So it’s an Indian, but it isn’t really Indian?”, he asks, thoroughly confused. I reply in the affirmative and try explaining how this is an American bike and the name Indian actually refers to the native Americans, or American Indians. But it was futile. This man was convinced that Americans were so enamoured by our country that they named a motorcycle after it. And most people we met along our 1500km ride thought the exact same thing. Either that, or they assumed that these bikes were actually motorcycles made in India. One smart alec even pointed out the bikes and told his friends knowingly that this was the new Royal Enfield he had read about.
But this is irrelevant. The point is these bikes drew throngs of crowds no matter where we went. Take Chennai’s Marina Beach as a case in point. We had grand ideas on how we’d shoot the three bikes, the Indian Scout, Scout Sixty and Chief Vintage, against the rising sun — three exotic machines bathing in the golden light of a new day. It turned out to be a disaster as the bikes drew in every single passerby, not allowing our increasingly agitated photographer a single clear shot. The sun was a fair way overhead before we managed to extricate ourselves from the chaos and get on our way, and we had a long way to go.
Our plan was to ride these three American cruisers from Chennai to Pune, via Goa and evaluate how they fared touring on our highways. The bikes sure had their work cut out for them. American highways are wide, straight, impeccably smooth. Out here? Infrastructure in India has improved off late with four- and six-laned highways springing up between major cities and covering most major routes. But a lot of our highways are still narrow, single carriageways. The quality of roads, or the discipline on them is far from good ol’ Murica, and to prove themselves, these bikes are going to have to show us their versatility on our varied highways.
However, even before we got out on to the highway, we had to tackle Chennai’s morning traffic courtesy our episode at the beach. This gave us a good sense of how these bikes behave in traffic. We knew the Scout duo would be easy to manage, they’re not as hefty as the Chief and are extremely comfortable weaving through traffic. The only thing you’ve got to look out for on a Scout are potholes and imperfections in the road. The heavy headstock and lack of suspension travel cause the front forks to bottom out rather easily. Slow down for bumps, keep the throttle slightly open to shift weight to the rear and you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.
The Chief on the other hand, due to its sheer size and weight makes things a bit more tedious. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely manoeuvrable for such a large motorcycle, but you need to muscle it around a bit to get it to move the way you want it to. The headlamp cowl also happens to be rather large and that restricts visibility up ahead — you have no idea how far your front wheel is from you and you have to show a bit of foresight in judging traffic to make sure you don’t end up pecking the bumper of the car in front of you. But the suspension soaks up bumps superbly and has none of the harshness the Scout tends to have.
Once we passed Sriperumbudur, the traffic thinned down, the road opened up and the bikes came into their own. These bikes were built for the wide open road and it shows. Whack open the throttle, and the speedo needle just climbs and climbs and climbs. The road between Chennai and Bangalore, and between Bangalore and Belgaum are some of the best highways in this part of the country and the bikes make quick work of them. On smaller roads, it is hard to tell the difference between the Scout and the Scout Sixty, but here, where you’ve got the space to really push them, the differences are discernible. The Scout has a 1130cc engine which makes 100bhp, that’s 130cc and 22bhp more than the Scout Sixty. All that extra power means it feels a smidgen faster. The Sixty also tends to start transferring some vibrations through the pegs and handlebar post 4,000rpm, something that happens only much higher up in the rev band on the Scout. The Scouts have modern engines — liquid-cooled, DOHC V-twins with short strokes — nothing like the air-cooled, long-stroke engines that American cruisers are generally associated with. And this makes them really friendly motorcycles to ride.
The Chief is a different beast all together. It’s proper old-school with an air-cooled pushrod V-twin engine. It makes nowhere close to the Scout’s power but it’s got tremendous torque —138.9Nm to be precise that tugs it along relentlessly. The Scouts feel more manic, almost sporty thanks to their relatively light weight, while the Chief is more relaxed, never putting in any effort yet keeping up with the Scouts with ease.
Spend a couple of hours on the Scout and you begin to notice a few things. It’s obvious it’s designed for large Americans, and not us Indians. I’m a little under 6 feet tall, and I can just about use the backrest and have a comfortable hold on the brake or clutch lever at the same time. If I was slightly shorter, I’d need to cant my body forward to grasp them and this is a slightly uncomfortable position to ride long hours in. Meanwhile, the Chief is supremely comfortable. The handlebar is swept backwards keeping even a short rider rather comfy on that plush leather seat. It has got large footboards and all this contributes to a less fatiguing ride. The undulations on our highways tend to unsettle the stiffer Scout while the Chief just glides over everything that comes its way. On the open highway, the Chief is a better touring machine.
Get on to smaller, twisty roads though and the Scouts show up the Chief good and proper. They are more nimble, easier to turn in and pick out of corners, can carry more speed through bends and are generally more manageable on our smaller highways. The roads in to and out of Goa both involve crossing the western ghats. We took the route via Karwar on the way in, and Chorla ghat on the way out. The Scouts are superb handlers, egging you on with the amount of grip they offer until you’re shaving away millimetres of the foot pegs at every bend. Both the roads we took were well surfaced and there were no instances of the Scout being unsettled. The Chief, though a good corner carver in isolation (really good for a bike this size, in fact), just can’t keep up with the Scouts. It scrapes its underbody every time you lean in and can’t carry the same speeds. The seating position isn’t the most conducive to tackling a series of bends — it’s a laborious task, counter steering, managing the weight of the nearly 400kg machine through tight corners.
Once you’re past Belgaum and back on NH4, the road remains good until you hit Kolhapur. Here traffic increases, and the gawking faces which have been ever present throughout the ride become ever more intrusive. The road deteriorates too and here the chinks in these bikes’ touring armour come to the fore. The Scouts are easier (and a lot more fun!) to thread through the heavy traffic but have to be brought to close to a halt to tackle the potholed diversions littered on these roads. Badly made speed bumps will scrape the underbelly if you aren’t careful and this slows progress down more than you’d like. The Chief is better off weaving through traffic provided the space is there and it isn’t as harsh over rough patches, but the speed bumps littering our roads do slow it down as well.
If we had one major grouse, it would be the range (or the lack of it) on these bikes. A 12.5-litre tank on the Scouts and a 20.5-litre tank on the Chief means these bikes realistically do a little over 200km on a full tank. If you’re planning a 1000km day, you’re going to end up stopping for fuel some four or five times.
But how do these Indians fare on well, Indian roads? Extremely well for the most part. Which bike you’d want to have depends on what sort of roads you’d mostly be riding on (and how much money you can spend, of course). If it’s mostly major highways, the Chief takes the cake but if you’re up for venturing off the major routes and on to some of the smaller roads, the Scouts make more sense. These may be American cruisers but they’ve certainly got enough breadth in their abilities to function well in our conditions. If I had to pick one? I’d take the Scout — without a pillion seat, thank you very much.