Why Are Indian Motorcycles Named Indian? (Answered!)

Indian motorcycle - why named Indian

Many people think Indian motorcycles are from India. Especially those outside the US.

It is not so.

The Indian motorcycles are from the United States.

But then:

Why are Indian motorcycles named Indian?

The Indian name in Indian motorcycles represents the Native Americans. The indigenous American people are also referred to as Indians – which the motorcycle derives its name from.

The Indian name in the motorcycles is used to associate with the Native Indian imagery of wilderness and lawlessness.

During the early 1900s, the Native American culture was immensely popular in the United States.

They represented an idea of the wilderness and lawlessness in popular culture.

As a result, in 1901, the Hendee Manufacturing Company named their motorcycles Indian to associate with the Native American imagery.

Eventually, even the company name Hendee Manufacturing was changed to Indian Motorcycles.

First as Indian Motocycles (without an ‘r’).

Then to Indian Motorcycles (with an ‘r’).

Such was the brand popularity of the Indian motorcycles.

This is the short story. Let’s dive deep to understand a few more nuances.

Indian Motorcycles – The Origin

Indian Scout bike

In the year 1897, George M. Hendee along with Oscar Herdstrom founded a bicycle (later motorcycle) production company called the Hendee Manufacturing Company.

Now what does this bicycle company have to do with Indian motorcycles?

Well, the Hendee Manufacturing company also started building motorcycle prototypes, which they called Indian motocycles (without the ‘r’).

The term motocycle (without the ‘r’) was used for a motorized bicycle in those days. Eventually, the name motorcycle (with the ‘r’) stick on.

That’s why we call them motorcycles (with the ‘r’) now.

Back to the story.

The company set up its own factory production in 1901.

And by 1902, they were ready to begin large-scale production of their motorcycle prototypes – which they called – Indian.

Oscar Herdstrom standing with the first Indian Motorcycle prototype
Oscar Herdstrom standing with the first Indian Motorcycle prototype

That’s how Indian motorcycles were born.

Hendee manufacturing company naming their motorcycle prototype as Indian motocycles.

Eventually, in 1923, they even renamed the company to Indian Motocycle Company.

That’s the origin story of Indian motorcycles in brief.

Why the name ‘Indian’

Logo of Indian motorcycle on its motorcycle

Still, you might be wondering why Hendee and Herdstrom named their motorcycles Indian to be exact.

Well, here is the reason.

During the early 1900s, the Native American culture was immensely popular in the United States.

The Native American imagery, expressions, and Wild West shows created a sense of lawlessness and freedom in people’s minds.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show Poster

It’s pretty ironic.

During those times, the government was in a war against these Native Americans.

Yet the common masses loved the idea of the wilderness and the lawlessness associated with these indigenous people.

From a branding perspective, the Hendee Manufacturing Company named their motorcycles Indian to associate with the Native American imagery.

Indian Motorcycle logo

And that’s how the Indian motorcycles were named Indian.

A century and two decades later, the brand Indian motorcycle is still alive. (Not without a lot of ups and downs though).

Is an Indian Motorcycle made in India?

No. Indian motorcycles are NOT made in India.

Indian motorcycles are from the United States.

The name Indian here refers to the Native Americans. Not the Indians in South East Asia.

It’s funny how the Indian name to the Native Americans originated because Christopher Columbus mistook the indigenous people in America as Indians.

A painting of Christopher Columbus arriving in America

And now, Indian Motorcycles are mistaken as being from India.

If you look closely at the Indian motorcycle logo, you will be able to identify easily that the Indian here is not from India.

Logo of Indian Motorcycles

Rather, the Indian in the Indian motorcycles logo refers to the indigenous American people.

Was Indian made before Harley Davidson?

Indian motorcycles were launched in 1901 by the then Hendee Manufacturing Company (later renamed Indian Motorcycles Company).

The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was built in 1903.

So yeah. Indian was made before Harley Davidson.

Although the difference is barely 2 years.

But both go on to be the biggest rivals.

Indian motorcycle shop named Indian 1901

Even today, both Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles are the biggest competitors in the cruiser category motorcycles.

Should Indian Motorcycle Change Its Name?

Over the decades, the Native American themed mascots are deemed harmful to the indigenous community and have been the subject of increasing controversy.

The use of Native American culture in brand names, images and logos, and mascots has been opposed by several media and organizations.

The usage is often associated with a prejudiced and/or racist context.

And hence, more and more corporations are removing and changing any Native American themed brands and mascots.

The most recent and notable being the Cleveland Indians.

Cleveland Indians, the American baseball team, changed their name to Cleveland Guardians in 2022.

In that context, should Indian motorcycles change their name too?

Moreover, they have a Native American as their logo.

Logo of Indian Motorcycles

It’s up to the company management to take a call on that.

The Indian motorcycle has become a brand. That too of 120 years old.

Any change in the name will have a huge impact in terms of brand hit and from a marketing perspective.

So it’s unlikely the management would change the name Indian unless they are faced with any widespread criticism.

FAQ Icon


Who currently owns Indian Motorcycles?

Polaris Inc. currently owns Indian Motorcycles. The automotive manufacturer purchased Indian Motorcycles in 2011. Polaris manufactures both Victory (no more active) and Indian motorcycles.

Is Indian Motorcycle a Harley?

Indian and Harley Davidson motorcycles are two different motorcycle companies. In fact, they are competitors. A fierce one in the cruiser category.

Is Indian an American made bike?

Yes. Indian motorcycles are made in the United States of America. The motorcycle’s plant facilities are in Minnesota and Iowa. However, the motorcycle might source parts from suppliers and vendors from other countries.

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