the Classic and Vintage, while the Chieftain wears blackwall rubber on cast aluminum wheels. One of the conceptual renditions showed the Chieftain wearing whitewalls, and it looked hot. I was told that for the extra weight-carrying capability necessary on the Chieftain, the cast wheels with beefier blackwalls needed to be fitted.

AOn the comfort and aesthetics side of the bike, I’d say Indian nailed it! One comment made by Director of Industrial Design for Polaris Greg Brew struck a chord with me. At the onset of the project, the question was posed: What if Indian had never gone out of business? What would the bikes look like now?” I thought that was a great approach. You have a clean sheet of paper to design whatever you like, but you need to stay true to the brand. It’s not just a matter of picking up where Indian left off, but advancing the look to where it should properly be in today’s world. For example, the glassfaced Indian War Bonnet mascot on the front fender was actually adjusted to look down the road farther and advanced with
the use of LED lighting. The valanced fenders are true to their inspiration: all metal and proportioned just right. The tank top instrument panel nacelle pays homage to the 1938 Indian, which actually had an ammeter where the analog fuel gauge now resides, and there’s a modern, keyless entry start button instead of an ignition switch keyhole. Indian wasn’t afraid to layer the bikes with plenty of chrome, which no self-respecting Indian should be without. And did you notice that the Chief Classic features Indian lettering on the tank, the Vintage utilizes a tank emblem, and the Chieftain has a headdress logo appliqué, all seemingly perfect renditions of what was and what should be? On the Chief Classic and Vintage,
facing the rider in the aforementioned dash nacelle, is the main speedometer with an inset LCD screen showing a scrollable odometer, two tripmeters, tach, air temp, volts, clock, and average mpg range with a gear indicator displayed all the time. To my eyes, the thin numerals are a little difficult to read, and the instruments glow a dark red at night compounding the issue.

FOn the Chieftain, the gauges are moved up to the fairing, and the info panel is displayed as a dark background with light numerals, which appear somewhat dim to me. I think I would
appreciate the reverse: dark numerals on a light background. The Chieftain also gets a premium 100-watt sound system with Bluetooth, and easy-to-operate controls are on the left switchpod. The fork-mounted fairing features an electronically movable windshield, which, in the raised position, is quite effective at controlling wind noise at speed. The sound system absolutely rocks and may be one of the best sounding of any touring motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. There’s a small compartment on the right side of the fairing with a lanyard-attached soft bag to hold your MP3 player. As for the front of the fairing, some folks have been down on Indian for its appearance. Who cares? I’ll be seeing this bike from behind the fairing more than in front. But after seeing what inspired the look (1940s and ’50s streamliner trains), the appearance of the Chieftain makes more sense now. The large, chrome headlight surround is chrome-plated plastic, surely for weight savings on the forks, and seemingly the only cut rate part on the bike.

The mirrors are well placed on all three models and are rock steady while riding. All models are equipped with major features like ABS and cruise control, and minor ones like emergency hazard flashers and genuine leather seats. The saddlebags on the Vintage are ultra soft to the touch; it feels like you can immerse your hand in the leather and the underside of the bag lids are lined with an equally soft quilted material. Hardbags on the Chieftain are electronically lockable via a small switch on the tank nacelle. There’s plenty of
room to accessorize your Indian, and the factory is busy pounding out parts already; there’s plenty of fringe to suit you, and I await the heel-toe shifter. My favorite accessory might be the matching tan leather attaché case, which snaps in place on the accessory rear rack. It’s classy.

GIn closing, please allow me to gush a little more. These new Indians cannot, and should not, be confused with the last two halfhearted attempts (and the several others before them) at resurrecting the Indian brand. I just prefer to wipe those from my mind and do as Indian designers did: just think of this as exactly where the Indian Motorcycle company would be in 2014 if not for its untimely demise in 1953. The motorcycles are high tech, well equipped, powerful, true to their heritage, and, most of all, fun to ride. They grab stares, questions, and thumbs-ups from most anyone who sees them. And that’s not because of the amazing backstory of them coming to market so expediently. It’s because of proper proportion and traditional styling that exudes the feeling of a classic American motorcycle. Some people say Indian is coming back. I say, in amazement, Indian is here. M

Story by Steve Lita Photos by Tom Riles and Barry Hathaway

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  1. Jerry Sodano says:

    I took a demo ride on a Indian Chieftain at Daytona during bike week. It fit me perfectly. I felt right at home. The only problem I noticed was went I opened the throttle quickly. The Motorcycle hesitated, then the torque rush kicked in. This happened twice during my test ride. Did you experience this same problem.
    I spoke with the Indian dealership and they said that the demo bikes at Daytona were pre-production models and that I should demo a production model. I don’t want to judge a motorcycle based on one ride. Any info would be helpful.