Indian Chief Springfield Motorcycle Test

Return of the native. Indian brings back another class American motorcycle. By Andrew Cherney

"Man! That is one helluva good-looking motorcycle!"

We could hear the excited whispers from the tables outside, and inside the restaurant, five faces pressed eagerly against the window as we coolly maneuvered our seven-foot land cruiser into the Schat's Bakery parking lot in Bishop, California. But this was no SUV, it was the Good Ship Springfield they were all ogling. And so it went for the next few days -- local wags would gather round at every pit stop on our test ride to digest and dissect the Indian Chief Springfield's muted tones, gold pinstriping and coffee-can cylinders.

Not since our butt-breaking voyage on Harley's V-Rod had we felt so scrutinized, but the Chief's appeal is even more overt. The general reaction of onlookers to the futuristic Harley had been that of confusion (what the hell is that thing?), but there was no mistaking the Indian; apparently, everybody had an image of the full-fendered Chief locked away in his or her memory.

Back in the Day

Way before Harley-Davidson was marketing bar-and-shield underwear to the masses, the original Indian Motorcycle Company was The Big Cheese of two-wheeled manufacturers in the U.S. When its first production machines rolled off the assembly line in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1906, their power and head-turning style impressed so many that Indian became the top-selling brand of the teens and '20s. The Indian Chief debuted in 1922, and during its 31-year run, it was Harley-Davidson's main competition in the V-twin heavyweight arena. You could easily distinguish a Chief by the graceful sweep of its deeply valanced fenders; its elegant curves and overstuffed profile represented ultimate two-wheeled luxury for many enthusiasts.

A lot of things have changed in the motorcycle world since then, but the brand's appeal has remained so strong that when Indian returned to production in 1999, the Chief became the best-selling new American bike, even with a premium price and the company's initial selection of a Harley-patterned V-twin as its powerplant.

The Ultimate Retro

The Springfield's name springs from the location of the original Indian factory ("The Wigwam") in Massachusetts. As such, the bike's graphics feature gold-scripted Indian logos and gold pinstripes harkening back to the early 1900s. To complete its full-bore retro status, the 2003 Indian Chief Springfield also got a black powdercoated steel frame (to suit its beefy proportions), floorboards, a hand-stitched solo seat and chrome wheels beneath outrageously valanced fenders.

Up front, a spoked, 130/90x16-inch front wheel spins between 41mm covered fork tubes with 5.1 inches of travel. A hefty 68.4 inches behind it, the same-size rear hoop attaches to a cantilevered single-shock suspension system with adjustable preload and 4.25 inches of travel. Brembo 11.5-inch discs front and rear presume to stop all that weight, and a wide, 34-inch handlebar curves into a huge chrome headlight assembly with running lights bracketing the orb on either side. It's an impressive sight.

The Springfields, and all '03 Chiefs, are powered by Indian's proprietary Powerplus engine. Although it has a handsome, distinctive look, the mill retains the same basic pattern and technology as the Harley Evolution engine -- it's an air-cooled, 45-degree V-twin with two valves per cylinder operated by pushrods and hydraulic lifters. The 1638cc engine separates itself from The Motor Company crowd with rounded cylinders, serrated rocker covers reminiscent of old Indian twins and an intake system on the left side of the powerplant. A modest, two-into-one exhaust system accents the engine appropriately and injects a low rumble without loosening dentures.

The entire Chief series successfully evokes the classic models of yore, from the Indian-head marker light topping the full front fender to the encompassing sweep of the rear bodywork. The timeless elegance is mostly intact.

All Aboard

At first glance, however, it seems as if Indian designed the Chief Springfield from the outside in -- those great, shamelessly heavy metal fenders and that howitzer-like headlight and swollen nacelle are all weighted in style. Throwing a leg over the Chief isn't an ordeal, however, no matter how portly its profile -- partly because of a completely manageable 28-inch seat height. At full stops, feet contact terra firma easily, even for shorter riders. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the ignition switch and petcock before climbing aboard, however; neither is easy to find once you're in the saddle. The key slips into a switch hidden in a sidecover just aft of your left leg, below the seat. The petcock? Find it before you start off, because there's no low-fuel light on the Chief. The fuel lever is located on a small silver knob just in front of the front cylinder, off the port bow.

Thumbing the Springfield's starter button produces a sluggish, strangled sound at first, with the engine breathing a sigh of relief shortly thereafter.. Once you settle into the firm, narrowish solo seat, you'll encounter a handlebar wider than any wheelbarrow at Home Depot, which means there's gobs of leverage on the front fork. Visually, however, it gives the nagging impression that you're piloting a tanker.

And yes, the massive bar with its hard-edged billet grips will spread you out in the wind at speed; after a few hours, you get weary of fighting gusts. Luckily the wind pressure is diminished by the equally wide headlight, baroque nacelle and driving lights framing the assembly. And foot placement is fairly flexible thanks to soft-mounted floorboards. That'd be fine, if your foot weren't locked within the heel-toe shifter on the left side. Also, the bike's black plastic air cleaner projects into your left leg enough to make it difficult to place your foot in the middle of the floorboard, where your leg naturally gravitates. At highway speeds, you have to struggle to keep your foot in place against the wind pressure and the awkwardly placed shifter.

