“It’s not 100-percent perfect,” says Rich Christoph, the man responsible for Indian’s new FTR 1200. “I mean, as a designer, I always see tiny things I want to change, things I could spend all of Indian’s money ‘fixing.’ These are things no one else would even see, though; as a finished product, I’m proud of the bike. I feel like this is the motorcycle I was supposed to make; this is where I’ve been heading my whole career.”
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It’s the pedigree of that career, however, rather than any sort of belief in providence, that most likely convinced Indian that Christoph was the right man for the job. He has a history of making bikes that sell in a market Indian wants to raech. The Iowa native used to work at Harley-Davidson and played a key role in some of its most iconic models in the last decade, chief among them the Nightster and Forty-Eight.
The Nightster, of course, inspired the Iron 883, which – along with the Forty-Eight – has been among Harley’s most popular models in Europe. It helps, too, that when Christoph speaks about inspirations his eyes light up in singing the praises of Massimo Tamburini – the designer who gave us the Ducati 916 and MV Agusta F4. Christoph may be a kid from the Upper Midwestern United States but he seemingly has his finger on the pulse of what works in the Old World.
And Europe, you may have heard, is where it’s at these days. At least, it is when it comes to the place you’re most likely to be able to sell high-end motorcycles. Whereas the once mighty US market continues to shrivel under the weight of stagnant wages, heavy debt, cheap cars and a motorcycle culture that’s still largely stuck in a different era (though things have been changing in that respect).
I’ll admit the idea of Europe as a hotspot is kind of an odd one to me. A resident of the United Kingdom for more than 12 years, it’s the standard conversation in these parts to sit around telling ourselves that things aren’t as good as they used to be. But Indian brought several American journalists to Intermot and their amazement and quiet envy at the size and enthusiasm of the show made me realize things could be much worse.
Additionally, Europe is a very diverse market – not controlled by any one brand nor any one particular genre (adventure bikes are big, of course, with some 160,000 of them being sold each year in Europe, but they’re still nowhere near the only thing). It’s a market where a brand like Indian arguably has a better chance of expanding its line-up and growing its profit margin at a faster rate than in the United States (where it’s stuck trying to play by the same old rules against the same old competitor).
More Than a Flat Tracker for the Street
What I love about Indian is that it’s very serious about accomplishing that task.
“It was always part of Indian’s strategy to build a global business. That sort of thing just takes time,” Ross Clifford, Polaris’ vice president and general manger of international product, told me. “The standard segment is big in Europe. The standard segment’s big globally. We went into this segment, wanting to build something that’s true to our brand, true to our heritage.”
Which is why Indian chose a streetified flat tracker, rather than, say, the adventure bike that most other brands might choose to woo the market with. Only five years into its time under Polaris stewardship, Indian is fast moving away from the studded seats and leather fringe side of its heritage and focusing more on its past and present days of dominating dusty ovals all across the United States.
It helps, too, that flat track is increasingly popular in Europe. Events like Dirt Quake are growing exponentially, thanks to a mix of affordability and grassroots accessibility (and perhaps, too, the fact Europeans tend to have free or affordable health care).
Although, don’t discount that aforementioned adventure bike idea. I spent a lot of time sitting on the FTR 1200 at Intermot – at one point even spending a full 10 minutes, telling myself it was necessary to do this for the sake of good reporting (and not just, you know, because I’m a ridiculous Indian fanboy) – and the riding position reminded me of a cross between the Triumph Tiger 800 and the Ducati Multistrada 950 – roomy like the Tiger but sporty like the Multistrada.
This observation spurred other observations: the power output is a little more on par with an adventure bike; the electronics package – especially cruise control and the Ride Command system of the FTR 1200 S – would make sense on an adventure bike; the long 1,524cm wheelbase would make sense for an adventure bike; the dual-sport tire compatibility would make sense on an adventure bike; and the crowded way in which the engine is sort of hidden by electronic elements would make sense on an adventure bike’s fairing.
I don’t build bikes, but it seems to me that the process of transforming the FTR 1200 into an ADV would be pretty low effort: attach some fairing to the front, throw on a more substantial rear subframe – one that uses up the space created by the wheelbase – and, well that’s pretty much it. Add a bash plate, hand guards, and aluminum panniers to complete the look. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I’ll be surprised if Indian doesn’t produce an adventure FTR 1200 for either 2020 or 2021.
When I floated the idea of such a thing to various Indian head honchos they were tellingly oblique. No one outright rejected the idea, as I would have thought they might. Indeed, it was Reid Wilson, Indian’s senior director of marketing and product planning, who first pointed out that the FTR 1200 has adventure-bike ergonomics. He also acknowledged that this platform is more than a one-trick pony.
Echoing that sentiment, Ross Clifford told me: “We respect our heritage but we’re also not trapped by it, so that enables us to go into segments that would be more difficult for others.”
Internationally Led Development
But let’s not get lost in what may be; let’s get back to the bike that actually exists. In addition to being designed by a guy who names a Ducati designer among his major influences, the FTR 1200 was actually developed in Europe, at SwissAuto – the Burgdorf, Switzerland-based Polaris subsidiary that also developed Indian’s competition-killing FTR750 flat-track race engine.
“Those guys ‘get’ really tight suspension tuning, tire tuning,” said Clifford. “The American guys could have developed it but, you know, it’s difficult, say, for an English company to make a cruiser – it’s not inbred. In the same way, American guys who go down dead-straight roads don’t ‘get’ riding one of these through the Alps. With the international team leading things, we built a really f***ing cool motorcycle.”
Clifford takes great pride in the fact he’s had a chance to ride the FTR 1200 at all stages of development. According to him, the bike is “aggressive. It barks. It pulls hard. It’s fun. It’s probably not what you expect from an American brand.”
Which is how Indian wants things. The company sees this as a truly European machine from an American company, rather than an American machine in Europe. And if you push and cajole on the question of which manufacturers Indian sees as competition you will eventually (after a great deal of circumlocution) get the names of markedly European brands.
Nonetheless, Indian is bullish about its chances of success and plans to use the FTR 1200 as a tool to dramatically expand its dealership coverage in Europe. If you live in the United Kingdom, you’ll be happy to know that Indian has some pretty exciting plans.
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“When you look at a market like the UK, selling cruiser/bagger/tourers is difficult,” Clifford said. “This bike is transformative in that sense… the FTR 1200 alone probably doubles the retail opportunities for the average dealer. You’re going to see us start to fill those gaps in dealership coverage very soon.”
Sitting at the pub with another member of Polaris’ international team later in the day, the heady mix of excitement for the bike and perhaps one too many glasses of Kölsch led to my finding out exactly where those gaps will be filled. I won’t get anyone in trouble by sharing that information, but I will say that most British riders interested in the FTR 1200 soon won’t be traveling nearly as far to see one in person.
As a fan of Indian, and American brands in general, I am deeply hopeful that Indian’s optimism is well-founded. I think it has a very good product on its hands – one that will be able to legitimately compete. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I am planning to buy one.