September 2001 Column
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When is an Indian not an Indian?
By Bob Kelley
I’m sure we all have our own views on which qualities give an Indian its “Indian-ness.” For me, the ground rules are side valves and a hand-shifted crashbox. The verticals may be fine machines in their own right, and no one disputes that they were true Springfield products, but I see them as sort of a transplanted British concept. Unlike Harley’s Model K and early Sportsters with their V-twins and distinctive styling, these bikes somehow seem to be lacking that elusive American stamp.

These distinctions come to mind in an immediate way as we swarm over the possibilities for the Warpath engine cases, which may soon resurrect Indian’s big-base design. I have always advocated building a street-legal version of the 648 Daytona, down to features like the triangular English saddle, bobbed fenders and optional footboards. Throw in a provision for a generator drive and minimal lighting and you have it. I have no quarrel with also offering an alternate route to cut costs and get more people out riding Indians, but my own view is that unless you use cylinders and heads similar in design and looks to those on a Sport Scout or 741 or tall-fin racer, you will have failed because these people will be riding something other than an Indian, despite the cases. The engine is the heart of the beast, and this powerplant’s fat, deeply finned barrels and gleaming aluminum primary cover are its eyes and smile. The look as much as the mechanical features makes it an Indian.

Now we have people talking about using overhead-valve Ariel heads. Why bother even calling it an Indian? If Vincents weren’t so pricey, they would make more sense for someone plotting this course. The idea of adapting a British synchro four-speed transmission is harder to dismiss because it advances the worthwhile cause of providing a lower-priced alternate configuration, though once you fabricate the aluminum primary cover that would be among my requirements, you’ve offset much of the savings. 

Speaking of upgrades, for Chiefs in this instance, what a letdown that we hit a blind alley over costs when we discussed reproducing Indian’s own ’30s-design four-speed transmission, with rejuggled ratios for sporting use rather than a stump-puller first and second only slightly higher to get a sidecar rig in motion. Until recently, Hanlon Engineering’s new bolt-on synchro, overdrive four-speed listed for $5,000. While I’m sure the development work and quality justify the price, I can’t see many ordinary Indian builders investing that kind of money. If you look hard, you can sometimes find an entire running flathead 45” Harley for that amount, and if antique bike prices weren’t so out of whack (the bubble burst on sports cars more than 10 years ago, maybe it’s only a matter of time for us), that’s what I think a rough but rideable 741 should be worth. I wish these folks the best with their enterprise, even if they wind up catering mainly to wealthy custom builders. As a consolation, those of us in the cheap seats can take pride in our skills at getting around with a cantankerous box spanning the Grand Canyon between second and third. I think it’s kind of gratifying to ease into second silently or goose the throttle on a downshift, only to find you got the revs pretty close when you reengage the clutch.

Back on the Scout front, we’ll have to take our shortcuts where we can find them. With a frame as minimalist and little-noticed as the keystone, I’m not sure authenticity is much of an issue, though I think going to a cradle frame, supporting the engine from beneath with tubes rather than using it as a stressed member, would take us too far from the Sport Scout flavor. Also, I love the look of the girder forks and would hate to see them go. It’s a tough balancing act, keeping the original look and feel of an Indian without spending too much money on close repro features for a machine that we cannot present as being a correct example of anything. There’s always the risk of having a true Indian only in the sense of the old broom that never seems to wear out, even though by turns its handle and then its bristles have been replaced a dozen times. How far can we go before it stops being an Indian even in a loose sense? Once we accept the package as being true to the original spirit, we’ll be like the Supreme Court justice who, when asked to define pornography, said: “I know it when I see it.”

Bob lives in New Jersey and regularly rides his 37" 1928 101 Scout. Bob is an occasional contributor to the AMCA magazine, and other publications -and, of course, one of the monthly VI columnists!

Click on pictures for full size

Bob and his regular rider, the 1928 37"

Winding it on!


More from Bob on the VI:

¤The Indian Allure¤
¤Luddite Nation¤
¤Gloriously Undamped Rebound¤
¤Oh, How the Cradle of the Mighty Four has Fallen¤
¤Fossils in the Fast Lane¤
¤Flying the Flag¤
¤The Real Deal¤
¤In the Spotlight¤

Many of us Virtual Indian listers have a strong engineering and creative bent, so it’s well nigh impossible to resist improving the breed in sweeping ways as we set about getting Indians back on the road.  We’re the sort of people who, if someone asks for the time, will explain not only how the watch works but how it could have been better designed.

Still, I think there’s a time when we should step back and try to appreciate Indians for what they are, limitations and all, though of course better clutches and breathers and engine internals make too much sense to quibble over. If we want platforms for electronic ignitions, overhead valves, seamless shifting, disc brakes, halogen beams, maybe we ought to build bobbers loosely inspired by the general designs of a particular decade, then don’t bother putting a brand name on them.

But there’s no harm in dreaming. I see a hardtail and handshift for the proper antique feel, but mated with an OHV engine and a synchro four-speed. I see enough power and heft for relaxed highway cruising, but responsive handling if you pick 18” wheels rather than 16” with balloon tires. It’s called a Knucklehead. I’d still rather have a Chief.

Motoring proudly into the ’50s, still not only viable but rarely equaled for touring long after it had passed into technical obsolescence, the Chief carried the banner for sturdy simplicity and grandeur. At first it may seem a triumph of development over design, but as Jerry Hatfield points out, it’s really the opposite. The 1922 side-valve design was so successful that, with a couple of incremental displacement increases early and late in its saga and better flywheels and heads in the ’30s, it stayed in the hunt much longer than it should have. Really, the engine and transmission are nearly straight out of the mid-teens. Yet when the Chief finally left the stage in 1953, it was mainly for business reasons, with its head held high as an ocean liner of the highways and its Indian character undiluted. Some of us are ornery enough to get misty-eyed with pride when we reflect on that.

The Other 101

The mini-fleet awaits direction from its unbalanced commander.