You wouldn’t know it from its flamboyant appearance, a screaming yellow zonker bejeweled with leather and fringe. Like most superheroes, though, this Indian has a hidden past and a secret identity. Indian did not create this bike for civilian use, as it eventually entered. It created this bike to punch Nazis like Captain America.
Although the United States had not yet entered World War II in early 1941, it was already supplying equipment to the Allies. The undisputed king of the north African desert was the BMW R71. Its boxer-twin engine stayed cool in the heat thanks to its exposed heads, and its shaft drive never got gunked up with sand. The US Army challenged Harley-Davidson and Indian to come up with motorcycles to combat this foe. Harley pretty much copied the R71 with the XA, complete with its boxer engine and shaft drive. It’s the easy way out, but it was the fastest way to provide a motorcycle that met the Army’s requirements, and we can’t fault them for that.
Gallery: 1941 Indian 841
Indian, however, took a more unique approach. They designed a new 90-degree V-twin engine using the same heads as the Scout, though with compression reduced to 5.1-to-1 so it could run on low-quality gas. This engine sat not longitudinally inside the frame, but in a transverse configuration, like a Moto Guzzi or Honda CX500. This allowed the cylinders to stick out in the open and gain the same cooling benefit the BMW had. It also made the shaft drive easy to implement since the crankshaft was already spinning in the proper orientation.
The result was the rather blandly named 841. The Army commissioned 1,000 of these and tested them extensively against the Harley-Davidson XA. Ultimately, the Army did not adopt either of them, and Indian sold its remaining 841s to the general public. Owners usually repainted them and adorned them with accessories like other Indians of the time. That’s how this former Army brat got its distinctive appearance. This particular one goes up for auction at Mecum at the end of April. While it has undergone an extensive restoration, it’s being sold “not for highway or public road use.” It’s still a neat piece of history with a secret identity.
From the Willy’s Jeep of motorcycles to a slice of Cake…
So, you think you know motorcycles, do you? From the legendary Brough Superior SS100 to the beautiful Ducati 900SS; the original ‘widowmaker’ Kawasaki H2 to the £70,000 BMW HP Race, countless machines have made their marks on history and its inhabitants, offering exhilarating ways to see the world.
But some of the less mainstream motorcycles have fallen by the wayside, and been unceremoniously buried in the past. We’ve dredged up a few of the weird and wonderful models that have actually made it to production, but not much further… How many of these can you name?
While you may not have expected to read the words Nazi-fighter in this list, the Indian 841 has earned its place in the history books for its unusual, and often forgotten, provenance.
Early in the Second World War, it became apparent that the Allies would require a machine equal to the German’s BMW R71, with which to fight them on the deserts of North Africa. With the task put to tender in the United States, the two stalwarts of American motorcycling – Indian and Harley-Davidson – came forward with propositions.
While Harley proposed the XA – an evolution of its WLA, with a reverse-engineered BMW R71 engine, transmission and shaft drive – Indian went further with the 841, which featured a new, longitudinally-mounted V-twin, designed specifically for military use, with a low compression ratio of just 5.1:1, which allowed it to be run on low octane fuel.
Putting a relatively low power of 25PS (which could be upped by increasing the compression ratio) out though a four-speed gearbox and shaft drive, the 240kg motorcycle ticked all of the US Army’s boxes, who handed the manufacturer $350,000 to Indian to produce 1,000 units. However, by now, the Willys Jeep had evolved to be comparable to the R71, and the motorcycles were ultimately never implemented. The fleet were sold off, and many converted to Indian’s more recognisable spec.
You’ll rarely see an 841 nowadays, and the original US Army-spec models are rare as rocking horse exhaust fumes. But if you’re ever wanting for a weird and wonderful workhorse, you won’t get much better than this.
This one took some Googling… Designed by Malcolm Newell and Ken Leaman in the early-‘70s, the Quasar was a bizarre, semi-enclosed, foot-forward motorcycle, powered by an 850cc repurposed Reliant Robin engine and gearbox and capable of speeds in excess of 100mph.
With the rider sat inside rather than astride the machine, and a streamlined roof sloping down to a dramatic point, it could easily have been mistaken for a Thunderbirds Shadow motorcycle.
Production was a slow process, but eventually began in 1975, with the first model selling the following year. Quasar production then proceeded to pass through various manufacturers, with a grand total of 21 Reliant Robin variants produced. Several more were built with motorcycle engines, and even some with a Bob Tait-designed hub centre steering system. While production ultimately ceased in 1982, the Quasar left a legacy for foot-forward, enclosed machines, with many equally bizarre prototypes following.
The Bimota Tesi (Thesis in Italian) has been a stalwart of any weird and wonderful motorcycles list for decades, thanks to its unique hub-centred steering design. With swingarms at both front and rear, the Tesi dispels any argument that you need forks to really feel the road, instead relying on a system of hydraulic steering and anti-dive technology. The result was a radical feel and incredibly agile cornering, plus the separation of braking forces on the front suspension and steering.
The 1D, the OG, was released in 1990, powered by a Ducati 851 engine, however the design can be traced back to a university project of Bimota designer Pierluigi Marconi in the mid-‘80s. One hundred-and-twenty-seven units of the 1D were produced in a year, followed by the modified 904cc 1D 906 from 1991-92 (20 bikes) and the 1D SR from 1992-93 (144 bikes). Further special editions followed, always selling in limited numbers, and Bimota has quietly developed the design since. The streefighter-styled Tesi 3D emerged in the late noughties after a decade of uncertainty for the manufacturer, while a failed collaboration with Vyrus saw the brand develop their own evolution of the Tesi. Kawasaki purchased a 49.9 per cent share in the company in 2019, allowing Bimota to launch the supercharged Tesi H2 last October, with just 250 built, costing from £59,000 OTR.
While other manufacturers have toyed with the idea of mass centralization (such as Honda’s Elf race project), none have quite managed to achieve the Tesi’s success.