2002 Indian Chiefreview51a

by Gary Charpentier

The call came in while I was at my desk, engaged in my daily wage slavery. Victor wanted to know if I would like to ride the new Indian Chief test bike for a day. Laughing, I said “Good one, Victor. Now, what do you REALLY want?” There was a moment of confused silence, and then he came back with “No really, I want you to ride this thing and give us the café racer’s perspective. It might just broaden your horizons a bit.” This provoked flashbacks to my bad old days as a Helmetless Harley Hooligan in Southern California. A wannabe outlaw prospecting for a club which will remain nameless, I did all the usual stupid biker tricks and ended up in the slammer for my troubles. Yeah, I really wanted to revisit THOSE days…

Besides that, I fretted about my current wardrobe. The modern cruiser genre is all about looking the part and I don’t have the tiniest bit of fringe on my black leather jacket. My gloves have fingers and padding in them, and I insist on wearing a helmet, er, I mean “skid lid”, wherever I ride. I voiced my concerns to Victor and he basically told me to “just ride the damn bike.” Okay, I could do that. It is, after all, only a motorcycle. I think.

So I rode Quasi Moto over to the Big Chief’s house to meet the new Indian Chief. Parked beside this hulking silver behemoth my café scrambler looked like a toy! Topping 700 lbs curb weight, it is almost twice as heavy as my daily mount. To be fair, it uses almost four times the engine capacity to move this weight around, and most of that mass is centered down low. Chrome was everywhere and that which was not chrome was painted an elegant silver. No need to worry about being noticed on this parade float.

Ah, but this is supposed to be a riding impression, so let’s go riding…

First, let’s examine the tillers. I can’t call them handlebars, because in my experience handlebars are not four feet from grip to grip. These are more reminiscent of the way they steered automobiles before they devised the steering wheel, except that there are two of them. They stretch waaaay back from that gorgeous front end to splay your arms out wide. This places you in perfect position to “…take the world in a love embrace.” &endash;in the immortal words of Steppenwolf. Unfortunately, they really hinder low-speed handling. For instance, if you need to turn sharp left, to full steering lock, you have to heave the tillers over to the right which drapes your body over the tank to the right side and is entirely the wrong posture for this maneuver. The footboards are no help, mounted far up in front to complete what we in the profession like to call the “P P”, or “Parachute Position”. You can’t use body english to control this bike because you can’t put any weight on your feet. Then there’s the air cleaner cover. Chrome, of course, which intrudes into the space my left knee would like to occupy. Extremities accounted for, my ass rests in the deep hollow of a luxurious leather saddle, clearly intended for an ass more expansive than mine.review51b

Starting the beast required me to get acquainted with the switch gear. The Indian Motorcycle Company does not even pretend that they want you to kick-start this 100 cubic-inch powerhouse. Big, rounded, ergonomically pleasing switches reside in big, beautiful chrome housings. I had several arguments with the “push once for on, and once for off” turn signal switches, because it seemed that the signal would self-cancel after a certain period, and my second stab at the button would start them up again! The only way I could tell if they were working was to take my eyes off the road long enough to see if the little yellow LED on the tank-mounted dash was flashing. Other than that one little niggle, I found the switchgear wonderfully functional and straightforward. Why don’t the Japanese and German manufacturers get this?

I also loved the brake and clutch levers. These are sculpted in alloy and shaped to the human hand in a very organic fashion. I want a pair for every bike I own, but I’m afraid nobody makes them for sporting motorcycles. Must be that weight thang…

So I pushed the starter button. Have you ever watched one of those old war flicks where they start the big radial engines on carrier-based fighter planes just before attacking the Japanese fleet? (Ahh, ironic symbolism…) That’s what I was reminded of when this big twin dynamo exploded into it’s powerful lumpity-lump idle. The stock pipes produced a very pleasant rumble, louder than the EPA allows on any sportbike I’ve ever ridden. I wonder how they get away with that? Never mind… I like it! I left it on the choke for awhile as I sat there absorbing the substantial vibrations.

