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Indians Forever – A Visit with Bob Stark

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Here’s “Bullet Bob” Stark urging the test Indian “80” past the Chrondeks at a terminal velocity of 81.08mph, 1609 ET.
While the figures might not be impressive alongside times turned in by more modern “Superbikes,” comparing the FFLH times (obtained at the same racetrack last November) with the Chief’s tends to bear out the “Indians Forever” view.

by George Hays

 “Hey, I want to get into the rare bike bag,” my buddy announced. “Think I’ll buy an Indian Chief.”

“Oh God, no!” I said, my mind darting back to the early ’50’s when you either rode a Harley, an Indian, or an English bike. Riders were fiercely loyal to their favorite brand of horsepower and harbored an ill-concealed hatred for the other brands. At that time, I rode English bikes, and had no love for American iron, particularly Indians. In those days Indian was becoming an underdog. Show up at a meeting riding an Indian and you were almost laughed out of the club. There was tremendous rivalry between Harley and Indian. Guys may have been the best of friends, until one tried to stay out in front of the pack on an Indian. Then the competition got vicious. Any Harley rider who was beaten by an Indian was really humiliated.

“Well, what’s wrong with a Chief,” my buddy said, interrupting my reverie.

“Like a guy who owned one said,” I replied, “of all the dogs that are and ever were, an Indian Chief takes the cake.”

“But that’s just a secondhand opinion,” my buddy countered. “Tell me exactly what’s wrong with a Chief.”

“Well, for one thing, they are overpriced. Why, I can remember back in the early ’50’s you could pick up a used Chief in average running condition for $50. And they were hard to unload at that price. Now they want a grand for the damn things. I just can’t see paying $1,000 for a $50 machine.”

“Law of supply and demand. Any rare old bike in good shape will bring a grand these days. You still haven’t told me what’s wrong with a Chief. They can’t be all that bad if so many guys like them enough to keep them rolling. You see two or three beautiful old Chiefs at every big road run.”

“Well, I guess I can’t tell you exactly what’s wrong with a Chief,” I admitted, “and I guess it’s about time I found out.”

In my part of the country the man to see if you want to know anything about Chiefs is Bob Stark. He owns 21 of ’em. What he doesn’t know about the Chief hasn’t been discovered yet. Bob’s dad was an Indian dealer in Akron, Ohio from 1918 to 1952, when he retired. Bob took over and ran the shop until 1961, when he moved to Anaheim, California to work as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft. When he moved west, he didn’t leave his Indians behind. He has a four‑car garage plus a patio and backyard full of Indians and parts at his house, plus more goodies stashed in friends’ garages. He’s bought out the parts supply of several other Indian dealers, accumulated more parts by swapping, and his idea of a good vacation is to go hunting for old Indians and bring them home by the truckload.

Five or ten years ago anyone owning that many old motorcycles would have been considered some kind of nut, but these days rare‑bike collectors are in. He saves a few favored models for his own personal collection, but most of them are for resale. He has a profitable hobby restoring old Chiefs to like‑new condition and selling them at $ 1,000 a copy. He will also sell a few parts if he has a surplus of some particular item, but keeps most of his inventory for his own use. If he can’t fix you up, he can tell you where you can get the parts you need.

Just because Bob Stark has a four-car garage, don’t think he’s being disloyal to the Indian marque; all possible floor and shelf space in the garage is taken up with Indians. Even more interesting, friends’ garage areas are also occupied with bits and pieces of the pride of Springfield, Mass. Note the hi-riser bars to the right rear of this picture; they obviously belong to (of all things) an Indian Chopper.

When asked what’s so great about a Chief Bob replies, “It’s about the most dependable road bike ever made. For example, in 1955 1 bought a Chief that had over 100,000 miles on it. It was an old New York Police bike. I restored it and put 82,000 miles on it between ’56 and ’68 when I sold it. After the restoration job, the total cash that I had to put out to keep that bike rolling was only $62. This included a ring and valve job at 40,000 miles, a few chains, generator belts, tires, and a paint job and second ring and valve job just before I sold it. When you get that kind of service out of a bike, you can’t help but love it.”

