April 16, 2014

Motorcycle production in Spirit Lake can’t keep up with demand

Motorcycle assembly line.

Motorcycle assembly line.

While there’s snow and ice on the roads now, many Iowans are day-dreaming about motorcycle weather. In northwest Iowa’s Dickinson County the roar of big bikes is heard year-round. Spirit Lake is home to Polaris Industries, which makes Indian and Victory motorcycles, about 60 per day.

The demand is global and Polaris operations director Cory Knudtson says they’re dealing with a shortage. “One of our bigger issues is getting enough bikes to our international customers, so that’s something we are concentrating on heavily this month and next month,” Knudtson says. “I think about what 80% of what we’re building are international units.”

An Indian motorcycle.

An Indian motorcycle.

Polaris has hired Mike Wolfe as a celebrity spokesman. Wolfe, who stars on the History Channel show “American Pickers,” used to own a bike shop in Bettendorf before he became globally known as an antiques-hunter.

“All of a sudden, people are looking at our state not just as a producer of food — a lot of people say Iowa feeds the world — well, now Iowa is putting the world on two wheels and a motor, which is really cool.  Now, it all comes from our great state of Iowa, which is huge.”

To attract new workers to northwest Iowa, the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Association is touting the famous Indian motorcycle brand on social media and in its advertising. Kathy Evert is the association’s CEO. “Having an available skilled workforce is the biggest potential barrier for Polaris, or any company to grow in Iowa right now, so that’s really our area of focus,” Evert says. “We think having the Polaris brands, including the Indian motorcycle, is a huge selling point.”

Polaris has more than 800 employees in Dickinson County and a $26 million painting facility is under construction there. Indians motorcycles have been coming off the assembly line for only six months. Indian’s V-twin, 6-speed engines are made in Wisconsin and the engine cases come from Le Claire, Iowa.

Prices start around $19,000. The Indian company was founded in 1901 and its storied history spans both world wars, when motorcycles were mounted with machine guns and sidecars were modified to carry stretchers.

A new survey ranks Iowa third in the U.S. for motorcycles per capita. Iowa has some 173,000 registered motorcycles, roughly one for every 18 Iowans. New Hampshire is number two and South Dakota is tops, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Photos courtesy of Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio