Long Strange Trip for Indian

Editor Scott Cochran –  It occurs to me what a long, strange trip its been.

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Harley and Indian enjoy a level of devotion unrivaled in the motorcycle industry.

But, at least I’m still riding.

Ok…I stole that first line from the Grateful Dead’s song, “Truckin.” Written by the band and released in 1970, that song defined a generation and the psychedelic culture of the 70’s.

“Truckin” reached #37 in 1971 and was the only chart success the Dead achieved until “Touch of Grey” was released in 1987 and eventually broke into the top ten.

The story of the Grateful Dead and their music, does have some direct correlation to motorcycling. The leader, Jerry Garcia was a Harley rider as well as Ron “Pig Pen “ McKernan. Their first manager, G.H. “Hank” Harrison was also a motorcycle rider.

In the beginning (1965) the band even used the name “The Warlocks” which was also adopted by a motorcycle club that founded in 1967. The Dead eventually changed their name, not because of the MC, but because of another band in the area was also using the name Warlocks.

The Grateful Dead played over 2,000 concerts (Guinness Record) during their career, and by many estimates played to more than 25 million people, (600,000 at one show!) more than any other band.

But, by the measure of commercial / popular music, radio play the band never sold enough records to be considered wildly successful.

But its fans, The Dead Heads, were the reason for the band’s longevity and the money making machine it eventually became.

A hard-core group of fans, who will stick with you through thick and thin are worth their weight in LSD, (not that I would know what LSD is worth…)

And that’s where I’m going with this months ramble…. Fans.

Harley-Davidson, like it or not, has enjoyed (through the years) the loyalty of a group of customers unequaled by any other motorcycle manufacturer.

The reason, I believe, is not based in the machines, anymore than the Grateful Dead’s rabid fan base was because of the music.

The reason thousands of people followed the Dead around the country and tens of thousands of people inked the Bar and Shield onto their skin is…The Culture.

It’s what the brand said about them. Who the customer wanted to be and who the customer wanted to be identified with.

Whenever you see a “Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac” even though that vehicle is the symbol of the Right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie (Don Henley’s words) you can be sure the owner is someone who wants to be associated with the 70’s counter-culture movement. Someone who sees themselves as a “hippie” stuck in a white collar world.

The same (sort of) thing when you see a Harley-Davidson bumper stickers on a Honda Prius.

Until recently, Harley-Davidson could lay claim to being the only motorcycle brand with enough heritage to satisfy the owner who wanted something more than just a motorcycle. Today Harley-Davidson’s dominance in that space is being challenged by a revived Indian Motorcycle.

Looking back to 2008, it would have made more sense for HD to buy the intellectual property rights to their old nemesis Indian, instead of spending $109 million dollars on MV Agusta.

I’m guessing it would have been a better investment than the Italian motorcycle maker turned out to be. (not to manufacture Indian motorcycles but to keep anyone else from doing it) But, you can’t prove a negative so speculation is useless.

The common belief is that healthy competition is good for everyone involved.

Competition breeds innovation and prevents companies from becoming stagnant by relying on outdated manufacturing processes and market assumptions.

Indian is certainly bringing new ideas to the heavyweight cruiser market. Their five (5) year bumper to bumper warranty is the first (I know of) in the industry and has convinced many tire kickers to take the plunge, even though there may not be a dealer near them.

Once Indian has established dealers in most major metropolitan areas, the turf wars will really heat up, and it will be interesting to watch the brands as they compete for one another’s customers.

Or….maybe they’ll be able to increase the pie for both brands and sell more motorcycles overall than either would have been able to do alone.

I hope that’s the case.

It’s been a long strange trip for the brand that started in 1901 as Hendee Mfg Co. in Springfield Massachusetts.

And I’m not alone in thinking that Polaris is the last company who has any chance to revive the brand to its glory days.

But if the resurrection is to be successful, Indian will have to find a way to connect with enthusiast who values the intangibles as much as a reliable motorcycle.

The dealers will have a lot of that responsibility on them. They must work hard to foster a “community” of owners and realize their mission is more than just moving units out the door. Their mission must be to establish and nurture the “culture” of Indian motorcycle ownership.

If they do that, and Polaris commits to staying in for the long haul, then maybe, just maybe the pie will increase and we’ll introduce the Zen of motorcycling to a whole new generation.

Until next month, ride safe, and always take the road less traveled.

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