This 1948 Indian Chief is one of the most important Indian motorcycles on the planet.
There’s a good chance, many years from now, that history will judge this particular red-and-white 1948 Indian Chief as one of the most important Indian motorcycles on the planet. No, it wasn’t owned by Steve McQueen or any other celebrity; it’s not a special VIN, not the only or the first or the last of anything; it certainly didn’t win any races or set any speed records either. It’s unremarkable except for one fact: This is the motorcycle that spent two years parked in the Polaris design studio, where it served as the visual inspiration and literal touchstone for the design team that reinterpreted the vintage Indian style for the modern era.
This bike isn’t a static showpiece. It’s fully operational, and Indian Product Director Gary Gray offered us the unique opportunity to ride this vintage classic side by side with the modern Chief that carries so much of its DNA in its lines and design. Gray is the person who actually located this bike for Polaris , negotiating the purchase from a Minnesota collector shortly after Polaris acquired the Indian brand in 2011. It’s a 1948 Chief with the mid-level Sportsman trim package, distinguished by the chromed crashbars, handlebar, headlight and spotlights, and “De Luxe” solo saddle. Riding this bike alongside the 2014 Chief Vintage reveals how far bikes have come in 66 years—it feels like light-years—but it’s surprising how similar the two bikes feel in certain ways. That’s a testament to the fine job Gray and company did translating the old glory to a new generation.
The first difference you notice is scale. Wheelbase and seat height are roughly similar, but the vintage bike, weighing just 550 pounds, is almost 250 pounds lighter than the modern machine. This makes the older bike easier to maneuver, especially pushing it around a parking lot, and it handles well at speed too. Sixteen-inch wheels are concealed under those deep fender skirts, and the ride is surprisingly smooth thanks to the coil-sprung, hydraulically damped girder fork and “Double Action” plunger-sprung rear frame (each shock carries two springs: a top spring for cushioning and a bottom spring for damping) that was a cut above Harley’s then-current rigid frame/sprung saddle combination.
The 74ci (1,200cc), 42-degree flathead V-twin, with roots reaching back to 1920, was already obsolete in 1948 (Harley-Davidson released its overhead-valve Panhead that same year), but with roughly 50 hp and a broad spread of torque it’s adequate for back-road cruising. Top speed is said to be near 100 mph, but it’s happier nearer the double nickel where it doesn’t feel (and sound) like it’s going to shake itself apart. Besides, the drum brakes—the front all but useless and the back not much better—can’t compete with more velocity than that.
Often copied, never equaled (until now): the original 1948 Indian Chief
The control layout is utterly unlike the modern bike. Both grips rotate. The right grip “controls” the Linkert carburetor; the left rotates the automotive-type distributor to manually retard or advance the spark for easier starting. “Controls” is in quotes because any grip input to the crude, poorly atomizing Linkert is a mere suggestion. Engine response lags behind grip input by a few seconds, and the lack of a throttle return spring and a solid throttle wire—not a cable—makes rev-matching during shifting all but impossible. Speaking of shifting, there’s no clutch lever. Instead there’s a foot clutch on the left floorboard (a rocker clutch you have to manually engage and disengage, not a spring-loaded “suicide” clutch) and a hand-shifter on the left side of the fuel tank.
Temporarily rewiring your brain to smoothly manipulate that rocker clutch with your foot and fluidly change the cantankerous, non-synchronized, three-speed gearbox with your left hand is the biggest challenge, but once you get the vintage Chief up to speed it’s a delightful back-road ride, with a perfectly upright riding position that’s more natural and less slouchy than the clamshelled hunch the newer bike demands. It’s a classic American motorcycle experience, and Gray and his team have done an excellent job of transposing this vintage vibe onto the new machine. Starting with such sound genetic material as this, though, how could they go wrong?
