This past weekend I discovered a charming little movie from 2005 titled “The World’s Fastest Indian“. Anthony Hopkins presents one of the most likeable characters I’ve seen on screen in a long time as Herbert “Burt” Munro. The movie tells Burt’s story of taking his bike from Invercargill, New Zealand to Bonneville, Utah to fulfil his dreams of setting a world record on the salt flats.
What makes the movie so compelling is that it tells the tale of a man in his 60s, pushing a 1920 Indian Scout to world record setting speeds more than 40 years after the bike was originally manufactured. In addition to enjoying Anthony Hopkins fantastic performance, I was smitten with the motorcycle. I love the throaty roar of the motor and Burt’s intimate familiarity with this machine. The beautiful bike is concealed with a spaceship like shell designed to cheat the wind. The movie captures the sense of speed as Burt set an official world record of 183 mph on a bike with a motor smaller than 1000cc back in 1967. This record still stands today.
What the movie doesn’t show is that after his first trip to America, Burt decided to create a second frame to leave state side, only transporting the engine to and from New Zealand while he continued to improve it. The engine from the record setting bike is now on display at Haye’s & Sons Hardware in Burt’s home town, Invercargill, New Zealand. Burt sold the bike to Mr Haye with the request the bike be kept in New Zealand as a part of the local heritage. The second bike is currently owned by musician Tom Hensley, who proudly displays the bike at shows like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance where the bike took top honors in 2010.
I can’t imagine what either of Burt’s old bikes would sell for if they were to come up for auction but there are plenty of other Indian motorcycles worth noting that have changed hands in the past few years. Being the oldest successful American manufacturer of motorcycles, Indians helped to define modern biker culture.
As with many pioneers of early motoring, George Hendee wanted to go faster on his bicycles. He created the first Indian motorcycles in 1902 but collectors can’t have any of them because they were dismantled for use as parts in 1903. The 1903 Indian only put out 1.75 horsepower but that was enough for George to set a land speed record of 56mph at the time. Earlier this year, Wolfe Industrial Auctions sold an unrestored 1903 Indian motorcycle for $155,000. This motorcycle is an amazing part of American motorcycle history and I expect the owner to preserve it in its current state rather than performing any sort of restoration.
The Indian motorcycles continued to get faster and faster as Hendee learned how to make more power and make his bikes ride better. Looking back at the southern hemisphere, GDL Auctions in Toowoomba, Australia sold a 1923/5 Indian OHV 8 Valve Racer to a lucky collector. Indian factory rider, Paul Anderson, used the motor from this bike to set the world record of 125mph in 1925. Rhodes Motors installed the engine into the current frame and continued racing with it, setting a lap record of 90mph at the Melbourne Motordrome.
While early Indian motorcycles enjoyed success in racing and setting speed records, the best remembered model was the Chief. The Chief was introduced in 1922 as an upgrade from the Scout using a 1000 cc motor. In 1940, the distinctively flared fenders. Steve McQueen, famous as much for his passion for motorsports as his Hollywood movies, owned over 150 different motorcycles during his lifetime. A 1941 Indian Chief was his ride of choice for getting around Tinseltown. While it’s fairly easy to find a ’41 Chief in decent condition for under $30,000, the association with McQueen helped this classic ride sell for $99,450 at Bonham’s San Francisco Motorcycle auction in November, 2009.
Not quite finished with racing, Indian introduced the 648 Big Base Scout in 1948 using the best of everything they had. The Big Base got its name from the extra-large sumps that were created to help the engine cope with the stresses of racing. One 648 Big Base Scout that was still winning races into the 80s was sold as part of the 2008 MacPherson Collection by RM Auctions for a whopping $165,000 making it the most expensive Indian motorcycle on record.
Sadly, the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company went bankrupt in 1953. This left Harley Davidson as the sole mainstream American manufacturer of motorcycles. Over the course of the next few decades the Indian brand has been traded and sold to a number of owners. One fun departure from the classic cruisers and board racers that made Indian famous was the Indian Boy Racer. Floyd Clymer imported these fun little 50cc motorbikes and marketed them for kids aged 6 to 16 to practice and compete on. One of them turned up on a recent episode of Pawn Stars when Corey and Chumlee got word of a classic Indian motorbike. I believe they picked up a great little bike but the $6,000 they invested is a bit more than they are going to be able to sell it for. I wish them luck.
Last year, Polaris Industries, makers of off road vehicles and Victory Motorcycles, acquired the rights to the Indian name. The 2012 line-up featured the Chief Vintage, Chief Classic and Chief Dark Horse bikes with the Indian Chief Classic being the most affordable at a starting MSRP of $26,499. These long distance cruisers are for collectors that want to enjoy a reliable, comfortable ride that evokes the fantastic heritage of the Indian name. I wish the brand luck and hope it proves to carry the spirit of the original Indian brand.