All She Wrote
Polaris, in axing Victory, admitted defeat. But is Indian merely Victory with a better backstory?
Joesph Boyden was busted. The subject matter of novelist Boyden’s writing is primarily indigenous themes, and Boyden, in discussing his Métis background, claimed, “A small part of me is indigenous, but it’s a big part of who I am.” But just how small, wondered the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, is small? “The closest Mr. Boyden had to an indigenous ancestor,” found APTN in its investigation, “was an uncle who called himself ‘Injun Joe,’ wore a headdress, and sold native-themed souvenirs outside a park.” Boyden’s actual story—a white suburban kid with a huckster uncle—couldn’t equal in gravitas his fabulated past. But Boyden’s not the first to appropriate Indian history to fill a void.
The Victory motorcycle company had a reasonable shot at success. Harley-Davidson, in the years leading up to Victory’s 1998 debut, was selling as many motorcycles as it could manufacture. Rather than reboot a musty old brand—like, say, Indian—parent company Polaris, in developing Victory from scratch, offered the potential of an American-made cruiser alternative to the H-D juggernaut.
Indian Chief preens while Victory burns to the ground. Before parent company Polaris warms its hands by the fire, they'd be wise to ensure flames
aren't licking Indian's heels.
In the early going Victory stumbled—as was to be expected from a new company—but its woes didn’t end. Model after new model met marketplace ambivalence. Victory looked for someone, anyone, to lead them to the light. And that’s when Victory met customizer (and former semi-pro bowler) Arlen Ness.
A strong design department creates a language for subsequent designers. It’s why KTMs look like KTMs and Ducatis like Ducatis. And design language evolves—contrast a BMW of today with one from 20 years ago. But customizers, like Ness, don’t develop a language, they grab an angle grinder and dive in. And Ness, by this time, was already yesterday’s man. His ultra-slick stretched choppers—forerunners of the machines that populated sitcom American Chopper—were already on the wane. In Victory lore, the Ness-influenced Vegas model is considered the machine that saved the company. In truth, it’s the motorcycle that sealed Victory’s fate.
Instead of purposeful, muscular, motorcycle design, Victory motorcycles became festooned with baroque ornamentation. Design dashed madly off in silly-Ness. Models were inspired by ill-handing, overweight muscle cars (the ill-handling, overweight Judge) and by aircraft carriers (the Vision, the only machine that could make a Gold Wing appear willowy). The garishly coloured, comically big-wheeled Magnum sought to corner the muscle-builder and narco-trafficker niche. Victory made much ado of it split-tail fuel tank design, which forked into a snake’s tongue where it met the seat. It quickly became a motif as dated as the snakeskin boots to which Mr. Ness is partial.
And then Victory bought a struggling electric motorcycle company—rebadged it as their own—and went racing at the Isle of Man (it did well). And then they built a race bike for the Pikes Peak hillclimb (don’t ask). And then Victory conscripted the son of Arlen Ness for his design input. And then they hit up Ness’s grandson for ideas. Enough?
Victory’s tagline was The New American Motorcycle. But nobody wanted a new American motorcycle. They just wanted the old one: Harley-Davidson. Victory sold, in total, 125,000 motorcycles, slightly less than half of Harley’s 2016 production alone. Long after production ceased, Victory's website still had these words: “We are young, full of drive, with our eyes on the horizon. We’re never slowing down.”
Polaris killed Victory on January 9, 2017. Steve Menneto, president of Polaris motorcycles, came clean about the reality of Victory. They had lost, he said, over $100 million in 18 years of production. But you needn’t have waited until January 2017 to know Victory was doomed—its future was foretold in April of 2011, on the day Polaris bought Indian.
President Menneto, in a cozy fireside chat with Alan Cathcart that appeared in Cycle News, said, “Knowhow and styling cues derived from Victory [will be used] in producing new Indian models. [In] our decision to focus on this one brand, we have an opportunity to expand Indian considerably in terms of the brand story.” Menneto continued in the newspeak so beloved by contemporary executives. The goal, he said, was to bring to market “innovative products.”
Of Indian and Jack Daniel's, who collaborated on a limited edition Chief model, Indian boss Steve Menneto said, "You won't find two brands that better represent the American Dream..." Seriously. And a wooden flag comes with every bike. Seriously.
The deeper question is whether the purchase of a dormant brand entitles you to ownership of its history. (A question equally applicable to Triumph, Norton, MV Agusta, et al.) If I buy David Bowie’s back catalogue from his estate—based on the actions of motorcycling’s brand revivalists—I’m now David Bowie. I can release new material as David Bowie and claim his past achievements (and his conquests, too—Bowie’s widowed wife Iman comes with the deal).
