American Sportbike – The Eller Industries Story

American sportbike concept from Eller Industries

Are you baffled by the lack of mass produced American-made sport motorcycles? (editor's note: other than Buell)

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 the 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 millions of sales in the early 2000’s?

    1. A cloned Harley masquerading as an Indian or the business plan put forth by Labriola, Lutz, Parker & the Umpqua Tribe?
    2. 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:

    1. Liquid-cooled, v-twin mounted transversely with a longitudinal-crank (I remember the wheelbase was supposed to be very short)
    2. Chain-drive
    3. Desmodromic valve actuation
    4. RADD front-end
    5. Single-sided rear swingarm
    6. 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...

Comments

  1. Brandon says

    I agree completely, this bike would give the alternative to the Japanese and European V twins. Now with everyone becoming more eco-friendly an american based v twin would be a great decision. Offering a detuned version for great fuel economy and a sport model.

  2. says

    I’ve thought a lot about this; it really is a tragedy that an American manufacturer hasn’t been competitive in most forms of motorcycle racing for over 50 years.

    I don’t believe piggy-backing an old brand’s values is the way to go. The largest demographic that buys sport bikes is a younger age, and the Indian or Harley name holds little value to them. Honestly it could be a hindrance because these names have been associated with poor performance for so long.

    If an American sportbike is to be successful, I believe it must be with a fresh name.

  3. tom w. says

    Very cool design! I think history shows us that it’s just really difficult to get something like this off the ground.

    I’ve been shouting for an American sport-bike since the mid ’70′s, and I’m glad that Buell has finally built itself up to a bike that I can be proud of.

    2009 is going to be an interesting year in the AMA. I think for Buell to clear that last hurdle they need to get out there racing. They’ve shown a lot of promise and getting a racing program off the ground is nearly as difficult as getting a motorcycle off the ground, but hopefully 2009 will be the year we have an American sport-bike that can do everything.

    I’ve also been interested in and watching Fischer. I don’t know what’s going on with them, but don’t seem to be getting off the ground.

    Motocysz has been interesting, but I’m afraid they’re on their last legs (if they even still exist). They’re going about it backwards – trying to build a race-bike before they even have a streetbike, and I think that’s a model that’s going to hemmorage money until they finally just give up.

    Roehr isn interesting and following something very close to a Buell model, so I’m hoping they can pull it off.

    . . . unfortunately, the current economic conditions are going to make it tough on everybody . . . including Buell, so let’s just hope we can get through this without those companies dying in their infancy.

  4. Azzy says

    Tom W. – Some of our biggest names today were no – names in teh great depression, but they took the chance, advertised, and pushed forward.

    We can hope a motorcycle company could do the same with a good, quality product that doesn’t put someone out an arm and a leg like the big HD name does.

  5. Dorzok says

    don’t really care about the American sport bike but i am agrevated and still bitter over Eller losing the Indian rights. their design philospphy for the mark was what i believe to be right where Indian would have been if they had never folded. insted we got a skirted fendered Harley knock off simply because “they” had a running bike. now if “we” would’ve had a contending sport bikeif history went the other way…??

  6. gt says

    I agree with Chris. Sportbike riders could care less about the Indian brand.

    We’ve seen so many try and fail. What’s it gonna take? Even Buell with their 1125 is tripping up. I can’t see the average sportbike rider lusting over that ugly bike!

    Does it have to be the fastest bike? The most exotic (crazy suspension or engine configuration)? What would differentiate it from the Euro and Japanese bikes? Does it have to? Or can it simply be a solid, well-built bike with tasteful design?

  7. says

    Good story, Doug. I couldn’t agree more….

    I’d like to add something. I believe that the current economic recession should not discourage any dreamer from putting the pieces together to put out his/her own creation. Do it in a garage, do it at a friend’s shop. Bootstrapping is what this country was founded on and it needs to happen again, regardless of who’s in the high office.

    I strongly believe THIS is the perfect time to innovate something new. Now more than ever little companies and job shops are begging for work, and if you’ve got a design you want to get built, now just might be the easiest time to do it.

    Real motorcycles do not go in reverse. They only have FORWARD gears. If you have an idea, now’s the time to put it out there and assemble a team to produce it.

    -brian

  8. taxman says

    suzuki brought out the SV 650 and it’s bigger brother. it’s a liquid cooled v twin. it seems to be doing very well. the yellow bike would have come out at a very opportune time.

  9. Schneegz says

    I just tried to look up the Motoczysz website and it’s “experiencing difficulties at this time”. I hope that doesn’t mean the worst. I’ve been rooting for them since I heard about them about 5 years ago. I hope they get their company off the ground soon.

