Centennial Rally in New Zealand
Or - What I did on my holidays
By VI International Correspondent Tim Pickering
Those of you who'd regularly tuned in to the VI List in late 2000 would have heard the fanfare from Malcolm Brown ("Firedog"), Craig Cate and other "Indian Owners Register of New Zealand" (IORNZ) stalwarts that this rally was coming up on 9 - 11 February 2001, and that the whole world is invited. Not only that, but the previous weekend 4 - 5 February would feature an Indian extravaganza both on and off the track at the NZ Classic Racing Register's meeting at the Pukekohe Racetrack (the track where a chap named Cal Rayborn met his maker a few years back). People traveling to Auckland for both events were welcome to camp out on the Firedog spread in rural South Auckland for the intervening week.
My employers had conveniently sent me to a conference in South Africa the week prior, and I was able to wangle a route back to Fiji via New Zealand in time for most of these events. Unfortunately, my itinerary had me landing in Auckland at half past midnight on the Sunday when the races had ended, after 24 hours of travelling from Cape Town. I was met at the airport by Mr Dog's gracious partner Vickie, who hails from Milwaukee (the place that's famous for beer and cheese ... oh, and one other thing). Proof of Vickie's graciousness lies in the fact that she was willing to go to an airport in the middle of the night to pick up a total stranger, then take him to an ongoing party trackside before retiring for the night. Thanks Vickie, you're a gem!
Vickie provided a hint of what lay ahead by letting slip in conversation along the way that "Malcolm's friends tell me he's a bit of a hard case". I was duly deposited in the darkness at some rented pavilion tents, bikes and bodies strewn everywhere, and the party being kept alive by a hard core that included the likes of Firedog, Craig Cate and Greg Cooney. Firedog had earlier in the evening rashly invited someone to bite his left nipple, an offer that was accepted with alacrity. Rather too much alacrity, since a bottle of Glenfiddich had still not dulled the pain by the time I got there, so my airport duty-free Jim Beam was brought into action.
The morning after the day before: a line-up of Indian racers at Pukekohe Track, before we packed them all away. From left to right: Graeme Care, Paul Hanes, Art Delor, Malcolm Brown, Dave Blackwell.
got a bit hazy after that, what with 24 hours of jet-setting behind me
and a fast-disappearing Jim bottle in front of me. Preferable to a frontal
lobotomy, according to Malcolm, but I myself have only ever tried the former
and not the latter so must defer to his experience. I do remember getting
a guided tour of the remaining bikes still parked there from the huge Indian
display put on that day for race-goers. Firedog, Craig and other organisers
must have twisted some bike-hoarders' arms very hard, as bikes were present
which had not seen the light of day for 60 years in some cases. The shotglass
in my hand seemed to keep refilling itself as if by magic, while Craig
showed me this or that interesting feature of the 741-based racebikes lined
up in the gloom. Another highlight was an unrestored 101 Scout found in
Switzerland, so with trembling hands I was able to caress genuine Springfield
paint (Alleluia! Alleluia!).
Meanwhile Malcolm was heard to declare that no one could ever be considered truly inebriated unless they had fallen down. He soon after fell down, but gave us a marvellous demonstration of his famous Gyroscopic Wrist, whereby the shotglass in his hand remained upright and not a drop was spilled. This happened twice more, and on the third fall some Jim did get spilled, but he somehow contrived to have it spill into his mouth. By 3:30 am Malcolm had finally gone down and stayed down, so the rest of us crashed on conveniently-placed camp beds in the pavilion tent.
Slipping into somnolent slumber, my dreams were a swirl of shapes, images and sounds, dominated by the lean rakish lines of the machinery parked about us, the sound of horses hooves, native Indians pursuing buffalo, whooping war cries, the pounding of horses hooves, the off-beat chug of a Chief at idle, and the pounding of horses hooves ... hang on, why the heck do I keep dreaming about horses? Opening my eyes to narrowed slits, I lifted the tent flap, gazed out into the dawn, and realized that Pukekohe is not only a motor racing track, it is also a horse racing track. A number of horses were being put through their paces by their trainers, providing an aural backdrop to my subconscious meanderings.
I was first up, to look at the bikes again. Second up was Paul Hanes, and he is not a pretty sight at that hour. He was probably just as pleased to see me, too. Gradually other bodies emerged, and we partook of Firedog's recommended Dehydration Remedy, an icy-cold mixture of orange and blackcurrant juice which proved most efficacious.
A closer look at that “sump”. It’s supposed to improve crankcase breathing through increased volume (like on big-base 648’s) and reduce oil drag by getting oil down lower away from the flywheels.
|I was introduced to visiting
American celebrity Art Delor, who was a guest of Paul's and had brought
his Sport Scout racer over from the US to do battle with the local Scouterized
741's. Not knowing the track, he had to content himself with third, while
Paul was victorious overall. Art's machine is truly a work of art
(if you'll pardon the pun), with many whizzo-tricko features like an expanded
sump to give case volume similar to the big-base 648's, and a hydraulic
fork damper with billet alloy top yoke. He also believes firmly in lock-wire
for everything. A good friend of the late Brownie Betar, Art seems to know
everybody who's anybody in US Indian racing circles and he regaled us with
colourful stories, many of which sounded quite plausible.
One thing that cropped up in conversation was the mystery "big-base Chief" motor offered on eBay and featured in VI a while back, the one with a Certificate of Origin that had words blacked out so no one could figure out who the owner was. "Oh yeah" says Art, "that belongs to XXXX and came from Jimmy Hill". I say "XXXX" here, partly because the person who owns the motor did want his privacy protected, but mainly because I've already forgotten the name that Art told us (I am bad with names).
We all pitched in to clean the place up and load bikes onto trailers in readiness for moving out. Firedog invited me to ride his '28 Chief back to his place, all I had to do to find my way there was follow that bunch of 741's. I rapidly found out that he'd set this bike up with a right-hand throttle, whereby one rolls one's wrist outward to go faster (in contradiction to every instinct I'd ever acquired). It still had a right-hand shifter, which I shifted by reaching my left hand over the tank, making me resemble a pretzel. This set-up, combined with the fact that I didn't know the route and had to stay with the 741's, made things very interesting and I have to say I did not truly relax and enjoy the ride until well clear of Pukekohe township's morning traffic. Once on Great South Road's wide open spaces, I could leave it in top and then appreciate that '28 Chiefs have a fair bit of stonk at their disposal, as well as plenty of room to stretch out on. The steering-head seemed to be way out in the distance, at least twice as far from the rider as the steering-head of the later post-'32 Chiefs. It's a very long bike, and I love long bikes. If ever I were to possess a straight and original stock Indian (perish the thought) I think it would have to be one of these. Dream on, Timmy. I'd have to win the Powerball first!
We reached the Firedog spread and deployed all the bikes that he was minding for the week. Its funny what images one can get in one's mind from e-mail communications, but when Malcolm had mentioned camping on his "farm" and said that we could sleep in his "shed", I expected a ramshackle old shearing shed built during the reign of Edward VII, with 1-in. gaps between the boards, possums in the roof, and piles of sheep droppings swept into all the corners. In reality his "farm" has a total of eight sheep and one goat (reserved for a certain visitor from Horotiu, he says) and the workshop "shed" that stood before us would be better described as a "surgical clinic". Everything had a place and was in its place, and you could eat your dinner off the spotless concrete floor. Vickie later told us that when she first met Malcolm in the US she had immediately imagined him as being the kind of guy who would have little outlines of his tools drawn on the wall to show where they are all supposed to go. And so it proved to be.
