On The Indian Chief Dark Horse

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It’s time to stop with the matte black.

Matte black was once the hardest, baddest, nihilistest finish you could put on a bike. It wasn’t even a finish, really. It was the antifinish. It was riding around in primer, and a bike in primer is basically naked, walking around not giving one swingin’ god-damn what anybody thinks.

Matte black said, fuck chrome. Fuck your fancy, expensive custom flame paint job or your “factory custom” glitter-pony candy wrapper. All’s I want to do is ride. I refuse to even reflect light.

It’s the color of a deep bruise. An old tattoo. A stealth bomber. Joan Jett. Rot. The color that chooses not to. I doesn’t even bother to sneer.

Harley brought matte black into the mainstream in 2007 with the Nightster, which brought some much-needed and long-absent cool back the the H-D brand. The Nightster was pretty effin tough-looking for a mass-production bike, and it embraced the Sportster’s true potential as lean, gnarly, high-torque-to-weight strike fighter, instead of forcing it to be a smaller version of the fat, chrome-heavy cruisers.

The Nightster was a hit, and Harley developed a whole line of “Dark Customs” (which sounds like a cheesy soft-core goth porn series), which included some fine, handsome machines (like the Street Bob) and some obvious jokes that somehow made it into production (like the Cross Bones). The Harley motto, translated from the Latin, reads roughly, “We had this one great idea; now we’re going to beat it to death until you can’t stand it,” and they certainly lived up to those lofty words. They put matte (sorry – “denim”) finishes on any surface that would take paint. (Somehow I can’t get my head around the point of matte orange.)

Of course, every other manufacturer with a cruiser in their line-up had to mimic the alpha ape. Matte black is everywhere, often on bikes speciously branded as “bobbers.” Hilariously, these bikes are sometimes “special editions” with special price tags. The idea of paying a premium for matte black has its own special absurdity: turning the antisocial into a social status symbol. Paying extra for that pissed-off loaner look. How much would they charge for some rust and a few dents? Of course, this is nothing new: designer jeans with holes in the knees have been around for thirty years. People probably pay like fifty bucks for those! I don’t know what designer jeans cost, but Soul Custom will sell you a brand-new ratty old t-shirt for $25.

But I digress.

Now Indian has unveiled the Chief Dark Horse, the sadly predictable matte black version of the Chief. (Let’s ignore the urge to point out that the name “Chief Dark Horse” is getting uncomfortably close to “Kemosabe” territory.)

The Indian Chief is no hard-core garage custom. It is gorgeous American luxury. It looks like Marilyn lying on her side. It has hips. It has the style and grace we once associated with American automobiles like Packard, Cadillac, and, dare I say, Duesenberg.

1930-Duesenberg-J2Not matte black.

To paint the Indian Chief matte black is to throw a drink in its face. It just looks dour and full of self-pity. You see, what makes the Chief work as a design are its three-dimensional complex curves. You cannot appreciate this design by looking at a profile photo. When you walk around it, you appreciate the whole shape, and it makes you want to touch it. It is highly sculptural. The matte black paint ruins all that. It flattens your whole perception of the bike. The paint job conflicts with and undermines the overall design. That’s why the Dark Horse looks so anonymous. It looks like any of a hundred nameless cruisers and loses that distinctive Indian character.

 

Dark Horse-5Pictured: Some Cruiser

 

On the plus side, though, the Dark Horse is a full $2,000 cheaper than the Chief Classic. That’s a big discount, and it’s plenty of money to get whatever paint job you wanted.

With this paint option, Indian is opting for what is trending at this moment – or, more accurately, what was trending two or three years ago – over good design. Industrial and product design always has a tension between what is best and what is popular, and it’s hard to blame them for doing something so simple that might really sell, but it’s also hard to look at a matte black Indian Chief.

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2015 Harley Line-Up: Can’t Even

I’m not asking for miracles. I don’t expect to be amazed with every new model year. I don’t expect manufacturers to abandon their bread and butter. I just want something worth getting out of bed for – something even a little exciting. Something that doesn’t obtusely confirm the worst stereotypes about American bikes, American bikers, and, well, just Americans in general.

