Ola Stenegard and the 2022 Indian Chief: A Rhapsody of Design

by Gabrielle DeSantis

While the Vintage models retain their flowing fenders, the 2022 Indian Chief celebrates its 100th birthday with a full redesign. Not to mention some extra touches by several celebrated custom bike builders. The redesign comes from the team assembled by Indian’s head of design, Ola Stenegard. And recently, MotorBiscuit sat down with him over Zoom to talk about his life, his inspirations, and how he and his team blended old- and new-school techniques to redesign the Indian Chief.

Ola Stenegard has always been into building bikes

Ola Stenegard headshot | Indian

Born in Sweden, Ola Stenegard has deep motorcycle roots. His mother, father, brothers, and all his friends rode motorcycles, and he started riding around the age of six. But his earliest bikes weren’t exactly showroom-fresh. “I couldn’t even afford a moped,” he told MCN in an interview, so he had to make his own rides. And shortly thereafter, his father taught him how to weld.

Those first bikes Ola Stenegard built usually featured a two-stroke chainsaw engine shoved into a moped or bicycle frame. But after getting his license and a ‘proper’ motorcycle, he started making grander designs. This was the ‘70s when choppers and bobbers were first hitting their stride. And Swedish enthusiasts “always had a very, very deep connection with old American hot-rod and chopper and bobber culture,” Ola told me. One of his early heroes was a ‘60s Swedish artist living in San Francisco whose bikes regularly appeared in Swedish magazines.

Ola Stenegard working on a motorcycle in a garage
Ola Stenegard working on a motorcycle | Indian

After building a succession of bikes and entering shows, Ola Stenegard studied industrial design at Stockholm, Bike Exif reports, and later enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in California, J&P Cycles reports. The current VP of Industrial Design at Polaris, Greg Brew, was one of his professors. And this would be another connection that eventually led Ola to Indian. Or, rather, back to Indian.

There was “a quick 15-year detour,” but Ola Stenegard is ‘back’ with the brand he has a deep connection with

Indian Motorcycle co-founder Carl Oscar Hedstrom with a vintage Indian bike
Indian Motorcycle co-founder Carl Oscar Hedstrom | Indian

As a Swede, Ola Stenegard has always felt a connection or kinship with the Indian brand. That’s because one of Indian’s cofounders, Carl Oscar Hedstrom, was born in Sweden before emigrating to the US. And Ola briefly joined the company during its first revitalization back in the early 2000s after working at Saab. However, it “was very much a start-up company, and unfortunately, after two years it started being very wobbly,” he told me.

One of my co-workers, Thom Taylor, also did some design work for Indian at around the same time. Ola is a big fan of his from back in the days of hot-rod magazines, along with Chip Foose. He even owns a copy of Taylor’s book, How to Draw Cars Like a Pro, that’s falling to pieces it’s so well-thumbed. Ola’s son even learned how to draw from that book and is currently studying design because of it.

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After that initial Indian experience, Ola Stenegard went to BMW Motorrad, which was “just about to start this big product expansion.” He worked there for 15 years, Cycle World reports, and designed bikes like the R nineT and the S 1000 RR. But when Indian was reborn again in Polaris’s hands—“the right hands,” he told CW—he wanted back in. And in 2018, Ola was hired as the Director of Product Design.

The 2022 Indian Chief has been 20 years in the making

Rich Christoph's initial 2022 Indian Chief sketches
Rich Christoph’s initial 2022 Indian Chief sketches | Indian

Ola Stenegard didn’t design the 2022 Indian Chief all by himself. He has a full team, including principal designer Rich Cristoph, that is just as well-versed in chopper and bobber history.

But while the 2022 Chief is influenced by vintage Indians, it also in many ways resembles the bike Ola sketched two decades ago. “I’ve been carrying this dream for 20 years,” he said, with heavy emotion in his voice. And now, he finally gets to show it to the world.

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It’s also clear that genuine bike builders designed the 2022 Indian Chief. “We wanted to devote the new Chief to all those men and women that build custom bikes,” he told me. And that devotion played an important role in the 2022 Chief’s creation.

In Ola Stenegard’s words, “it’s become so easy nowadays to build and manufacture and develop really complicated things.” So, for the 2022 Chief, he aimed for a “timeless…simple and clean” look. And if you only stick to modern methods like CAD, that’s very difficult to do, he told Cycle World. So instead, he and his team combined both old and new schools.

It has modern “jewels,” but its design comes from old-school techniques and ‘60s bobber and chopper sensibilities

The black frame of a 2022 Indian Chief on a stand with its V-twin installed
2022 Indian Chief bare frame with engine | Indian

“‘Everything started with the frame,'” Ola Stenegard told Vintangent, and he echoed that sentiment when he talked with me.

The 2022 Indian Chief has a tubular steel frame, setting it apart from the company’s other cast-aluminum bikes. It’s unobscured by extra fenders, chrome, or wires. And many parts, like the rear fender, are bolted on rather than welded.

“Someone said, ‘Design is the art of giving form to function.’ I like that way more than ‘form follows function.’ I hate that, it sounds so boring.”

ola stenegard

That aspect, plus the use of easy-to-weld and easy-to-cut steel, has not gone unappreciated by custom builders like Keino Sasaki and Paul Cox. And it makes it simpler for garage builders and mechanics to work on the bike. Plus, the left-hand downtube is removable for easier engine access—imagine being able to swing your car’s left fender out of the way to speed up oil changes.

A black and a red 2022 Indian Chief riding down a damp city highway
2022 Indian Chief side 3/4 and front | Indian

The frame, incidentally, wasn’t created on a computer. Instead, Ola and his team sat the Chief’s V-twin engine on a crate and propped the wheels and frame tubes around it. The bodywork was all done in clay, rather than digitally. For Ola, physically arranging the pieces of a bike is the best way to make sure it has the ‘right look.’ And one of Ola’s team had a pattern-making background, ensuring the welds were as effective as they are striking.

“Rich [Richard Cristoph, principal designer] really poured his soul into every piece of this motorcycle…at one point, he said, ‘Each part has to be a celebration of itself.’”

Ola stenegard

But that’s not to say the 2022 Indian Chief design team completely abandoned modern technology. CAD and other software helped set things like the ride and seat heights and the suspension subframe design. Many of the details (which Ola calls “jewels”) like the fork triple-trees and the footpegs were designed in CAD. Plus, using 3D printing meant testing new prototype parts went significantly quicker. And despite its old-school look and air-cooled design, the 2022 Chief’s V-twin is Euro5 emissions compliant.

Ironically, at the time of our conversation, Ola hadn’t ridden a 2022 Indian Chief. COVID-19 restrictions meant he couldn’t ride it during development. And European-market models “are getting picked up pretty quick,” he said.

He’s waited 20 years to ride his Chief. Hopefully, he can wait a little bit longer.

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