September 2001 Bike Project
 Part one here
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   ALMA 4 Project, part two
  By Mads Johnsen 

Another Christmas has passed. My wishes this time deviated slightly from earlier years. I have finally come to realise that my girlfriend is not going to give me an Indian 4. She's going to give me a child instead. I don't know if my rather loose account in the Christmas sneak preview created confusion among you VI Readers? I will however, try to inject a certain amount of seriousness into the project now (and into my girlfriend as well).

Anyway, Moen was so right when he dubbed the Alma 4 project "Po'boy four". More than right! Of course there have been expenses along the way, especially for the foundry work, but the main outlay has been in man-hours. I have been happily unemployed from time to time, thus being able to throw all my time and creativity into the project. It's been a bit of a learning process as well. I mean; pattern making, aluminium shrinkage percentages, and the whole prospect of drawing up a complete motorcycle from near scratch, takes time. Especially when you don't know anything about it in the first place. 

Drawing done before I read my own thesis

Click on pictures for full size

One of the gazillion things that I still don't know, is what frame set-up to go for? The remains of the '27 Scout, combined with the '32 HD frame, looked promising for a while. Then Hecker in Germany starts to produce all the loose ACE fittings your heart could desire (they're beautiful too!), and just on the other side of Oresund lies Sweden, with its decade-long tradition for top-professional "frame to measure" building. There are many considerations frame-wise because aesthetics and the tall engine clash. So I don't know what to do right now. The options are plentiful and I'm dead broke.

Where frames go to die (my workshop)
What's in a Name?

Moen mailed the question. When I first restored my Nimbus, it was in my one-room flat. The room was so small that I had to raise my bed with scaffolding, and under it I made my workshop. One of my friends, who didn't have a place to stay, promptly moved in. He slept arm in arm with the Nimbus for three months, then summer came and I rolled the finished bike outside. My good neighbour, who worked at the local church, had flowers and champagne ready. A proper baptism was performed and the name chosen was ALMA DELUXE. This means the rich or luxurious soul, - and who would argue with that? Some years later, in North Africa, an old signwriter wrote it on the front fender with beautiful Arabic lettering, but that's another story. An old academic expression of endearment is ALMA MATER. One of the meanings of this is "grand mother". ALMA MOTOR must then mean Ö Which would be pretty fitting for the grandpa bike I'm building. So - Voila! ALMA 4. But enough of this pretentious nonsense! Let's talk tech (low-tech that is).

The Powerplant

NSU, once one of the biggest motorcycle manufactures in the world, switched their focus back to car production in the late fifties. Among their engine designs was a four cylinder OHC 1000 ccm (61")  engine. It was relatively light, compact and beautifully designed, and NSU being really Teutonic about it, fitted it into the back of a car. It took another German engineer to unfit it. Most people remember the Munch Mammoth; a hideous creature that prowled the German steppes at the dawn of the superbike era. To most people, its disappearance wasn't as great a mystery, as opposed to the disappearance of its namesake.

Now - I wrote unfit before, and that was exactly what it was. Transversely unfitted. Being a Dane, I swung it ninety degrees towards America, and suddenly I had a traditional north-south four.

NSU engine
The engine gives 55HP in standard trim, which means that most gearboxes should be able to cope. It's blower-cooled by a multi-finned flywheel with a lot of pressed metal airducts. I'm going for a new clutch/flywheel set-up so all this must go. This cleans the whole thing up considerably, which is great, as one of the reasons for choosing this engine was the beautiful cylinders. Paired just like late 4's, they have a distinct pre-war "feel". Well - nothing comes free. The small cylinder fins might create a heating problem (sounds familiar?), and as this is an OHC engine with a chain driven cam, there's a chain housing at the front. This totally blocks the airflow to the cylinders, just to make things even worse. I don´t have a wind tunnel in my backyard, so there is really no way to know whatís going to happen. But that's the least of it; to keep the overall low profile of the motorcycle, the gas tank must to wrap itself completely around the engine head. Hot stuff! My countermeasures will be an oil cooler, a heavily ribbed large capacity sump, a low state of tune, modern oil and generally not wanting to go that fast. I could, of course, stay in Scandinavia and only ride in the wintertime.

