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Common Tread

Indian Chief Dark Horse: Three things Polaris is doing right

Feb 16, 2015

I'll spare you some of the obvious #leftshark jokes that Sean wore out and cut right to what I think the new Indian Chief Dark Horse means for Polaris. Indian, in general, is a corpse that has been dragged out and trotted around many times since its initial demise in 1953. Upon this latest iteration, I recalled the words of my good friend Dr. Benway: "Why can't they just let Indian have a dignified death?"

From what I've seen so far, though, Polaris has done all the right things, including coughing up enough cash, and optimizing their strategy for the medium and long terms. The Dark Horse is undeniable proof of that. Perhaps Indian has identified its Lazarus. Let me pontificate:

The first thing I think Indian has done correctly is acknowledging the brand's past, and not just the rosy-Americana-Springfield days. The Dark Horse was first unveiled in 2009. Indian fans will no doubt recall that the Dark Horse of that era was powered by the so-called "bottle cap" engine, and the bike retailed for just south of 28 grand.

2009 Indian Dark Horse
The Dark Horse built by the previous iteration of Indian had the "bottle cap" engine. It cost more than $10,000 more than the new one. Indian photo.

Looking at that motorcycle with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to spot problems. Releasing a premium-priced motorcycle in the throes of one of America's most dire financial periods? Not sound. The bottle cap motor? Stripping Indian of its identity by using an indirect Harley-Davidson clone was not helpful, either. Finally, due to low production numbers, the Dark Horse's nearly custom-bike status, and a weak dealer network, the bikes were saddled with poor reliability marks. The Polaris version of Indian is showing some real gumption by refusing to sweep this model under the rug. Rather, it seems they intend to breathe new life into the model, refusing to make the same lazy mistakes other buyers of the make have made over the years.

2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse
Similar look (and press photo treatment) as its predecessor's, but the 2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse promises to be a better motorcycle. Indian photo.

The second gauntlet Indian has thrown down comes in the form of re-positioning itself once again as a technology leader. Indian — the original Indian, that is — was always innovative. Frankly, they made the other domestic motorcycle company look like they were resting on their laurels. They beat them to the V-twin engine, multi-speed transmissions, electric starting, and a flurry of other items that became standard on bikes as the years marched on.

The three-cam 111 ci mill that Indian now uses is a damn sight better than the bottle cap. It was engineered for the bike, rather than being a cheap, watered-down copycat. Indian even got the little stuff right, like the right-hand drive, just like the models of old. Those are the details that matter. The guy buying an Indian most likely has a keen understanding of the brand. This is not a "first motorcycle" brand, not by a long shot.

Indian nailed one last thing with the Dark Horse: they offered a bike to the middle of the market that is not based on weepy nostalgia for the "good ol' days." I groaned when I saw the Roadmaster and Chieftain roll out. More overpriced, barge-like bikes. I will give credit where credit is due, though: the Scout's no joke. For very short coin, one can run out and buy a bike that makes 100 horsepower and weighs 30 pounds less than its direct American-made competition.

2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse
2016 Indian Chief Dark Horse. Indian photo.
With bikes like the Chieftain and the new Scout covering the premium nostalgia market and the upper end of the entry-level market, the Dark Horse, with an MSRP of $16,999, covers the middle of the domestic bike market, price-wise (if you accept that Indian, like Harley-Davidson, is a premium brand). More importantly, this bike is still a "big" bike, but stripped. It's not a garbage wagon, and it's not styled after a more traditional bike like the Classic. They dropped the chrome and the oil cooler, and blacked out most of the bike. It's a simple move, not exactly what I'd call inspired — but it works just fine on this bike.

Indian's going to have a full model lineup soon. Indian let the big-money bagger buyers help offset some of the R&D necessary to develop the Thunder Stroke, and now that their bikes are starting to be known again as quick and reliable, they are using that bought-and-paid-for drivetrain in a bike that's going to draw in a different buyer. Deceptively simple.

I even like the way Polaris "leaked" the photo of the bike before its official introduction in Chicago on Friday. Not really a "leak," photos like that are intentionally dribbled out to whet appetites. Good timing, Polaris. Lemmy approves.

Look, I'll always love old stuff. The Indian purists sniff at these new models, and I understand. Sure, I love a good flathead and a rigid frame. What true-blue Indian fan does not? However, the days of carburetors and straight pipes are long gone and 1953 isn't coming back. A direct throwback to the side-valve Powerplus is not going to roll out of the factory and meet 2015 environmental regulations, and few people would want one, anyway.

The important thing is that Polaris is doing a much better job with the Indian marque than its previous guardians (and I use that term loosely).

Good enough for me to put my money where my mouth is? I don't think I'm Polaris' customer for this particular bike. But new bikes that make other riders happy always have a warm, dry spot in my shop, and fresh fluids. Or oats, if that's what the horse calls for.