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Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Massachusetts celebrates motorcycle centennial

July 15, 2001

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— Champion bicycle racers Oscar Hedstron and George Hendee launched America's love affair with the open road on May 24, 1901, when the country's first motorcycle rumbled through Springfield's streets.

In a tribute to their engineering, the roar of thousands of powerful two-wheeled machines will echo again this weekend in celebration of the 100th birthday of the Indian Motocycle.

Hundreds of antique bikes with the skirted fenders and left hand throttles will rally today at the Indian Motocycle Museum.

Fred Marsh can't wait.

"It makes my heart beat faster," said Marsh, 101, who climbed onto his first Indian around 1913. He is still selling motorcycles at his Connecticut dealership, but he limits his rides to the parking lot.

When the Indians were launched, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson were still teen-agers who'd start their own brand of bike two years later.

Hedstrom and Hendee were ahead of their time, said Esta Mathos, curator of the Indian Motocycle Museum.

"They decided their machine had to be pretty. It is. It had to be reliable. There wouldn't be so many around today if it wasn't. And people had to be able to work on it on their own," she said.

In 1905, New York City police exchanged their bicycles for Indians and the motorcycle officer was born.

Within a decade of the launch, 1,000 Indian racers were hitting speeds of 100 miles an hour and the company held every American speed record.

"The early racers were totally stripped down. One gear. No transmission. No brake," recalled Marsh, a champion Indian racer known as "Demon" at the track.

Harley-Davidson got a jump on the civilian market during World War I when Indian devoted its production to the war effort. The two companies battled for supremacy until the 1950s when Indian faltered and ceased production.

With big bikes making a comeback, a new company is making a modern, retro-look motorcycle styled after the original Indian.

Still, times have changed.

"So many times, I heard a guy say 'I'd love to buy a motorcycle, but my wife won't let me,"' said Marsh, who began selling Indians in 1926. "Now the wife is right in there with him picking out the bike."

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