Saturday, November 22, 2008

American Sportbike

Are you baffled by the lack of mass produced American-made sport motorcycles?

Ironically, 10 years ago a failed business plan for a cruiser motorcycle and a questionable trademark decision played the lead roles in the continued absence of an American sportbike. This absence was not from a lack of demand for sportbikes in the United States.

Most of you know the following history, but many new riders have joined the ranks in the last decade, so they may not know this information. In addition, James Parker’s design above still holds tremendous promise. Therefore, this story should be told again. The intent is to discuss this design, applaud their effort, & continue the ambition to expand the American sport motorcycle industry, not continue the heartache…..

In the mid-1990s Lonnie Labriola, a former employee of Sterling Consulting Corporation, assembled significant capital in order to resurrect the Indian Motocycle™ brand. Mr. Labriola’s $6 million investment (plus $14 million pledged from the Native Americans of Oregon’s Umpqua Tribe) should have been considered the only serious bid to buy the Indian trademark from Sterling Consulting, a receivership formed to manage the complicated remains of the Indian trademark.

Not only did Mr. Labriola intend to build Indian motorcycles in Oregon with Native American involvement, but the following people were just a portion of the executive team assembled:

Bob Lutz – retired Chairman at Chrysler Corporation

James Parker – creator of RADD motorcycle suspension and design; Designed the Yamaha GTS front suspension. 

Roush Industries – contracted to develop proprietary engines.

By February 1999, this team, known as Eller Industries, revealed 3 prototypes to the major motorcycle publications:

  1. Indian Chief - fresh design but still true to the original Chief

  2. A sport cruiser

  3. The Sportbike seen above

The American motorcycle industry finally had a legitimate contender to re-ignite the fruitful rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian. It was going to be awesome. However, this group tragically lost the trademark litigation to the Indian Motorcycle Company of Canada.

Eventually, Indians were built by a company in Gilroy, CA before going bankrupt in approximately four years (1999 – 2003). Incredibly, the “renewed” Indian brand amounted to a cloned Harley, except for the last year in 2003 when they used the proprietary “Power Plus” engine. (This company used Harley-derived S&S engines until 2003. Not the rivalry many people envisioned).

Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson continued to set company financial records:

  • 2003 revenue = $4.62 billion
    2003 net income = $760.9 million
    2004 revenue = $5.02 billion
    2004 net income = $889.8 million
    2004 was the 19th consecutive record year for HD.

Which business plan would have been more competitive for those billions of sales in the early 2000’s?....

  • A cloned Harley masquerading as an Indian or the business plan put forth by Labriola, Lutz, Parker & the Umpqua Tribe?
  • Did any of the other entities vying for the Indian trademark have a design for a performance bike? Keep in mind, Indian's history is just as rich in racing as it is in skirted fenders of the Chief.

Indian Motocycle Company™ (under the direction of Labriola, Lutz, & Parker) would have only needed a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars from the cruiser sales between 2000 - 2004 to begin development of the above sportbike. This does not suggest this model would have been inexpensive to develop but it points out the astounding amount of cruiser sales. The cruiser revenue (generated by the American motorcycle companies in business during this time) barely went to any development of any American performance motorcycle.

The release of the above "yellow" model would have been timed perfectly with the continued increase in sportbike sales; a time where Buell was just introducing the XB model line in 2003, which still used the air-cooled, pushrod motor.

  • Note: the Eller prototypes were generically named by their design colors (green, black, yellow) to avoid further trademark litigation

James Parker’s prototype called for the following:

  • Liquid-cooled, v-twin mounted transversely with a longitudinal-crank (I remember the wheelbase was supposed to be very short)
  • Chain-drive
  • Desmodromic valve actuation
  • RADD front-end
  • Single-sided rear swingarm
  • Made in the USA

That is an impressive design brief & the technology in this design was/is enough to capture any enthusiast's interest...

Repeat: Desmodromic valves, a longitudinal crank but with chain final-drive, a mass-produced alternative front-end that also looked aesthetically pleasing, the V-twin sound, all assembled into a sport chassis from the USA. Imagine the new rivalry between Indian and Harley playing out not only in the cruiser market but also in the sportbike category.

In this day of declining American manufacturing, this bike should be built now more than ever....



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