By Mark Yost
Houston, TX, USA

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Downtown L.A.’s burgeoning arts district greatly benefitted from a much-needed makeover two years ago. The museum had long been
Mark Yost
called “stale.” That was true then, but it’s not true anymore. The museum rotates its stock more often, and hosts special exhibits, like “Harley vs. Indian,” a one-year retrospective that opened in March 2017 in the Richard Varner Family Gallery and looks at two of America’s most-iconic motorcycle brands and their intense rivalry.

The exhibit, which features two-dozen of the classic motorcycles, begins by reminding us that many of the great inventors at the turn of the 20th century were bicycle makers. That was true of Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers, pioneering aviators who made two-wheeled vehicles for the ground before they made two-winged flying machines. It’s also true of Harley and Indian.

Indian, one opening panel reminds us, started out in 1898 as the Hendee Manufacturing Company in Springfield, Mass. Two years later, founder George Hendee partnered with engineer Oscar Hedstrom to make motorized bicycles, soon to be called simply “motorcycles.” The first Indian was called the Camelback because of its humpback-shaped fuel tank.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Milwaukee, another famous partnership was forming. William Harley and Arthur Davidson got together in 1903. The earliest models, the exhibit tells us, were all painted grey and were called “Silent Grey Fellows” because of the excellent muffler system the two inventors devised. A stark contrast to the Harleys of today.

For the next 50 years, the two motorcycle makers battled head to head for the hearts and wallets of America’s growing motorcycle culture. The Petersen does a good job of showing this, both with informative panels and the bikes themselves. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a long, arching, mounted display space that features Indians and Harleys side by side as they developed. The similarities are remarkable. On the walls of the small gallery are photos, histories, timelines and other distinctive bikes, including an impressive collection of three-wheeled trikes and the flat-track motorcycles developed specifically for racing.

At the head of the main exhibit space are a 1902 Indian Camelback and a 1908 Harley-Davidson Model 4, which, to the modern eye, look like bicycles with small motors strapped to them.

1902 Indian Camelback
1908 Harley-Davidson Model 4

It wasn’t really until the 1920s that the bikes began to resemble what we think of today as motorcycles. That’s when both began offering four-cylinder motors on their bigger, heavier bikes; Indian with the 1927 Ace and Harley the 1921 Model W Sport Twin, both on display here.

World War II was a boon for the two motorcycle makers. Armies on all sides realized how versatile motor bikes were for navigating battlefields and other uncharted terrain. Harley and Indian both helped greatly in the war effort – and gained some lifelong fans along the way.

Indian had been taken over by E.I. DuPont in the 1930s and produced a line of Scout models. The heavier-framed Scout Sport, we’re told, was the one preferred by the U.S. Army and in military nomenclature became the 640-B. The military also used Indian’s iconic Chief model, dubbed the 340-B.

Television fans may remember an episode of M*A*S*H in which a rascally war correspondent, Clayton Kibbee, visits the 4077. He promptly sees an Indian Scout that B.J. Honeycutt is restoring, regales the troops with tales of riding one into the Liberation of Berlin, and proceeds to get drunk and crash B.J.’s bike. The Indian Scout part of the story is absolutely true.

Harley wasn’t left out of the war, either. It made more than 60,000 WLA models for the Army. It also produced about 1,100 XL 750s, which featured horizontally opposed cylinders and shaft drive for the desert. The low production number is attributable to the fact that the Allies made quick work of the Nazis once they landed in North Africa in 1942.

Perhaps the most beautiful bike of the entire exhibit is the 1946 Chief, on loan from the impressive collection of Glendale Harley-Davidson (of all places). It’s painted a luxurious deep ruby red, with a classic bobber seat, full-fender skirting, and a heart-shaped gauge cluster on top of the fuel tank. It’s really what you think of when you think of a classic, Indian heavy road bike.

1946 Chief

The Chief was the postwar bike that would be the basis for almost every Indian model afterward. Unfortunately, that time was short-lived. Indian ceased production in 1953. It has stuck around (more on that in a minute), with various imports and the like carrying the Indian name over the years. But in terms of the exhibit’s theme, this is really where the rivalry ends in many ways.

Not that there aren’t more great bikes to see.

A large chunk of the exhibit is devoted to the racing rivalry between these two iconic American motorcycle brands, including board racing – on tracks made of board, much like a boardwalk – that was popular in the 1920s and ‘30s. Indian produced its first V-twin, Double Cylinder Racer in 1906 and proceeded to dominate racing for the next decade. By 1911, Indian motorcycles held every American speed and distance record. The best example on display here of Indian’s racing heyday is a 1912 Indian Board Track Racer, which looks like simply a beefed-up version of the motorized bicycles we saw earlier, with a sleeker, more angular design and slanted handlebars.

1912 Indian Board Track Racer

Harley’s 1920 Board Track Racer is very much the same bike, with the same look of speed even though it’s standing still. It’s also more completely restored than the Indian, with a really cool mustard-brown paint job with maroon trim and the Harley-Davidson name emblazoned across the gas tank in thick, black letters.

1920 Harley-Davidson Board Track Racer

Harley and Indian also competed head-to-head in hill-climb events in the 1920s and ‘30s. Two models on display include a 1925 Indian “Altoona” Hillclimber, which featured an 80-cubic inch, alcohol-burning V-twin engine and was one of the first-ever production bikes developed purposely for hill-climbing, specifically a national event in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Harley’s contribution to the exhibit is a 1932 Model C Hillclimber, one of only five still around.

1932 Harley-Davidson Model C Hillclimber

Among the notable one-off bikes on display is a 1922 Harley FD with sidecar, which featured Harley’s newly developed 74-cubic inch Big Twin.

Although the head to head rivalry between Harley and Indian subsided in the 1950s, visitors will be happy to know that it has been revived recently. After fits and starts from the 1950s through the end of the century, Indian made a modest comeback in 2001 when a conglomeration of nine companies began manufacturing Indian motorcycles again in Gilroy, California. The museum has one of the Indian Centennial Chiefs made at that time.

Indian folded again in 2003, but in 2011 snowmobile manufacturer Polaris started making them again in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The company continues to build its following, but no one doubts that – at least for now – Indian is back. And, perhaps, it will mark the start of another intense rivalry between these two brands.

Here’s hoping.

(Photographs courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum)


Petersen Automotive Museum

Mark Yost


Mark Yost is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and is the author of five novels in the Rick Crane Noir mystery series.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.