Year Built: 1917
Engine: side-valve four-stroke opposed twin
Bore x Stroke: 2 in. x 2.5 in.
Transmission: three-speed, hand-shift, chain final drive
Talk about a coincidence.
What are the odds that two motorcycle manufacturers, locked in competition for domination of the U.S. market, would come out with the same radically different design at nearly the same time?
That’s exactly what happened to Indian and Harley-Davidson more than 80 years ago. And the fact that the motorcycles in question were abysmal sales failures only adds to the mystery.
The blind alley into which both companies sped full-throttle? The market for low-horsepower, horizontally opposed twin-cylinder motorcycles.
Indian that charged into the fray first, when it introduced the Model O Light Twin in 1917. In a bold move away from the singles and V-twins that had powered the first 16 years of the company’s success, Indian brought out a 15.7-cubic-inch (265cc) horizontally opposed twin-cylinder motor mounted in a lightweight frame.
This is the engine design that would become famous in generations of BMW motorcycles, continuing to this day. But the design can trace its roots back to British-made Douglas motorcycles, which had been in production since 1907.
Like the early Douglases, the Model O had its engine placed in the frame with the cylinders facing fore and aft, rather than sticking out to each side, the way BMW would eventually do it. It made for a motorcycle that was narrow, lightweight, smooth and practical—all characteristics that Indian hoped would attract a new crop of younger customers.
As it turned out, the Model O was exactly what motorcyclists didn’t want. Its small motor didn’t excite enthusiasts, and the dropping prices of mass-produced cars effectively destroyed the market for motorcycles as cheap transportation.
To add insult to injury, the Model O quickly became known as the “Model Nothing.’’
Sales weren’t great to start with, and they weren’t helped when America got involved in World War I in 1917. Military production meant fewer civilian models for the duration of the war, and the Model O was dropped after 1919.
You’d think that after watching the Light Twin fail, Harley would have learned from Indian’s mistake. But just as the O disappeared, Harley’s Sport Twin—with a motor that looks startlingly similar—debuted in 1919. It, too, never really caught on and was dropped by 1923.