Dear readers, I have to come clean about a guilty pleasure. I love big and chunky American motorcycles almost as much as I adore those silly commercial trucks turned into pickups. There’s something about a large V-twin engine, miles of metal, and a thunderous soundtrack that feels so right. It’s probably why the Harley-Davidson Road Glide is the default choice for many riders out there, but I’d say those riders should also give Indian a chance because the company is producing some killer motorcycles right now.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been getting a lot of seat time on a 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse, a bagger with tire-shredding power, nearly as much pull as my Triumph Rocket III, and a sound that makes you feel like you’re opening up the heavens with the flick of your wrist. It’s a ride that makes you feel like a queen or king.
(Full Disclosure: Indian Motorcycle loaned me a gorgeous red and black 2023 Challenger Dark Horse for about three weeks to use as I pleased. Like all of the vehicles I review, I barely even look at my own cars and motorcycles during this time. Rest in peace my poor batteries.)
As American As Baseball And Pickup Trucks
It doesn’t take a ton of searching on the internet to find countless rivalries. Just off of the top of my head, there’s Cubs or White Sox, Yankees or Mets, Ford or Chevrolet, Coke or Pepsi, Honda or Toyota, Xbox or PlayStation, Android or iOS, Mac or PC, Volkswagen Phaeton or Bankruptcy, Miller Lite or Coors Light, and pizza or burgers. People will seriously plant their stakes in the ground for a product and defend it with all of their might.
For years, riders of Harley-Davidsons didn’t really have a super close rival. Sure, Japanese and British brands have their own lines of large and powerful cruisers, but none of them quite have the prestige or the panache of a big Harley. My Triumph Tiger III comes really close, and that’s thanks in part to its colossal engine and power that lays waste to motorcycles more than a decade newer. Over the years, I’ve noticed that for many Americans, a Harley-Davidson is aspirational. Buying an Ultra Limited means that you’ve made it, and your career is really paying off.
One of the hottest rivalries in the motorcycling world is that of Indian vs. Harley-Davidson, and it goes back over a century. Technically, Indian came first. George M. Hendee founded the Hendee Manufacturing Company in 1897 and in 1901, Hendee hired engineer Oscar Hedstrom to put an engine in a bicycle. However, Harley historians might say not so fast, because William S. Harley created a blueprint for an engine in 1901. Hendee built three motorized bicycles in 1901 before shifting to motorcycles in 1902. William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson sold their first motorcycle in 1903.
Over the next 50 years, the two companies would battle each other in intense competition. As Web Bike World writes, Indian built its first V-twin before Harley, in 1905, and until World War I, were marketed as “America’s fastest motorcycles.” The company backed up those claims with race wins and speed records. In 1906, a pair of Indian dealers rode from San Francisco to New York in a record-setting 31 days, reporting no mechanical issues. That same year, Harley-Davidson moved out of a machine shop and into its first factory on Chestnut Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Later, Indian’s factory racing team swept the podium in the 1911 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. In 1913, Harley-Davidson sponsored a racing team, one that would later be called the Wrecking Crew for its dominance in the dirt and on the board track. This success was interesting, in part because at first, Harley wasn’t even interested in going racing.
As the Motor Company notes, the vision for Harley-Davidson was to build reliable motorcycles with a solid sales and service network. Harley-Davidson actually denounced racing because it was dangerous for riders and spectators. However, eventually, the company’s founders realized that racing was an incredible marketing tool. Harley-Davidson started what it calls the first factory-supported race team and within its first year, the race team took win after win, including entire podiums and even the top five finishing spots.
Both motorcycle companies supported the World War I effort by sending motorcycles overseas and by 1920, Harley-Davidson grew to become the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer with 2,000 dealers in 67 countries. It took the title from Indian, which was the largest motorcycle manufacturer during the 1910s.
The rivalry continued into the 1920s and beyond with both companies producing liter engines in 1920. Harley-Davidson and Indian continued to battle it out on track and later, Indian would introduce the luxurious Indian Four. Over time, Harley would focus on comfort and utility while Indian continued to build fast and powerful machines. Indian would go into a decline after World War II and cease production in 1953.
In the decades before 2011, Harley-Davidson was largely by itself. The Indian Motorcycle name would pass through nearly a dozen caretakers and sometimes, efforts to keep the name alive even involved importing Royal Enfields and slapping an Indian name on them. I’m pretty sure if you asked a rider what was the definitive American motorcycle back then, it was Harley-Davidson.
The Rivalry Is Back
Finally, after nearly 60 years of struggles for the brand, Polaris Industries reignited the rivalry with Harley-Davidson. Indian Motorcycle has the rides to go up against Harley’s best. The Indian FTR is quite possibly the coolest American motorcycle on sale right now and the Scout totally blew the Sportster out of the water. Indian’s revival hasn’t been completely smooth, as there is more than understandable pushback from indigenous peoples against the Indian name and iconography, and I’ll cover that later on.
Competition has been good for both companies. Harley-Davidson is on a roll producing seriously attractive machines from the Sportster S to the Pan America and the LiveWire electric motorcycles. Indian laid down power with the Thunder Stroke 111 and Harley fired back with the Milwaukee-Eight. Meanwhile, Indian is still cranking up the power even more. Oh, and both companies are battling each other on the track, too, just like the old days. Honestly? It’s a great time to love American motorcycles. Harley-Davidson’s motorcycles are great and you can’t go wrong with Indian, either.
My current steed is a 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse. It’s Indian’s answer to Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide and it’s a ton of fun. My full review is coming soon, but here are the notes rattling around in my head from my thrilling ride so far.
This is a motorcycle built for the open road and has more power than the rear tire can even handle. As a bagger, it sits low and long with the requisite massive fairing and saddlebags. Its paint literally sparkles in sunlight and the incredible 1768 cc PowerPlus V-twin stands proud in the bike’s frame. Indian has nailed the bagger look and this motorcycle has presence whether sitting still or on the road.
That engine is making 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft torque. For those of you keeping score, that’s not very far off from my 2005 Triumph Rocket III’s 140 horsepower and 147 lb-ft torque. One big difference between this and the Triumph is the fact that the Indian has a Metzeler Cruisetec 180/60R16 in back. That’s compared to the Avon Cobra Chrome 240/50R16 found on the back of my Triumph. The narrower Metzeler meats don’t hook nearly as well as the Avons do, leading to wheelspin and screaming traction control when you give the Indian a fistful of throttle. And when the tire does hook, I get almost the same breathless feeling from the acceleration that I get from the Triumph.
When you swing a leg over a bike like this, you feel like it’s the beginning of an event. That PowerPlus engine ignites with a quiet, satisfying rumble and just give the grip a flick to feel a dose of the power you’re going to experience.
Riding a bagger is an experience in itself. I’m used to my smaller vintage motorcycles, adventure bikes, compact Buells, and clever Honda Gold Wings. The Challenger Dark Horse gets me into a wide and low position. At first, I feel the 805 pounds of weight pushing against my boots and the hot exhaust pipes radiating nearby. Then I set off and the weight melts away.
I’ve had the pleasure of riding the Challenger’s biggest rival, Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide. I’ve even taken the King of the Baggers-inspired Road Glide ST around a track to set hot laps. Scraping the floorboards on motorcycles that weighed a few pounds shy of 850 pounds was something I’ll never forget. Those Road Glides were graceful, even when I was punishing them on a track. Meanwhile, Harley’s signature exhaust beat was music to my ears. Those were baggers you could set hot laps on!
The Indian Challenger Dark Horse is this, but more. Indian’s fine tuning with the Dark Horse’s engine and suspension meant this bagger tried its best to turn and run like a sportbike. Indian’s PowerPlus engine gives Harley’s Milwaukee-Eight 117ci V-twin a run for its money. It also beats the Harley engine’s 106 HP and 127 lb-ft torque.
You can’t beat physics, of course, but the Challenger Dark Horse hit harder, faster, and sharper than Milwaukee’s best. The infotainment system also beats Harley’s as well. Indian’s Ride Command system has physical buttons and a touchscreen that works through gloves. I’ve found the navigation system to be competent and the radio? It gets even louder than the stereo on the Can-Am Spyder F3-T from earlier this summer and that stereo was already louder and clearer than the last Harley Road Glide I’ve ridden.
More Than A Motorcycle
In my testing, I also noticed that like Harley-Davidson, these new Indians are also aspirational machines. Harley-Davidson has a long and colorful 120 years of history. Indian claims an even longer history–so much that you’ll find 1901 printed in multiple places on the bike–but that nearly 60-year gap of repeated deaths and revivals sort of muddies the waters. The Indians of today are new machines riding on the name and style of the bikes of old.
Still, when I park the Indian Challenger Dark Horse in public places, it attracts riders who end up telling me stories about how their fathers and grandfathers owned and raced the Indians of old. Many of those riders tell me that they would love to own this $29,499 motorcycle. Indian, like Harley-Davidson, is an aspirational brand. Admittedly, the FTR is one of my dream bikes, so I understood where these people were coming from. For many of us in America, motorcycles are emotional things, and it was genuinely surprising to see this Challenger generate so many reactions from people during my rides.
It also helps that the Challenger Dark Horse goes like hell and sounds like a severe thunderstorm. I’ll have more in my full review. But if you’re as enamored by American muscle as I am, Harley-Davidson’s and Indian’s renewed competition has produced some incredible motorcycles on both sides. If you’ve been standing on the sidelines, give one of these machines a try, even just a test ride, you won’t regret it.
(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)