The Indian Motorcycle of today is a powerhouse with machines worthy of bedroom posters and being in the dreams of aspirational riders. The Indian FTR might be the most beautiful American motorcycle on sale and the Challenger packs a punch. Look far back behind the latest incarnation of Indian and you’ll find that during the 1910s, it was the largest motorcycle company in the world. For half a century, Indian produced motorcycles that won races, broke records, and found homes in the hearts and garages of riders. One historical milestone was the Indian Four, a motorcycle with a 77 cubic inch four mounted longitudinally. It was so beautiful, so expensive, and so refined that some refer to it as ‘The Duesenberg Of Motorcycles.’ And yes, you can buy this 1941 Indian Four Model 441!
If you visit Indian Motorcycle’s site, you’ll see that the company claims to be America’s first motorcycle company. It was founded in 1901 by George M. Hendee with engineer Oscar Herdstrom. This technically makes Indian two years older than Harley-Davidson, which kicked off its colorful history in 1903. Indian, like Harley, was a trailblazer in developing America’s rich motorcycle culture.
The Hendee Manufacturing Company, as it was called back then, was a serious contender in motorcycle racing. Hedstrom rode one of his motorcycles to a speed record of 56 miles per hour. He also won an endurance race from New York City to Springfield, Massachusetts, which was then home of Hendee Manufacturing. The company was known for its record-setting stunts back then.
In 1906, a Hendee dealer pair rode an Indian motorcycle from San Francisco to New York City in a record-setting 31 days, apparently not suffering any mechanical problems along the way. The Indian factory team swept the podium in the 1911 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, Ed Kretz won the first Daytona 200 race in 1937, and in the early 1950s, the company had a team of dominant dirt and road racers. These were the days when motorcycle manufacturers sold bikes by proving how fast and durable they were.
Unfortunately, Indian Motorcycle doesn’t quite have the long-running heritage that Harley-Davidson can claim. After World War II, Indian Motorcycle entered a state of decline. Efforts to keep the brand alive faltered and Indian ground to a halt in 1953. Since then, the Indian Motorcycle name has passed through a surprising number of owners. From 1953 to 2011, the name passed through at least 10 caretakers before finally landing in the hands of Polaris Industries in 2011. During some of that time before Polaris, Indian was sometimes selling vehicles like mopeds and rebadged Royal Enfields. Polaris still owns Indian today.
The Indian Four
This motorcycle comes from before Indian’s original collapse. Indian was perhaps best known for its large V-twin cruisers, but it also made a line of incredible cruisers with longitudinally-mounted fours. These motorcycles were known as the Indian Four, but they weren’t originally an Indian design.
As Hemmings writes, in 1911, brothers Tom and William Henderson founded the Henderson Motorcycle Company. The brothers kickstarted their company with advanced four-cylinder motorcycles. Their machines weren’t the first four-cylinder designs, but they were known for their sheer size and power.
The Henderson Four had a long 65-inch wheelbase (a modern Harley-Davidson Street Glide has a 64-inch wheelbase) and was reportedly capable of hitting about 62 mph. They were known as some of the fastest motorcycles of their day and were favored with enthusiasts and police.
In 1917, the Henderson brothers sold their company to Ignaz Schwinn, the owner of the Schwinn Bicycle Company and Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company. Reportedly, the relationship between the Hendersons and Excelsior went sour, leading to the departure of William Henderson in 1919. William then joined forces with Max M. Sladkin of the Haverford Cycle Co. to form the Ace Motor Co.
There, William continued development on his four-cylinder motorcycle. The new Ace Four released in 1920 featuring an engine featuring overhead intake valves and side exhaust valves. This new motorcycle was also a record-breaker, as a new Ace set a coast-to-coast record.
William Henderson died in 1922 when a car struck him as he tested a motorcycle. Ace itself went belly up in 1924, with Indian picking up the scraps and the Ace Four in 1927. Indian moved the production of the Ace Four to Springfield and called the bike the Indian Ace.
A year later, Indian would change the name to the Indian Four and the first model was the Model 401. It was a development of the Ace design from Arthur O. Lemon, who was chief engineer at Excelsior before following William Henderson to Ace.
Lemon was then working with Indian to evolve the Four. The Model 401 sported a 77 cubic inch (1265 cc) straight-four making about 30 HP, which earned it a top speed of over 90 mph.
In 1929, Indian released the Model 402. Improvements from Lemon included an upgrade from three to five main bearings, a double downtube motorcycle frame, a quarter-leaf-spring front suspension, and a double-plunger rear suspension. Another notable change is the addition of a front brake. Going into the 1930s, further development resulted in better handling and comfort. The engine also got upgrades that kicked power ratings up to about 40 HP.
As Hemmings writes, in 1936, Indian attempted to wring more power out of the engine by changing the engine. The company was still using an F-head intake-over-exhaust valve design and decided to invert the configuration so that the exhaust valves were over the intake valves. This was supposed to result in more power, but ended up making the bike hotter without the intended performance increase. Indian gave up on the experiment in 1938, going back to the intake-over-exhaust design, but modifying the configuration from one jug per cylinder to cylinders paired up.
When 1940 came around, the Indian Four evolved into the masterpiece that you see today. The 1940 bike featured an upswept exhaust and valenced fenders that would become so iconic, Indian will sell you a motorcycle with them today. Indian first used the fenders on the Four and its Chief V-twin in 1940.