Garage Raid No. 1. A portion of the Firedog “clinic”.
|Later that day I had a chance to ride
the 10 km or so back into Pukekohe to buy a phonecard, using as transport
the 57-cubic-inch 741 put together by Dave Blackwell. Yes Virginia, I said
57-c.i. 741. How? Good question, and you can be sure that I asked. It seems
that Dave had some Chief flywheels which fitted straight into a set of
741 cases. Indian folklore says Chief wheels have to be turned down to
fit Scout cases, so either these wheels had already been trimmed a bit,
or the folklore is wrong. Anyway, they were accompanied by Sport Scout
rods and 45" 101-Scout heads and cylinders, while the pin was Chief and
shafts were 741 with a tapered bush in the right-hand wheel to take up
the slack on the pinion side. Oh yeah, and a 21-tooth tranny sprocket instead
of the usual 14-tooth. Externally the whole thing looks like it has just
been dragged out of a hen coop, and later it took out the rally prize for
Best Rat. On the road, it is a different story. I only took it up to 60
mph due to prevailing traffic conditions, but in top it was barely off
idle. Most 741's feel rather frantic at 60 mph, and even carry a tank-top
label warning you not to go any faster. By contrast Dave's bike provided
extremely relaxed motoring, with promise of more urge to come if it were
Well, the week separating Races from Rally was supposed to be spent at the Firedog ranch rising to a leisurely breakfast with fellow campers, choosing an Indian from the dozen or so available, putting off around the countryside to enjoy being stared at with keen interest by ricer riders or studiously ignored by modern-Harley riders, then finishing the day attacking piles of "Tui East India Pale Ale" while spinning all kinds of bullshit to each other. But for me it was not to be, as my house in Wellington was going on the market soon and this was my only chance to clear out my remaining bike junk from under it, visit Grandma, visit Mum in Nelson, then hire a van to take my bikes up to Kevin Lowe's place in Opunake. So a fair few miles passed beneath the Pickering butt between Monday and Thursday, which found me at Kevin's for the night.
Kevin decided to come up to Auckland for the rally too, but not having enough time off from work for chugging up the line on his 741-and-chair, he made an ingenious towing device behind his car. The car's towball is replaced with a spacer tube so that the 741 forks minus front wheel can be mounted in it using the wheel spindle. The rig then pivots around its own steering-head, with the sidecar wheel tracking about 6" out on the car's offside. A good way to get a low-powered outfit to a rally fast if you don't have time to put in long miles at moderate pace, and you can't be accused of having a Trailer Queen since it's not actually on a trailer. Just make sure the bike’s not in gear before you drive off home again! Eh, Kevin?
While in Opunake I had a chance to finally spy one of about four Lowe sheds, this one containing the Ariel Chief project that he'd been independently concocting long before some idiot started writing a Chopper Column on the subject. His solution to the frame problem was to simply extend the Ariel single downtube down to the engine rails where it all marries up neatly just like on a pre-'60 Triumph or a Rough Inferior. He has yet to modify the back end of his frame, which is partly why he was so keen to help me do my own frame mods when we both lived in Fiji. If mine screwed up, then he could do his one differently. His front end will be from a modern Kawasaki, and he has Ariel's Anstey plunger suspension on the rear.
We headed up north to the rally site, stopping on the way at Hamilton to see if we could persuade John Cresswell to come with us. We couldn't, but we did peek in his garage to take a last look at his bike and parts collection before it went up for sale. The choicest plums were put on eBay in March. I got my photo taken on his '26 Chief and sidecar. The cylinders of these earlier Chiefs are to my eye more aesthetically pleasing than the ‘27-onwards detachable-head type. It would be nice bike to have, but I sure as hell couldn’t afford it.
