You can imagine my delight when, as an Indian rider, a Savannah resident, and a history enthusiast I came across the story of Indian’s co-founder Oscar Hedstrom, ripping around a track in Savannah way back in 1902. What was revealed during my research was yet another significant moment in American motorcycle history, really of our motorsports culture overall, which took place right here in Georgia, in our oldest city, Savannah, my new home.
Both Oscar Hedstrom and George Hendee were in Savannah as part of their initial publicity tour, an extensive period of travel to demonstrate their machine and setup the distribution foundations of what would become the preeminent motorcycle manufacture in America for decades to come. The company was just one year old by the time they arrived in the South, Hedstrom’s initial Indian prototype having only roared to life for the first time in late May, 1901. Since, the Springfield wheelmen had created their new business, the Hendee Manufacturing Company and had begun production of arguably the most elegant and capable motorcycle design to date, which upon their arrival in the Coastal Empire in December of 1902 they had produced just over 100 of.
The venue the duo was to premier their new machine at was the prestigious Savannah Coliseum, a state of the art 1/4 mile outdoor velodrome which had made Savannah a center for professional international bicycle racing for over a decade. At the time of its completion, the Coliseum’s banked concrete oval was just the second of its type in the world. Constructed shortly after the completion of the famous Buffalo Velodrome in Paris, famed cycling champion turned track builder and promoter Jack Prince erected America’s first of this cutting edge design with assistance from the Savannah Electric Company who also owned a direct streetcar service and sponsored the events. The stadium was a concrete marvel, the most modern facility in the country, costing over $10,000 to complete and featuring 3,500 stadium seats, electric arc lighting, telephones, integrated streetcar station, racer pits, and an infield running track, baseball diamond, football field, and 200 yard rifle range. As one of America’s most fashionable and advanced facilities, the Savannah Coliseum brought the best riders in the world to the city to complete, names like Gus Lawson, Jay Eaton, Charles Turville, Major Taylor, and Georgia’s own Bobby Walthour.
Hedstrom had been traveling down the east coast throughout 1902 demonstrating the capability of his new machine, so a stop at one of the country’s most notable venues was a must. Given the popularity of cycling and cycle racing at the turn of the century, and given that Hedstrom was quite a capable racer and motor-pacer himself, what would have typically been a modest and controlled demonstration of the new Indian Motocycle’s capabilities and ease of use often centered more around speed trails, track exhibitions, endurance competitions, hill climbs, and record attempts by Hedstrom. George Hendee himself was the sitting president of the National Cycling Association, the sanctioning body for cycling events and tracks at the time, which further added to the ease of arranging exhibition laps and record attempts during their tour. The publicity created by the Indian in the capable hands of Hedstrom provided the young company with the perfect platform for advertising and promotion, and with no shortage of eager local reps and potential regional distributors Indian sales took off immediately.
For the December 17th exhibition in Savannah Hedstrom resolved to run a 10 mile speed trail, making 40 laps of the concrete oval at full clip onboard the chain driven, 1.75HP, single cylinder Indian in hopes of securing a few records. His first mile wasn’t quick enough to lower the standing record, though he managed to push his little camelback and clip seconds off the standing times with each passing mile. Then, in the 9th mile, on his final laps Hedstrom’s Indian threw a clincher, throwing him onto the concrete at 50 mph and bringing the exhibition to an abrupt, if not thrilling end. The machine was proven to be capable, efficient, and exhilarating and Hedstrom walked away with only minor injuries. He was back at it almost immediately, continuing South to Florida and setting new speed records at Ormond Beach 3 months later during the inaugural Carnival of Speed near Daytona. These were the days that the very idea of the motorcycle was being introduced to the American public, a time before the clubs, before the national organizations and sanctioning, before the cult and culture, the days crude races and constant innovation.
The appearance of the fresh new Indian machine in Savannah came at the height of the cycling craze, and marks somewhat of a turning point in our history. Birthed from American cycling culture itself, Hendee, Hedstrom, and their Indian Motocycle began to reshape the landscape of American transportation and motorsport. The motorcycle, pushed ever forward in its evolution by Hedstrom and Hendee harnessed the swell of enthusiasm generated in the cycling industry at the turn of the 20th century and channeled it into a brand new frontier, creating a new era of personal transport, utility, and sport. It was the beginning of a revolution in manufacturing, innovation, and competition, the motorcycle represented the bleeding edge of technology in America, and Hedstrom’s Indian was at the forefront, leading the way and becoming one of the most significant and iconic motorcycle brands in history.