As Dale’s Wheels Through Time museum explains above, these motorcycles, dating back to the Ace Four, were thought to be so beautiful, so classy, and so refined that they were regarded as ‘The Duesenberg Of Motorcyles.’
And Indian Fours were priced accordingly. As Mecum Auctions notes, a 1941 Indian Four Model 441 listed for $1,095 ($23,440 today), or more than a base 1941 Buick, which came with an 8-cylinder engine. For comparison, in 1941, Harley-Davidson sold the FL with a 74 cubic-inch V-twin for $465 ($9,954 today). Indian made you pay a lot for three more cubes and the Harley still made more power, churning out either 48 HP or 53 HP depending on who you ask.
This 1941 Indian Four Model 441
This 1941 Model 441 will be rolling across the Bonhams auction block in Brussels on May 13. The motorcycle is said to be in mostly original shape and incredibly, is on only its third owner since new. In 1941, it was delivered new to a man named Nick, a police officer who lived in Illinois. The motorcycle comes with its own little story, from Bonhams:
He had ordered a 1940 Chief but was notified that his order did not make the production run. Instead, the dealer offered him a bike from the next factory run of Fours. All Nick had to do was provide a letter from his police chief stating that the bike was going to be used on the job, and his order would be added to the Chicago PD order.
This Indian Four was Nick’s only transportation for many years. He rode it to Seattle after the war when he moved there, and to San Diego when he moved there. He also used it to transport materials when he dug a well at his property in Escondido. This Indian Four was discovered on the SoCal AMCA Winter Road Run at Nick’s house in Salton City. The second owner purchased the Indian from the Nick in 1994; its current owner lives in Belgium and bought the Indian in the USA, where specialist Tim Grabber recommended the bike as a “true ++” example.
The listing provides some interesting facts. It starts using a kick-start and it makes 38 psi of oil pressure when riding and 12 psi of pressure while idling. The motorcycle is said to run and ride well and it drinks a quart of oil every 100 miles. Pretty awesome is the fact that the auction comes with original photographs and documents showing Nick enjoying this machine all of the way back in the 1940s. The listing says the motorcycle is “exceptionally original,” but that’s not defined. It certainly looks the part, though, the listing notes mechanical work from 2016.
Either way, it’s estimated to sell for between $99,000 to $132,000, so bring a bank if you want to bid.
As for what happened to the Indian Four, production halted in 1942 as Indian diverted its resources to aid in the World War II effort. After the war ended, Indian did not restart production. Thus, this motorcycle survives as a working piece of history from Indian’s wild past.
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It uses ” One quart of oil every 100 miles”? So basically, its useless. Pull over every 100 miles and pour in another quart. So the engine needs an overhaul. Or is this normal? If so that’s pretty awful
I’m not sure if Indian did this, but older Harleys used a slow drip of engine oil on the final drive chain to keep it lubricated. This “total loss” lubrication meant that the bikes were infamous for “marking their territory” and needing regular top-ups of oil. This is different from the porous castings and poor workmanship during the AMF days of Harley, where some bikes would leak from anywhere and everywhere.
Little know “fact” about Indian. A major cause of the company’s failure at the end of WW2 was the government defaulting on a major order when hostilities ended. This left Indian having to eat a large order without recompense. Harley on the other hand was not treated the same way, resulting in a very favorable market position for Harley. FWIW I can find no supporting documentation so this may be an old wives tale :>(
I guess I like old motorcycles because when I hear Indian Motorcycles I think first of the in line 4 and not the v twin.
I love a Duesenburg but as they failed in 1922 maybe not quite the rep you want.
They went into receivership in ’24 before being purchased by Cord, who kept the brothers on to engineer the new models. They didn’t become legendary as road cars until the J model was introduced in ’28. They went out of business in ’37.
Go check out Excelsior’s 4. They were part of the Schwinn bicycle empire.
Back in the early 90s a guy in Scotland was making replicas of either the Indian 4 or the earlier Henderson using Volvo B18 internal parts in a custom made block
Fun trivia, at one point in the Indian saga the company was actually owned by Indians since the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua were major investors in one of the early 2000s incarnations.
“Fun trivia, at one point in the Indian saga the company was actually owned by Indians since the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua were major investors in one of the early 2000s incarnations.”
Even more fun fact: Those weren’t actually Indians. Royal Enfield OTOH is owned by actual Indians.
Longitudinal fours are hard to package in a bike, but they sure are neat. Folks like the BMW K-bricks but I’m a big fan of the Nimbus with its exposed valve gear. They were made by a Danish vacuum cleaner company, they only develop 22HP, and they are just weird in a good way.
They have a frame without any tubular members, just stamped steel stuff creatively formed to provide rigidity. Totally love a Nimbus.
Really bad design for an air cooled engine.
That is gorgeous!
At the Mecum auction Las Vegas, January 2022, there was an absolute stunner of a 1932 Indian four-cylinder. The tank just said Indian rather than Indian4 like the black one in the Mecum pic above.
Great article, beautiful bike. Whoever buys it, I hope they ride it.
I imagine it was because centrifugal forces tended to make these wanna lie down when revved up, but I still think that Indian should have at least offered a modern inline four in the big chief.
There was also the Indian Dakota Four