Motorcycle board track racing was the deadliest form of racing in the history of motorsports. Hundreds of lives were lost, both racers and spectators, during the relatively short-lived era of the boards. Yet in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the dangers, motorcycle board track racing in the 1910s was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Races attracted crowds of up to 10,000 fans. Young riders knew of the dangers, but chose to ignore them because the payoffs were so lucrative. Top racers could make $20,000 per year racing the board tracks, nearly a half-million dollars in today’s currency. From America's Historical Newspapers. The reasons for the lethal nature of motorcycle board track racing were easy to understand. Motorcycles, even in the 1910s, the heyday of the board track era, were capable of speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. The boards were oil soaked and slick due to the engines being of “total loss” design, meaning oil pumped by the riders to lubricate exposed valves and springs sprayed freely into the air behind the speeding bikes. Riders raced with just inches between them, sometimes even touching as riders jockeyed for position. The machines had no brakes, and spectators were separated from the speeding machines by just couple of 2×4 boards nailed between fragile posts.
The first decade of the 20th century, with the advent of automobiles and motorcycles, saw an explosion of race track construction. The mention of motordromes in newspapers began as early as 1901. In the July 18, 1901 edition of the Kansas City Star there was news from Europe of government officials threatening to exclude automobile racing from all public roads and that motordromes could be the solution.
“Automobile News from Paris,” Kansas City Star, (07-18-1901), 7. America’s Historical Newspapers.
Motorcycle racing in America during the early 1900s was primarily confined to city-to-city runs and races on bicycle velodromes. But as engines became more powerful it was clear that the small bicycle tracks were not large enough to showcase the capabilities of motorcycles.
In 1910 the Los Angeles Motordrome, built in the resort of Playa Del Ray, was the first large board track built in America. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on April 9, 1910, that world records were broken in auto races on the new board track. The Albuquerque Journal on the previous day gave some of the specs of the new track. It reported the track “a perfect circle, a mile in circumference, banked one foot in three. The grand stands are placed above the forty-five feet of the inclined track. The surface consists of two by four planks laid to make a four-inch floor and laminated to give great strength. About 3,000,000 feet of lumber and sixteen tons of nails were used in the construction of the ‘pie-pan,’ as it has been dubbed.”
“World’s Records Are Broken On New Board Track,” Salt Lake Telegram, (04-09-1910), 23. America’s Historical Newspapers.
Jack Prince, the builder of the Los Angeles track, traveled the country proposing board tracks to city fathers and motor clubs. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on April 26, 1910, that Prince planned to build a half-mile motordrome in Salt Lake City at a cost of $100,000. The paper later reported, on June 18, 1910, that the new board track at Wandamere Park in Salt Lake City was constructed in less than two weeks.
Soon motordromes were being built across the country. And the races drew large crowds. The Salt Lake Telegram on July 4, 1910, reported a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 on the grand opening night of the Wandamere Motordrome. The race featured Jake De Rosier, the great Indian Motorcycle factory rider, as the main attraction.
The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 15, 1912, reported the grand opening of Philadelphia’s Pointe Breeze Park Motordrome. Pointe Breeze would become one of the most successful board tracks with a regular weekly program. Two of the leading motorcyclists of the era Morty Graves and Eddie Hasha were the featured riders that opening night at Pointe Breeze.
“Motorcycle Races New Motordrome at Point Breeze Opened Today,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, (06-15-1912), 11. America’s Historical Newspapers.
The safety failings of board track racing became all too obvious not long after the facilities were built. The Salt Lake Telegram on July 5, 1912, reported a serious accident in which a rider named Harry Davis was killed and seven spectators injured when Davis’s motorcycle crashed into and snapped a light pole. Throughout that summer a week rarely went by without reports of a rider or spectators being killed at the motordromes.
Two accidents in particular permanently tainted the reputation of the motordromes and eventually led motorcycle racing’s governing body to no longer sanction board track races. The first was a tragic accident at the motordrome in Newark, New Jersey, on September 8. 1912. The Lexington Herald on Sept. 9, 1912, reported that two racers (Eddie Hasha and Johnny Albright) died when they crashed into the outside rail. Four spectators were killed in the incident as well and 19 others suffered injuries. The story of this accident ran in newspapers across the country.