Why are there so many more old Indians running around than old Harleys? At big road runs or a classic bike rally you see lots of old Indians ‑Scouts, Chiefs, and Fours, but you rarely see an old Harley.

“That’s because you can get parts for an old Indian a heck of a lot easier than you can for an old Harley,” Bob says. “Sam Pierce, an Indian dealer in San Gabriel, can still sell you just about any part you want. A friend of mine owns a ’57 Harley. Parts for a ’46 Chief are far easier to get than parts for his ’57 Harley. Being American, all nuts, bolts and fittings are standard hardware. And things like oil seals, bearings and electrical parts have standard industry part‑numbers. The spark plugs, generator, points, condenser, distributor, coil and lightbulbs are standard car parts made by Auto Lite. You can buy them over the counter at just about any auto parts store. And prices are about one‑fourth what they would, cost in a bike shop. That’s a big advantage of owning an Indian. If you own a Harley, you have to buy factory parts from a Harley dealer, and pay through the nose. Nothing else fits. And if you own a foreign bike, you have to get a lot of parts on special order.

Indian fans from all over the U.. S. consider Stark’s garage a source of treasures not duplicated by any other person with the exception of Sam Pierce. Here, Bob is going to his well-stocked shelves to place another genuine Indian part in the hands of an Indian owner. A 1947 Indian was recently totally built, from the ground up, from parts that have been retained in a totally “new” condition since they were first ,’minted.” Bob’s dad was from 1918 to 1952 an Indian dealer in Akron, Ohio and Bob acquired all of his Dad’s new and used stocks

“There are a few parts that are getting a little hard to find, so I’m manufacturing them myself. Like battery hold‑down clamps, front and rear fender tips, speedometer cables, and the large aluminum casting that covers the distributor on the ’52 and ’53 Chiefs. And I’m making new front fenders out of fiberglass. Other than these parts, you don’t have any trouble getting parts for a Chief.”

Even though the Chief hasn’t been made for over fifteen years, the parts situation is better for owners of old Indians than old Harleys. When you look around at rallies for old bikes, Harley is conspicuous by its absence. The reason is the Harley factory isn’t interested in supplying parts and information to keep the old bikes running. If a Harley is more than 10 years old, the dealers have dumped the parts and it’s hard to get the Harley establishment to even admit they made the bike.

As one rider said, “I wrote the Harley factory for information on my ’38 74. All I wanted was an owner’s manual or something with a little tune‑up information. The factory wrote that there’s nothing available on old bikes, to forget it and buy a new one. So I wrote back and told them that when they start building a motorcycle, I would.”

We see a ’47 Chief, yes the rare ’55 Chief and ’48 Chief, front to rear

In 1948 a new Chief sold for $875. A ’53 model, the last ones made, sold, new for $1,275. The market value of a Chief today is $700 for one in good running condition. Basket cases go from $200 to $325. A completely restored Chief is worth between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the model, condition, and accessories. The 80 cubic‑inch jobs built from 1950 through 1953 are the most sought‑after. Up until 1950, all Chiefs had 74 cubic‑inch engines.

The first Chief rolled off the line at the Indian plant in Springfield, Mass. in 1920. The Chief progressed through various stages of evolution until 1949, when the Indian Company discontinued the Chief in favor of the English‑style Arrow and Scout. These models didn’t sell well, so the Chief was produced again in 1950. The last Chiefs were made in 1953, with the exception of a few made in 1955 on special order for a police department.

The most popular model today is the Bonneville, the high‑performance version built from 1950 to 1953. The Bonneville featured high‑compression pistons giving a compression ratio of 6 to 1, magneto ignition, ported valve seats, polished intake manifold, hot cams, and extra balancing and polishing in the lower end. When new, the Bonneville cost $40 more than the standard model, but few buyers would go the difference.

