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Classic Chief near full throttle again

An employee at the Indian Motorcycle factory in Kings Mountain, N.C., works on a Powerplus 105 engine for the Indian Chief, which sells for upward of $26,000. Rick Haithcox, Indian Motorcycle (Courtesy photo Rick Haithcox, Indian Motorcycle)
An employee at the Indian Motorcycle factory in Kings Mountain, N.C., works on a Powerplus 105 engine for the Indian Chief, which sells for upward of $26,000. Rick Haithcox, Indian Motorcycle (Courtesy photo Rick Haithcox, Indian Motorcycle)

Indian Motorcycle making another comeback as new owners revved up about California outlets

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.

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 Los Angeles 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.

A high bar

Heese said the delay was caused by the state’s emissions requirements and a lengthy search for the right dealers. California, which accounts for 10 percent 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.

“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.”

Emphasis on quality

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, Calif. 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 plenty 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 was disappointed. “It’s an overpriced bike with many bugs that I hope Indian will work out,” White said.

Learning on the job

Stephen Julius and 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 Association. 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.”

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 percent from the same period in 2008, while its U.S. market share grew to 54 percent from 44.5 percent in the past year.