This engine is solidly mounted and the whole bike shudders as if in anticipation of the ride ahead. The heel-toe shifter was a new experience for me so I only used the toe part. Clutch pull was modest, but shifting into first gear was like cycling the breech on a Howitzer. Ker-CHUNK! Giving it very little gas I let the clutch out and eased into the street. Then I twisted the throttle… Holy Torque-o-rama Batman! I could feel every combustion stroke propelling us forward as if the machine were fueled by gunpowder rather than gasoline. I could sense right away we needed to shift into second. Ker-CHUNK! The next round was chambered and we shot forward again. Highway speed was achieved in two loud and violent chili-farts. Power-Plus indeed!

review51cNow, let me tell you about the most beautiful front end I’ve ever seen on a motorcycle. Yeah, that’s right. It’s not the shark-nosed snout of a GSXR, and it’s not the sexy Italian cat’s eyes of the Ducati 916. It’s not even the tacho-behind-flyscreen on the business end of a Manx Norton. No, these pale in comparison to what I saw from the saddle of the new Indian Chief. From the rider’s perspective, a large chrome locomotive stretches off into the distance, reflecting the sky on the open road and a cathedral of trees down certain country lanes. This is the sublime headlight nacelle of the Indian Chief: A front end I would follow anywhere. There is a ridge running down the center which distinguishes it from, say, an FLH. The view from the front of the motorcycle reveals the distinctive teardrop shape of this same nacelle. It is truly a work of dynamic sculpture.

That brings to mind other things I really liked about this motorcycle. The whole valanced fender, art-deco thing has found an admirer here. Evocative of the late 1940’s, with intuitive streamlining over solid structural members, this is a real tribute to the days when our bikes were designed on a drawing board, by living, breathing human beings. Of course, the fact that it was actually CAD-drawn on computers just makes the finished product all the more impressive for its artistic integrity. This is a visually stunning motorcycle, powered by a patriotic pushrod V-Twin, a formula which has worked on American motorcycles for almost 100 years.

While I’m on the subject of this enormous lump of an engine, let me be the first to dub it: “The Jarhead Motor”. I mean, look at those valve covers… It appears as though you could just grab hold and twist them off like the lid of an old mason jar. In the tradition of the flathead, knucklehead, panhead, and shovelhead progression, I think it’s a natural! Of course, any affiliation with the U.S. Marine Corps is purely coincidental.

Now, the bad news. That solid motor-mount scheme induced vibrations which shook loose two fasteners during the day I was riding this bike. Both were located in brackets on the frame, which secured a large plastic cosmetic cover which hides some of the messy wiring and other components under the seat. Those same vibrations broke the filaments in both spotlights during the short time we had this motorcycle under test. The distinctive Indian Chief figurehead on the front fender also shook loose before I even rode the bike, causing the Chief’s lighted face to flicker on and off from the intermittent electrical ground. Victor kindly tightened that up for me before my stint on the bike. I was also surprised to discover that the dash assembly was also made of plastic. I guess I had expected such an exercise in retro-style to religiously employ metals in every aspect of its construction. But who knows? If space-age polymers had been available in 1947, maybe the original Indian Chief would have been an entirely different motorcycle.

Riding revealed a few undesirable characteristics as well. By the time we had covered about 50 miles, my throttle hand began to go numb from the vibration. The parachute riding position permits very little variation, causing my back, tailbone, and neck to hurt after about 100 miles. The only variation I was able to manage was turning my feet through 90 degrees from straight up to straight out. That was it. I don’t think I would want to tour on this motorcycle.

Semi-spirited riding through mild curves revealed another common cruiser flaw: ground clearance. Maintaining the 55-60 mph speed limit through curves posted at 30-35 mph caused me to grind the footboards into the pavement in order to hold my line. Since these are rigidly mounted to the frame by anodized billet brackets, there was no “give” except for the sacrificial abrasion of these nice, chromed footboards. It might be better to mount these on hinges, although I suppose that would expose more vital and expensive components to the voracious pavement. I suppose the intended solution is to slow down in the twisties, or avoid them altogether. I HATE that!

But above all, I’m afraid the Indian Motorcycle Company has missed the demographic target. The folks who can afford this bike are going to come whining back to the dealership with warrantee claims as soon as something vibrates off or a bulb burns out. They’re going to whine about the vibration and the riding position if they put on any real miles. Of course, these are the same people who trailer their bikes to Sturgis, so maybe I’m overestimating the exposure.

