Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

The Butterfield Marauders

Not having been started for months, this little motorbike sputtered for awhile before it was able to idle.

Out for a walk a couple of weekends ago, I returned to camp to find that a motorcycle gang had moved in. Okay, maybe it was more of a motor scooter gang, and all of their bikes were vintage and very similar. The rider in the photo above told me that his mount was a Hirscheiser, spoken in a tone which assumed that I had heard of it, or at least should have, had I been civilized or at least housebroken. You know, Hirscheiser! Nope. My memory banks coming up dry, I didn’t think to ask for the spelling, and a modest search online didn’t produce anything. Nonetheless, a half-hour later, fifteen riders of the little bikes putted down the road toward downtown, happily looking for trouble.

I thought these were all there was, until I later peeked out of the Intrepid to see a stream of them heading toward town.

Nearby were parked two Indian motorcycles, 1946 and 1951 models. The stuff of legend, Indian motorcycles predate Harley-Davidson, and soundly bested them, both on the race track and in the marketplace for a couple of decades. That is, both groups began their prototypes in 1901, with Indian swinging into production in 1902 to reach 500 bikes annually by 1904, while Harley-Davidson began its first production run in 1905, with 5 bikes made largely from parts sourced elsewhere. A similar disparity in sales volumes continued for many years.

Wow. Even for an ignoramus like myself, one look says, “No, this is not a Harley”. The bike in front has its gearshift lever on the left side of the gas tank. These were the last years of hand gearshifts and foot-pedal clutches, the market moving to hand-operated clutches and foot pedal gearshifts as we have today. The earlier system wasn’t called “suicide clutch” for nothing. Good way to both dump the bike and entertain bystanders if something didn’t go right.

The total number of motorcycle companies in America had reached 150 by 1911. Like their automotive counterparts, speculative investments by tycoons and would-be tycoons were rampant. The rush to birth companies on paper, open them up to investment, create a prototype, transition to a streetable production model, find willing dealers and market well, were goals rarely reached. So, that “150 companies” means firms on paper. Nearly all made it to the prototype stage, since investors want to see the hardware. Most companies failed somewhere short of production year two or three, and by the end of the next decade, the market was down to just a few concerns.

These are two different models of Indian, the newer one being on the right. The one to the rear has its gearshift on the right side of the gas tank.

Then in WWI, Indian threw nearly all its “Powerplus” production to serve the U.S. Army, starving its own dealer network, who had paid for the privilege of selling the most popular motorcycles in the country. Incensed, a lot of them dropped Indian and held a grudge ever after. The company suffered a market shrinkage that they were never able to fully overcome until they finally folded in 1953. The iconic styling in the 1930s helped pull sales fairly close to H-Ds by 1940, but its military sales during WWII were nearly nonexistent, the combination of noncompetitive designs and the Army’s decision to use the new Bantam Jeep for most duties traditionally handled by motorcycles. H-D earned the military sales that survived. All along, Indian’s production bikes had been very good, a quality occasionally lacking in its changing management. As per the song lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,” Indian’s panache is still revered some 65 years after it finally withered away in a slow death of arrogance and incompetency.

This is speculated to be the 1901 prototype, with Oscar Hedstrom behind.

Don’t feel too bad for the original founders, though. Their crises came early. As worded by Wikipedia, “Oscar Hedstrom left Indian in 1913 after disagreements with the board of directors regarding dubious practices to inflate the company’s stock value. George Hendee resigned in 1916.” Then 50, Hendee, who had begun as a bicycle racer and builder, retired to raise cattle and poultry, and no doubt did not miss the powergrabs inherent in big company intrigues. He died in 1943 at age 77. Hedstrom, an inventive Swede who had originally built high-performance bicycles and then a superior “pacer” (a gas-powered tandem used to break the air for competition bicycle racers), then joined Hendee to design a motorized bicycle suitable for mass production. On his departure, he retired to his riverfront estate until his death in 1966 at age 89.

Hedstrom in March 1903 at Daytona, where he set the first official Daytona land speed record for motorcycles at 57 MPH. This is considered to be the first Indian “factory racer”.

The brand exists today in name only. After decades of buying and selling the brand name itself, chicanery, misapplication to other products, resurrections and failures, you can finally buy the modernized version of an Indian motorcycle in the most legitimate effort so far. But it’s not in any manner a descendant of the original Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company. Polaris Industries bought the name and new production facilities held by a British private equity firm, moved production to Iowa, revamped the design, and finally killed off its own hemorrhaging Victory Motorcycles brand just this year.

Board track racing, like the brief 18-month span of the Pony Express, holds more cache in legend than it did in reality. It began in 1909, the last track went up in 1914, and was over by the time America entered WWI. It made extraordinary demands of riders, and claimed many lives and able bodies – both riders and spectators.

Lemme tell ya about a story my dad told me. He allegedly learned to ride a two-wheeled vehicle on his new-to-him Indian motorcycle, not a bicycle. Bicycles were of little use on rural farms. I would have felt sorry for him, considering the Indian’s long, unresponsive wheelbase and prodigious weight. But he probably made do. He and his older brother used to lift the back ends of Model T Fords off the ground just for fun. Decades later, after having survived helping to raise three sniveling brats, he was inspecting my brother’s Penton dirt bike. He noticed that its fuel tank was bare and clean of attachments, my brother told me. He spent a moment searching under both sides of the fuel tank. Mystified, my dad asked him, “Where’s the gearshift??” Now that’s Old School!

Eugene Walker aboard a special Indian racer in 1920. Astride it, he broke the speed record at 115.79 MPH.

I don’t know the year of this Indian, but I suspect it’s a production model somewhere prior to 1918. Don’t wear white pants riding this one! As opposed to the tubby, massive bikes with music players made today, I consider this to be the iconic essence of what motorcycling was. Thrilling, and dangerous as hell. Bikers assume that speed is the thrill, when it’s really been riding along the edge of any given machine’s performance limits all along, perhaps with an occasional test of your own mettle.

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2 thoughts on “The Butterfield Marauders

  1. Linda Sand on said:

    Have you seen the movie “World’s Fastest Indian”? Well worth watching.

    • Thanks for mentioning that, Linda! I thought of that when I found the photo of the 1920 model above, since the streamliner he ran starting in 1956 was based on a 1920 production bike that he had seriously massaged for decades. I pay homage to that film at least once a year, I think. I like it because it’s very well done, but it also belies our modern assumptions of how progress has historically been made. We think of unseen committees of specialized “experts” from academia as the authors of advances, when a stunning amount of it has been by the gritty work of self-taught eccentrics who tended to go against the norm, and against group-think. The movie is far from being a docudrama, but it’s good entertainment. I’ll wager that its depiction of Burt Munro’s basic personality is probably quite accurate.

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