Final preparations to the Lowe outfit before we head north to the rally site.
|We followed Firedog's crystal-clear
written instructions to scenic Camp Adair in the Hunua Ranges and got ourselves
established in a bunkhouse. Testament to Mr Dog's organisational skills
is the fact that, in addition to organising the whole rally (jointly with
Mike Care) he managed to organise for me personally a bike and a bunk and
had my riding gear already laid out on it when I arrived. Nice gesture,
At dawn someone fired up an open-piped 741 before the first sparrow had even farted, and others rumbled to life progressively to be gassed up at Hunua Village's petrol pump. Kevin had to weld up a broken sidecar spring and Paddy Snowden's '48 Chief had a split gas tank seam that needed soldering, but Hunua Garage turned out to be one of that dying breed of service stations that actually service rather than only sell snacks and ice creams. By 10:00 am we were ready for the road ride.
Kerry Adams had put at my disposal a very nice skirted 741 which he’d spent a lot of time and money on but hardly ridden, having two Chiefs in his stable as well. It has 16" fat tyres and skirted fenders to make it a '40 Scout lookalike, but is based around a 600-cc over-bored 741 motor. I don't know if it were the fat tyres, or just the fact that everything is new and unworn, but never have I ridden such a nice-handling and comfortable 741. It goes, it stops, it handles, it looks sharp in Jade Green, and it's comfortable. On many pepped-up 741's the limiting factor to brisk riding is their handling. Not this one. It was almost enough to get me interested in 741's again. Thanks Kerry and Selina, much appreciated!
There was no route map so we had to keep up with the pack to avoid being lost, but Malcolm and a couple of other Chief riders herded us along like sheep over a roughly 100 km route that was entirely rural and totally interesting, up hill and down dale, along seashore and through bush-clad ravines with tight hairpin bends. On one of these bends we came upon a husband-&-wife pair whose 741 had taken too wide a line and disappeared into the undergrowth down a very steep bank. It took six of us to drag it back up onto the road, and after uncorking a solid plug of earth from its muffler it was soon operational again. Thank God for Army Green paint!
Kerry cooked the motor on his newly-finished Chief and chair, and it had to be trailered back for a post-mortem examination after the rally. It kinda spoiled his weekend, in fact that kind of thing can spoil one's entire month. I later heard from Malcolm that the person who’d rebuilt Kerry’s motor for him had used one aluminium bearing cage next to three steel ones, and it got ground up into pieces the size of a matchhead. Not nice! Presumably that person has since been utilised as lobster bait.
Kevin Lowe's sidecar also caused a bit of drama, losing the bolt from its rear mounting. It was going along okay in a straight line and on left-hand turns, but on right-handers he felt that something might be amiss. Then his passenger tweaked his sleeve and asked whether it was normal for a one-foot gap to be opening up between bike and sidecar? A stop at a farm soon located a bolt to hold the plot together.
Approaching our second planned stop on the route, we saw a very fast-moving ambulance and police car come out the other way with sirens wailing. We had a sinking feeling, and hoped like hell it was just a regular case of machine-gun-maniac postal workers running amok (NZ has them too) rather than anything to do with us. Unfortunately, it was one of us. John Hartley died and fell off his bike, in that order. John was an avid bike collector well-known and much-liked in NZ Indian circles, though maybe not so well liked in Vincent circles because he'd habitually treat his early Series-B Rapide that they all lusted after as if it were meant to be ridden. Only 44 years of age, he'd apparently been suffering ill-health after a long career as a deepsea diver. Whatever, he chose the Indian centennial rally as the moment to hand in his pannekin.
I forgot to ask this Prince-mounted chappie for his name. He seems to be enjoying himself.
|This cast a bit of a pall over
remaining proceedings, and the ride was cut short to return straight to
Camp Adair. Although close friends said he was the kind of guy who would
have wanted us to carry on, the gymkhana planned for the afternoon was
I spent the afternoon looking over bikes and taking photos of them. My eye was inexorably drawn to Graeme Care's turbocharged 741, with Japanese disc-braked front end. I asked him "Why?" and he just shrugged. I guess it's a question that doesn't warrant an answer. Also of high technical interest was Neville Warren's BSA 741. Being a Gold Star as well as an Indian fancier, youthful 75-year-old Neville decided one day to take a 741 middle and put BSA ends on it. The front end has BSA's telescopic forks, and a BSA plunger-suspension rear frame section was mated to the Indian middle bit. A BSA foot-change 4-speed gearbox completed the picture. It looks very cobby and all-of-a-piece, as if some factory somewhere had actually intended for it to be like that.