Gearboxes o'tricks

The only gearboxes fit for my longitudinal purposes are those of BMW, MOTO-GUZZI and NIMBUS. Of course there are other brands, most of them produced in small numbers in shacks somewhere in the British Isles. And of course our American cousins: INDIAN, HENDERSON, CLEVELAND etc.

NSU cylinders (and handy "yardstick"!)
The Yank boxes won't do. They're cast integrally with the engine case and sump, and I'm looking for a straight fit, low price and looks (!). So back to Europe. BMW and Guzzi are perfect. They use an integral housing for gears, flywheel/clutch set-up, and kickstart. They have their fantastically refined shaftdrive technology, and they carry their own oil as well! -"Art of the Motorcycle"!  
The downside is that they look like big, chunky, recognisable gearboxes from BMW and Guzzi, and people would walk up to me and ask: "What's that car engine doing in front of that nice BeemGuzzi 'box"? I could try to forget the motorcycle aspect, and try to make it look as much as possible as a car engine with a Guzzi gearbox grafted on. But it would be pretty hard to compete with the Swiss MAEDER 4! -And this I won't, and to nobody's surprise, this is where aesthetics and the Nimbus gearbox enters. 

It might be an acquired taste, me being Danish and all, but I seriously think that the Nimbus 'box has one of greatest looking castings I have come across (whoever disagrees, please send your gearboxes to VI HQ for evaluation). Being designed in the early thirties, it has a good period "feel", bringing it on par with the stripped engine, the leafspring forks and the "between the rails" frame. It will take any amount of abuse, and south of the Danish border - or for that matter in any other direction - no one will recognise it. Unless you tell them.

Nimbus 3-speed gearbox (shaft drive to rear wheel)
A small Detour

Is there something rotten in the state of Denmark, or is it just me trying to find a really good excuse for what I'm doing?

On my search for "Things Indianesque", I stumbled across this strange hybrid. Always craving for possible frame members for my project, I bought it - cheap. It turned out to be a '26 or '27 Scout frame, which had been converted to accept a (fanfare, applause and aviator caps thrown up in the air!) 20's NIMBUS 4 engine. Many years ago, somebody hacked of the frame below the steering head and just behind the saddlespring lugs. They grafted a complete Nimbus lower frame on, and then probably left for Fiji.

The Nimbus frame as you people might know, is made from 40mm x 8mm (1.5" x 5/16")  spring steel, and this was plain brazed to the outside of the cut Indian downtubes! The frame members were from the early Nimbus model, popular known as "the Stovepipe", not like my model C, the "Bumblebee", which superseded it in 1934. The "Stovepipe" featured a 746cc IOE (F-head) 4-cylinder engine, and just to confirm my suspicions, I borrowed an engine from an acquaintance. If you think early Indian 4 engines are a bit thin on the ground, try finding one of these babies. My story must have been convincing, because he lent his to me. I took it home, and it slotted into the rusty frame perfectly! Well, Well!! What an exciting prospect: An original 1927 SPECIAL FOUR!

Hybrid frame with 1920s Nimbus engine
Ten seconds later I came to my senses returned the priceless engine, and to chop a long story short, cut the frame in two. Keeping the Indian half, I swapped the other half for a ´48 Nimbus gearbox for the Alma project. I later learned that the Nimbus frame part somehow was rebuilt into a "1918 factory prototype", and whisked away by a rich collecteur to Switzerland (Sic!). Anyway, I got my 'box. 

1927 Special Four!
A Brief and Colorful Thesis Regarding Design Excuses

Let's change into a presumptuous top gear, and go investigating! I'm 34, which isn't old, but sometimes I feel so tired. I don't know if itís the yuppiefication of certain "good things in life", that induces a hint of world weariness. I don't think I'm being particular blasé about my surroundings, but think of all the "quiet" things there used to be. Whatever happened to discretion? 

Take motorcycle styling for instance. Don't people think anymore? There seems to be a total lack of respect for the use of old design characteristics, or an understanding of it, for that matter. "Just being inspired"Ö.Sure! You pick a little here and a little there, and whoops, you got a new product. Gee, Briggs W. must be spinning in his grave. I mean - look at Kawasaki's style parrotry! (Sorry - the K word). With this repetitious manner, it's all becoming a tad obvious these days. 

