Indian Chief Motorcycle Review
There are some motorcycles which are more than just two wheels and an engine; they represent the history and heritage of a country and its culture. The Indian Chief is an American motorcycle, one with as much claim to the United States’ motorcycling history and heritage as Harley-Davidson.
Indian has had an arduous journey; the Hendee Motorcycle Company began producing motorcycles under the Indian brand from its factory in New England in the year 1901. The Indian Chief was the most iconic model from this stable. But post the Second World War, the brand could not sustain itself, and by 1953 all production had ceased.
The defunct company was revived under British management a few years later, and in fact Royal Enfield bikes were exported to the US from Britain, rebadged and sold as Indians.
Cut to the 21st century, and the brand was purchased by US-based Polaris, a maker of quads, ATVs and motorcycles. Polaris has extensive engineering expertise, and so the Indian Chief has been reborn. Fitting too, that a US company should own and manage what is undeniably a brand with great heritage.
Re-creating an original is difficult; can you produce a modern motorcycle which is both technologically advanced and reliable, while at the same time preserving the appropriate heritage and panache such a brand deserves? And does it even make sense to ask so much of a bike whom few (if any) who’ve ridden in the early 1900s are likely to ride today?
Instead, I decided to look at the Indian Chief objectively, without the burden of history and without any self-aggrandizing and odious comparisons to the bikes that once were.
Drooling over its valanced fenders, ample brightwork and leather seats and saddlebags, the Indian Chief is a motorcycle that is hard to miss. Its mammoth proportions and glinting chrome mean it will never fly under the radar. But subtlety is not what American culture is known for, even from half a world away.
A glance at the spec sheet tells us just how much of how much of everything there is. Let’s start with the engine. It displaces 1,811 cc, which is bigger than what a Toyota Corolla has. This engine, christened ‘Thunder Stroke’ by Polaris engineers, puts out 139 Nm of torque. Honestly, that’s not much, is it? Well, let me put it this way. That’s as much torque as the average family sedan in India has. Claimed wet weight is 379 kilograms, which is as much as two Royal Enfield Bullets.
Climbing aboard the Indian Chief for the first time and lifting it off its side stand could be a hernia-inducing exercise. This is a BIG, HEAVY motorcycle. Thumb the starter and begin rolling though, and the weight magically disappears. The Indian Chief rides true, its tarmac crushing weight ensuring it stays planted, and the excellent tyres ensure there is never the risk of the Chief tram-lining on a rutted stretch of highway.
The Thunder Stroke engine puts out a unique rumble; I like how Indian has not copied Harley-Davidson, with the big Chief sounding distinctly different. Rolling on the throttle in any gear delivers expectedly enthusiastic acceleration, accompanied by a throaty soundtrack. But there’s no point to really revving this engine hard, and anybody who does so is simply show-boating, being an idiot and wasting fuel.
The Indian Chief we rode came with an optional plexi-glass windshield, which did an admirable job of protecting me from buffeting. At a steady cruise of between 110-120 km/h the Indian Chief feels in its element. It even has cruise control! Of course, Indian highways aren’t to American standards, so there’s little point to using cruise control, but I tried it for a brief period, just because it’s there. Honestly, it brings a different dimension to motorcycling. As bikers, we’ve all experienced that sense of wonder on an open road, watching the sun rise, or go down, taking in the sights and smells of the country, enjoying the breeze and the sensation of being aboard a motorcycle. With cruise control, you don’t even need to bother with the throttle. It’s easy to lose yourself in that moment, drift away into a pleasant Zen-like state, imagining an endless ribbon of sinuous tarmac…
But the retards who populate much of our highways ensure that that reverie is shattered. The heightened awareness required while being aboard two wheels, simply to survive, takes some of the fun out of being on a bike. And on a bike like the Indian Chief, you can’t make enough allowances for the afore-mentioned retards. With rider, pillion and luggage, that’s over half a tonne of rolling metal. Swerving between traffic isn’t the simple option it can be aboard so many other bikes, cruisers included.
Stopping the Chief even with the standard ABS and big 300 mm discs fore and aft, is no easy matter. What I didn’t like was how ungainly this exercise can be. The brakes have sufficient bite, and shed speed admirably well, but you’re always aware that you need to put your foot down as you stop. The feel and modulation from the Indian Chief’s brakes leaves much to be desired though, and it jerks to a stop over the last foot or so, which is simply inelegant and not becoming of a cruiser this size.
While I’m griping, let me tell you about how the Indian Chief feels in tight, slow hairpins. In a word – scary. And it’s not just the weight and size that scare you shitless, it’s the bloody torque. There’s so much of it, even off idle, that your only option is to clutch-in, or the torque pulses through the belt drive and throws you off line. You’ve grown up learning that you never, ever clutch in in a corner, but the Chief leaves you no choice.
On longer, flowing corners, the Indian Chief feels much, much better. It has completely neutral steering, and the balance isn’t affected by a pillion as much as a Harley-Davidson Softail is, for example. Don’t expect sportbike levels of lean in corners, but it to its credit, nothing touched tarmac even with slightly enthusiastic lean angles.
The clutch, as expected, is very heavy. As long as you don’t need to use it often, you are fine. From second gear onwards, you can actually up-shift the Indian without using the clutch, and the gearbox is a peach. There is none of the mechanical clunkiness you get with H-D, which is a pleasant surprise. However, for the brief bits of traffic I encountered in suburban Mumbai, that clutch was torture. The Indian Chief is not a bike you can commute on, no chief.
In a nutshell, the Indian is built for the open highway. Country roads, ghats and city streets are not for the Chief.
The Indian Chief’s most obvious competitor is the Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic, which has the similar studded seat, leather saddlebags and white-wall tyres. The Harley feels easier and lighter to putter around on though, but then it is lighter by around 40 kilos, and carries its weight lower too. Forty kilograms may not sound like much, but to me, those extra kilos felt like the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back.
Ultimately, the Indian Chief feels like a good motorcycle to ride. It also ticks the right boxes for sound, size and presence; it feels well-engineered and well-built too. Did I forget to mention the mileage? No Indian road test would ever be complete without it, and for the record, the Indian Chief managed an admirable 16.1 km/l on my ride. With a 20-litre tank, that should get you about 300 kilometres between stops, fair range for a cruiser.
But it feels too much of a handful to ride. At some point, you may need to back it out of a parking slot, make a U-turn or simply manoeuvre it in a basement on a slippery concrete floor. Such mundane practicalities are part and parcel of motorcycle ownership, and it’s at times like these that the Indian Chief feels a bit too much. That too much of too much-ness is further re-affirmed by the price. Is it really worth as much as two Harley-Davidsons Heritage Classics? I don’t think so.
Buying one for the novelty factor might seem the only way to rationalize this choice. Indian roads don't give this Red Indian much of a chance to shine.