On the other hand, the “Real Bikers™” who would appreciate this bike for what it is will not be able to afford it unless they open up a meth lab or something. These are the guys who bought AMF Harleys, took them completely apart, re-worked the parts until they fit together properly, lock-tited all fasteners, and then rode the bloody things until they sprouted new oil leaks and then repeated the process. They would know exactly what to do with a bike like this: finish the development process. Unfortunately, I think that is exactly what the new Indian Motorcycle Company has failed to do. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the marketplace with this unrefined offering.

But buying a cruiser is often an emotional and irrational decision. Ultimately you either pony up the cash to buy the bike that speaks to your soul, or you settle for something less and ride that around always yearning for something better. If I had the necessary cash and desire to own a cruiser, I believe I would be sorely tempted by this somewhat rustic but charismatic brute. Harleys have become almost too refined, and are common as dirt these days. They don’t appeal to me at all. The metric cruisers have no real history behind them, and too many design compromises aimed at a price point so I would have to pass on them too. That leaves only quirky euro-cruisers or the upstart Polaris Victory and I haven’t looked at either of them closely enough to form an opinion yet. But I have formed an opinion of the new Indian Chief: An absolutely gorgeous prototype, waiting for the buying public to finish the development cycle.

by Sev Pearman

The late Orson Welles used to shill Gallo claiming, “We will sell no wine…before its time.” This too is the philosophy of the Indian Motorcycle Company with their all-new Powerplus 100 engine. Indian waited until the motor was just right before production. It’s been three long years, but worth the wait.

We’ll spare you the re-hash of Indian’s re-birth (see MMM #41) All you need to know is that for their first few years, Indian equipped all of their bikes with motors built by an outside supplier. Some cried that this was yet another H-D ‘clone’ with an S&S motor stuffed in it. Regular MMM readers will call me on this very point.review51d

Things have changed in the past year and a half. The market is in the tank, zealots attacked our country, and the thought of ‘outsourced motors’ isn’t as odorous as it once was. BMW sells shiploads of F650’s with motors built by Rotax. Cagiva puts either a Ducati or Suzuki L-twin in their Navigator/Gran Canyon platform. Why should it be different for Indian?

This is all old news, as Indian now proudly builds their own motor, and it is a gem. The Powerplus 100 is named after both an Indian model from the 1920’s and the 100 cu in. (1638 cc) displacement. The new motor is attractive with graceful lines, a hefty look and beautiful detailing. The valve covers have a distinct fluting that Indian calls coin-edge. The push-rod tubes are chromed and complement the lines of the cylinders. All oil lines and wiring are discreetly tucked away. This is one beautiful powerplant, period.

The architecture is a mix of old and new. The Powerplus has the typical cruiser air-cooled two-valve V-twin, but it is fully modern with no-maintenance hydraulic valve adjusters, computer-controlled electronic ignition and a Mikuni flat-slide carb. It is the best of both worlds; a classic looking motor with today’s performance.

For once the engineers and stylists managed to play together in the sandbox, as this motor is both beautiful and powerful. A buttload of torque is available at any throttle position. Highway roll-ons are impressive. Downshifts are optional, not required. The flat-slide Mikuni provides crisp throttle response and power-on-demand.

The new motor is stuffed into a chassis that feels familiar, but is in fact brand new. The backbone is super rigid square-section tubing that supports the rear shock mount. The hidden monoshock resides under the seat and provides a generous (for cruisers) 4.25 in of swingarm travel. The new trick swingarm is pure sport bike. Cast from 1″ x 3″ box section alloy, it is both lighter and stronger than the old one.

You can really feel these changes while underway. The new Chief’s ride is more refined and integrated than the previous bike. The lighter-weight frame flexes less, and feels stiffer. The redesigned rear suspension is well balanced with the fork. The bike never came unglued, even during abrupt high-lean transitions at our secret skid pad.

Complementing the frame are the exceptional brakes. Both front and rear are Brembos, and we were initially caught off guard as to their efficiency and power. Rotors front and rear are drilled stainless steel 11.5 inchers grabbed by four-piston calipers. The front alone has enough power to make the tire howl, just short of a skid. Even the old-school cruiser habit of rear-only braking can effectively haul her down. Our advice? Use both brakes and impress the squidly kid on the sport bike.