  10. tom w. says

    The odd thing with Motocczysz is that after a couple years of regular updates, they just stopped updating their site around March.

    I was convinced they had folded, but then there was a report in (October?) about a big demonstration in which they crashed the prototype.

    I suspect they’re limping along now on a skeleton crew waiting for someone to inject cash. Unfortunately cash is hard to come by at the moment even for projects with more sound business plans.

  11. Gordo says

    Wasn’t there talk with Britton about some tyoe of merger also? I thought I read somewhere that Indian was also in talks with them about some of their designs for a sport bike?

  12. Dave says

    As an American, I’m all for a home bred bike or three to challenge the foreign makers. Even better if they would one day challenge them on their own turf too. As a Harley guy I always wondered why would anyone think a Harley knockoff would pass as an Indian. As an Indian fan I’m insulted by what that group did trying to pass that thing off as an Indian motorcycle. And as an Oregonian(anyone remember Hodaka?) I think once again the Native Americans, Oregonians and motorcycle enthusiasts everywhere lost out to East Coast and California money with a greed driven weak plan and even weaker players. Just too bad they didn’t win the litigation, the economy may have gotten to them today but I’d bet they would have had a better run and a better product.

  13. dimitri says

    I remember stories/rumours about the Indian company buying the IP of Britten. Using the engine and other inventions ( girder forks) and incorporate it into their designs. Can anybody shed some light on these rumours.

    it would have made a hell of a bike if this was true.

  14. Seymour says

    That whole Eller story still sticks in my craw after all these years. It’s just a damn shame. It could have been a whole nother story if Gilroy would have been smart enough to just own the name Indian, and then let Eller build the bikes. Everyone would have won.

  15. says

    Chris & gt -

    As time goes by, a fresh name may be the best approach to successfully manufacturing an American sportbike. However, I wanted to review this history in light of its impact on the sportbike world at that time. Keep in mind what was going on at the time of Eller’s efforts…

    10-15 years ago, the baby boomers were buying cruisers to the tune of “B”illions of dollars in a single year for just Harley! And there were successive years of Billions in revenue. That is incredible!

    The Indian trademark was/is still very much alive for those buyers. That means a company like Eller (powered by their team and excellent designs) had a very good chance at grabbing tens of millions of those HD sales in their early years as a resurgent company (maybe hundreds of millions?).

    Unfortunately, today’s investors are impatient. Signs of profit are expected prematurely, especially considering the enormous tasks at hand. However, in this case, the Indian trademark DID carry that kind of weight back then to possibly generate big sales numbers in the early going, which is why this history is a very sore subject. Indeed, much was riding on a name.

    (incidentally, Eller did try to carry on without the Indian Trademark, but I do not know of the details.)

    Today’s sportbike rider should care about the Indian brand for various reasons….

    1. It’s part of our history.

    Indian’s board track race history is impressive. That type of racing was arguably more radical than today’s MotoGP racing.

    There are some marketing and sales advantages.

    2. Cruiser sales are still king. Suzuki, Kawasaki, even Honda, use diverse funding sources to continue to develop their sportbikes. “History” is a large part of cruiser sales in the US.

    Does that make history a “requirement” to be successful sportbike manufaturer today? No. I believe Victory is our best bet going forward, in part due to their sustainable diversity within the corporation.

    Victory’s bikes are excellent. It would be interesting to hear if their sales successes were slower than expected due to the “history” of HD.

    And, gt, I agree, the American sportbike does not need substantial differentiation to be successful. It just so happens that Parker’s design did include some very cool features at that time.

    More than one motorcycle manufacturer with desmo valve actuation is cool enough on its own

  16. Mel Beaty says

    Wondered what happened to that plan. One small blurb in the local paper (Medford, OR), then nothing. I Went to the small high school where the Umpqua Tribe’s casino is and the bike factory would have been a very nice addition to the local economy. Too bad. Mel Beaty.

  17. says

    Mel – I was living in Portland at the time and would have applied for just about any job within the factory had it been in Oregon.

    gt – I forgot to mention thoughts about the engine configuration….

    The twin mounted transversely potentially allows for a longer swingarm, especially if the front-end design permits the engine to be mounted closer to the front wheel. This is where an alternative suspension comes into play….if the telescopic dive is significantly reduced, then the engine could be mounted closer to the front wheel than traditional telescopic forks.

    But then the crankshaft pointing towards the rear wheel poses a potential challenge: power losses going through the shaft drive hub or power losses going through a 90-degree gear change in order to make the final drive through a chain….

    This is where desmodromic valve heads come into play: increase power (over traditional valve design) to make-up for the power losses to the real wheel.

    Collectively, these 3 design components aren’t there just to “differentiate” this bike from the Euro or Japanese bikes.

