Common Tread

The Scandinavian DNA in the traditional American V-twin

Jun 04, 2015

If you think about V-twin motorcycles, you think about one country: America, right? Wrong.

I mean, yes, V-twins are as American as apple pie, baseball, and credit card debt, but there's more to the story. It turns out that Sweden and Norway had quite a bit to do with the two biggest brands most folks associate with the traditional American V-twin engine.

Oscar Hedstrom with one of his "motocycles." He was more than a wrench, though. In 1903, the brave Swede set a top-speed record on the beach at 56 mph. Public domain photo.
A few months ago, I was at a motorcycle show, surrounded by bikes with all sorts of pedigrees, and someone handed me a flyer from the American Swedish Historical Museum. Evidently, this museum has a whole bunch of Indian stuff on display in a traveling exhibit at the museum right now. I thought the connection between A Swedish museum and Indian "motocycles" was thin. I have never given Scandinavia even a lick of thought outside of Nimbuses. (Nimbus Bumblebees are awesome; check those out if you have never seen one.) All the same, it seemed I could go to the museum, eye up old bikes, and bill RevZilla for the admission fee. Sign me up.

Detail of one of the motorcycles on display in the museum. Photo by Lemmy.

Before I went to go see the exhibit, I did a little homework. Indians are not my area of strength. I like them, and I know a bit about their history, but they're so godawful rare that I have no practical experience with them. Still, I find them appealing and their neck-and-neck competition with my beloved Harley-Davidson for the first half of the 20th century piques my interest. The Museum chose to put on this exhibit due to the Swedish roots of one of Indian's founders, Carl Oscar Hedstrom. Hedstrom, a machinist, immigrated from Sweden and met an American racer and bicycle manufacturer named George Hendee. Hedstrom had built a motorized bicycle that impressed Hendee, and the two teamed up, forming the Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company. The name was chosen to signify the American roots and pioneer spirit imbued in the product. Hedstrom's engineering skill was complemented by Hendee's existing bike production and business acumen.

After thinking about it, Indian's Swedish-American matchup reminded me of Art Davidson, of Harley-Davidson fame. Davidson was mentored by Ole Evinrude, a Norwegian engine builder. Evinrude passed along more than a few secrets about how to make an engine run well to young Arthur.

The association is actually pretty interesting. Norway and Sweden existed side-by-side as a united kingdom until 1905. When one stops and considers the huge input a Swede and Norwegian both had over every nearly every American V-twin to follow, it seems like we Americans owe our Scandinavian friends a word or two of thanks.

So, to recap Indian's story: Almost 125 years ago, a Swedish fellow teamed up with an American to start a company making motorcycles named (mistakenly) named after an inhabitant of India. They experienced ups and downs, and closed their doors over half a century later. The name was purchased, and Indian badges were affixed over the years to Italian, British, and then Taiwanese bikes.

Now fast-forward to the present. In 2015, one of those old, old Indian motorcycles is being built by a Japanese guy for the biggest chopper-building event in the United States. And that's not the end of Indian, no sir. Those motorcycles were so popular that they are being produced once again by an American company that owns, among other things, a French ATV company and a manufacturing plant in Mexico.

Iconic Indian tank logo. Photo by Lemmy.

The world's a small place, it seems. More than once I've said, "No one builds a bike by himself!" The process of building a single motorcycle takes lots of help from friends. Apparently, that holds true when a company tries to build a motorcycle brand, too. The whole world needs to pitch in.

If you're interested in learning a little bit about a plucky Swede's role in creating the motorcycle manufacturer that was the world's largest a century ago, go see my new-found friends at the American Swedish Historical Museum, and ask them to direct you to the Indian exhibit. It's worth the measly eight bucks they're asking. If you can't make the trip, check out the photo gallery for a glimpse at what they've got on display.

Scandinavians, you have my very deepest gratitude for giving us one of your best.