Classic Indian Chief motorcycle ready to roll

The classic Indian Chief motorcycle, prized for its fanciful fenders and an American heritage different from its much bigger rival, Harley-Davidson, is back and finally ready to roll in California.

First built in 1922 and in and out of production ever since, the Chief has been ridden over the years by actor Steve McQueen and other renegades possessing fame and fortune. Now it has been overhauled for the modern era.

Boat maker: A Dec. 24 article in Business about the revival of Indian Motorcycle misspelled the boat brand Riva as Reva. —

Although motorcycle sales are down nationwide, the Chief is already a sought-after ride in 16 other states where it has been on sale since early this year.

The Chief just hasn’t been available on the West Coast. But that’s about to change this spring with the 2010 Chief, selling for $26,000 plus. This month the latest incarnation of the 108-year-old Indian brand announced the names of two of its five planned California dealerships -- one in Harbor City and the other in Fresno.

“We know California is going to be a great market for us,” said Steve Heese, president of the new Indian Motorcycle in Kings Mountain, N.C.

It’s just taking a long time for it to get to California.

Heese said the delay was caused by the state’s emission requirements and a lengthy search for the right dealers. California, which accounts for 10% of all U.S. motorcycle sales, has tougher emissions standards than the rest of the country.

For a company to sell motorcycles in the state, California’s Air Resources Board must provide an additional emissions certification to the one issued by the Environmental Protection Agency that allows a manufacturer’s products to be sold in other states.

Indian secured its California emissions clearance only last week. Heese is confident that the motorcycles will arrive well before the planned April openings of California Harley-Davidson Indian Motorcycle Los Angeles in Harbor City and Indian Motorcycle Fresno, based out of a car dealership, Herwaldt Subaru.

“I can’t wait to get these new Indians so I can put them on the lot and buy a new one myself,” said Matt Herwaldt, 30, general manager of Indian Motorcycle Fresno. He owns a Harley but is “blown away by the quality, fit and finish of the new Indian. It’s the Bentley of motorcycles.”

The Fresno dealer plans to have bikes at its showroom this month and will start selling them in April.

Indian was picky in selecting its dealers. From 3,500 inquiries worldwide, it has selected 22 North American dealers, with plans to open about 110 overall. The company said it received more than 30 inquiries from California, where the company plans to open three more dealerships -- one each in Orange County, San Diego and Northern California.

Quality control has been important to the new Indian, which said it has had to work hard to prove it is different from the previous owner of the Indian brand, California Motorcycle Co. in Gilroy. That company operated from 1999 to 2003, when it closed down; the 12,000 motorcycles it produced were known for their myriad problems, most notably an overheating engine, falling-off parts and cheap chrome and paint.

Although there has been a lot of enthusiasm for the new Indian, some buyers are critical. John White of Seattle said he spent $38,000 to buy one of the first Indian Chiefs made in Kings Mountain and had been disappointed. “It’s an overpriced bike with many bugs that I hope Indian will work out,” White said.

Stephen Julius and Steve Heese purchased the Indian brand in 2004, having had success reviving well-known, but bankrupt, luxury boat brands Chris-Craft and Reva.

Financed in part with venture capital and mostly with their own money, Julius and Heese spent four years learning the brand and the mistakes of its predecessors, building its production plant and developing the new Chief. Although that timing has landed the company in the worst motorcycle market in decades, it’s paid off in enthusiast response.

“The Kings Mountain Indian is a very refined machine,” said Robert Malachowski, who heads the Southern California chapter of the Iron Indian Riders Assn. A lifelong Indian motorcycle fan, he owns four Gilroy Indians and has had a deposit down on the top-of-the-line Vintage model of the Indian Chief since 2008.

“My only problem with the Kings Mountain machine is that as soon as I get one I know my Gilroy ’99 will get pushed farther back in the garage,” said Malachowski, a Hollywood producer. “Overall, it’s just a more finished motorcycle.”

Mark Ruffalo, president of the dealership formerly known as California Harley-Davidson in Harbor City, had the same reaction after seeing the bike for the first time at the Laughlin, Nev., motorcycle rally in April.

Ruffalo said he watched bikers respond favorably to its high-quality paint and leather work, as well as the chromed and entirely overhauled Powerplus 105 engine, at which point he approached the company and asked to be a dealer.

Ruffalo has been a Harley-Davidson dealer since 1976. “Indian fits nicely,” he said, because, like Harley-Davidson, it is well-known and will need little marketing. Even so, Ruffalo was careful to get Harley-Davidson’s blessing before finalizing the deal with Indian.

Priced at the high end of the motorcycle market, Indian is direct competition for Harley’s premium, custom vehicles.

Harley-Davidson Inc. has not commented on its revitalized rival, and the company said its practice was not to comment on its competitors. The Milwaukee company reported Oct. 15 that its worldwide retail sales for the first three quarters of 2009 fell 22.9% from the same period in 2008, while its U.S. market share grew to 54% from 44.5% in the last year.

The company reported net income of $163.6 million in that nine-month period of 2009, down 71.6% from the year-earlier period. It said the income drop partly reflected lower motorcycle shipments and the effect of the economy on its retail and wholesale loan business. As a public company, Harley-Davidson’s financial data is released quarterly. Indian is privately held and does not release similar information.

Indian and Harley-Davidson are long-standing combatants, dating to the manufacturers’ earliest days. Indian began in Springfield, Mass., in 1901 and endured until 1953, when it went bankrupt and later was revived. Harley-Davidson started in Milwaukee in 1903 and continues today.

“They were such different companies,” said Tod Rafferty, an author who has written books about both manufacturers. “Indian was a very engineering-oriented, racing organization. The neat thing about the whole Indian versus Harley-Davidson conflict was that they made each other better over the years.”

Whether that will happen again is hard to know, Rafferty said. “It’s such a competitive business now with the Germans, Italians and Japanese all building great motorcycles.”