“Eddie Hasha and Five Others Are Killed Outright. Thirteen More Are Badly Injured in Frightful Motorcycle Accident at Newark Motordrome,” Lexington Herald, (09-09-1912), 1. America’s Historical Newspapers.
The following summer, on July 20, 1913, a freak accident at a board track across the river from Cincinnati in Ludlow, Kentucky, caused more outrage. A racer named Odin Johnson crashed; his motorcycle hit a light pole, kicking off a tragic domino effect. The motorcycle’s gas tank exploded. An exposed electrical wire from the light pole then sparked the fuel, spreading flames into the crowd. The ultimate death toll was eight as reported by the Salt Lake Telegram on August 1, 1913. Afterwards the widow of Johnson vowed to devote her life to ending races on board tracks.
The headline of an editorial in the August 1, 1913, edition of The Evening Press (Grand Rapids, Mich.) put it succinctly—“Thrills and Funerals.” The board tracks were referred to as “Murderdromes.”
“Thrills and Funerals,” Grand Rapids Press, (August 1, 1913), 6. America’s Historical Newspapers.
A Salt Lake Telegram article on August 22, 1914, tracked the rise and fall of the motordromes, citing the numerous deaths as well as revelations of fixed races as the causes of the decline of motorcycle board track racing.
By the end of the 1910s the board track era was largely a thing of the past. Besides the dangers of racing the boards, the tracks rapidly deteriorated and many burned down. A thrilling but deadly chapter in American motorsports came to a close.
The 1906 Indian Camelback, one of the first ever two-wheeled motorized machines, is hugely desirable despite its rusty appearance and could fetch £50,000.
This weekend Las Vegas will be hosting two prominent Vintage Motorcycle Auctions. Bonhams Auction on Thursday January 8th and Mecum’s Auctions on January 8-10, 2015. It will be an interesting weekend to see where prices go with our improving economy!
It was owned by the du Pont family, which bought the ‘Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company’ that built it, and this cycle was last ridden in the Seventies.
Whoever buys the machine will probably use minimum efforts to restore it to a working condition, but complete restoration would see its value reduce.
The Indian cycles were the great rivals of Harley-Davidson, but the company eventually went bankrupt in 1953.
It had a rudimentary braking system and a hobnail boot on the ground would have been needed to help it stop.
The motorcycle is going under the hammer at Bonhams in Las Vegas, U.S., on January 12.
Ben Walker from Bonhams said: ‘This motorcycle is in such demand because of its condition and to restore it would actually take value off.
‘The motorcycle will probably be ‘oily-ragged’, which means wiping it down with oil to preserve it as it is.
‘It will probably be rebuilt mechanically but with as little change to its condition.
Experts believe that cleaning the bike or restoring it to a better condition could actually be detrimental to its value
‘India were the great rivals of Harley-Davidson and were at the forefront of motorcycles when they evolved from bicycles.
‘It would have been a quick machine with a fair turn of speed and no brakes on early motorcycles were much good – the were the same design as bicycle brakes.
‘This is an extremely rare thing and hs come from the du Pont family that owned the company.
‘It was a pedal assisted bike and it still has its original registration number on the rear mud guard.
‘These motorcycles have never really reduced in value – if I filled a whole sale with them they would all go for good prices.’
As it was: Only 1,698 Camel Backs were made in 1906
Here is a link to the Video I made in 2010 about the Great Indian V Harley Race in Australia. After going on this race I decided to start sponsoring this event in the US. So far we have had 3 events in the states and our next event will be Spring 2016
The Great Race 2010 Indian Vs Harley – 120 motorcycles competing in Australia’s Snowy River for bragging rights. I was invited to the event by Peter Arundel, who loaned me his 53 Chief to ride on the event. I had a great time, meeting and riding with the other participants. It was a real fun weekend of riding! This was my first trip to Australia, and in my 5 days of staying in the country I spent everyday riding, and we rode over 1,000 miles! How can you beat a trip like that! Riding antique bikes every day!
I had so much fun at this event, that I decided we needed to have an event like this in the states. “The Great Indian v Harley Race” is coming to Yosemite CA. May 12-14 2011 – sign up today and see you on the road!