 

While Indian is chewing up highways and raking in drooling, slobbering, elegiac reviews, H-D’s 2015 line-up is a depressingly regressive parade of ponderous pachyderms. The biggest (in every sense) addition is the Freewheeler Trike, whose very name is so blandly optimistic it competes with the Bounder RV and that other three-wheeled transport, the Rascal, for unctuous pandering. I am genuinely curious to know how one trike wasn’t enough in their lineup. This model appears to be a little (can we say) ‘sportier’ than the Tri Glide Ultra, and it has a less staggering price – it actually costs less than a BMW 2-series! Also, to be fair, the Freewheeler actually looks like it was designed as a trike, as opposed to an unholy hybrid. Those fenders are really nicely styled… what is happening to me?! Look away!

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Can’t unsee.

 

What’s sad here is the overt attempt to lean on the geriatric end of the demographic, to squeeze a few more riding years out of granddad even if he can’t swing his leg over a bike any more. Is this really safe? How long can we do this before we have to come out with a Weekend at Bernie’s CVO Ultra Special? Actually, maybe that’s not too far off…

 

The problem with granddad’s trike is that the kids won’t covet it. There is nothing better in this world than a motorcycle that is handed down from one generation to the next, but I think this hand-me-down would be greeted with less, “Gee, thanks!” and more, “Um, thanks.”

 

Apart from this particular piece of morbid machinery, the Road Glide is back for 2015, which means apparently it was gone. It is very important to remember that the Road Glide is totally different from the Street Glide, which is also totally different from the Electra Glide. The Road King, of course, is the other one. (If you’re ever unsure of which one is the Road King, it’s the one that actually looks rather bad-ass.)

 

In addition, there are several “Ultras,” “Lows,” “Specials,” and a couple of “Limiteds.” This is where those terrible American stereotypes I mentioned come into play. It’s not just excess, it’s pointless excess. It’s paying more money for something that’s just heavier. It’s like portion size is all that matters. “Why do we always come here, honey? The food is awful!” “But just LOOK at the portion sizes!” Every time I see one of these overboiled bikes, I just want to strip all that crap off, because the truth is there is a beautiful machine under all that pudding. They could use a serious Jillian Michaels treatment, and none of this “you’re-beautiful-just-the-way-you-are” bullshit. Call in Michelle Obama! No more french fries for these bikes.

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Urp.

 

Special or limited editions typically feature a special paint job. In fact, this, along with some chrome bling, is often the main special feature. Unfortunately, the paint job is invariably some 90s-looking tribal or stylized flame schtick that is at once gaudy and aesthetically timid. If you’re going to do something tacky, do something awesome tacky – 60s psychedelics, or crazy 70s airbrushing. Even the mega-metal-flake “Hard Candy” paint, which is unquestionably very tacky, has some serious awesome. Either be classy or go crazy. Don’t just be a frat boy tattoo.

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Awesomely tacky.  Tackily awesome.

 

Maybe after the trim, water-cooled Street 500/750 last year and the uber-sexy Livewire teaser earlier this year, our expectations were pegged too high, but what cruel bathos to go from that to the Freewheeler Shuttlebus! We demand a lot from a brand that we care about as much as Harley – and don’t kid yourself, every biker cares about Harley, love it or hate it. We fixate on the sparks of innovation, obsessed with the hope that soon there will be a fire again. We hope that changing market demographics, a leaner economy, a global marketplace, and of course the rivalry with Indian will force H-D to move forward, so this line-up feels like a move backward. Maybe this is just the flat spot in the torque curve, though. Maybe this is the twilight of the old gods.

On the Indian Scout

Indian_Scout_Model_G-20[1](Not the new Scout)

Since the moment the Chief was unveiled, many of us have been quietly waiting for the Scout.  What would a modern interpretation of Indian’s classic smaller, sportier bike look like?  First of all, how “modern” would it be, given the Old-Testament styling of the Chief?  How will it fit into the market?  How will it ride?  I think mostly we were thinking, “Please don’t fuck it up.”

After delivering a heavy right hook with the Chief, the Scout is a quick uppercut from the left that should loosen a few teeth in the cruiser world.  It shows not just force but agility.  One-two.  Float like a butterfly, and all that.

Well, like they say on Marketplace, let’s do the numbers:

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The Numbers

The Scout is priced to compete with the 1200 Sportster, and comparisons are unavoidable, since that’s probaby the champ it’s looking to unseat.  The 1200 Sportster is arguable H-D’s best bike – certainly it’s their funnest – but you can’t just get a Sporty now, it has to be a “Custom” or a “Seventy-Two” or a “Happy Ending,” or whatever they’re slapping on it now, and it’s still (unfairly) looked on as a stepping-stone to something fatter.

