The Rivalry Between Indian & Harley-Davidson


That first showdown went to Indian as Lee Taylor came away with the victory in 5 hours and 2 minutes, more than 11 minutes ahead of Joe Wolters on an Excelsior. Harley-Davidson had a much better showing in the event with a full factory squad than it had at Dodge City. One of its riders, Irving Janke, finished third, nearly 13 minutes behind the winning Indian.

Indian, Harley-Davidson and Excelsior emerged as the big three makers of the mid-1910s, and it was those three that earned most of the glory on-track glory with the much more veteran Indian crew continuing to earn the bulk of the big championships the end of the FAM era and the onset of World War I.

Motorcycling began to change after World War I. With the mass production of Ford’s Model T, motorcycles were no longer the less expensive alternative to cars. Sales began to take a hit and one by one the bulk of the dozens of American motorcycle manufacturers dwindled. Racing was constricted as well with the demise of the FAM.

A 1920 Indian Motorcycle

Throughout the 1920s, the battles between Indian and Harley-Davidson continued with Harley beginning to run on par with Indian, especially with the early 1920’s Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew, a group of talented factory Harley racers who combined to win dozens of events.

The board-track era faded and dirt track and hillclimb became the premier forms of racing in the 1920s and the two makers (along with Excelsior) did battle on both fronts.

The Great Depression decreased motorcycle sales and brought about major changes in American motorcycle racing. Chicago-based Excelsior ceased production in 1931 to focus on its bicycle business (Schwinn), leaving Indian and Harley-Davidson as the sole survivors. In order to decrease the cost of racing, the American Motorcycle Ass’n — founded in 1924 — formulated Class C racing rules, which basically dictated that only production motorcycles could be raced.

It was during the 1930s when the lines were most starkly drawn. American race fans were either Indian loyalists or fans of Harley-Davidson. Fans wore the colors of the respective teams and rarely intermingled. It was time of fierce partisanship.

In the post-World War II years, the British brands began competing and winning championships, adding a third element to the American racing scene. Indian, with its outdated factory and slow-to change leadership, began to struggle by the late 1940s and early ’50s. Ironically, the maker experienced some of its greatest racing success during this period with its own “Wrecking Crew.”

Harley-Davidson won four consecutive national championships starting in 1947. But in its waning days, Indian suddenly found itself an underdog  and rallied to finish its existence in a flourish with three straight national championships by legendary riders Bobby Hill and Bill Tuman.

Motorcycle Hall of Famer Ernie Beckman will long be remembered for being the last rider to win an AMA Grand National race on an Indian — his Aug. 2, 1953, victory at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway.

By the mid-1950s, only a few die-hard Indian holdouts remained on the track and the Indian vs. Harley Wars were over.

As it turns out, fans of motorcycle racing only thought the rivalry was finished. With the re-entry of a revived Indian Motorcycle into American Flat Track, a new generation of motorcyclists may well get the opportunity to see the Indian-Harley Wars begin anew. n