After unveiling the new Indian Chief motorcycles in Sturgis, S.D., earlier this month, Polaris Industries Inc. has finally rolled out the highly anticipated bikes to riders in its home state.
To promote the first redesign of the iconic 1901 bike since it acquired the business, Medina-based Polaris over the past few days has been allowing fans and prospective buyers to drive 12 sparkling new bikes at its first Minnesota dealer, Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities, in St. Paul.
“Anyone showing up with a valid motorcycle license can ride,” said Art Welch, co-owner of the dealership. “Over a five-day period we expect 2,000 to come here to ride … and several will buy.”
Even before the event, Welch had taken orders from more than a dozen enthusiasts who plunked down deposits for the cycles, which range in price from $19,000 to $22,000. “They paid a deposit sight-unseen,” he said. “Now they get to ride it.”
On Thursday and Friday, hundreds of riders from around the country hopped on the bikes and zipped from St. Paul to Wisconsin. For some, the demo was part of a bigger trip to the company’s factory in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and its research center in Wyoming, Minn.
This weekend, there are 30-minute demo rides all day today, an “Indian-bike-only” ride tonight and a back-to-school charity ride on Sunday.
As he hopped off a sparkling Indian Chieftain on Friday, Jay Elepano of Minneapolis beamed.
“That was absolutely amazing,” he said after a 30-minute ride. “I already have two bikes, but I would be very surprised if I did not have the Indian in my garage by next season. Man, that thing is butter.”
It took Polaris two years and millions of dollars to remake the Indian Chief line after buying the brand from a cash-strapped owner in 2011. It’s the first remodel in more than five years and the design is a tribute to its early history.
Before Polaris, Indian brand lovers suffered through “five years of the same old design” until now, Welch said. “It is safe to say we are extremely happy. Now we know we have something to sell that will appeal to all buyers. What sells is the style, power, lower price point and the new financial backing that Polaris brings.”
Rick Lossner rode his 2009 Indian bike from Dallas to Welch’s dealership in St. Paul and ordered his new $22,900 Indian Chieftain as soon as he arrived. The retired Air Force veteran already owns 11 motorcycles, including five Indians. But he couldn’t resist a sixth.
“They are beautiful. They are bigger than a Harley and that’s important. I am 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. The Indian just fits me,” Lossner said. Besides, Lossner didn’t want to lose out.
Polaris will issue special-edition serial numbers for only the first 1,901 bikes off the assembly line.
“If I waited, I would not get one,” Lossner said. “I love Indians. They are just a completely different animal.”
Lossner rode to St. Paul with a biker friend who put down a deposit on the 2014 Indian Chief Vintage model. “And we had another two guys flying in from the East Coast, Maryland,” Lossner said. “One put a deposit on the 2014 Indian Chieftain model. Another guy came in from Kansas.”
Polaris, which generates $3.4 billion in annual sales making all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and sports garments, along with its Victory and Indian motorcycles, is not usually as aggressive promoting a new product, Citigroup analyst Greg Badishkanian noted during the company’s recent earnings call.
Polaris introduced “the sound” of the engine at bike shows around the country a year ago and even created a smartphone app that featured it. Months later, it introduced the actual engine and took it on tour for enthusiasts to see. Finally, it unveiled the bike at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Aug. 3-4.
Polaris officials offer no apologies.
“We’re excited,” said Steve Menneto, vice president of Indian and Victory Motorcycles at Polaris.
The heavy bike is expected to be a competitor to Harley-Davidson, though Polaris officials won’t say how many of the new Indians they plan to make. A key selling point: The new Indian Chief models sell for about $10,000 less than earlier models.
A century ago, Indian was the world’s largest motorcycle company. The brand became famous for its unusual look and record-breaking speeds, a story line that inspired the 2005 movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” with Anthony Hopkins.
But the bike fell on hard times in recent decades as various owners failed to reinvigorate the brand.
Today, Polaris is on a tear to fill orders and market the bike. New Indian dealerships are planned far and wide. “Our goal is to have 120 dealerships by the end of the year in North America and 70 outside North America,” Menneto said. “Then we will grow to 300 to 400 dealerships over time.”
Minnesota may eventually have four to six, he said. Mies Outland, a Polaris dealer in Watkins, just last month became the second outlet in the state to offer Indian motorcycles.
Company executives believe dealers will spend $200,000 to $1 million on their stores, aiming to properly showcase the brand’s nostalgia while using the latest in digital technology and retail displays.
Lossner, who is staying in Minnesota until Monday so he doesn’t miss any of the demo rides, said he understands Polaris’ logic.
“Every time you stop to get gas, somebody stops you and comments on your Indian,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, my dad had one’ or ‘My grandfather loved his.’ I stopped for gas in Stillwater this afternoon and a woman stopped me and kept talking about the one her husband had. Everybody’s got a story about their Indian motorcycle.”