Polaris plans a big year for Indian motorcycles

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2013 - 7:07 PM

This fall, Polaris will introduce a redesigned Indian motorcycle -- the 112-year-old iconic American brand it acquired in 2011.

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Arturo Equia-Welch, co-owner of Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities, features models from 1949 to today in the company’s St. Paul showroom.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Arturo Eguia-Welch, co-owner of Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities, is so thrilled to sell the iconic American bike that he set up his St. Paul dealership like a museum, featuring models from 1949 to today.

Soon, Eguia-Welch, the only Indian dealer in Minnesota, will have two new models to sell.

This past weekend, Polaris Industries introduced the 2013 "Indian Chief Vintage Final Edition" at the International Motorcycle Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The limited edition bike is the last one to be based on designs from the previous owners in Kings Mountain, N.C., and only 25 will be made.

But come fall, Medina-based Polaris -- which bought the 112-year-old company in 2011 -- will unleash hundreds of its closely guarded, fully redesigned 2014 Indian. By year end, the new generation bike will roar out of the factory in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and onto showroom floors at new dealerships set up across North America.

The launch is important for Polaris. Steve Menneto, the company's vice president of motorcycles, said Polaris has invested "tens of millions of dollars" to get Indian just right so it can compete with Harley-Davidson.

If successful, Polaris will revive a struggling but much-beloved motorcycle brand that broke racing records in the '60s, birthed the 2005 Anthony Hopkins movie "The World's Fastest Indian" and survived predecessors' bankruptcies and weakly funded relaunches.

"We are really excited. It's going to be a great year," Menneto said. "Our team is committed to charting an inspired new future for this brand that fuses the iconic elements of its legendary past with [new] state-of-the-art technology and engineering prowess."

At the motorcycle show, Eguia-Welch and other fans of the classic heavyweight motorcycle huddled near a sound booth display to hear the distinct engine growl that Polaris promises will be a key feature of its next generation bike. "I am extremely excited about what is to come," Eguia-Welch said.

Mark Smith, senior research analyst at Feltl & Co. in Minneapolis, said Polaris' engineers spent big to develop the right engine roar for its new take on the 1901 American classic.

"They have rooms full of special equipment and sound studios where they tuned and tweaked and tested to get the sound just right," Smith said. "You think of Harley-Davidson, and you immediately get that key piece of recognition because of the engine sound. [With Polaris' Indian], they certainly need that same feeling of wonder."

Hundreds of the new 2014 bikes are expected to emerge this fall, thanks to hundreds of Polaris engineers in Wyoming, Minn., engine builders in Osceola, Wis., and production workers in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Polaris will make both its Victory motorcycle, a brand it built over 10 years, and the Indian in the same plant.

In buying Indian, Polaris instantly gained an established, well-loved brand that could sell well right out of the starting gate. Indian will be built on two of its own production lines in Spirit Lake.

"With Indian, you have this great, upscale brand," said Smith, the research analyst at Feltl & Co. "It's been undercapitalized for decades. Now [under the wing of the $3 billion Polaris], one has the chance to dump the capital and the R&D it deserves into the Indian name ... I think it's really exciting."

With Indian, Polaris has "something where they can go after that high-end consumer. With Indian, there is a lot of brand equity."

Ambitious plans

Menneto wants to have 150 Indian dealers set up across the United States and Canada by year end 2014. And he wants about $375 million in annual sales in five to seven years.

It's a tall order. There are just 14 Indian dealers today. Only 100 of the 2013 Indian models will be made and sold. So a lot is riding on the 2014 redesign and production ramp-up.

To understand the aggressive nature of Polaris' goals, consider that in 2011, Polaris's entire "on-road" division -- mostly Victory motorcycles and electronic vehicles -- generated $146 million in sales. Forecasts call for 60 percent growth in 2012. And Menneto predicts $750 million in combined Victory and Indian sales in five to seven years.

To help get there, Polaris added the Indian production lines in Spirit Lake and brought on hundreds of new workers. Polaris didn't close its Osceola plant as planned last year. Instead it decided to build its Victory and Indian engines there. That plant kept about 200 workers.

Polaris promised to double the size of its R&D plant in Wyoming, where engineers will design, test and improve future version of Indian and Victory motorcycles. In every case, Indian will remain exclusive, with separate production lines, staff, and distribution systems from the Victory brand, Menneto said.

While Polaris developed the Victory bike from scratch, Indian is coming out of the chute with an established reputation.

Eguia-Welch said customers are charged up about Indian's comeback.

"One of things that Polaris is starting to learn is that the name Indian is more iconic than the name Polaris or Victory," Eguia-Welch said. "This is going to make them an iconic business."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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