"So what am I doing here?"- You might want to know. Well, - actually the same but in a non-commercialised way. Finding the period from the 30's to the 60's just a bit too well-hored, I'm taking it out on the 20's! (Yes, Dad! -with due respect).

The unreliability and status has kept most of the mechanical marvels of this decade off the road, thus avoiding to display their charm to all but a chosen few. One might say, that the somewhat curious visual impact plays a minor role as well! I just know that they built real machines, with real attitude. So let's go back to the Roaring 20's to see what stirred the loins of young motorheads, -aside from the young motorheadesses. 

(Cherchez la Femme!)

A lot of you VI Readers must have met the terms "a fast looking" or "a classic looking" motorcycle during your years in love. To find out what this is all about, I have come up with a little "design manual". A thesis about "reading" moto(r)cycles from the 20's. "Oh yeah", I hear you all say, "pompous and only 34!" For me it's basically a deep down wish to know what I'm doing, and -hopefully- in the end construct a motorcycle that will look delightfully out of place, have some bon-air of the era, and look as if it is going fast while standing still. 


A neat example of "quiet yet loud"
A Brief and Colorful Thesis Regarding Design Dynamics

The Frame

The early frame with its spindly filigree profile, is a motorcycle frame in its purest sense. You install your different components inside this framework, never being in doubt about what holds what. From the anchor point of the steering head, you see tubing, like bold fast strokes flow towards the rear, and disappear in the wind. One of these strokes is the main great characteristic of the "flat tank" frame; - the top-tube running over the gas tank. This "spine" gives a sharp outline of the motorcycle against the background, and should for this reason always be painted black, or at least dark. You can then go for a light colour for the gas tank, further enhancing the contour and adding a little voluptuousnes to that slender object of desire. Furthermore, the superb arch of the top-tube with all that tension locked in, gives the impression of something about to be unleashed. 

I know the straight line from headstock to rear wheel spindle is perfect as far as geometry is concerned. Itís very classic (well whored) and, considering all the aforementioned reasons, best left alone. Onwards romantics - and hatemail straight to Moen, please! The downtubes should swing uninterrupted towards the back like a whiplash in slow motion. The Henderson 4's have got the most magnificent curve, gently accelerating, whereas Indian ruins it a bit with an abrupt "stop & go" frame lug.

The "4" Engine

The four cylinders give the beauty of repetition. The engine locks your eye with superb linearity of fins and gives straight visual stability amidst all the curves. The early exhaust tube (1928-35) looks like an overcooked sausage, whereas the later tube (1938-42) gives fantastic impression of speed. Drawn out, as if some invisible force was holding an animal by its tail, this is definitely a shape trying to pull free. 

Leafspring Fork

Wonderfully weird. It lives its own complex life, and says "Indian" big time. 


As simple as possible, stamped straight sides look ok. But remember, we're talking motorcycles here and not cars, so don't cover up too much of those beautiful "transparent" wheels. The rear fender should cross where the lower subframe members bend (read that twice!). This visually emphasises rotation, as if the wheel had caught the fender and spun it until it stopped against the frame, bending it.

The Indian front fender of 1928-31 is my prime choice. Briggs W. did amazing design later; some like it, some don't. I think it flows a bit too much, adding fat rather than muscle. No, the austere lines of the '28-'31 leaves the wheel to be round, with a good number of lines relating to its centre, and to the centre of the lower linkage. '32-'35 are a bit too round... As for the ever-important outline, fenders should be painted black, or at least have dark tops.

Pan Saddle

A beautiful, curved metal pressing. Padding must be as thin as bearable, so not to disturb this shadow riding on the back of the beast. It flies, and accentuates the waist. And oh, what a waist! Only to be found on a rigid. A hallmark. Don't ever fill that space up! 



(Or; this is where you put in your legal disclaimer)

I don't hope you VI Readers find my theories to presumptuous. They are just a personal view, and I know that I'm contradicting myself a couple of times, but HEY! ĖThe world is a contradictive place.


Next issue: Meat on the table. Three generations of homemade oil sumps straight from the foundry and my heart.

Casting article by Lyle Landstrom  here