The Butterfield Marauders
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.