The rise and fall of Indian Motorcycles during World War One
Indian Motorcycles were reborn a few years ago, but we came across a story from their very earliest first years, when their participation in the war effort very nearly led to the company’s demise.
This year marks 100 years since the U.S. declared it was entering the First World War.
As the entire country braced itself for the conflict, Indian Motorcycles joined the national efforts dedicating virtually its entire production line to the war preparations.
The U.S. Army started using motorcycles from 1913 and most came from three manufacturers: Hendee Manufacturing (which later became Indian), Harley-Davidson and Excelsior.
During 1917 and 1918 alone, the U.S. Army placed 40,000 orders for Indian machines. Many were a militarised version of the civilian Powerplus and were usually supplied with a sidecar fitted. Harley-Davidson, in comparison, supplied only 26,000 of its motorcycles.
Pat Ware, a historian and the author of The World Encyclopaedia of Military Motorcycles, says: “During World War One, most U.S. military motorcycles remained in the USA where they were used for training, despatch rider, convoy escort, messenger and scouting roles.
“Being heavy and often difficult to control, motorcycles were unpopular with riders due to the extreme fatigue they experienced when riding off-road.”
He added: “Small numbers found their way to the fighting in Europe where, with the addition of a sidecar, they also found themselves being used as machine-gun mounts, ambulances and even pigeon lofts!”
At the time, Indian Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson models were very similar. Both featured large V-twin engines driving the rear wheel via an exposed chain and three-speed transmission. While the Harley had a hand gear change, the Indian had a foot change.
Both were also built around a tubular frame and had a very similar wheelbase. Their rear wheels were unsprung, with the Indian fitted with leaf-sprung front forks while the Harley used coil springs.
Indian was certainly committed to supplying motorcycles to the U.S. Army. Mass-producing thousands of machines meant they could reduce the price, presumably ensuring that the government would purchase more Indians than other makes.
Ware says: “The company even established a repair and service centre to train military personnel in looking after motorcycles of all three of the major U.S. manufacturers.
“Unfortunately, the decision to concentrate on the military meant that the company virtually abandoned their dealer network and, when the war ended, Indian found it difficult to reclaim their share of civilian sales, not at least because Harley-Davidson had been busy recruiting new dealers throughout the war.”
The strategy was to prove fatal to Indian’s long-term success. Production of civilian models had been scaled back, dealerships had been let down, and fans were turning to rival motorcycle brands. Harley-Davidson, for example, may have supplied 15,000 fewer machines – but it had nurtured sales back home.
Indian continued to supply the military into the 1930s, developing an updated version of the Powerplus (the M2) – and this was sold to the US Army into the 1930s. The Army also purchased examples of the Indian Scout and Chief models.
But Harley-Davidson also managed to tap into the military market and had become the main supplier of motorcycles to the US Army by the late 1930s. The popularity of the Harley-Davidson and Indian actually reversed: Harley supplied 60,000 examples of the Model WLA during World War Two compared to just half of the Indian Models 641/741.
Indian never fully recovered after falling from their position as the number one supplier of motorcycles in the USA.
In fact, many writers say that Indian may have helped win the war – but it, unfortunately, lost the long-term battle for survival. Eventually, in 1953, Indian Motorcycles went bankrupt.
This article was produced with the assistance of the online magazine Influx.
Want to find out more about Indian Motorcycles? Read the Influx Magazine edition about them.