New Indian Chieftains come with baggage

Before you enter into a relationship with the new Indian Chieftain Limited or Chieftain Elite, know that they come with baggage. Not to worry; it is completely intentional.

The sleek, factory-custom “baggers”—bikes with saddlebags integrated into the design—are taking the Indian Motorcycle brand to a new market niche and rarefied level of exclusivity. Prior to being revived by Polaris Industries in 2013, Indian had sputtered through various stages of dormancy, reorganization, and low-level production since 1953, the year the original company failed.

Indian’s heritage dates to 1901, when bicycle racer and manufacturer George Hendee sought to refine the motorized bike that Oscar Hedstrom used for pacing competitors on board tracks. Hendee found investors to back a manufacturing enterprise, and three Indians were built that year, each with a 13.7-cid (224cc) single-cylinder engine.

The first Indian V-twin came along in 1908, and a dozen successful years passed before the company gained exceptional renown with its Scout model. According to the Standard Catalog of American Motorcycles 1898-1981, “The mid-sized Scout introduced user-friendly motorcycling to many. It was easy to start and easy handling.”

The Indian Chief, which appeared in 1922, upsized the Scout’s principles and specifications. Its 60.88-cid (988cc) V-twin expanded Indian’s appeal.

In late-1938, a factory-stock Sport Scout logged a run of 115.126 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Chief managed 120.747 mph.

Recognizing the importance of that racing heritage, Indian has revived its hallowed racing team known as the Wrecking Crew. The squad successfully entered competition in March. And those who have seen The World’s Fastest Indian—the great biopic about Burt Munro’s 1967 speed-record at Bonneville (Utah)—will want to follow the summer’s scheduled attempt to break that record as Indian supports Munro’s nephew Lee Munro.

Since the Polaris revival, the new Chief and Scout have featured retro styling, including large fenders, bold graphics, and, in some instances, leather bags and fringing. Lustrous colors and chrome complete the look. But it’s not all heritage. The new powertrains are very modern, and other amenities are luxurious.

Four different Chieftains share the 111-cid (1811cc) air-cooled, 49-degree V-twin that is common to other Chief, Roadmaster, and Springfield models in the lineup. Not only is the big twin a paragon of power and smoothness, but it also mates with a precise, light-action six-speed transmission. The bikes sharing this powertrain cruise along with a relaxed mien, their mellow rumble expressing a uniquely American state of mind.

To compete against the Harley-Davidson Street Glide, the Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite break new ground, though, by turning away from the retro look and adopting a sleeker look. It starts with a simpler front fender, replacing the deeply skirted one on the Chieftain and Chieftain Dark Horse.

Product manager Josh Katt said designers took cues from the custom market. “Taking that valanced fender off was not something we took lightly. We know it’s iconic; it takes people back to the brand’s heritage.”

With that said, the first Scouts and Chiefs had open fenders; the skirting only became evident around 1940. The new (old?) open-fender design better displays the larger 19-inch front wheel, and with 10 machine-finished spokes, it makes an aggressive statement. Front brake rotors are in plain view, and close scrutiny will reveal the Indian logo inscribed on the four-piston caliper. The similarly finished rear wheel is 16 inches.

Another key aspect of the Chieftain Limited, offered in Thunder Black, is the general lack of chrome. A lovely, leather-upholstered saddle with contrasting white stitching accommodates rider and passenger. Contoured saddlebags can be locked and unlocked by remote control, either by a button on the console or one on the key fob. Optional 100-watt speakers can be integrated into the bags. The windshield is electrically adjustable via a button on the handlebar. Mid-rise bars are another option. Base price is $24,499.

We rode the Chieftain Limited around the San Diego area and found it both comfortable and, on a canyon road, plenty entertaining. The overall appearance appeals in every way. The designers succeeded in reversing course for the more contemporary, more menacing look.

Taking the same principles a step higher is the Chieftain Elite, which was slated for an edition of 350. The bike comes with LED headlight and driving lights, flared windshield and floorboards that are made of billet aluminum. Saddlebag audio is included.

What most sets the Chieftain Elite apart is the wondrous, hand-laid paint job in a color that Indian calls “Fireglow Red Candy.” The first of 12 layers of paint is a gold color, followed by several layers of flecked pigment. Marble-like accents are unique to each bike. Indian acquired a specialty shop in Spearfish, S.D., and that’s where the 25 hours of finishing takes place. The Chieftain Elite is available from Indian’s 200 North American dealers for $31,499, and represents a pinnacle for the reinvigorated company.