My buddy has an Indian.
Or, to be completely truthful, he has a do-it-yourself Indian Motorcycle kit.
As long as I’ve been visiting Al’s shop, he’s had a collection of boxes on a baker’s rack next to the roll up door. Bright blue, deeply valenced fenders. A set of obliquely finned, flathead cylinder heads. Linkages and levers for the hand shift and foot clutch. Sheet metal for the drive chain and alternator covers. The lower engine cases, with the connecting rods small ends poking out the base gasket openings. A tan leather ‘Chummee Seat’ with fringed rear skirt. A set of matching saddlebags with conchos and jewel glass appliques. The spring sets and covers for the rear suspension’s plunger units.
I haven’t ever been down to the very bottom of those boxes, but if there isn’t a cut glass Indian head wrapped in a chrome Headdress down there, there certainly needs to be.
That 1952 Chief has been a project awaiting the time and resources needed for an extensive and total restoration, and so that classic motorcycle – at ease at speed gliding down some highway – has always been something that lived only in my imagination, and forever hung just out of reach.
Because the original, Springfield, Massachusetts-based Indian Motorcycle company went bankrupt a full six years before I was born, their motorcycles have always seemed to exist as something sadly lost to the past. And while the company had spent the early part of its History earning a reputation for engineering leadership and competition success, mental pictures of the Indian were all sepia-toned black and whites, men wearing their competition Indian-script sweaters on motordromes and dirttracks, the Big Chief trailing flapping fringe as it disappeared into history, a superior machine that had inexplicably just vanished.
Lots of companies felt the pull of that legacy, but no one had the engineering or the capital to build a motorcycle worthy of it. Before Polaris Industries bought the remains of those companies in 2011, lots tried. Lots failed.
Which makes the Motorcycle sitting in front of me – a 2018 Indian Roadmaster — one of the most unlikely formerly assumed to be fantasy things to ever actually exist. It’s all there – the Art Deco fenders, the obliquely finned V-twin cylinders, the jeweled, lighted Warbonnet on the front fender. Underneath that skin, however, is a thoroughly modern motorcycle that is functionally as far away from that 1953 Chief as one could imagine.
The heart of the Roadmaster is the Thunder Stroke 111 engine – a new from the ground up motor that was designed solely to power the Indian Big Twin motorcycles, and to appeal directly to Indian’s History and Fans. Unlike the predecessor Indian companies, that used existing third party motors that they could purchase, Polaris correctly concluded that this shortcut was simply not acceptable. If their motorcycle was to be embraced by riders as an Indian, it couldn’t be, as the predecessors had been, powered by anybody else’s engine and dressed up with full fenders.
The Thunder Stroke does use the architecture and appearance of the old Chief’s motor as it’s jumping off point, but is as modern internally as any air-cooled motor can be. The engine carries over the oblique cooling fins of the vintage bike’s heads, its larger head and smaller barrel finning, and its downward pointed exhausts and parallel pushrod tubes. The new motor continues the vintage Indian’s use of a gear driven primary drive, and combines this with unit construction, a six speed helical cut gear transmission, three cams, an automatic starting decompression system, pushrod overhead valves, EFI, and a belt final drive. Engineering details are thoroughly modern – using slipper pistons, fracture split connecting rods, and wedge combustion chambers like those in the Corvette LS7 engine. The 49 degree V-Twin displaces an immodest 1811 ccs, and produces 119 ft-lbs of torque at peak.
The rest of the chassis and running gear are similarly new tech. The entire motorcycle is hung from a cast aluminum chassis, which provides serious strength and rigidity with relatively low mass. The Roadmaster is suspended by a cartridge fork in the front, and an air adjustable monoshock in the rear – both working through about 4.5 inches of travel. Rear air preload is adjusted via a nice little aluminum hand pump with integral pressure gauge through a Schrader valve under the left sidecover. Brakes are high specification – dual 300 mm disks grabbed by 4 piston calipers in front with a single unit in the rear.