The hand-stitched solo seat, while narrower than other Indian saddles we've experienced, proves surprisingly comfortable over the long haul. It's flat, with only a hint of a scoop in the rear, and just firm enough not to be a backbreaker. If you can reconcile your limb placement, the riding position is fine for short stints around town.

On the road, the 100-cubic-inch engine carburets smoothly and accelerates impressively. There's a subtle flat spot in the midrange, but we barely noticed it. The five-speed transmission shifts well and engages easily, though finding neutral sometimes demands a soft touch (especially after things warm up). The engine otherwise pulled strongly and predictably -- except for a prominent chirping sound from the left side of our test unit that gained volume with each roll of the throttle. (Thwe problem turned out to be a belt-alignment problem.) But what really surprised us was the relatively shakeless ride -- with the solidly mounted engine and no counterbalancer, there is much less vibration than we expected. And the subdued exhaust sound didn't make us feel we needed to sneak around the local constabulary. Indian told us it had to make compromises to meet EPA specs, but we were not at all displeased with the resulting exhaust note. The more frightening clicks and whistles of an EVO engine have been pretty much banished.

An hour into our maiden voyage, however, we discovered a fine mist atop the crankcase. After checking the oil level, we dismissed it as nominal vapor transfer, but 100 miles later the mist had turned to standing pools of oil. A quick inspection revealed the culprit to be a leaky base gasket, so we tightened what we surmised to be any offending bolts (there's no tool kit included with the bike) and crossed our fingers. We hope it's just a random problem -- a moist cylinder should not be standard equipment on any machine.

A preproduction Chief we rode at Biketoberfest had problems with the shift linkage, but Indian redeemed itself by getting us a properly set-up model for our full test. On our Springfield, easy shifts and a smooth, predictable clutch engagement were only hampered by the shifter placement and a heavy clutch pull.

Does My Butt Look Big?

If you're talking weight, the Chief's got 700-plus pounds of it, much of it attributable to steel bodywork. The 5.5-gallon fuel tank hauls a good chunk of tonnage too, and it doesn't suggest nimble cornering. But that's just what you get -- just goose the throttle and steering becomes downright manageable. (Or as effortless as 700 pounds can be.) The Chief is not averse to side-to-side transitioning either, and we were pleased by its ability to lean over and hold a line in corners. You can push it over a lot farther than many other big-twins we've ridden, without a telltale metallic scrape. Our only nitpick with the handling was the bike's buffeting in high winds and the wakes of trucks, presumably because of the greater surface area of the fenders. But the suspension is reassuringly well damped, and the single rear shock provides good comfort across rolling bumps and a steady ride through turns without wallowing.

The brakes are another story, though; the single-disc Brembos have all the feel of oak blocks. While we realize most cruisers' weight biases are rearward, we'd personally feel better with more bite up front; for $21,495, we don't think that's at all unreasonable.

From afar, the Springfield Chief appears to be nicely finished -- and the pieces mesh and function well together. Look a bit closer, though, and you'll spot uneven logos and a slipshod alignment. The instruments are set within a billet panel mounted atop a raised console on the tank, but a small LCD odometer/tripmeter contrasts poorly against a white analog speedometer with a cheaply printed instrument face. Harley-pattern handlebar switches include a confounding turn signal layout -- and the horn-switch placement is maddening. There's also no tach and no clock, and the black plastic air cleaner looks disappointingly plain and unfinished.

While we're bitching, the Chief Springfield offers virtually no packing room -- and any space you can find doesn't have attachment points for your luggage. On the plus side, though, the Springfield does sport an attractive, sculpted chrome taillight assembly for a nice rear view. The bike is available in monochromatic Deep Red or Jet Black, and a 12-month/ unlimited-mileage warranty comes standard.

**Our Day Will Come **

The Chief is an indisputable beauty, though, and if attention's what you crave, you'd do best with a Springfield (and a trust fund, too -- this is no econobike). With the addition of the Springfield, Indian now showcases four versions of the Chief for '03. The regular Chief retails for a mere $20,995 and carries a solo seat, blackwall tires and three color choices. The Deluxe sports a fringed dual saddle and six color choices for $21,995. The top-of-the-line Roadmaster comes equipped with leather saddlebags, a windshield and a chromed passenger backrest, and it's available in three monotone colors and six two-tone color combos for $23,495.

The new Indian Motorcycle Corporation deserves credit, then, for resurrecting the brand and getting the image right along the way. A few accusations about "clone syndrome" remain, but Indian helped silence the critics with the Powerplus engine. We were modestly impressed by the Chief's power and handling, which is better than many of its competitors'. The company seems to be finding its groove and building bikes that are increasingly unique, even if they still have a few prepubescent flaws. Will the Chief catapult Indian from boutique brand to major league? Based on this model, not yet, but it's getting there -- and we feel pretty confident it's only going to get better.