After a bike has been produced for 30 years, a lot of feature and creature comforts evolve. Getting the Chief on its side stand you then rock the Chief, reach over and drop the center stand (by hand) and then tilt the bike back up to an upright position. With minimal effort the massive Chief sits high and handsome. Fully-kitted tourers such as this were not quite so quick as the H-D in stock trim, but a bit of tuning would turn the Indian into a Harley-beater second to none. Now that Indian is no longer manufacturing its classic line, many top Class-A Hillclimbers still search the country for Indians to rebuild.

Bob Stark keeps several Chiefs in his collection in top running condition and is always willing to take a friend for a demonstration ride. Climbing on the dual seat behind Bob, you are impressed by the brute low‑speed torque of the old bike as it takes off. You are thankful for the rail around the back of the seat that keeps you from sliding off as he opens the throttle and the old beast lunges forward. The huge 61‑inch wheelbase positions both rider and passenger well forward of the rear axle, providing a feeling of stability and good handling unknown in most modern bikes. When the old machine hits 2nd and 3rd gear your head tends to snap back as the huge engine comes on strong. Approaching a red signal Bob hits the brakes, and you are impressed by how quickly the bike comes to a halt. The brakes are quite adequate, equal to the brakes on most modern machines. Plodding through traffic the Chief lugs along smoothly at 20mph in high gear. Due to the wide torque range, shifting is almost unnecessary, and the three‑speed transmission is all that’s needed.

Out on the freeway, Bob runs it up to 70mph. The big engine chuffs away slowly, giving the feeling that it will run forever without stress or wear. There’s some vibration, but the Chief runs smoother than most bikes of its era.

Gas mileage for a Chief is about 35mpg. Depending on tune and condition, a Chief will get from 32mpg to 48.

Top speed for the Bonneville is 112mph. A standard model will do 100. A hot Chief has turned 118 in a quarter‑mile. A standard Chief will do the quarter in the 80’s. Most owners of rare bikes are content to sit around and brag about the performance of their old machines. They have too much time and money invested in the restoration of their engines to risk blowing them up to prove they will go.

But not Bob Stark. He’s quite willing to show you what a Chief will do, so we headed for the local drag strip. As soon as arrived we knew we had a winner, at least as far as attracting a lot of attention is concerned. As Bob started removing his windshield, a small crowd of interested spectators gathered around the old bike. Bob rolled the old Chief up to the line, the light turned green, and he blasted off. The crowd in the stands waited eagerly for his time to be announced, more interested in what the old Chief could do in a quarter‑mile than in the times turned by the half‑dozen run of the mill superbikes on hand.

The Chief had an old fashioned hand shift. Here we see a foot shift conversion which features a Harley clutch-release mechanism that was fit (with a great deal of time and effort) to the Indian Chief. A careful scrutiny of the floorboard will reveal a headlight-dimmer switch that is identical to an automotive type. Note the amazingly durable quality of the chrome and brightwork shown. The same type of philosophy was espoused by the Springfield firm as its Milwaukee counterpart; make the machine fast, make it handle well, make it serviceable by the owner, but most of all, Make the Indian Chief to Endure.

The best Bob could coax out of the old bike was 81.08mph, with an elapsed time of 16.09. Nothing exciting when compared with today’s superbikes, but not bad for a stock, fully equipped road bike ridden by a rider weighing close to 200 pounds.

So what’s wrong with a Chief? Well, no bike is perfect, and if you check a a Chief carefully, you can find a few things that could be improved. Like the transmission. Modern transmissions have gears that are in constant mesh. Shifting is done by sliding dogs. But the Chief has sliding gears and shifting tends to wear the gears out. Particularly since the Indian clutch always seems to drag a bit, and it’s difficult to shift without clashing. Gear shifting was improved in ’53, the last year Chiefs were made, by adding a brake mechanism to the clutch that brought the gears to a halt so they could be shifted without clashing. But the transmission is crude by today’s standards.

A hot Chief could tear the ears off a stock Harley, but in the Indian era some didn’t like the Chief because it wasn’t quite as fast as a stock Harley 74. And it looked a lot heavier. With massive fenders, chainguard and distributor cowling, it looked heavier than it was. Actually, it weighed 590 pounds, about 40 pounds lighter, year for year, than the Harley. The Harley 74’s made today are several hundred pounds heavier than the Chief.