  18. says

    I have been hoping for a American based effort to build a series of sporting and sport touring motorcycles for many many years. I have been very disapointed in the Buell effort so far because they held to the Harley engine chains for so long. Plus the looks of the bike are realy not to my taste, including the new 1125. I saw an 1125 with race fairing at the IMS recently and it looked cool. Now why does Buell not just market it that way and a decent looking exhaust. They would double their sales immediatly.

    As far as the Indian effort. I just think it would most likely be a failed effort with that design. Something a little more current. Look at the New KTM. That thing rocks big time even when up against the DUC machine. The issue with those bike is the price. It is way out of reach for the people that buy most of the bikes.

    Here is a plan for a company. Forget the racing for now, just get some sellers out there. Try these: First years- A Dual Sport 800 V2 100hp 375 lbs for $9,500. An sportbike 1200 V2 130 hp 400lbs $10,500. A 1200 V2 cruiser 130 hp 500lbs $12,000 (not a lump but a crusier with some performance). If those work then move to other models; Touring, sport touring, etc.

  19. nuckes says

    Re; “Aprilia… 750cc V-twin”

    Seems more correct to refer to the Aprilia engine as an L-twin. V-twin generally refers to a 45-deg Harley-esque engine (and 52-deg Honda engines) rather than a 90-deg configuration.

  20. Sid says

    90 degree transverse engines (ala Guzzi) are in a “v” formation.

    Moto Morini’s 87-deg is a “v”

  21. says

    Hugo – nice picture of that Honda engine….it gives a better idea of what the above James Parker sketch may have looked like in 3D.

    When the engine is mounted that way, it does present more space and access to the engine block to attach the front-end.

    Thanks for the update about Moto Czysz

  22. says

    @nuckes: then tell Honda that their V4 isn’t a V4 but a L4 and Yamaha should call there V-Max L-Max, and so on… The V represents more the shape of the engines then an L because the V is made up of two lines with equal lenght which is more similar to the shape of the engines. The L has two different lenghts…the only manufacturer who calls there engines L-twin is Ducati but everybody calls their engines a V-twin.

  23. says

    Hugo
    Yes I know of the Aprilia line up and I think they are great.

    I was poking at the American efforts in contrast. Seems that the Europian manufactures are really setting the pace right now and not the far East. KTM, DUC and Aprilia all have some great bikes in the mix and even Triumph has some pretty cool bikes and BMW seems to be trying to get on board if they can broaden their view a little.

    Price of the bikes are a main issue for the market for bikes from those firms. 90 % of the public cannot really afford those bikes.

    I love all bikes but wish we had more to chose from from the states. Kind of like autos also. Seems like we cannot really get on track. :)

  24. gt says

    Doug:
    I both agree and disagree. Sportbike enthusiasts *should* care about Indian’s history, but they don’t. It’s a shame.

    And although cruiser sales are still king, that market is getting smaller. Every year, the average age of the cruiser customer is a year older. In general, that means that the new generation of riders don’t care too much about cruisers.

    With current regulations, it’d be very difficult for a new company to build bikes to sell in the American market. I hope Victory begins building sportbikes in the future. That would be amazing!

  25. Den says

    Great article Doug, being from Australia I was not that familiar with the story. What a pity this never came to fruition, both for motorcyclists and indigenous people.

    I think the styling of the bike is very contemporary even though the design is a decade old. As for heritage, Indian did a low volume build of transverse v-twins (here is a short article by a mate of mine;
    http://www.mcnews.com.au/ClassicsCustoms/Indian/Indian841.htm)

    I can’t agree more with the guys talking about capacity, I don’t have much interest in a big, heavy, expensive 1400 V-twin. I find the Suzuki v-twins a little bit dull even though they are priced right. The Aprilia 750 is a great bike to ride and very high tech, although high tech and Italian do scare me a bit. Shiver is a rubbish name though, maybe it would sound better it Italian (can’t be as bad as Toyota’s toyolet though!.) If yamaha made a bigger version of the srv 250 I think I would be in love.

  26. says

    gt- agreed. Cruiser sales’ impact on a given company’s financial statements will probably change during the industry’s next business cycle but less than a decade ago they were the cash cow category by a drastic margin. There will still be a healthy demand for cruisers.

    Den – thanks for the information. I did not know about that cycle. The 841 pre-dates Moto Guzzi’s transverse, longitudinal crank v-twin.

    Are there other transverse, longitudinal crank v-twin engine configurations besides Victoria and Indian before 1960?

  27. John says

    I’m late with this response but wanted to add that I remember the Indian courtroom stuff and was also very disapointed like most everyone else here. The way I remember it the judge who knew absolutly zero about moyorcycles was to blame for the way it turned out.