Take Me From Behind
Innovation from the Bottom Up
Polaris motorcycle boss Steve Menetto wedged shut the hospital room door, climbed onto the bed in which Victory motorcycles was dying, and whispered into its ear that its death would assist in expanding the “brand story” of half-brother Indian. If brand story didn’t make you wince, then Menetto uttering these words while simultaneously throttling Victory’s windpipe will. Menetto said the goal with Indian was to bring “innovative products” to market. Not innovative motorcycles. Innovative products. I was, naturally, skeptical. But I was wrong.
Heavyweight American cruisers are not great repositories of innovation. We won’t allow them to be. A radiator on a Harley still isn’t right to those leathery, beardy, grumpy old gits on Fat Boys and Electra Glides. Innovation embraces modernity, and what good has that done? Post-Panhead America, I’ve learned from reading Facebook, is totally fucked—it’ll take a Knucklehead to lead America onto the righteous path.
One hundred years ago Indian made lightweight four-valve-per-cylinder racers, and, with the sublime FTR750 flat tracker, they still do. But racing aside, the heavyweight American motorcycle knows its limits, stays within it, and rejects rogue technology (like antilock brakes) until its application is so universally accepted that further resistance makes the company appear as painfully unhip as suspenders-and-buggies Mennonites. (A parallel is the hoary classic-rock radio station that feared kick-ass bands like the Stooges and the Clash in their prime. All it took for Iggy and Joe Strummer to make the playlist were three decades of acceptance elsewhere.)
With the (patent-pending) ClimaCommand (no joke, that’s its name) heated and cooled seat, Indian has innovated. Really. Heated seats are relatively commonplace on touring bikes; it’s the cooling feature that makes the ClimaCommand unusual. And it’s not, according to Indian, an automotive HVAC-style system that pumps cool air though vents in the seat. The ClimaCommand’s innovation is a cool-to-the-touch surface facilitated by a “thermoelectric module located within the seat. [When] electricity is applied to the module, one side absorbs heat and the other side dissipates heat. By reversing electrical flow, hot-and-cold temperatures alternate.” And because the seat doesn’t have holes, it’s waterproof. It’s brilliant. And it’s telling.
That Indian chose to flex its engineering muscles for the comfort of your ass illustrates a profound bifurcation in the marketplace. Whereas so-called “emerging” markets (update: they’ve emerged) in Asia and elsewhere emphasize nimble small- and mid-displacement models, American motorcycle manufacturers (both of them) seem resigned to shuffle their ageing ridership comfortably—and oh, so coolly—right off this mortal coil.
Despite a name (ClimaCommand) that gets me humming the '80s pop song Karma Chameleon, Indian's heated and cooled seat appears to be a genuine innovation. Price is about $1,200 (US) and it can be fitted to giant touring sleds like the pair above.