By today’s standards the side‑valve engine with compression ratio of only 6 to I is antiquated. The control arrangement is weird‑hand shift, and foot‑operated clutch.

But in other ways the Chief was ahead of its time. The bike still doesn’t look antiquated today, and people who don’t know their motorcycles mistake a restored Chief for a new machine. When Bob enters a Chief in a bike‑judging contest, he puts it in with the modified stock 74’s rather than in the antique class, and he usually wins. He took the trophy three years in a row at the Indio Tour. Altogether, his Chiefs have won 30 trophies in bike shows.

When you come right down to facts, there’s really not much wrong with a Chief. You either like them or you don’t. Like Bob Stark says, “I enjoy riding something different. I get a lot of fun out of taking an old Chief out and running right along with the new bikes and putting down those who badmouth Indians.”

It’s no superbike, but if you want an old bike that attracts a lot of attention, a bike that will cruise at 80, that is dependable and reasonably easy to get parts for, then maybe an Indian Chief is your bag.


While an engineer at Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, Bob Stark was an avid hobbyist in Indian Motorcycles. This article shows his passion for the Indian Motorcycle before he decided to start his hobby as a full time business. Reprinted with permission from Cycle Illustrated November 1970

Restoration of the Relics

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Restoration of the Relics

History of Starklite Cycle

Bob Stark looks up from his sweeping chores and smiles his recognition. “Hi, ” he says. “Just trying to get the place back in shape. You wouldn’t believe the mess we’ve had in here the past couple of days . ” He hands the broom to his wife, Mary Lou, who takes it good-naturedly and begins sweeping where Bob left off. “I just got back from Texas, ” Bob explains. “Picked up a dozen Chiefs down there. ” He shakes his head slowly. “They were in terrible shape — we just managed to get them into rolling condition this morning. But it sure messed the place up. Come on in. there’s a cup of coffee in the pot. “

In a world gone slightly batty in the search for better mousetraps, high-gain low-quality production potentials, and methods of making the modular concept work, it’s kind of nice to find a place of business where the owner drops what he’s doing and offers you a cup of coffee. Bob Stark is that kind of a guy. Reserved, soft-spoken — he’s never too busy to answer a question or look up a part number or a statistic. His role in the story of Indian Today is one of dedication that paid off.
“Let’s see — my first bike was a Whizzer Motorbike, ” Bob recalls. “That was back in 1946. My father was a motorcycle dealer in Akron, Ohio then. He handled Indian, Ariel, Zundapp and Triumph. Even though he’d been an Indian dealer since 1918, for some reason he didn’t want me to have a motorcycle of my own. the Whizzer was okay, or a Cushman scooter would have been Al right. But no ‘real’ motorcycles.

“So I had to keep my first Indian a secret. ” Bob smiles. “I guess it was wrong, but I just had to have a motorcycle.

I bought this dilapidated old converted Army Model Scout in 1950 for next to nothing It was a mobile disaster area. Rust and broken pieces and the fenders falling off. But I was proud of it — in a secret sort of way. I owned it for almost six months before my dad found out about it He’d seen me riding around on it once too often and figured I belonged to it I had to confess.

“It was in such terrible shape that even though he gave in to the idea of my owning a cycle, he didn’t want me on the Scout. So he offered me a straight-across trade for any bike in his shop. I traded even for a 1950 triumph 650 cc Thunderbird ! But there was something about the old Indian that wouldn’t let go, and within two months I bought a ’46 Chief and a’48 Chief. I’ve been an Indian fan ever since.

“My father died in 1954, and then in 1957 I reopened the shop in Akron at the same location. I handled– let’s see — it was Royal Enfield, Parilla and Matchless. I even raced the little Parillas for a while. But I sold the shop to my brother in 1960 and moved to Florida for my health “

While we are talking, four young men come into the shop and browse around for a few minutes, impressing each other with their Indian lore. One of them finally starts looking around like he wants to do business, and Bob excuses himself and goes over The young customer is looking for an Indian he can “make into a chopper”. He asks some questions and eventually gets around to the big one: How much is something that runs? Bob mentions a figure which is received with obvious disappointment. there are a few more half-hearted questions, the quartet mills around for a few more minutes and then leave. Bob comes back over and sits down.

