Summer 2002 Column
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"Lateral Thinking for the Indian Lover"
Home / Features / Chops
 Indian Choppers Corner
  By Tim Pickering

It was a dark and stormy night …

No … no, can't use that for an opener, it's been done before. Still, a storm has been brewing, things are coming to a head, the pressure is building…

Mainly the pressure is building on me, to make some Visual Progress on Project ChiefChop after a frustrating year in which there was plenty of thinking, and some parts-purchasing, but not much actual doing. Still, the parts I've gathered are nearly enough for me to surge ahead and get things to take shape with more rapidity. 

But I better get a move on. At the rate I've been going, someone will be selling my Chief concept as a kit bike before I've even got my own one finished. Though hopefully it will be finished long before I need to consider fitting an electric start, as discussed at one time on the VI List …

Part Ten: "Rolling-your-own", and FrankenChief mechanical details

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Full list of Tim's 
VI Chopper 

Perhaps I flatter myself in thinking that it might be anything to do with this column, but I see a couple of other kindred spirits in VI-Land are going down the same long and hard but ultimately rewarding path that I'm still treading. 

We've already heard from Mads Johnsen in Denmark who, despairing of ever marrying well enough to afford a real Indian Four and finding the Wiking too ugly (sentiments that I share) but still tormented by unrequited lust for "the Duesenberg of motorcycles", has decided to cobble together his own replica Four around an air-cooled NSU car engine.

Then I got a nice email from Tom Megan in up-state New York who must have married very well indeed, since he's  finished a Norton project and has declared himself ready to find another two-wheeled rolling hole to throw his money into. He's now making a "swapmeet special" to capture the spirit of the Indian racers of the teens and '20s. 

In reply I told him about Dave McPhail in New Zealand who once assisted his brother in making a "replica" '20s flat-tank Harley. They used a WLA motor in a scratch-built "farm-gate" frame with lozenge-shaped gas tank, $100 Triumph gearbox rigged with foot-clutch and hand-change mechanism, Japanese wheels, tin-can muffler, and a spindly little home-made springer fork with Henderson-type handlebars that reach way back like on a wheelbarrow. It was all done for a fraction of the cost of a genuine Harley J or suchlike, was just as much fun to potter around on, and fooled about 90% of onlookers as to its authenticity. "My grand-dad had one of those", people would say. "No he didn't!" Dave's brother would think quietly to himself.

Mads Johnsen will go where no Mammoth has ever Munched before, using this NSU car engine for propulsion. 


It all comes back to Moen's words in the Warpath page, about the fun that can be had if we "set our minds free" regarding our choices of components for the particular bike concept that haunts us in our dreams. I think it was former James Brown bassist Bootsy Collins a.k.a. Dr Funkenstein who said "Free your mind, and your ass will follow". The idea here is to get our asses aboard a "righteous scoot" that is at least Indian-inspired, if not actually an Indian in whole or in part. We are working on an update of the VI Warpath page that will hopefully reflect how importent we think this part of the VI is (for new readers, we are talking about sort of a "People's Indian" here). We hope to have made some progress by next issue.
The buoyant prices of anything to do with old Indians or Harley Davidsons show that a lot of people are attracted to the peculiar qualities to be found in such crusty old iron. Consequently there's a high "barrier to entry", as an economist would say. Some decide they can afford it, others decide instead to take up golf or scuba diving. 

There is, however, a way to lower the "barrier to entry" in this hobby, if your supply of time exceeds your supply of money.

If someone feels that they absolutely must have a gen-yoo-wine H-D or Indian to go with their Flag, Mom, Apple Pie and .44 Magnum, then so be it. Nothing less will make them happy, but they better have deep pockets. 

If, on the other hand, they want a bike that speaks for itself, is cool without having to flaunt any brand-name, looks the part, rides even better than one of those old crocks anyway, and makes a sound that goes CHUGGA-CHUGGA-CHUGGA, but they don't want to spend more than about five or six grand, then the VI Warpath page sets out some ways whereby they can do it.

The strategy here is to only buy enough of an Indian or H-D to provide the essence of its character.

The rest can come from Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan, or the local village blacksmith for all anybody cares. We free our minds of jingoistic notions about the origin of a part, and appraise it only from the standpoint of its intrinsic coolness.

In dollar terms this lowers the "barrier to entry", because the components of an Indian or old H-D are usually priced at least double, and often tenfold, what gets charged for the equivalent component on a "lesser" marque. Use eBay or the various small-ads as a price barometer, and you'll see what I mean:

  ¤ H-D four-speed gearbox - $1500
  ¤ Triumph or BSA gearbox - $150

  ¤ Indian gas tanks (beat-up) - $350 if you're lucky 
  ¤ BSA B33 gas tank - $50 at the most.

  ¤ Indian Chief frame - around $1500
  ¤ Ariel frame (stretched, with Kawasaki steering head welded on) - 
    one Scripps-Booth engine and a case of beer.

  ¤ Indian leaf-spring front end - $2000
  ¤ After-market springer or girder for a Triumph chop (on eBay) - $200

Inspired by this picture of a hot-rodded Harley J, Tom Megan is on the lookout for a Sport Scout or 741 engine so that he can implement this concept in bright-red form rather than that yucky olive drab. Email him if you think you can be of assistance.

