First Ride Review
No motorcycle has left as indelible an impression on the American psyche as the late 1940s Indian Chief. Although the first Chief emerged from the Wigwam factory in 1922, Briggs Weaver’s gracefully skirted fenders—the Chief’s most iconic feature—weren’t adopted until 1940. Its other quintessential design element, the illuminated Indian head “war bonnet” on the front fender, debuted in 1947. That same year the Chief was offered in three versions—the Clubman, the Sportsman and the top-of-the-line Roadmaster, a heavily chromed touring model with a windshield, a two-up seat, leather saddlebags, a luggage rack and front/rear highway bars.
The short-lived Gilroy and King’s Mountain resurrections of Indian included Chief Roadmasters in their lineups, with features inspired by the original. Polaris Industries re-launched Indian with three clean-sheet models for 2014—the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage and Chieftain. The most unexpected of these, and the one that most diverges from the classic design script, is the Chieftain. Its Art Deco-styled, fork-mounted fairing and hard saddlebags had never been seen on an Indian before, but today’s bagger craze made such a model inevitable. Even though past Roadmasters had windshields and leather saddlebags—signature features of the Chief Vintage—when Indian decided to build a full-dress touring bike, the Chieftain was the most logical starting point.
The Roadmaster press launch began with a visit to Polaris Industries’ impressive and ever-expanding Product Development Center (PDC) in Wyoming, Minnesota, where we learned about the exhaustive testing that Indians, Victorys and other Polaris vehicles undergo. Re-launching Indian has required designers and engineers to walk a tightrope between maintaining the iconic look that people expect—that is, not much different from the last Chief that rolled off the assembly line in 1953—and offering the performance and reliability that 21th century motorcyclists demand. The design of the Thunder Stroke 111 air-cooled, 49-degree V-twin was inspired by the 1940s Powerplus, with multi-directional finned valve covers, downward-firing exhausts and big parallel pushrod tubes, but it is a modern, powerful engine with hydraulic lifters, multi-port fuel injection and throttle-by-wire, and it underwent billions of crankshaft rotations during validation testing.
After a tour of the PDC and a technical briefing on the Roadmaster, we embarked on a two-day, 300-mile test ride along the contours of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers and through the rolling farmland of southeastern Minnesota, in a mix of hot, cold and wet conditions that are ideal for evaluating a touring bike. The Chieftain’s many endearing attributes—arm-straightening torque, good suspension compliance, long-haul comfort and class-leading wind protection, among others—carry over to, or have been improved upon, with the Roadmaster. Development of the new model took into consideration the needs and expectations of touring riders, who tend to be older and married with more riding experience and higher incomes than bagger riders, so they expect a premium, fully featured motorcycle. The trunk not only has 17 gallons of capacity (enough space for two full-face helmets and then some), it’s carpet-lined, has remote locks, internal LED lighting and a 12V outlet, and its lid carries a chrome luggage rack. Its quick-release design allows the trunk to be easily removed, with chrome rails on the bottom that make it easier to do so while also protecting the paint. Greeting the passenger is a thickly padded, wrap-around backrest with two 50-watt speakers. It’s covered in the same diamond-stitch, UV-and-scuff-resistant Desert Tan leather found on the plush two-up seat. Wide pilot and passenger seating areas have separate heating controls, and a tall lumbar area supports the rider. Seat height (26.5 inches) is a half-inch taller than on the Chieftain, affording the rider additional legroom, which I appreciated. Instead of the Chieftain’s passenger footpegs, the Roadmaster has floorboards that are adjustable for height and angle.
As dark storm clouds converged and rain began to fall, I felt comfortably ensconced. The new Horizon windscreen is almost an inch lower at the top than the Chieftain’s screen for a less obstructed view, but its more squared-off shape ensures good coverage. Raising the electric windscreen to the top of its 4-inch range created a dry, quiet bubble that allowed me to hear the stereo clearly at highway speeds. Protecting my legs were shapely new fairing lowers, each of which has a 1.2-gallon storage compartment as well as upper and lower vents to control airflow. Designed in conjunction with the lowers is a new duct hidden behind the left-side air intake that directs airflow to the rear cylinder for better front/rear temperature balance. Out front, the new Pathfinder LED headlight and fog lights use reflectors to provide a broad, symmetrical beam pattern, and they’re very bright, even during the day. (The turn signals, taillight and war bonnet use LEDs as well.) Behind the fairing is a comprehensive instrument panel with analog gauges (a larger font makes the numbers easier to read) and a central digital display that includes expanded audio information, Pandora control via smartphone, Bluetooth connectivity, tire-pressure monitoring, trip data and more. A hidden compartment under the fairing includes a cable and holder for a smartphone or MP3 player, and atop the 5.5-gallon fuel tank are buttons for the keyless ignition, central luggage locks and heated grips.
Trundling down the road, the Roadmaster’s big V-twin purred quietly thanks to its vibration-damping primary counterbalancer. Enough visceral rumble remains, along with a deeply resonant exhaust note, to satisfy the most discerning of gearheads. When we strapped a 2014 Chieftain to Jett Tuning’s dyno, it belted out 76 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque (Rider, February 2014), an impressive amount of grunt that makes quick work of roll-ons and passes. There’s some hesitation off the line, likely due to throttle-by-wire calibration, and the air-cooled engine radiates a fair amount of heat, but otherwise the Thunder Stroke 111 is one of the most impressive engines in cruiserdom. The cable-actuated clutch requires a firm pull, but the 6-speed transmission shifts smoothly and triple-disc, ABS-equipped brakes provide authoritative stopping power. The same drivetrain and cast-aluminum frame is shared with the Chief Classic/Vintage, but the steeper rake and shorter wheelbase on the Chieftain and Roadmaster give them an edge in maneuverability despite their heavier curb weights (the Roadmaster weighs 897 pounds dry).
Although wrapped in retro styling with acres of classic chrome and leather, the Roadmaster is a modern, elegant touring platform that lives up to its legendary name with an impressive list of standard features, generous rider and passenger accommodations, excellent weather protection and 37.6 gallons of total storage capacity. Signature design elements, such as chrome fender tips and front/rear highway bars, add to the high level of fit and finish. When it comes to touring bikes, enough is never enough, so Indian offers a full range of accessories to satisfy almost any desire, from hop-up air boxes and exhausts to cup holders and apparel. (In fact, a whirlwind tour of the accessory catalog can bring a 2014 Chieftain up to Roadmaster spec, minus a few badges.) The 2015 model year marks the return of classic two-tone paint options across the Indian lineup, with the Roadmaster available in Indian Motorcycle Red/Ivory Cream ($28,199), as well as solid Thunder Black ($26,999) and Indian Motorcycle Red ($27,599).
Looking back from his vantage point in 2001, in his book A Century of Indian, Ed Youngblood declared, “In its beauty, its style, its grace, and its rainbow of colors, there has never been—and may never be again—a mass-produced motorcycle quite as handsome as the Indian.” With the 2015 Roadmaster, he may reconsider.