Dave McPhail had three days previously finished rebuilding the basket 600-cc 101 Scout that he'd finally bought back from John Saywell, and he rode it up from Wellington to the rally. He was ecstatic about 101's, this being his first real experience of actually spending much time in the saddle of one. He says that everything written about 101's is true, they are a marvellous piece of machinery that deserve their good reputation. "Agile yet solid" was how he summed it up.
The rest of the day was spent on the IORNZ Annual General Meeting, followed by a hangi and prizegiving. If you want to know what a hangi is, then you'd better book a spot on next year's IORNZ rally. Suffice to say it involves food, lots of it, and very well cooked.
Prizes were awarded on the basis of ballots
cast, as follows:
Parking Upsidedown Award - Bruce Belfield, for flipping Dave Blackwell's 57-c.i. 741 onto its back while trying out its clutch action.
Best Restoration Cock-up - Malcolm Brown, for chemically stripping Powerplus suspension rocker shafts against his better judgement.
Oldest Bike-&-Rider - BSA 741 and Neville Warren
Furthest Ridden - Roger Devlin, who rode his 741 up from Greymouth.
1st Entry Received - Barry Franklin
Hard Luck Prize - Mike Thorpe, whose Powerplus got a flat tyre right at the start of the road run.
Pub carpark line-up, showing roughly half of the bikes that attended the rally.
|The evening finished with a
campfire singalong, with music and poetry recital courtesy of Dave Blackwell
and Kerry Adams. An attempt was made to drink all the remaining beer, but
this target was missed by several dozens (another testament to Firedog's
and Mike's organisational skills). Dave McPhail put on his Indian war-bonnet
and performed a Raindance. The weather up 'till then had been perfect,
but ten minutes later the heavens opened and it continued to rain steadily
into the next day. Several people at breakfast the next morning were moaning
about "Bloody Dave McPhail, went and did a Raindance last night". I spoke
up and said "Well, he's the one whose got to ride all the way back to Wellington
in it" whereupon they said in unison "Yeah, and so do we!"
Sunday saw the ranks thin out quickly after breakfast as bikes were ridden or trailered away. I was asked to ride the second of John Hartley's two bikes (he and Craig Cate had brought one each of his 741's to the rally) back to the Firedog ranch for safe-keeping until Craig could return and ride it back to its home in Tauranga. Painted red but otherwise bog-stock, it was well-worn into a state of looseness that propelled me along quite sweetly. Riding down the Hunua Gorge in misty rain and entering again the vast steppes of the South Auckland suburbs, I had another chance to reflect on how gutless 741's are on hills, yet how pleasant they are to pobble around suburban streets on at about 40 mph.
Thus ended my IORNZ Indian Centennial Rally. I seem to have written rather a lot, but I've called it as I saw it. So many rally reports are just "We went here, then we went there, and then we went home again", which is about as interesting as reading out a string of road signs. I hope I have given you some flavour of the atmosphere and personalities that made this rally a big success and a lot of fun despite the tragedy that occurred. You may have preferred that I'd stuck to writing about the bikes and their restoration, but if mentioning the various foibles and drinking habits of some of the more prominent riders and restorers is necessary to convey "atmosphere" then so be it. We VI International Correspondents are not afraid to dig deep.
P.P.S. Credit is due to Bob Kelley for first alerting the VI community to the existence of the word "somnolence".
Dave McPhail was full of praise for his 101 Scout, finished three days previously and ridden up from Wellington.
Combining business with
pleasure on one’s 741
“This Chief ain’t stock!” says Kevin. “That exhaust system is wrong, for a start!”
I looked in vain to find a 741 that was still stock. This one came closest