For details on the 2011 event see our website at:
Crocker & Indian Shared a history – Let’s read about the revival….
After nearly twelve years of hassles and legal setbacks, a brand-new Crocker Big-Twin motorcycle has emerged from a hangar in SoCal. Learn more at Cycle World now.
After nearly twelve years of hassles, legal setbacks, a change of countries, and one nasty recession, a brand-new Crocker Big-Tank motorcycle has emerged from a hangar in SoCal. Michael Schacht is at no loss for words in describing the ordeal he’s overcome to reach the point of turning a key, kicking over the 80 cubic-inch V-Twin, and hearing an engine he literally built from scratch rumble into throaty life. His first complete Crocker sits unpainted, brazed joints bright and cast iron dull, spun metal fenders covered with a zillion tiny scratches, the big aluminum tanks resplendent in their own bare-metal shine.
Schacht was a staunch Indian man a dozen years ago, and still rides a 1929 ‘101’ Scout nearly every day. His restored Indians brought him to the attention of a branding company who owned the Indian name in Canada. His machines were used for promo work and he gradually became ‘involved’ with the company, which was mostly interested in T-shirt sales at that time. When talk began of making an Indian motorcycle by re-badging a Ural, Schacht ran away. The idea of resurrecting an important American motorcycle marque stuck with him though, and while looking over two Crockers at a friend’s restoration shop, the big light went on and his destiny was set. “The Crocker name is so pure, nobody had tried to make a new one, even though several people tried to claim the name. It took some work, but I was finally able to secure the name with the intention of starting production of Crockers.”
Few people have made an entire motorcycle from scratch. Schacht admits he knew little of making castings, metallurgy or even production machining before he embarked on his dream. “I was lucky, and hired some incredibly talented people. I moved my facilities from Canada to Southern California, so that the Crocker would be made 100% in the U.S.A. It was important to me that such a historic name was built, again, in the country it started from. This is an all-American deal.” Schacht also wasn’t an expert on Crockers, but enlisted the help of collectors who are, such as Chuck Vernon. “These guys are the keepers of the flame. They know everything about these machines and helped me tremendously to sort out exactly how the original Crocker was made.” While the new Crocker is as faithful to Al Crocker’s original machine as possible, a few of the materials have been upgraded. “Better steels are available now, stronger and lighter, and while the appearance is identical with a 1939 bike, what’s inside is better.”
The Crocker Motorcycle Company does not, Schacht insists, produce ‘replicas’ of the motorcycles last produced in 1942. “These are continuation machines, built by the legal owner of the Crocker motorcyclename.” The new engine is certainly more powerful than a standard 61-inch Crocker from the 30s, pumping out a whopping 85 horses from the 80-inch V-Twin to push the same 500 pound machine. “We’ve just finished it, and there are a few minor bugs to sort out, but basically, she’s the best sounding motorcycle I’ve ever heard, is really, really fast, and handles beautifully. That was one of my biggest surprises about the Crocker; this is a serious performance machine.”
Stay tuned to Cycle World for additional information about production plans for these machines and a potential modern “retro-bike” in the works.
High on the list of truths universally acknowledged must be the fact that the Indian Motorcycle, as a legend, a logo and a symbol ranks up there with the golden arches and the three-pointed star, with power and value beyond calculation. On the other hand, naming your daughter Baby Ruth doesn’t ensure she will hit 60 homers a season against big-league pitching. To collect on the promise of legend and esteem, you gotta have a product.
We are concerned here with the Indian, originally spelled Motocycle by the founders, as currently offered by Polaris Industries. To fully appreciate this, we’ll have to look back 60 years, to an undisputed tragedy.
At the close of WWII, a prosperous and product-starved public was ready to buy just about anything. The car and motorcycle makers had learned a lot during the war, but they were canny enough to offer the old versions while testing and refining the new. The 1947 Harley-Davidsons, Fords, Chevys, Dodges, etc., were identical to the 1941 models, while the improved models—the ohv Oldsmobile engine and the telescopic-fork Hydra-Glide—didn’t get here until 1949.
