A little back story: the Indian name on two-wheelers predated motorcycle production, but was one of bicycle manufacturer George M. Hendee’s product lines.  Hendee was a multi-time champion bicycle racer in the 1880s who turned manufacturer in the 1890s, and looked for a reliable pacer motorcycle for his racing teams in 1899.  Swedish engineer Carl Oscar Hedstrom, trained as a watchmaker, built lightweight racing bicycles in the 1890s, and turned his hand to making a better version of Count DeDion’s ubiquitous F-head motor in 1900.  Hedstrom did improve on the motor, but even better, he designed the first ‘spray’ carburetor that worked reliably, and was a milestone improvement in the motorcycle industry.  Unlike everyone else’s pacers, Hedstrom’s started and ran and finished races, which caught the eye of Hedstrom.  A (very lucrative) handshake deal in 1900 was the foundation of a new partnership, with motorized bicycles being produced under Hendee’s Indian brand as ‘motocycles’ from 1901.  Thus, a Swedish motorcycle designer founded Indian, and much of the American motorcycle industry, as his motor design was licensed to dozens of manufacturers [Read the Indian origin story here]. The choice of Ola Stenegärd as Indian’s new chief designer was thus an elegant closure of a century-old circle, with the very DNA of the brand having a half-Swedish flavor.

Still our favorite photo of Ola Stenegärd, holding the starting pistol at an illegal street drag race in the Pyrenees during the 2012 edition of Wheels&Waves, flagging off Roland Sands on his Concept 90 BMW prototype. Good times! [Paul d’Orléans]
Vintagent Contributor Gary Boulanger caught up with Ola Stenegärd around the launch of the new Chief designs this week, and this is his interview:

Ola Stenegärd is almost three years into his second tour of duty with Indian Motorcycle. As director of product design, he’s in the catbird seat as Polaris shapes and modernizes a 120-year-old brand. I first met the affable and unfailingly polite root beer drinker during the 2017 One Moto Show in Portland, Oregon, when he and the Roland Sands Design crew jammed onto a couch in the old pickle factory. They were starving, and Jean happened to have some of her homemade country sourdough bread. In 2018, Henri and I hung out with Ola at the Sturgis Rally, watching flat track racing on our way to Bonneville Speed Week. With product development cycles beginning well before the consumer gets an eyeful, it would take awhile before we could see Ola’s DNA appear on an Indian; he spent 15 years at BMW Motorrad, giving us the R nineT before looking West to Medina, Minnesota in March 2018.

Ola lives and creates on Gotland, an island surrounded by the Baltic Sea five hours by ferry south of Stockholm. It’s been a year since we hung out at The One Moto Show, and with the recent Indian Chief cruiser line introduction it was time to talk. It’s not everyday that a brand launches something on the 100th anniversary of the original.

Ola in his former role as chief designer for BMW Motorräd, here at the Concorso Villa d’Este on a charming 1930 BMW R16. [Paul d’Orléans]
Q: You’re approaching three years at Indian. How do you navigate getting projects done while not being able to travel due to COVID?

“Been a tough year, no doubt. But we’re a small creative team and we quickly doubled down, adapted and adjusted. Our boss – design VP Greg Brew – has been awesome and supporting us 100 percent around the clock! So we started doing more rapid prototypes, even 1/2 scales, that we could send and print out at our different locations and in our different studios in the EU and US. This allowed us to get a feel and even sign off design proposals without losing speed and agility. We also dove deeper into using video, clay models as well as extensive CAD spins.

Usually there’s a lot of traveling, but I gotta admit that COVID brought a silver lining for me personally that I’m allowed to see my kids and family every day. Our global work setup also made the transition quite easy. And now I have had  time to spend the mornings in my shop too! I’m still a garage rat, and if I can’t cut some shit up or weld something, the day is not really well balanced!”

The thought process behind the new Indian Chief began with the frame, which had to meet many requirements, including that it be adaptable for many styles and customization. [Indian]
Q: Walk me through the development process for the new Indian Chief model line. When did it begin, and how many people were involved?

“Everything started with the frame. We literally built the it old-school style, motor on a block, bending tubes. When the frame sits right on the wheels, tins and seats come easy. Then we went into traditional clay modeling. No CAD can ever replace the human hand. But make no mistake: CAD has its right time and place too! Super important and we had a great team that supported the whole project wholeheartedly! But the frame was the key: with all the bones in the right places, it looks great naked as well as fully dressed.

Also, customizing was key. We can’t make every single motorcycle perfect for every single customers. But what we can do is create the PERFECT base for all riders to make it their own! The perfect blank canvas! Bottom line, it’s all about keeping it simple. It’s very easy to complicate things these days. But keeping it simple in itself complicated.”

A final design sketch of a new Chief variant, which effectively captures the spirit of apex 1950s custom motorcycles better than any OEM ‘bobber’ to date, with its blackened cylinders, abbreviate fenders, side pipes, leather saddle, small tank, tucked in headlamp, and raised handlebars. [Indian]
Q: There are eight variants of the Chief. How do you decide what to spec?

“We took a lot of inspiration from different eras of the American moto culture we love and kinda nerd out on and basically what we grew up with. It kinda celebrates the era as well as all the guys/gals that carried the flame of the chief from the Fifties until the early 2000s by customizing, chopping and bobbing original Chiefs, and thus keeping the legacy alive! I dreamed of this new Chief for 20 years, since I worked for Indian during the Gilroy times.

The story of the three flavors of the new Chief in a nutshell:

We wanted the Chief to be the bare bone bad-ass base for the whole family, with mids, narrow bars, cast 19”/16” wheel combo and stripped down fork and shocks. Kinda rooted in the late Seventies, early Eighties when Arlen Ness, Perry Sands and Dave Perewitz started experimenting with cast wheels and mid mounts and spiced up their scoots with more performance parts.

• The Chief Bobber takes a lot of inspiration from the mid Sixties: kinda Dave Mann meets a young Perry Sands and visits Ben Hardy who all gets cast in an early biker flick. The timeless style that brings us to our knees: 16”/16” wheels, mini apes, floating solo seat, covered fork and shock for that righteous ol’ school vibe.

• With Superchief we thought it should feel right at home in Hollister 1947 or The Wild Ones. When vets and blue collar cats and chicks were true rebels riding bad-ass sickles! We tried to reflect that kinda spirit: ride hard to get there, ditch the bags and screen, shred main street to take a turn on the dirt oval before going bonkers Saturday night. Sunday, you collect the pieces and pack it all back up and ride on back home. An homage to the style that made bobbed and cut-down Chiefs legendary back in the day.

The common thread is that all these bikes gravitate toward the club-style bikes of their specific era. Paul d’Orléans [publisher of TheVintagent.com] and I talked a lot about this, and he is totally right: throughout the years these were the bad-ass, ride hard, purposefully-looking custom bobbers and choppers we always tend to gravitate to. Not show bikes per se, but still really good looking rides, right? They represent the kinda bikes that just stays burned into your memory forever.”

The Indian Chief Bobber Dark; all black everything. [Indian]
Q: When will the new bikes arrive in dealer showrooms?

“We’re aiming for the end of April/beginning of May.”

Q: What’s your advice to aspiring motorcycle designers?

“Sketch, sketch and sketch. And ride motorcycles! Then sketch some more. And let no one take your dream away!”

Talk about old school: Ola Stenegärd captured on a wet plate photograph by the MotoTintype team at Sturgis in 2014. [MotoTintype.com]
Gary Boulanger is a long-time Vintagent Contributor and writer whose work can now be found on MotorCyclesAreDrugs
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