Click on pictures for full size

I could continue, but I think you get my drift. Follow my advice on these four items alone, and already you’ve saved a bundle. Yet the end result will make you just as attractive to the opposite sex, if that's the aspect of your motorcycling performance you want to enhance. Or to put it in more sophisticated terms, you'll still retain enough of the Indian or H-D character to satisfy your craving for this type of motorcycle.

Take FrankenChief, for example. Chief parts are pretty bloody unobtainable in my little corner of the world, and darned dear to import from the States once you've paid freight and duty, especially when you're not on the spot to pick up any bargains. So the "Chief" ingredients of my bitch's brew had to be pared down to the minimum.

I had decided in Part 4 "Chief likes and dislikes" that the essential character of an Indian Chief can be conveyed by three main components - the engine, the gas tanks, and the pointy-backed headlamp shell. 

The rest can come from Timbuctoo for all I care, as long as they pass my acid test of "cool".

I also mentioned in Part 4 that there's certain features of Chiefs get me groping for my hacksaw. Things like the generator and its drive, the magneto horn, the short primary, the heavy angular frame, and Model-T-suspension front forks.

Not that I actually would saw these things off, if I were fortunate enough to possess them. Christ no! I do have a shred of decency. What I'd do is sell them for an exorbitant sum to someone whose life would not be complete without them, and use the proceeds to build the bike that I really want.

But that's all academic, as it turns out, because so far all I own of an Indian Chief is an engine, a set of gas tanks, and a pointy-backed headlamp shell.

To go with that, I now also have an Ariel/Kawasaki frame, a Triumph gearbox, a Harley FXE front end, and a Harley 16" rim laced to a Triumph rear hub.

It means that the title of this column is a bit of a misnomer, since I'm not actually "chopping" a Chief in the sense of starting with a complete one and then carving bits off it. What I'm doing is starting with the very heart of a Chief, and adding a body and appendages. Creating a life-support system for a Chief engine, if you will. Real graveyard body-snatcher stuff.

To make all this work, there are certain mechanical details that need to be sorted out. The first major issue was finding a suitable frame, and that's been covered in Parts 7 and 9 of this column. The main engineering headaches still facing me are:

  ¤ Primary drive
  ¤ Generator/alternator drive
  ¤ Engine and gearbox mounts



These three components are all that you need the capture the essence of an Indian Chief.

These items, which require some novel engineering, are in addition to the rebuild of my Chief engine. This latter item is not novel to humankind as a whole, but is novel to me as it's something I haven't done before. 

Well, I have rebuilt Indian 741, Triumph 650 and Yamaha 650 engines before, but I only did the disassembly/re-assembly, since I had recourse to the "fully-qualified motorcycle technicians" of New Zealand for the tricky stuff like bottom-end reconditioning and reboring and stuff like that. Now that I live in the Fiji Islands, and now that Kevin's gone back to NZ and Raymond's gone to be with Elvis, there's just me. 

Just me, and the VI Listers. 

And Jim Parker in Melbourne, who I called in upon bearing my cylinders and conrods for him to have a gaze at.

And Marc Gundarsen in Brisbane, who I would have visited but my planned trip to sunny Queensland fell through.

And the "Happy 100th Birthday" Indian revellers that I caught up with in New Zealand at the Firedog ranch, and was able to pump them for advice.

Hmmm … maybe I'm not so alone after all!

Anyway, we'll leave the Engine Re-build saga for another time, since this is something generic to all Indians, be they stock or modified. There is definitely a need in the world for a "Chief Engine Rebuilds for Dummies" series, but no way could I write one myself as there are too many traps for young players. The problem is, those people with the necessary long experience in Fuck-Up Avoidance are all too busy building engines to write about them, while people with time to write about them have this luxury because they're not putting in long hours doing rebuilds. This is a prime recipe for these skills dying out and being forgotten within another generation or so. This nearly happened with the lapstrake and carvel boat-building methods of 19th century North-east America, were it not for a chap named John Gardiner in Mystic Seaport who had the time and ability to both build boats and write.

For now in this column, I'll focus on those aspects of novel engineering which are required to graft my Chief bits onto my non-Chief bits. This month's column will be an Engineering Report on ideas I've had to address items 1 - 3 above.

Remember, these are just ideas at present. I'm not far enough ahead with them yet to know if they're going to work or not, but I want to get them out there for discussion. Audience participation will be most welcome. I'll spell out the various options, and tell you which are my preferred ones. Then I'll sit back and wait for a flood of emails (any more than two or three would constitute a "flood") telling me of easier ways to do it yet

Tim's Chopper Columns so far: 

Part 1 
Why Indians

Part 2 
Why Not Choppers

Part 3 
Form vs Function

Part 4 
Chief Likes & Dislikes

Part 5 
Chopper Chiefs from Mild to Wild

Part 6: 
Birth of a Frankenstein Chief

Part 7: 
Frame Building with Dr. Frankenstein

Part 8:
FrankenChief - it's been done before! (Shock! Horror!)

Part 9:

"Original" (!) choppers, FrankenFrame Feedback
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