But at the Wigwam, as always, things were different. E. Paul DuPont, who owned Indian and kept the brand in business through the Great Depression, sold his shares in the company. The new owners had new ideas—vision, one could say. The firm’s chief engineer had designed a radical line of really new machines, modular in that there would be a Single, a Twin and a Four, all using the same basic design, all overhead valve, foot shift and hand clutch, suspension fore and aft, with the writing on the tank being the only clue as to what was what.
Further, the new president embarked on a revolutionary ad campaign. As the Japanese say, he reckoned to enlarge the pie, rather than fight over slices. The completely different motorcycles were launched in 1945, with a completely different campaign endorsed by baseball, show business and movie stars.
But wait: Doesn’t this sound like Honda in 1959, meeting the nicest people and all that? Yes. But for one thing, Honda’s dealer network was based on new people who mostly ran hardware or sporting-goods stores, and for another, Honda’s engineering raised the bar worldwide.
Indian’s new bikes—the Single and Twin (the inline-Four never got past the prototype stage)—were disasters. When they didn’t blow up, they broke down. The motorcycling community was small, and everybody knew how bad the new models were. Add to that, the old dealer network, the guys who’d raised a stink when the evergreen Scout was abandoned and stormed the boardroom demanding a new one, wasn’t always that happy with the new people.
Suffice it here to say that everything that could go wrong did. The money ran out and Indian’s new owners begged for help. The English brands were doing well, so Indian asked to distribute several makes. A partnership was formed, and before you could say the camel’s nose was in the tent, the Indian visionaries were out, the English owned Indian and production of the new models was immediately stopped. The final production run of the final genuine Indians, the Blackhawk version of the side-valve 80-inch Chief, came in 1953.
There followed a run of Royal Enfields and later, Matchlesses labeled Indian, but fooling nobody. Next, a puzzle and struggle over ownership of the script, name and symbols. There were Matchless-Indians, then a run of Italian Indians backed by entrepreneur Floyd Clymer, first road bikes and then motocross.
Next, a series of failures on a different stage: promoters with big plans and no money, who never made any motorcycles. A serious effort appeared in 1999. There was a major market at the time for full-dress Harleys and look-alike rivals from the major brands. Indian of America had a factory in Gilroy, California, and produced a viable machine, a big Twin styled like the old Chief and powered by a version of a Harley clone. But the funding wasn’t enough, sales did not meet hopes and the firm went bankrupt in 2003. Three years later, another group of investors picked up the baton and began building the same sort of repro-Indian Chief, this time with modern engineering as in EFI and a bigger V-Twin than Indian Motocycle ever dreamed of—all of it just in time for the bottom to drop out of the market.
But the true revival, one can only hope, came in 2011, when Polaris bought the struggling brand. What’s the difference this time? The lesson since the debacle in 1945 is clear: It’s a heap more difficult to produce a viable motorcycle than all those dreamers and promoters realized. They all had the script and the logo and the legend, but not one had a product to match the hype, good intentions or no.
In contrast, Triumph, with a logo and badge nearly as good, was revived and still thrives simply because it had 1) the capital to invest; and 2) a properly engineered machine that created its own market. It didn’t revise the classic Bonneville Twin until the big Triples proved that the product matched the promotion. Knock wood, those Indian dealers who stormed the boardroom demanding a new Scout in 1947, may soon get their wish. Except there is a very good chance it will be a Chief.
BOULDER (AP) — A growing band of once nearly extinct Indians is being resurrected in Boulder, some restored from rusting graveyards while others quietly survived the decades until their time had come again.
Not the red-blooded variety of hostiles these, but iron and steel Indian motorcycles built at the old Wigwam factory in Springfield, Mass., before the firm went bankrupt in 1953, leaving Harley Davidson as America’s lone motorcycle manufacturer.
“Save a piece of America — restore something,” is how machinist and tool-and-die maker Jeff Grigsby explains why he got into his growing business of restoring the old Indians to better-than-new condition.