The Scout’s liquid-cooled 69 cu. in. (=1130 cc.) engine just nudges out the Sporto on torque with 72.2 ft-lbs., but the more interesting number here is 100, as in horsepower, which is the magic threshold today for a legit sportbike.  That is a very different powerband profile; it can spool as well as grunt.  (Ain’t it great what a little modern engineering can do?)  It also happens to weigh 24 lbs. less than the current H-D 1200c.  Ooh.

Another very appealing number here is 6.  Six gears makes go faster better.  The increase ability to fine-tune how you’re putting power into that rear tire at what speed makes a huge difference in your control and whee-factor.

Finally, the Scout can lean 31 degrees both sides – 5 degrees more than the Sportster.  Did that sound like a lot?  Because it actually is.  This is an important expansion of the performance envelope.

All these things together mean the Scout might just be that elusive paradox – a real Sport-Cruiser.  A cruiser for people who love to ride – I mean ride.  I know you knee-down serious sport jockeys will scoff, but there is a surprising amount of performance potential in this mid-size cruiser.

The Sportster is the almost untouchable epitome of cool and classic, making every other mid-size cruiser an also-ran, until now.  Of course, our choice of bike has as much or more to do with syle and how you feel when you see it in your driveway as with any objective criteria.  Bikes live or die by style as much as by substance.  I take that back.  In design, style is substance.  Beauty is bone-deep.  How does the Scout stack up on the catwalk?

 

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The Style

The Scout eschews those velvety, Marylinesque curves of the Chief – the curves that remind us that American sheet metal can be fine art, like an Auburn boattail speedster.  Instead, the Scout gives us compact, angular shoulders.  The intent, no doubt, is to make the bike feel muscular, beefy, and powerful, to make us associate it with the Power Cruiser category.  Unfortunately, the effect is a little cardboardy, like we’re looking at an early mock-up instead of a polished finished product.  Maybe it’s trying a little too hard to look rough.  It’s kind of like the stuffed sweatshirts of Hans und Franz, or – even worse – the clunky add-ons on the V-Rod “Muscle” (They actually named it “Muscle,” in case you didn’t get it.  Was there an “Engorged and Tingling” option with that bike?  Last SNL reference, I promise.)

While I think the creased tins miss the mark a bit, there is a lot to praise in the Scout’s styling.  The overall low, compact proportions actually do more to give it a feeling of power and potential energy than the sheet metal does. 

One of the nicest elements is the arched profile of the tank, which is the most overtly historical reference in this otherwise very contemporary cruiser.  That shape is more pronounced here than in the older bikes, with the bottom of the tank picking up the curve in a way that adds a spring to the whole composition of the machine.  This gives an otherwise serious-looking bike a lift of élan – the little bit of joy that every bike should have.  This curve also creates a vital visual arc that connects the headlight and triple-tree area to the rear frame and suspension, unifying the whole composition and drawing your eye across the bike in a slightly perverted way.  This tank shape ties everything together; it is the defining design move that makes the bike.  Whoever sketched in that shape knew exactly what they were about.

It should also be mentioned that the saddle is beautiful, particularly with the red paint.

Kudos also for not trying to make the motor look like an air-cooled engine.  The radiator is an integrated part of the design, instead of trying to fig-leaf it.  (I should say that H-D also did a great job of this on the V-Rod.  The Honda Fury is probably the worst example of trying to pretend an engine is air-cooled.  Actually, the Fury is the worst example of a lot of things.)  The motor itself looks like it means business, with no fake cooling fins, which would be, to paraphrase Philip Johnson, like putting fake propellers on a jet airplane.

The real challenge in styling a cruiser is to make something that isn’t either: A: anonymous among the zombie-like throngs of nearly identical cruisers lurching along our highways, or B: an outlandish Rune-like contraption evincing all the design elegance of a steampunk dildo.  In both the Chief and the Scout, Indian has managed to avoid both these pitfalls and put out distinctive design statements.  We can argue about whether we “like” them, but they had an incredibly difficult design challenge, and they nailed it. 

It makes me eager to see what’s next.  I’m really anxious to see an Indian that’s not a cruiser.  There are hints that something may be coming, but maybe I’m hearing what I want to hear.  If they can do a full line-up as well as they have crafted these cruisers, we can look forward to a very exciting new American motor company.

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