“That happens all the time, ” he explains. “People still think that they can find a 75-dollar Indian that runs. ” He shakes his head. “Not any more The market is going up like a rocket– increasing every year. Bikes I sold four or five years ago can be sold right now for over twice what I asked for them. the value just goes up every year. Most guys that are buying Indians these days consider them as investments. They buy knowing that they won’t lose money. That’s why you find more and more professional level people in the motorcycle collecting field. Doctors, Lawyers, Businessmen, conservative people who want original restoration, not modifications or stray parts taken from other motorcycles. It’s a thriving business, but there’s a problem — the demand has created a lot of small businesses like this one, but in many cases the work isn’t up to par, they’re just slapping parts together.

Bob prides himself on his work. “If I wouldn’t want to own a bike I’ve restored, ” he states, “then it isn’t good enough for the customer. Sometimes it takes a little longer; sometimes it costs a little more — but when it’s done, it’s done right. “
How long has he been building Indians? “Well, not counting the machines I build for my own personal use, I’ve been restoring them and selling them since I moved to California in 1962. The shop itself–” he waves his hand in an inclusive arc, “– is only eight months old. It just got to where the demand was such that we felt we had to answer it. So far, so good.

“Problems ? ” Bob frowns, then nods his head . “I guess the biggest problem is the nature of the business itself. The old Indians are getting harder and harder to find. Every once in a while you can find a windfall — and there are still some setting around in barns here and there. But sometimes it’s pretty sad. Like these old Chiefs I got down in Texas. They were in terrible condition. What it amounts to is that I went down and bought twelve rusty hulks! They’re restorable, but it won’t be easy.
What usually happens is that someone will have a few old bikes sitting around. He’s probably aware that there is a potential value on the collector’s market. So he just hangs on to them, figuring that the longer he keeps them, the higher the price will go. But what he doesn’t realize is that they have to be kept up in order to keep them from deteriorating entirely. A machine — any machine — has to be run. You can’t just neglect them. Just sitting there under a tree someplace, they rust out and become worth- less. It’s a shame.

“And there’s the parts problem of course. As far as engine components are concerned, that’s not much of a real problem. ” Bob smiles. “Actually there’s a rumor going around that an Indian owner can get parts easier than a Harley owner I know of several people who are currently making some parts too. I think there’s probably three to four times as many parts available today than there was — say — five or ten years ago. The things that are the hardest to find are the sheet metal parts and trim, things like that. That’s why we’re trying to get our Indian group together. “

Bob reaches into the shelves behind him and picks up a small polished metal piece. “This is a fender tip for the Chief, ” he explains. “It’s identical to the original item, but we made it ourselves. The only drawback to making parts is that the molds cost so much to make. What we’re doing is organizing under the name Indian Motorcycle Club of America. Most of the membership dues will go into the manufacture of molds to make hard-to-get or obsolete parts. Then we can sell the parts back to members at a pretty fair discount. the more members, the less the cost per item will be. We’re already in production on battery hold-downs, distributor covers, exhaust mufflers for the four cylinder models; gear-shift knobs and foot board extensions . It’ s one way to beat the scalpers — they charge you a small fortune if they know you’re having a tough time finding a part.

“Also we’re putting together a complete file on everything pertaining to Indian–history, specifications, everything. That way we can setup a question and answer service, so that if a member wants some information on any given model – for instance, a list of Accessories or the original paint options — we can simply Xerox a copy of the particular information he wants and send it back to him . “

The idea of being able to tell anyone who’s interested anything they want to know about Indian appeals to Bob Stark. At present, he’s a very happy person — an industrious, polite kind of guy who has found a niche in the mad mad world to do what he enjoys the most. But Bob’s part in the story of Indian Today doesn’t end with his new and growing business. And it would be unfair to categorize him as being representative of the swelling ranks of Indian restorers without letting you see a few of the samples in his personal collection.

