Harley-Davidson has long been an iconic motorcycle brand. There’s Peter Fonda’s Chopper from Easy Rider and the HD Fat Boy Arnold Schwarzenegger rode in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as well as seemingly just about every big, loud motorcycle that barrels past you on the open road. When you think of American motorcycles, Harley-Davidson is easily the first manufacturer to come to mind. No other brand has encapsulated the American motorcyclist culture the way Harley Davidson has.
Many have brands tried and failed to carve out their own two-wheeled niche stateside. American brands like Motus, Confederate, Brammo, and Victory have fallen by the wayside, even after promising starts and highly praised motorcycles. There are, however, some great American motorcycle companies that are thriving. If you want something outside of the mainstream, excellent options exist in both gas-powered and electric options. These are the top American motorcycle brands that aren’t Harley-Davidson.
Indian Motorcycle from Spirit Lake, Iowa
At one point in its history, North Carolina-based Indian was the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. Attempts at reviving the brand since its demise in 1953 were unsuccessful until Polaris Industries took the reigns in 2011 and relocated the brand to Minnesota and Iowa, where it’s currently headquartered. The current lineup consists of high-displacement, two-wheeled Americana that’s rooted in vintage style but adds some sinister attitude. Indian’s focus on big bobbers, baggers, tourers, and cruisers makes it an ideal alternative to the big Harleys. But it hasn’t stopped with the tried and true models, and its most compelling bike breaks new ground.
Model to Know: Indian FTR S
Just when you think entering a new bike segment is a bad idea, take note of one of Indian’s newest, the FTR S. A flat track bike with a street focus, the FTR S is quick, nimble, and very stable. The big 1203cc V-twin delivers 120 horsepower, and and power delivery is smooth and authoritative.
Buell Motorcycles from East Troy, Wisconsin
Buell’s sordid history is easy to lament, especially now that founder Erik Buell is no longer involved with his own brand. Birthed out of Buell’s love for motorcycle racing, Buell actually used Harley engines for its bikes. In 1998, Harley-Davidson took majority stake in Buell Motorcycle Company and slowly but surely relegated it to the back of the shop in order to focus more on its own style of motorcycles rather than on sportbikes. Harley stopped making Buell bikes in 2009 (at the same time, Erik Buell founded Erik Buell Racing to focus racing and sportbikes) and was sold off to Australia’s BRP. The Buell brand was revived in 2021 under new ownership, and new bikes under new leadership are on the way.
Model to know: Hammerhead 1190
Although Buell has been slow to get bikes into the hands of customers who reserved the Hammerhead 1190, the bike is hotly anticipated thanks to its 72-degree V-Twin engine that makes a claimed 185 horsepower and 102 lb-ft of torque. The aggressive-looking sport bike will have an aluminum fuel-in-frame chassis and a single perimeter front braking system. The Hammerhead will have less horsepower than the BMW S1000RR, but will be lighter at 419 pounds. Expect good things if you’re a seasoned sportbike rider. This one’s not for beginners.
Arch Motorcycles from Hawthorne, California
Count on good guy leading actor Keanu Reeves to take his love of motorcycles and actually build a legit high-end motorcycle company. When he founded it in 2011, Reeves’s goal was to create a motorcycle company focused on cutting-edge technology and materials, radical designs, and hand-craftsmanship. It also equates to seriously premium prices that eclipse pricey automobiles. Arch custom crafts just about every component on the bike from billet aluminum to carbon fiber, and it worked with Öhlins to build custom suspension bits. For a small operation to create bespoke bikes to this level is a monumental achievement.
Model to know: 1S
The sporty and muscular bike defies categories and creates its own that’s a blend of sportbike and cruiser. An improved and better-handling version of the older KRGT-1, the 1S gets a powerful 120-horsepower V-twin engine, a single rear swingarm, carbon fiber wheels, and a hinged billet aluminum fuel cap cover that retracts for beautiful effect. The powerful ISR braking system also happens to be one of the best you’ll ever experience.
Lightning Motorcycle Corporation from San Jose, California
Founded in 2006 by Richard Hatfield, Lightning Motorcycle was born out of a desire to race. Hatfield converted a gas-powered Yamaha R1 with an electric powertrain and went on to develop his own lithium battery for civilian and military applications. Lightning built its first true electric motorcycle in 2011, simply called the Lightning SuperBike, and it set a new land speed record at Bonneville. In 2012, it beat its own record hitting an average of nearly 216 mph over two runs.
Model to know: LS-218
There’s reason to get excited about this offering because it has an awesome precedent. The new Lightning LS-218 won the Pikes Peak Race to the Clouds in Colorado in 2013, crushing all gas-powered motos in the process. The LS-218’s top speed is 218 mph, making it one of the fastest production motorcycles made today. It’s powered by a liquid-cooled 150kW motor that produces 200 horsepower. It rockets to 62 mph in 2.2 seconds and has a range of 180 miles on a full charge. Lightning is currently accepting reservations.
Zero Motorcycles from Scotts Valley, California
When it comes to electric motorcycles, Zero leads the way with a full line of them. Founded by Neal Saiki back in 2006, Zero Motorcycles Inc. (formerly Electricross) is at the front of the pack. The first street-legal model, the Zero S, was a huge hit with the public as well as critics, and was followed shortly after with a more rugged DS model. Since then, the brand has expanded its line and improved existing models with more range and bigger batteries. The company’s Cypher II Operating System can even manage the motor, battery, ABS calibration, and the rider experience using the mobile app.
Model to know: DSR/X
Zero enters the competitive Adventure (ADV) category with an off-road version of its recently released SR/S sportbike. The DSR/X benefits from a more upright riding position, longer wheelbase, strengthened frame, and Zero’s biggest battery that provides 200 miles of range in normal trail riding conditions. The DSR/X has a unique Bosch traction/ABS/stability control system that manages power and control at super-quick rates. Even the belt drive is specially created for the DSR/X to be strong, quiet, and tremendously durable.