The Roadmaster’s touring equipment is road ready – a fork attached fairing with electrically adjustable windscreen and fully adjustable lowers as well – air routing through the lowers can be tuned to allow lots of air in warmer weather, or to close off both direct and spill air overflow when Mother Nature loses her temper. The fairing houses a full complement of information and entertainment gear – trip computer, stereo, Bluetooth phone integration, GPS, all controllable from either the central touchscreen or from bar mounted controls. Saddlebags and top case are centrally locking – with the side case lids swinging outward from stoutly made chrome-steel hinges, and the deepest, most commodious top case I can remember. The topcase also features a usable chrome steel luggage rack – useful for a small tent and bedroll – that many touring motorcycles no longer provide. Foot controls are far forward on spacious footboards.
“How”, you ask, “does all that work on the road?”
For a motorcycle whose visual appeal is a wholehearted appeal to motoring’s past, this motorcycle rides like something straight out of the future. Suffice it to say if – in a world increasingly filled with talk of all-electric transportation – you are someone who prefers your motorcycles enthusiastically internal combustiony – the Roadmaster will push every single one of your buttons.
The Roadmaster makes use of keyless ignition. If the ‘Intelligent fob’ is secreted in one’s leathers, when one mounts the bike and presses the large, Apple-like ‘Power’ button, the bike’s onboard information and entertainment systems boot up with an animated rumble and flames sequence on the dash display. Starting is accomplished by rocking the kill switch from ‘stop’ to ‘run’, which allows the bike’s electronics to manage the motor start process.
The bike’s clutch has a very light activation – once underway the Thunder Stroke motor revs far more quickly than other twins of this size, and provides a very broad spread of thrust everywhere in the rev range. Although the torque peak occurs at 3000 rpm, while covering small, technical backroads I was able to make use of usable power from as low as 1300 rpm. The combination of gear driven primary and the output shaft cush drive mean that power at low rpms is smooth and snatch free. At larger RPMs and throttle openings, power delivery is immediate – backroad passing power is always available. Throttle response from the ride by wire fuel injection system is smooth and progressive – unlike most ride by wire systems with which I am familiar, I never found myself wishing for a cable and carb. Fuel economy is what you’d expect for a very large displacement twin — in mixed highway and backroad use during our test, the Roadmaster returned 34.7 miles per gallon. On the interstate, the engine transmits just enough throb to reinforce the sensation of being on a classic American motorcycle without ever crossing the line into being objectionable or uncomfortable.
The helical gear transmission shifts positively, with just the right amount of ‘thonk’. I had nothing even remotely resembling a missed shift in my entire time with the bike. The exhaust note of the stock exhausts is absolutely perfect – a mellow low tone with that narrow V syncopated beat. That combination makes running the bike up through the gears on big throttle so pleasurable that the proper descriptive terms aren’t available for use in a family publication.
The Roadmaster’s handling is both surefooted and agile. Part of our test route included some miniscule, single track byways that wandered through West Virginia’s Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, on a day when nature served up a cool, misty day. The bike’s turn in behavior, and ability to deal with slippery surfaces, limited sightlines and a fair number of 270 degree switchbacks was low effort and relaxed – the chassis worked together with the engine’s broad power spread to make all of these roads a one gear, wind it on and wind it off affair. Credit needs to be given to the Thunder Stroke’s designer – it was striking how gentle and controllable the engine’s compression braking was – for a motor with such large drive torque, one would expect dramatic and over-strong engine braking – and that wasn’t what one gets.
The Roadmaster’s braking is nothing short of amazing, when one considers this is a 900+ pound motorcycle. Give a firm pull on the lever, and give a boot to the big, pickup-like pedal way out there, and stopping just happens. Cornering clearance is also spot on – not one part touched down during our test.
All this combines to provide a ride that – in its sweet spot at about 75 mph in top gear – feels like one that could take one relaxedly from coast to coast. The Roadmaster’s electronic cruise control saves one’s throttle hand, and with the electrically adjustable windshield in the fully raised position, the cockpit is quiet and still enough to run with a full face helmet’s visor open. Drop one’s road speed down to 60 or so in top gear, and with the low revs and rumble it’s easy to imagine the ghost of that old Flathead Chief rolling just off your six.
