As Custer would say, “Who knew there were so many Indians?”

Indian is the oldest American motorcycle brand that’s still in production. But unlike its rival Harley-Davidson (which has been in continuous operation since its founding) the Indian company has been reincarnated so many times you’d think the brand name was a reference to Hindu beliefs about reincarnation, instead of a reference to America’s indigenous peoples.

The founder period: 1901-’16

 George Mallory Hendee

George Mallory Hendee

George Hendee began making bicycles in 1897. Within a year or two, he produced bicycles under the “American Indian” trademark. Oscar Hedstrom joined the firm in 1900, bringing the engineering know-how needed to produce their first prototype motorcycle.

The first production Indian was the 1902 single. In 1903, Hedstrom set what was then a speed record for motorcycles, at 56 miles an hour. In 1904, the company settled on the fire-engine red color it’s now famous for. A year later they built their first v-twin racer.

By 1913, Indian was the most successful of the dozens of motorcycle manufacturers in the U.S., selling over 30,000 bikes. But with success came trouble: The founders had issued so much stock that they no longer had voting control. Oscar Hedstrom proved headstrong, and resigned that year in a dispute with the company’s board over what he perceived as stock market manipulation.

 Carl Oscar Hedstrom

Carl Oscar Hedstrom

In 1916, Hendee announced his retirement, at the age of 50. The company managed to convince Hedstrom to return, which encouraged shareholders. But Hedstrom’s second period there was short-lived.

Meanwhile, the board made a critical strategic error in 1916-’17. They decided to maximize short-term profit by selling virtually all their production to the military. By shifting to military customers (in the run-up to America’s entry into WWI) Indian sold everything it could make, and saved on marketing expenses and the cost of distributing goods to 1,100 dealers across the U.S.

The problem was, during the war their dealer network shifted emphasis to other brands (such as Harley-Davidson) that were available throughout the war. Indian’s dealer network and sales never recovered or reached pre-WWI levels.