Indian’s product director, Gary Gray, in referring to its flat-track effort, said, “A big part of our history is flat track racing.” Is it really? Does the purchase of a handsome cursive font logo entitle you to the half-century of Indian’s heritage? To the company that swept the podium at the Isle of Man in 1911? To the company that was once the largest producer of motorcycles in the world? Does Polaris, the company that couldn’t make Victory succeed, have the right to claim one of motorcycling’s greats? (One wonders what George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom, Indian’s founders, would have thought of its motorcycles referred to as “innovative products”—100 years ago the phrase, despite conjuring images of primitive washing machines, was at least factual. Today it’s the hollowest of hyperbole.)
Gary Gray inadvertently illustrates the isolationism that has defined Polaris’s two-wheeled adventures. In a promotional video co-branded by Indian and Cycle World magazine, to tout Indian’s flat track racing team, Gray (beneath a soaring soundtrack worthy of The Guns of Navarone), asks, “This is just nuts, right? You would never walk into any boardroom and lay out what we’re doing and have everyone nod their head and say, ‘that makes sense.’” But motorcycle companies race. It’s what they do. What does KTM, who compete in a multitude of off-road disciplines in addition to three MotoGP classes, spend on racing in a year?
(Incidentally, Cycle World’s technical editor Kevin Cameron, in a compelling cameo, appears in the video to bestow a platitude. “By provoking the establishment in dirt track racing,” he says, “Indian is doing the sport as a whole a great service.” It may, eventually, be true, but his words are premature. And then Cameron, who’s earned his racing bona fides from a lifetime in the sport, channels the spirit of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. “The dominant machine in American dirt track for years,” Cameron says with solemnity, “is shaped like dirt.”)
Indian’s execution of its Scout FTR750 flat track motorcycle has been, by any measure, spectacular. Indian hired the three best riders in the sport and tasked Jared Mees—the most well-rounded rider in a generation—to lead development of a race-only machine. Mees ruled the 2017 season, missing the podium just once in 18 races, and as the 2018 season dawned, with more riders adopting the FTR, it appears the machine will be to the future of flat track what Harley’s XR750 was to its past. But building a racing bike, while an immensely complex task, has a clearly defined goal: to win. The consumer marketplace for production motorcycles is considerably more nebulous.
The wisdom accepted en-masse by the mainstream motorcycle press is that lessons learned by Polaris in Victory’s withering will allow Indian to blossom. Cycle World editor Mark Hoyer wrote, “Victory is indeed the very reason that Polaris was able to make Indian what it is today,” and that Indian will benefit from Polaris’s experience in “building a brand from nothing.” Polaris certainly understands the innumerable elements necessary to manufacture a product and distribute it to a showroom, but it’s worth questioning the value of Indian as an asset and, furthermore, of Polaris’s ability to sell it.
"Shaped like dirt," said expert Kevin Cameron of the Scout FTR750. Phooey. It's beautiful. The production Scout, while handsome, is bound by the strictures of the cruiser idiom.
Long before Polaris bought Indian, when a keg of beer and a case of oil would have been sufficient to secure the name, BMW had seriously considered buying the brand. (It only sounds an odd fit until you consider BMW operates car company Mini as a sub-brand within its empire.) BMW’s research, a BMW executive told me in confidence, suggested Indian was a name without sufficient traction, especially in America. A company out of business for 50 years is too far gone, he said.
A fog of nostalgia looms over our understanding of Indian. Long before the company went bust, in 1953, it was struggling. It had attempted to update its side-valve V-twins with a range of parallel-twins, but the machines didn’t gain foothold and the company retreated, never to return to health. Polaris’s range-topping Indian Chief is a near visual replica of a 1953 Chief, right down to having its overhead valve engine appear as if it’s a flathead. (Polaris, in focus groups prior to designing the Chief, were told the appearance of the engine was as important to brand identity as deeply valanced fenders.)
It’s more than a curious footnote that Polaris emulated a model that was already a relic in 1953. Recreating it today is as dispiriting as listening to a weary bar band plod through Born to Run—haven’t we heard this before? Polaris’s Chief is testament to a paucity of fresh ideas. If you’re going to ape anything about the defunct Indian, don’t fixate on the final, failing, postwar years. Look back to when the company didn’t trade on nostalgia, but on new ideas that stretched existing technologies. Indian, when it did its best work, when it rose to prominence, was a new company, younger, even, than Victory was at its death.
Despite causing a furor in the native community by his fraudulent claims, the awkward truth is that novelist Joseph Boyden has written some very good books. Indian’s challenge today is not so different from that of the chastened novelist’s—how do you find the path to redemption amid the skeletons of the past?