One minor disappointment was with the tranny. Shifting wasn’t as crisp as on our last Indian, and finding neutral was always a crapshoot. Publisher Wanchena’s technique was to upshift from first while still moving, using the heel part of the shifter. While this technique was effective, we wondered whether this vagueness would go away during break in. We found it annoying, especially on a motorcycle of this build quality.

We liked the engineering and styling decision to move the carb to the left side of the bike. This placement recalls Chief motors from the 50’s and is unique to Indian. It visually cleans up the right side of the bike and enhances the lines of the motor and exhaust. The downside is that the Mikuni and air cleaner protrude against your left shin, no matter where you place your foot on the floorboards. What price style…

Other gripes? The horn is still laughable. You’re better off with a bicycle bell on the handlebar. This must be another sacrifice of function to style. One price move is the “de-contenting” of the passenger seat on the base Chief. You’ll have to add a seat and pegs if you want to bring a friend, or else jump up to the Chief Deluxe ($21,795) or Roadmaster ($22,995)

Further, the bulbs in both spot lamps and the Indian fender light burned out during our test. Is this an issue of a crappy bulb supplier or vibration?

One facet that Indian has down is their build quality. These bikes are absolutely beautiful. The paint is rich and free of sags and orange peel. The base Chief is offered in Black and Red Metallic as well as the stunning Silver of our tester. The other models offer further color choices as well as two-tone options

All of the chromework is first class, and comparable to that of one-off customs. At several fuel stops gawkers came out of the woodwork to admire the motorcycle and comment on its good looks and chrome. The belt primary cover is literally mirror finish.

The overall fit and finish is superb. While changing the bulb, I spent several minutes examining the spot lamps. They are high-quality, made of thick steel with deep lustrous chrome. The seams are precise and well matched. Parts assemble with a satisfying feel and precision.

Indian’s attention to detail on the new Chief is equally impressive. All cables, hoses and lines are engineered away. There are no clunky clamps and brackets. All visible parts are either painted, chromed or beautifully polished. Clever details abound, and after spending a fair amount of time cleaning the new Chief for our photos, we came away impressed.

Some whined that the new Indian Company was just another clone builder and doubted that they could make it long term. Three years is a long time to spend on engine development, but in this case it was worth the wait. That fat 100 cu in beast is pleasing to ride and the heart of an excellent motorcycle. It proves that Indian is in this for the long haul.

Thanks to Thomas Auto Mall in Coon Rapids for their cooperation in the preparation of this article.


  • All-new motor worth the wait.
  • Stellar attention to detail.
  • You won’t see this bike on every corner.


  • $20K and no passenger seat?
  • Carb + air cleaner cramps your style and shin.
  • Dealing with “Looky-Loos”at every stop.

Wife’s First Reaction: “I love the chrome.”

Selected Competition: H-D Softtail Deuce, others; Honda VTX 1800 family; Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 family; Victory V 92C; Suzuki Intruder 1400 and LC; Yamaha Road Star 1600.


MSRP $20,495
Warranty 12 mos, unlim miles
Engine Powerplus 45º V-twin
Displacement 100 cu in. (1638cc)
Bore x Stroke 3.875″ x 4.25″
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Claimed power N.A.
Claimed torque N.A.
Valves 2-valve, OHV, hydr. lifters
Wheelbase 68.4 in
Rake 34º
Trail 5.92 in
Front suspension 41mm non-adjustable hydraulic   telescopic
Front brakes S/S 11.5 in disc, 4-piston Brembo
Front tire 16″ x 3.5″ MT90-16
Front wheel 60 spoke, chromed
Rear suspension KW rising-rate single shock w/ adj   preload
Rear brake S/S 11.5 in disc, 4-piston Brembo
Rear tire 16″ x 3.5″ MT90-16
Rear wheel 60 spoke, chromed
Empty weight (claimed) 687 lbs
Fuel capacity 5.5 US gal, inc 1.2 gal reserve
Seat height 28.5 in


1 Comment

  1. have an 03 chief …have been riding about 50 years & a lot of Harleys…this 03 chief is the most beautiful bike I have ever owned [including a chopper I built in 03] I love the bike …would like to find a fix for vibration at highway speed …but at 62 it keeps me slowed down…I get a lot of compliments about the bike…thanks for the story & info….Chris

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