NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - They're big, fast, and classically beautiful. Taking a page from Harley-Davidson, as well as their own predecessor's illustrious histories, three motorcycle makers --Indian Motorcycles, Triumph Motorcycles, and Vincent Motors -- are resurrecting, or attempting to resurrect, long-dead brand names with designs that echo the glory days of motorcycling.
A fourth entrant, Royal Enfield, makes a smaller bike that has never gone out of production overseas.
Part of the appeal of these classic heritage-type motorcycles is "to make a statement about one's individuality," said Eric Bass, who writes for the online motorcycle magazine, Motorcycle.com. "Buyers have a different mindset from someone buying a major brand."
For one thing, riders have to contend with bikes whose reliability tends to be lower and parts not easily available. "If you have a breakdown on the road," said Bass, "you may have to take up residence for a while." Many buyers of these classics, he noted, "enjoy fixing their bikes."
Indian was reborn in 1998 after a hiatus of 45 years. In its the old days, the Indian nameplate competed head to head with Harley in the heavy cruiser class. The modern Indian's designers looked directly to the past for inspiration.
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"We use Indian DNA," said Lou Terhar, CEO of the new company. "We went through an extensive design process, brought in aficionados and dealers, to try to identify the factors that made an Indian an Indian." The company incorporates large cover fenders, front and rear, an Indian head on the front fender, and air covers replicating the original design, along with big, round barrels on the engine, to make the big (up to 1,633 cc) new bikes look like a blast from the past.
Some modern-day Indian buyers see the new bikes as a chance to realize an old dream. Perhaps when they were kids riding in the family car, they "caught a glimpse of that big lit up Indian head on the front, [and] it's been love ever since," Terhar theorized.
"We're building a major American Cruiser, aimed at a buyer who likes the retro look," said Terhar. "Customers buy it as a want, not as a need." Indian prices start at about $16,000 and go to $25,000.
Triumph manufactures several contemporary looking motorcycles, including the newly launched Rocket III, which boasts a 2.3 liter motorcycle engine, the largest in a production bike, they say, and will be available starting in June 2004. But the company's best selling model in the United States, according to CEO of Triumph of America Mike Vaughan, is the Bonneville America, retro-designed from the 1969 Bonneville.
Vaughan says the new bike's "retro styling cues" include its teardrop-shaped tank with Triumph logo, instrument-array positioning, and faux tool-box hanger.
The Bonneville targets the baby boomer market, but "we're picking up younger and older customers as well," said Vaughan. The bikes sell for between $6,999 and $8,400.
Vincent motorcycles never sold in the same numbers as Indian or Triumph (a new Vincent in the early 1950s cost about the same as a small house). But fans admired the bikes for their technologically advanced designs and powerful engines. A Vincent set a speed record of more than 150 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948. Seven years later, however, the company folded.
In 1994 a San Diego businessman, Bernard Li, began working to bring the bike back. In October 2002 he unveiled five prototypes including the Black Lightning S, based on the 1955 Black Lightning.
Li said the Vincent will be more of a "performance bike." At 400 pounds, it's lighter than any Harley and is powered by a 130 horsepower engine. If all goes well Li will begin filling orders in 2005. The Black Lightning S, he said, will sell for about $20,000.
Royal Enfield motorcycles are more than just "retro-styled"; the company has never made a more contemporary design. The company is "basically recreating this prehistoric Enfield bike and selling them new," said Bass.
Originally a British bike, its manufacture was transferred to India in 1955. The company has never updated the bike's look. The two U.S. Classic models sold in the United States, in 350 cc and 500 cc designs, are fully compliant with federal safety standards and emission requirements, however.
Larry Sahagian, the general manager for Enfield Classic Motorworks, the bike's importer, says the bike's mechanical design is both simple and robust. "We've been building the same bike for nearly 50 years," he said, "and consistently improving. You can run the wheels off of them cruising at 55 or 60 miles per hour. They won't break down."
Royal Enfield began selling bikes in the United States in 1996 and now imports about 500 a year. Its customers are mostly 40 plus-year-old hobbyists adding to their collections of from one to 10 other motorcycles, according to Sahagian. "It's a fun product to use to relive the past," he said. Prices range from about $3,500 to $4,400.