There are, as always, things that could be better. Polaris’ big twins have always used a combination of a radial rear tire and a bias belted front – the Roadmaster is no exception. The front tire has a slightly nervous feel during certain tentative cornering lines – it seems to be more easily knocked off line by pavement imperfections that are parallel to the line of travel than radials I have used. The horn, frankly, made me laugh. When a motorcycle feels and looks like a New York Central Streamliner locomotive, its horn shouldn’t sound like a Honda 90.
The Indian Roadmaster is not intended to be a motorcycle for everyone. The aesthetics of the bike – the fenders, the tank, the footboards, the chrome, the embossed leather and concho badges – are clearly intended to compel folks whose tastes run toward the history and tradition of American Motorcycles. If your idea of the word “motor”, conjures up images of the B-17 Bomber’s Wright Cyclone – a massive, obliquely finned, roaring air-cooled monster of power and torque – then this may be the motorcycle you’ve always dreamed of. There’s a certain deterministically massive mechanical quality to all of it, from the deep rumble of the exhaust, to the solid thonks of the transmission shifting, to the unmistakable sounds of the massive valve train working in your lap while on cruise on the highway.
The Roadmaster truly is a time machine, but one that somehow manages to travel into both the past and the future at the very same time.
Portions of this piece originally appeared in the July/August Edition of Motorcycle Times. Thanks to the folks at Twigg Indian Motorcycles of Hagerstown, Maryland, who worked with Indian to provide our test bike.
An extended riding impression of the Roadmaster can be read in here in Omps, The Indian and The George Washington Heritage Trail.
Indian Roadmaster Specifications
Engine & Drivetrain
Bore x Stroke 3.976 in x 4.449 in (101 mm x 113 mm)
Compression Ratio 9.5:1
Displacement 111 cu in (1,811 cc)
Drive/Driven ClutchWet, Multi-Plate
Electronic Fuel Injection SystemClosed loop fuel injection / 54 mm bore
Engine TypeThunder Stroke® 111
ExhaustSplit Dual Exhaust w/ Cross-over
Gear Ratio (1st) 9.403 : 1
Gear Ratio (2nd) 6.411 : 1
Gear Ratio (3rd) 4.763 : 1
Gear Ratio (4th) 3.796 : 1
Gear Ratio (5th) 3.243 : 1
Gear Ratio (6th) 2.789 : 1
Peak Torque 119 ft-lbs (161.6 Nm)
Peak Torque RPM 3,000 rpm
Transmission/Final Drive2.2 : 1
Transmission/Primary DriveGear Drive Wet Clutch
Fuel Capacity5.5 gal (20.8 L)
Ground Clearance5.5 in (140 mm)
GVWR1,385 lb (628 kg)
Overall Height58.7 in (1,491 mm)
Overall Length104.6 in (2,656 mm)
Overall Width39.4 in (1,000 mm)
Rake/Trail25° / 5.9 in (150 mm)
Seat Height26.5 in (673 mm)
Weight (Empty Tank / Full of Fuel)897 lbs / 929 lbs (407 kg / 421 kg)
Wheelbase65.7 in (1,669 mm)
Front BrakesDual / 300 mm Floating Rotor / 4 Piston Caliper
Rear BrakesSingle / 300 mm Floating Rotor / 2 Piston Caliper
Tires / Wheels
Front TiresDunlop® Elite 3 130/90B16 73H
Front WheelCast 16 in x 3.5 in
Rear TiresDunlop® Elite 3 Multi-Compound 180/60R16 80H
Rear WheelCast 16 in x 5 in
Front Fork Tube Diameter46 mm
Front Suspension Telescopic Fork – Cartridge Type
Front Travel4.7 in (119 mm)
Rear Suspension Single Shock w/ Air adjust
Rear Travel4.5 in (114 mm)