Well known to Southern California enthusiasts is Bob ‘s beautiful Rainbow Chief, a 1948 seventy-four which features a 1950 front end and a unique hand-clutch/foot-shift arrangement which took him two years and ten failures to perfect A striking maroon And sunburst machine) a judge ‘s delight.!

All of the bikes in Bob Stark’s collection are built to be ridden. Nothing is strictly for show. The Rainbow is ridden annually to Indio and other California motorcycle shows, is displayed and ridden home again. Matter of fact, after winning the number one trophy in his class, Bob rode the big twin to second place finish in the Indio field meet competition last Year!

Restoring Vintage Indians for Decades

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Bob Stark loves vintage Indian motorcycles.


He loves them so much, he will sometimes spend months to years restoring them from scratch. He loves them so much, he has written a short story about his favorite one, a 1948 Chief that Stark purchased barely used for $325. That bike has about 240,000 miles on it, and Stark still rides it today.
And he has even created a museum, the Stage Depot, as the centerpiece of his 15-acre Gavilan Hills property devoted to showing off Indian motorcycles and historical memorabilia associated with them.
It would not be a stretch to call Stark, 71, the world’s foremost expert on Indians.
“Bob has a wealth of information in his background,” said Chuck Myles, who owns and operates an Indian parts business in New York state. “I think Bob has the greatest volume of knowledge. I certainly appreciate his dedication.”
Visitors have come from all over the United States and from foreign countries in Europe, Asia and Oceania to see Stark’s impressive collection. In the museum, there are about 100 motorcycles dating back to 1933 and they still run. To make sure they stay operational, Stark rides each of them once every six months.
The pieces include a 1940 California High-way Patrol motorcycle and two U.S. Army World War II-era bikes, one of which was specially made for the North African campaign, Stark said.
Perhaps the most impressive bike is a 1953 model, from the last year the motorcycles were produced, that Stark built himself. It took Stark 37 years to construct it, he said. Guests can see it all for no charge.
“I just love the bikes,” Stark said. “If you take all the bikes I’ve restored through the years, threw everything together, I think I’ve broken even. I don’t think I’ve made any money on them, I don’t think I’ve lost any. I do this because I love it, not to make a whole bunch of money on it.”
Stark rode his first motorcycle when he was just 9 years old and has been working on Indians for six decades. He picked up his love of Indians from his father, who from 1918 to 1952 distributed the bikes in the Akron, Ohio region.
Stark then passed on his love and some of his encyclopedia like knowledge to his son, Gary, who rode his first motorcycle when he was 4 — a 50cc Mini-Mini — and had five bikes by the time he was 16. In fact, Bob allowed Gary to ride with him on the freeway by the time he was 10.
“I’ve never ridden a cycle that has handled any better than they do for the size of the bike,” Stark explained. “They’re just enjoyable to ride. I can take my hands off and ride for miles without touching the handlebars.”
Today, the two run Starklite Cycle out of the Gavilan Hills property, which is likely the largest supplier of Indian parts in the United States. There are 12 buildings used to store millions of motorcycle parts dating back to the 1930s on the property, and Gary runs the mail-order parts business out of Riverside.
For years, the Starks had a monopoly on the parts business for Indian motorcycles. That’s no longer the case, but the business appears to be doing decently based on the Stark’s property, which at its summit has a clear view of both Lake Perris to the east and Lake Matthews to the west.
“Most of the people that do it today don’t even know what half the parts are; they just do it as a money-making proposition,” Stark said. “I’ve got that advantage, that I know exactly what every piece is.”

Starklite Cycle Behind the Scenes Part2

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Starklite Cycle as shown on American Thunder. They interview Bob Stark about his dedication to keeping the Indian Motorcycle Brand alive for most of his life.

Starklite Cycle Behind the Scenes Part1

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Starklite Cycle on American Thunder:

The Story of Starklite Cycle – told by Bob Stark