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Indian Motorcycle aims for a chrome-powered revival

Big engines, chrome pipes, long fenders and hand-stitched leather: Indian Motorcycle and its owner, Polaris Industries, are hoping these can power the brand to a revival strong enough to challenge Harley-Davidson.

But the bikes are no longer built in Kings Mountain, where Indian’s former owners briefly moved production alongside the failed Chris-Craft Corp. boat factory. Polaris moved the production to its facilities in Spirit Lake, Iowa, in 2011.

The three new Indian models were unveiled locally Friday, at the Indian Victory Charlotte dealership off Interstate 85 in Lowell. For Minnesota-based Polaris, the bikes represent a $100 million gamble to unseat Harley, the entrenched market leader.

“That was always an arch rivalry,” Mark Moses, owner and general manager of the Indian Victory Charlotte dealership, said of the two motorcycle brands’ battles for dominance in the 1920s and 30s.

Harley-Davidson had a 57 percent share of the U.S. heavyweight motorcycle market last year, with 161,678 sold.

Moses’ dealership is also something of a museum for Indian motorcycles. It’s full of rare models, including a pristine 1913 Indian motorcycle that was essentially a bicycle with a motor strapped to it, and the rusting hulk of a 1942 Indian motorcycle that was one of only 200 built for civilian use during World War II.

They’re just a few of the 40 motorcycles in Moses’ personal collection. One of his favorites is the bright red Indian with dropped handlebars (the better to accommodate his surgically-repaired left shoulder, which he tore up in a Blue Ridge Parkway riding accident), leather saddlebags and the license plate “HOGEATR”.

“It sort of reflects my personality,” Moses said with a wry smile. “A little loud, a little obnoxious.”

A new start

Indian Motorcycle is a 112-year-old brand that’s gone through a long and fitful series of deaths and rebirths.

“We look at it as a classic American heritage brand,” said Steve Menneto, vice president of motorcycles at Polaris. The company is on track to have between 125 and 140 Indian dealerships open in the U.S. by the end of the year, up from 23 in 2012.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 1953, after difficulty converting back to civilian production following World War II. The brand name passed through a succession of corporate incarnations over the next five decades, and Indian mini-bikes, bicycles and motorcycles of various designs appeared.

In 2003, a California company that had been building Indian motorcycles filed for bankruptcy. Three years later, a private equity firm bought the company and soon re-started Indian production in Kings Mountain.

Indian was owned by the same businessmen who brought the Chris-Craft yacht production to Kings Mountain in 2006, with the promise of 800 jobs and a $42 million investment. The company was lured in part by more than $10 million in state and local incentives.

Two years later, Chris-Craft closed its Kings Mountain factory during the recession. The company withdrew from the incentives programs and did not receive most of the money.

Two dozen people worked for Indian Motorcycle when Polaris bought the brand and moved production to Iowa in 2011.

“I think it’s the history and the heritage,” Moses said of how the brand avoided extinction.

Now, the Indian brand is an independent division of Polaris, which manufactures off-road vehicles and Victory motorcycles. The motorcycle division, with $49.9 million in sales last quarter, makes up 6 percent of Polaris’ total revenue.

“We have that stability that the brand never really had,” said Menneto. He said Polaris can use its financial clout – the company had $3.2 billion in sales last year – along with its engineering expertise and networks of suppliers and distributors to grow Indian.

The motorcycles also have lower sales prices than their predecessors.

Indian has always been a “premium” – more expensive – brand, Moses said. In 1940, one cost three times as much as a Harley-Davidson. But with the new models starting at $18,999, comparable to a Harley-Davidson, he thinks they’ll be more competitive.

“We widened out customer base from this,” he said, holding his hands close together, “to this,” he said, spreading them wide.

Menneto hopes that Indian’s history will help carry the motorcycles to commercial success.

“Even though the brand has been challenged over the last 50 years, it never lost its feel,” he said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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