Motorcycle rumble: It’s Harley vs. Indian at the Petersen

Vintage racing motorcycles are only part of the Harley vs. Indian exhibit at the Petersen |Larry Edsall photos
Vintage racing motorcycles are only part of the Harley vs. Indian exhibit at the Petersen |Larry Edsall photos

It was “a nearly religious war waged in dealerships and race tracks,” noted Cycle World magazine editor Mark Hoyer. And now, “Harley vs. Indian” is being waged again, and not only at their respective dealerships and on race tracks across the country but in a new exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

And while Hoyer noted that “we all know who won the war,” with Harley becoming one of the most recognized brand names in the entire world, the Petersen’s mission is to educate its visitors on the contributions the two motorcycle manufacturers made to the American scene, and are continuing to make now that the Indian brand is going through a revival after being acquired by Polaris Industries, long-time snowmobile manufacturer and, for nearly 20 years, the producer of Victory brand motorcycles.

Although Harley-Davidson won the sales and racing wars, it was Indian that was the first to be associated with speed and endurance, panelists pointed out during the grand opening kickoff of the exhibit at the Petersen. More than two dozen motorcycles are included in exhibit, along with two vintage 3/4 midget racing cars, one powered by a 45-cubic-inch Harley-Davidson engine and the other by an Indian motorcycle engine.

“Both founded in the early 1900s, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company battled for five decades over who would become America’s favorite motorcycle manufacturer,” reads a signboard beneath the “Harley vs. Indian” sign on the museum’s second floor.

More than two dozen motorcycles are included in the exhibit
More than two dozen motorcycles are included in the exhibit

“More than a century after producing their first vehicles, Harley-Davidson and Indian owners and enthusiasts continue their friendly rivalry. The companies’ achievement in racing, involvement in World War II production motorcycles, and a modern fondness for nostalgia have only contributed to the increasing world-wide visibility of both brands.”

Hoyer explained that Harley and Indian were the only major American motorcycle manufactures to survive the Depression.

The Harley vs. Indian rivalry was fought in flat-track racing as well as in their respective dealerships.

“It was a sport we created, created in America,” said Don Emde, historian, author, publisher and an American Motorcycle Association hall of fame member. Emde (in 1972) and his father, Floyd (in 1948), each won the prestigious Daytona 200-mile motorcycle race, the only father and son who both accomplished the feat.

Flat-track motorcycle races were held not only on motorsports tracks but on horse-racing ovals. Nevin Pontious, branding specialist for Deus Ex Machina, which makes bicycles, motorcycles and surf boards, noted that Indian was the first motorcycle company to send its test riders into competition to prove the viability of its bikes.

But Harley didn’t take long to join the fray, Emde said; in 1914, Harley sent not only a racing team but its management team to a race at Dodge City, Kansas.

“They didn’t do well,” Emde said, adding that the management team promised, “we’ll be back.” The Harley riders were back the following year, not only winning but taking six of the top seven positions and earning the “Wrecking Crew” nickname, not for crashing but for simply ruining every other team’s weekend.

Flat-track dirt racing is making a comeback through the American Flat Track racing series.

“Flat track is the original X Games,” said Richard Varner, Petersen board member and treasurer and the third panelist at the Harley vs. Indian opening.

Varner also is one of the principals in MotoAmerica, a racing series
reinvigorating motorcycle road racing in the United States.

Unlike cars or trucks, motorcycles for most riders aren’t used for daily chores or commuting, but as part of their lifestyle Varner said.

“It’s something we go out and do,” he said, often providing a means not only for enjoying the freedom of the open road and of seeing the sights but of socializing with friends, and for making new friends.

He also noted that while some forms of motorsports have become spec series in which vehicles are pretty much all the same, in motorcycle racing the bikes are still identifiable.

“It’s not ‘spec’ racing,” he said, adding that spectators still relate because “that’s the bike I ride.”

Photos by Larry Edsall

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