RIDING POSITIONS

Andy Cherney: Battleship Springfield, I was expecting to rip it for what I saw as wretched excess. My shredding wasn't as intense as I expected though; for one thing, I was pleasantly surprised by the fit and finish of this Chief (though there were some glitches up close), and the styling was classic heartthrob-type stuff. But that's where the love affair went south. The behemoth turned and handled as capably as any other big-twin, but when it was time to stop, it became a cross-your-fingers-and-hope proposition -- the front brake was that scary. Gaffes like a small oil leak on the rear cylinder and an ill-positioned, plain-Jane air cleaner didn't help either -- for 22 large, I'm looking for a bit more effort from the engineers. I'd gladly take the Chief Springfield to my high-school reunion for visual kicks, but I'd probably end up hitching a ride home.

Of course hitching's illegal, but you can pick up Cherney at Andy.Cherney@primedia.com.

Jamie Elvidge: My primary thought as I rode the new Chief into bustling city traffic at rush hour was, "Hmmm, this reminds me of that self-propelled aerator I rented last summer." But, of course, I know you can't judge a book by its cover -- or in Indian's case, the enormous wheelbarrow bar that blends into an acre-wide chrome nacelle. (I tell you, for roadside picnics, that headlight cover is the way.)

I was immediately tortured by the fact that I'd expected the Indian to be a big, heavy, long and unwieldy-feeling pile. Preconceptions only seem smart when you're right. I was wrong, though, and the Chief proved hugely maneuverable and easy to ride through, really, the toughest stuff you can imagine.

The next day, I spent more quality time with the Chief and found the more I rode it the more I liked it. It handles extremely well for its heft, and the suspension is really terrific. Yes, the motor is so-so, the brakes are really poor, it chirped like a nest of birds and it's a little iffy in the close-up fit-and-finish department. Lookswise, I just don't care for it (although it does raise eyebrows on the street, and not just from displaced pedestrians). It seems over the top to me.

But I have to say that the ride made a positive impression on me, and I'm suddenly curious how things will look for Indian in five years (where recently I would have said I'd be surprised if it survived another five months). No, the bike's not there. In some ways it's not even as there as some of its Big Dog and American Iron Horse custom competitors we recently rode. But the Chief does have potential. And if the company can stay afloat in the fishbowl for a few more years, we might see some incredible things. If not, it could always move into the market of making flashy aerators.

For further lawn care ideas, e-mail the editor at Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.

Our first Indian test bike is both better than I expected and not good enough. Great suspension and good saddle and cornering clearance were pleasant surprises. The finish quality was generally what you should demand when you spend 20-something grand for a motorcycle, but the speedometer console and the front fender's Indian head should be straightened out. I expected a bit more vibration but would like a little less.

But some of its shortcomings rankle. My size 13 will barely squeeze onto that left floorboard thanks to the protruding airbox, and at 65 mph, wind pressure and vibration make me work to keep my foot from slipping off. The front brake simply doesn't cut it, even if your hand is big enough to comfortably reach the lever. Although that oil leak may be authentic, it really doesn't belong on any '03 motorcycle and diminishes the bike's elegance. Worse is that squealing coming from the drivetrain under load.

Although most of the bike has an original appearance and feel, it still aggravates me that an Indian is powered by an engine copied from a design created by ancient rival Harley-Davidson. Even if I had enough cash burning a hole in my pocket, I wouldn't buy one of these machines -- yet. But like I say, Indian is building better bikes than I expected, and it's selling more bikes than I expected. So I hold out hope for the future.

Art Friedman
Our resident curmudgeon can be reached electronically at Art.Friedman@primedia.com.

SPECIFICATIONS
Indian Chief Springfield

Suggested price: $21,495
Standard colors: Deep Red, Jet Black
www.indianmotorcycles.com

Engine & Drivetrain
Type: Air-cooled, 45-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve per cylinder, operated by pushrods and hydraulic lifters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1638cc, 98.4. x 108mm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Carburetion: 1, 42mm Mikuni flat-slide
Lubrication: Dry sump, 3.0 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 91-octane
Fuel capacity: 5.5 gal.
Transmission: Wet, constant-mesh clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: belt, 2.03:1 ratio

Chassis
Wet weight: 736 lb., 54% rear wheel
GVWR: 1172 lb.
Overall length: 101.3 in.
Wheelbase: 68.4 in.
Rake/trial: 34 degrees / 5.92.in
Seat height: 28.5 in.
Handlebar width: 36 in.
Wheels: wire spoke
Front tire: 130/90 x 16, 3.5-in. width, tube-type
Rear tire: 130/90 x 16, 3.5-in. width, tube-type
Front brake: 11.5-in. disc, 4-piston caliper
Rear brake: 11.5-in. disc, 4-piston caliper
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.1-in. travel
Rear suspension: Single damper, 4.25-in. travel

Performance
Fuel mileage: : 29 - 31 mpg; 30 mpg avg.
Average rangeE: 158 mi.
200-yard top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 76.72 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.069 sec. @ 85.18 mph

Additional motorcycle road tests and comparisons are available at the Road Tests section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.