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Indian and Harley-Davidson Have Two Very Different Ideas of American Performance

This year both companies pulled the wraps off new models designed to fight to attract new riders.

In 1901, William S. Harley penned blueprints for a combustion engine designed to fit into a bicycle frame. At the same time, George M. Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom were beginning production on their first Indian “motor-cycle”. One of America’s greatest rivalries ensued. Fast forward to today and the two brands still have their sights clearly set on each other. This year, both American motorcycle companies pulled the wraps off new models designed to spill that age-old rivalry out onto the streets in a fight to attract new riders.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster is now in its sixtieth year of continued production, but the Roadster is the newest offering in a family that now runs six deep. The styling is aggressive and athletic — almost anti-Harley. There’s barely a drip of chrome on this thing, and the sporty suspension setup and dual-disc front brakes hint that the Roadster was engineered to do more than cruise lazily down the highway.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Roadster

Engine: 1,202cc air-cooled V-Twin
Transmission: five-speed
Torque: 76 lb-ft
Curb Weight: 571 lbs

On smooth, curvy asphalt, the Roadster felt alive: It’s easily the second sportiest Sportster H-D has ever created, right behind the XR1200. The low-end grunt, confident handling and ergonomics that demand a slight reach — with cafe racer–esque bars and mid-mounted pegs — create a rider triangle that falls somewhere between a traditional cruiser and apex hunter. Unfortunately, the long feelers on the pegs deliver a grinding reminder that a cruiser lies beneath. They poke so far from the frame that they limit the mid-corner performance on what is an overall impressive package. If I were to buy a Roadster — and believe me, it’s tempting — those pegs would be the first to go.

The Indian Scout Bobber, on the other hand, isn’t trying to fool anyone into canyon carving. It wears its cruiser badge proudly. Like the Roadster, it sports bar-end mirrors, shortened bobbed rear fender and blacked-out everything in the name of attracting younger buyers. But where Harley refined its iron in pursuit of added performance, Indian took a different approach and applied mostly cosmetic changes.

Photos: M. Neundorf and Barry Hathaway

That said, Indian’s 1,130cc V-Twin is calm at idle and, on the go, the front forks are stable and the new shorter rear shocks work well to keep the bike planted. The Scout benefits from already having an incredibly stable and communicative chassis, but it’s just more of a stripped-down, lower, leaner, custom-looking affair with the Bobber. A new nacelle has been fitted up front, and the handlebars are flat, racy. Even the traditional scripting of this Indian’s name has been swapped for block lettering on the tank. As a package, it looks muscular and mean and, I must admit, I did feel a little badass in the saddle.

Indian Motorcycles Scout Bobber

Engine: 1,130cc liquid-cooled V-twin
Transmission: six-speed
Torque: 72 lb-ft
Curb Weight: 554 lbs

After an hour, though, the stretch to those bars, combined with the forward peg placement and restricting solo-seat, doesn’t allow for any adjustments on the fly. That put extra strain on my lower back, legs and shoulders. Every road imperfection was felt. But — it was nothing a stop and quick stretch couldn’t remedy.

Over their century-long battle, Indian and Harley have gone bar-to-bar on racetracks, hill climbs and along the boulevards of America. The back-and-forth has shaped motorcycle culture as we know it around the world, and the bikes the brands put on the road. That means two of America’s most famous motorcycle makers are building more focused bikes with performance and refinement out of direct competition, and we’re reaping the benefits.

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