Grigsby, born the year Indian went broke, says his customers are a “well-to-do crowd” since his inside-out restoration jobs run $7,000 to $9,000 on the Chiefs, the big 74-to-80 cubic inch V-twin Indians.
Back in the 1950s after Indian went broke, a dollar-short generation of young riders bought up those big, graceful but distressed Chiefs for $150 to $300. They hacksawed the full-skirted fenders into bobtails and destroyed them in street-drag duels with the quicker, lighter British bikes then flooding the market.
Only a few Indians survived.
Grigsby says there are more than 20 of the Indians running around the Boulder area now, ranging from well-worn to concourse condition. They include the rare Indian 4-cylinder machines, mostly the big V-twin Chiefs, and even a 1915 Power Plus twin.
One of those Indian riders is Eldon Arnold, 58, who bought his 1950 80-inch Chief 23 years ago and now has about 60,000 miles on it.
“You can’t wear them out. With a little extra care they’ll run forever. As the years went by, the Indian got more valuable and I hated to go out on the road with it. And at one time, parts were hard to come by. But they’re being duplicated again now,” Arnold said, summing up the nearly three decades since Indian went broke.
Ninety percent of American motorcycling today is done on Japanese bikes. Grigsby thinks increasing interest in the old Indian bikes is because they were American-made and represent a vibrant, classic era in motorcycling.
“It’s a study of history, of American engineering,” Grigsby said of the Indian bikes who battled Harley, Excelsior, Henderson, Pope and Cyclone for race track and sales supremacy during the golden age of American motorcycle production.
Indian began production in 1901, won the nation’s first motorcycle race (a 10-miler at Brooklyn, N.Y.) in 1902, then entered international Gran Prix racing and swept Britain’s Isle of Man 1-2-3 in 1911.
Every U.S. national motorcycle championship in 1928 and 1929 was won by an Indian.
“A Harley rider looked on an Indian rider like a racist thing. It was blood for blood back then and Indian still held all the speed records — and that determined the sales of a lot of motorcycles,” Grigsby said.
“The Indian is a rarer breed (than Harleys a desirable unit. People that rode these bikes when they were young now realize they can get one in better than new condition.
“I guess it’s a compensation to give up a gas-eatin’ hog for a piece of classic transportation that gets 60 to 65 miles to the gallon on regular,” Grigsby added.
At 27, Grigsby is an 11-year veteran of motorcycle mechanics. He dropped out of school at age 16 to attend a Harley Davidson factory mechanics school and then took a job at a Los Angeles Harley shop.
He took his four-year machinist’s apprenticeship in Boulder with Ed Gitlin at the shop where Grigsby still does his machining trade.Grigsby had balanced, tuned and blue-printed Harley V-twins for several years before “I fell into a large investment of close to 40 Indian motorcycles three years ago.”
Since then he has restored five of the Indians, with three more underway for completion in March. He hopes to expand to 12 at a time for the next batch. “Everybody that sees ‘em, wants ‘em.”
Partner in the effort is Jim Arnold, Eldon’s son, who restores the Indians’
instruments, speedometers, switches and does all detail work.
Grigsby says his Indians go through five stages of complete dismantling and reassembly. The final finish and fit is more like that of a hand-built Italian Ferrari than the original, production Springfield Indians.
Grigsby replaces plain bronze bushings with needle bearings wherever possible, Teflon-coats engine parts, mirror polishes combustion chambers and improves on the original lubrication system.
If the Indian was such a classic, why did the firm go belly up?
Cycling historians say loss of World War II government contracts when the military opted for the Jeep instead of courier motorcycles and a fatally flawed new British-style engine marketed after the war — it consistently blew main bearings — led to Indian’s defeat.
Now, 27 years later, restorers like Grigsby and Arnold at shops scattered across the country are bringing the last remnants of the old Indian line back to showroom condition as America’s nostalgia kick moves into the motorcycling arena.
And after so many moons, the end of the trail for Indian has become a new beginning.
Editors Note:This reprint is from 1980. Jeff is still active with building musem quality Indian Motorcycles. He is one of many rebuilders who have kept the brand alive!