Thanks to pop culture, we associate American motorcycles with things like beards, battle vests, and a whole lot of leather fringe. But take a minute to explore the history of U.S.-built two-wheelers and you’ll see more than a century of innovation, clever engineering, and style.
America’s two premiere motorcycle brands—Harley-Davidson and Indian Motocycles—have been engaged in a friendly rivalry that’s lasted as long as motorcycling itself. We had an opportunity to see the best examples of this rivalry at the recent opening of the Harley vs. Indian exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
This exhibit features a number of historically significant bikes. Read on to see a small selection of our favorite machines.
The Early Days
That skinny blue thing in front is a 1902 Indian Camelback — so named for the hump-shaped fuel tank resting on the rear fender. Spun off from the Hendee Manufacturing Company, the Indian Motocycle Company (and yes, that word is missing an “r”) was formed in 1901 when engineer Oscar Hedstrom added motorized assist to Hendee’s line of Indian bicycles. Take a closer look and you’ll see that this Camelback still has pedals and a crank.
Behind it in gray is a 1908 Harley-Davidson Model 4. It too features a bicycle crank, but that leather belt drive is our favorite feature. Amusingly, this bike was also known as the “Silent Gray Fellow” due to its well-designed muffler system — shared with other Harley-Davidson bikes. Can’t say that a Harley has been considered quiet in, oh, the past 80 years or so.
Born To Race
Both the early Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles were incredibly popular among the racers of the day. That bike with the nice patina is a 1912 Indian Board Track Racer — similar to the Indian bikes that held every speed and distance record in 1911, plus won the top three spots in the very first Isle of Man race.
Behind it is a 1920 Harley-Davidson Board Track Racer. This is the type of bike popularized by the legendary Wrecking Crew — a factory-backed team of Harley riders that pretty much dominated every competition they entered. They won all 8 National Champion titles, plus a lot more, in 1922, making them the team to fear.
Built to Climb
Hillclimb events became a great way for motorcycle manufacturers to show off the speed, versatility, and reliability of their bikes, and Harley-Davidson and Indian were the companies to beat in the early 20th century. The green bike up top is a 1932 Harley-Davidson Model C Hillclimber — one of just 5 factory-built machines. Below it is a 1925 Indian “Altoona” Hillclimber — a machine purpose-built for the hillclimb event in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and powered by an 80 cu.-in. alcohol-drinking V-twin engine.
Feeling a little more familiar to today’s audience is this 1958 Harley-Davidson Sportster. Harley introduced the Sportster in 1957 as a direct response to the sportier bikes coming to the United States from England. After lackluster reviews, Harley-Davidson made a number of race-inspired engineering tweaks to the bike for 1958, helping increase horsepower and response. The Sportster would go on to become one of Harley-Davidson’s most successful and prolific motorcycle lines.
Bringing a distinct sense of modernity to the exhibit is this 2014 RSD Custom Indian Chieftain. A masterful work from builder Roland Sands, this bike combines an old-school racing sensibility with truly modern technology. The frame is a custom one-off and surrounds a 111 cu.-in. V-Twin Thunder Stroke engine. All the modern electrics and computer components are stashed away in the belly pan for a cleaner, more timeless look.
And The Rest
Of course, there’s a lot more cool stuff from this Harley-Davidson vs. Indian exhibit to share. Check out the gallery for more epically cool bikes from this one-of-a-kind exhibition.