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Ride Review: Indian Chief Classic

There is only one reason you should not rush out and buy yourself an Indian Chief Classic. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first I want to stress that the Chief Classic is the best motorcycle I have ever ridden.
That sort of thing comes with a caveat, I suppose, because of the truth that there is no perfect motorcycle. If you are looking for elbow-dragging cornering prowess, or crossing-the-Kazakh-mountains off-road capability, the Chief will disappoint. Indeed, there are any number of unfair comparisons that could be put to this bike that would leave it wanting. But if you take it for what it is –– an outsized torque monster that turns the head of everyone you pass –– then it is, without question, The Best Motorcycle Ever.

I should probably admit a certain amount of bias right uprfront, however. Indian Motorcycles is owned by Minnesota-based Polaris, and I tend to have a soft spot for all things Minnesotan. But even without that adopted-home-state connection, I reckon I’d be pretty hot on this machine. The Chief (I see no reason to differentiate between the Chief Classic and Chief Vintage, since the only difference between the two is that one has a screen and saddlebags as standard) has long been on my What I Want list. I have previously written about it both here and here

You will know, of course, that the resurrected Chief was introduced to the world in summer 2013. The forthcoming 2015 Chief Classic is only different from previous offerings in paint schemes. The machine I rode was a 2014 model, bedecked in deep Springfield Blue that, in my opinion, looked even better with a little bit of Birmingham road grime on it –– rather than shining and spotless on a showroom floor.

That’s good to know. I’m not big into cleaning regimes beyond throwing some water on the thing to clear away road salt. I think if I were to own a Chief I’d be somewhat inclined to let the bike’s chrome rust –– as chrome is so naturally wont to do –– and create a bit of patina, which you could then clear coat to keep it from rusting any further.

(I learned that trick from the guys at Gas Monkey Garage.)

You’d certainly have a fair bit of patina, because the Chief is dripping with shiny bits. Like the massive steer’s head that is the headlight assembly and handlebars. I mean, good grief, that thing is huge. I am not exaggerating even slightly in telling you that just the headlight assembly is larger than my Honda’s 19-litre fuel tank. It is the size of a horse’s head.

This theme of hugeness extends to all corners of the bike: giganto pullback handlebars that are as thick around as a tree trunk, supersized forks, valanced fenders the size of a child’s bicycle, a seat large enough to establish a homestead on, and so on. With Minnesota serving as the de facto home to Indian Motorcycles, one wonders if this thing wasn’t designed with Paul Bunyan in mind.

At 8.5 feet long and more than 3 feet wide, it is a big motorcycle. One benefit of all at girth (and all that chrome), though, is that it gets you noticed. As the rider of a 600cc Honda, I am used to being ignored by other road users, but when I was astride this beast, cars and trucks were stopping to give way –– partially out of respect for the bike’s size and partially because it is a joy to look at.

It is also a joy to ride. Somehow, Indian has figured out a way to make the massive Chief handle far better than it has any right to. No, you won’t be pulling any Royal Jordanian-style filtering moves, but the curves and awkward corners of normal British roads are surprisingly manageable for anyone who understands the basics of clutch/throttle control. Slow-speed manoeuvring is solid and relatively stress-free.

At speed, this great American land yacht floats over everything. It got to the point that I started targeting massive potholes, but still the Chief’s suspension gobbled them up. Additionally, the bike’s surfboard-sized floorboards allowed me to stand up off the seat when hitting speed bumps and the like. Add to this the bike’s incredible leather seat, and it is genuinely the most comfortable vehicle I have ever experienced. Note that I say “vehicle” there; it is more comfortable than any motorcycle I’ve ridden, easily, but also more comfortable than any car, truck, bus, train, boat or aeroplane I’ve been on/in.

Twisting the throttle produces a deep, from-the-bowels-of-the-earth growl in the Chief’s gargantuan 1,811cc engine. Hauling all that weight means you won’t be popping any wheelies, but a fistful of throttle definitely hurls you forward in such a way that will have you whooping in your helmet. Indeed, I spent the whole of my ride laughing, shouting expletives of affirmation and grinning so wide my teeth went dry.

Because of the Polaris family connection, I had expected the experience of riding a Chief to be similar to that of riding a Victory, but it turns out that an Indian is so much more. First gear is a little “shorter” than on a Victory, meaning the engine’s groaning will have you wanting to shift at about 30 mph. But the higher gears are much “longer.” Sixth gear is very much a motorway/interstate gear; when cruising below 65 mph, you find no need to explore beyond fifth.

The clutch is relatively light –– especially when compared to a Victory –– though I should point out that I have long fingers (that’s right, ladies), and I wonder how easily shifting gears would come to someone with smaller hands.

At higher speeds, that leviathan headlight assembly blocks a lot of wind –– to the extent I wonder whether I would ever want a screen. The Chief purrs at 75 mph, suggesting an ability to go far into the territory of illegal speeds before the engine shows any signs of stress. This is clearly a motorcycle suited to its home country. The United States is roughly 3,000 miles from ocean to ocean and this bike is a great way to tackle those miles in style and comfort. The roomy seat, the massive floorboards and the colossal pull-back handlebars offer plenty of wriggle room.

When it comes time to bring all that mass to a stop, the Chief’s two front discs and single rear seem to be very much up to the job. Again, this is a markedly different experience than one finds on a Victory. With a Chief, you can use a sportbike-style two-fingered grab of the lever to temper momentum. The bike is also equipped with anti-lock brakes as standard.

I, personally, am not a fan of placing the speedometer and other info on the tank of the bike, but I’ll admit that it works with the Chief’s aesthetics and I had no trouble keeping speed and gear position in my peripheral view whilst riding.

Beyond that, I can find no other qualms with this motorcycle. Well, except for that one thing I mentioned at the start of this post –– the only reason I can think of for not running out right now and buying one: its price.

Good Lord almighty, is it expensive. Here in the United Kingdom, the starting price for an Indian Chief Classic is greater than my my net annual salary. At my current rate of saving (which is already overly optimistic), it would take me 12 years to put aside enough money to buy one of these magnificent beasts. Which means –– despite its greatness –– you will probably never see one in my garage.

All of this, then, leads to the three questions I put to every motorbike I get a chance to test ride:

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
Sadly, no. The Indian Chief Classic is too big, too expensive and too demanding in its cleaning schedule to belong to a low-paid PR hack who has to store his bike outside.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. A massive, kid-on-Christmas-morning grin that sits on my face even as I think of riding the Chief. The thought of never owning one initiates a deep, trembling sadness in my soul.

3) Is is better than my current motorcycle?
Yes. In looks, acceleration, comfort, quality and coolness it is –– unsurprisingly –– superior to my hard-working little Honda. In comfort alone it is, as I said, superior to every other vehicle I’ve ever experienced.

If your financial situation is better than my own, I urge you to get a Chief. I wish you many years of happy riding. Please don’t be surprised when you see me gaping in envy as you ride past.