I take my Indian Chief Vintage on what might be the last ride of 2015?
What is the Triggers Broom Paradox?
The long running British comedy Only Fools and Horses had some classic comedy moments but only one is currently being discussed by philosophy students in several Universities around the UK. That brilliant moment in the ‘Heroes and Villains’ episode when road sweeper Trigger explains he has just won an award for saving the council money, having owned the same broom for 20 years. The punchline comes with the revelation that it’s had 17 new heads and 14 new handles, to which the other characters wonder how it could possibly be the same broom.
Writer John Sullivan was referencing a much older philosophical debate known as the Grandfathers Axe paradox (I could have called this the Indian Axe Paradox?), which much like Triggers broom, had received several changes in head and handle. The debate is of course, how can this be the same axe?
Classic motorcycles and John Locke’s sock
The Grandfathers Axe debate can be transposed across pretty much any item where parts can be replaced. For example another version of Triggers Broom is John Locke’s sock. This version imagines the protagonist wearing a hole into his favourite sock. A patch is sewn over the hole but soon enough another hole appears and that is patched up and so on and so on until the entire sock is made up of patches. Is this still the same old sock?
John Locke’s sock makes a perfect analogy for classic motorcycles. I would wager that hardly any of the machines currently classed as classics are 100% original. As is par of the course for any vehicle used for transport there are components that need replacing after a certain service interval. Parts such as tyres, chains, sprockets, bulbs, spark plugs, filters and gaskets are all items that are regularly replaced as service items. How many motorcycles we consider classics are on the same rubber or hold the same oil as they did when they came off the production line all those years ago?
Other components either get damaged or inevitably wear out over time. Many classic motorcycles have had their seats replace or upholstered, their pistons swapped and wiring looms replaced. How far do you go before this classic motorcycle is so far from original that it can no longer be called a classic? What needs to remain for it to still be the same bike? The engine? The Frame? The registration plate?
So what about the Polaris Indians?
Most classic Indian Motocycles (note the different spelling) are used as show bikes and for attending classic rallies. To remain in running condition many of the parts have been replaced over the years either by sourcing new/old stock or by reputable companies who specialise in the manufacture of components for classic machines. One such producer is Kiwi Indian of New Zealand.
Kiwi Indian started by making parts for the buoyant classic motorcycle market and expanded their range of products so much that it was possible to build a complete ‘classic’ Indian motorcycle from their parts alone. This means that you can now buy a brand new 1911 board track racer or 1939 Chieftain. As these are based on parts for classic bikes should these be considered classic bikes too?
However, the big question is are the new Polaris Indians really Indians? The original Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company stopped making bikes in 1953 when the company went bankrupt. Since then many have tried and failed to reignite the flame of this incredibly evocative brand. From 1955 to 1960 Brockhouse Engineering had acquired the rights to the name and was importing English Royal Enfield’s into the US and rebadging them as Indians. From the 1960’s through to the late 1990’s the Indian brand name was under dispute with Floyd Clymer, Eller Industries and various other parties all making claims to the name with various success. Then in 1998 The Indian Motorcycle Company of America formed from a merger of nine companies and was awarded the Indian trademark by the Federal District Court of Colorado. Known as the Gilroy Indians, as they were produced in Gilroy, California, models were sold between 1999 and 2003 when the company went into bankruptcy.
In 2006 the Indian brand surfaced again as Indian Motorcycle Company, owned largely by private equity firm Stellican Limited. Production began in Kings Mountain, North Carolina and produced limited runs using Powerplus V-twin powertrains until Polaris Industries acquired the company in 2011. In 2013 the brand new ‘Thunder Stroke 111’ engine had been developed and production began in Spirit Lake, Iowa.
With the brand being bounced around so much since 1953 do the new Polaris machines deserve to be associated with the Indians built over half a century earlier? You could argue and indeed I will, that Polaris have built machines that capture the spirit of the original Indians better than anyone else. Does this mean the heritage is retained and this company is one and the same as the one that ceased production in 1953?
Other motorcycle brands in similar circumstances
Indian Motocycle/Indian Motocycles are far from the only motorcycle brand to be bounced around. There are notable similarities in the history of Harley Davidson, a long-term rival of Indian. Bought out by AMF (American Machine Foundry) in 1969, sold to investors (including Willie G. Davidson) in 1981 the company nevertheless never stopped continuous production. In the UK the Triumph brand began life as Triumph Engineering in 1885 and produced various machines, including motorcycles. With various mergers and acquisitions, including BSA, the firm produced motorcycles until 1983 when the firm went bankrupt. Saved by John Bloor (ensuring the company retains the title of longest continuous motorcycle manufacturer in the world as production began in 1902) the Triumph brand is stronger today than it’s been since the 1960s.
However arguably closer similarities to Indian lie with other recently revived brands such as Ariel, Norton and Brough Superior. All of these brands have a strong history with motorcycles but have had long periods of non-production and brand ownership disputes, yet would anyone buying a current model suggest that they’re not also buying into the history of the brand? Would a new model Norton sell as well if wasn’t branded with the Norton name?
To some extent any argument that a modern motorcycle shouldn’t hold the heritage of the past is null and void. Every year manufacturers produce new models and discontinue others. Just like life, engineering motorcycles is continuously evolving. New technologies make older ones obsolete, styles and fashions change. In that respect every motorcycle model currently in production has a severe case of Triggers Broom Paradox.
What do you think?
I’ve laid my case and will argue that the Polaris Indians deserve the heritage. After all, Polaris brought the brand name for a reason; the history associated with it. Along with the sterling job Polaris have done of creating a marvellous motorcycle we’re buying into that brand history too. But what do you think?