May 2000 Column   
   "Lateral thinking for the Indian lover" Home / Features / Choppers 4, page 1 of 2
    Indian Chopper Corner
   Part Four: My Chief likes and dislikes
   By Tim Pickering
  Part 3 here!
Indian visions 

To pick up the story from last time, I had reached a point of finding that an Indian Chief was about the only motorcycle on earth that would ever truly satisfy me.  At the same time, it would have to be a vastly re-organised Chief.  So re-organised, in fact, that the only parts of Springfield origin to figure in my mind’s eye would be the motor, fuel tanks and headlamp. 

This did not just appear to me as a sudden revelation.  It took about five or six years for this vision to fully materialize, inspired mainly by bike parts that I saw around me.  Much the same as Grizzy in his “Geronimo” story  where, Somewhere in Darkest Yorkshire, sitting deep in thought before his lonely Chief lump, his eyes lit upon a rigidified Beezer frame.  The rest is now history.  Except that in my case, my eyes lit upon an Ariel rigid frame.  And now I’m going down a different path. 

Compared to Grizz, I’m taking a big risk.  He made darned sure his device was operational before he went public about it.  Yet here am I, shooting off my mouth before all the world, when at time of writing all I have to show for my fine talk is a Chief motor awaiting total rebuild, and a pile of sawed-up frame parts.  This is BikeCam, folks, coming to you live-as-it-happens!  There’s no way of knowing at this stage how things will turn out.  It could all turn to shit on me, and then I’ll have to slink away from this column with my tail between my legs.  Possibly to take up collecting belt buckles, or “Indian” Zippo lighters, or other such less-demanding hobby. 

But, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a scientist.  In science, a negative result is still a result.  Even disasters are worth describing, if only as a warning to others.  And so far, things have gone uncommonly well. 

It may also work to my advantage if I announce every move I plan to make, before I actually make it.  It will give time for you, gentle reader, to say “NOOO!!!  A thousand times No!  DON’T do it that way!  The right way to do that is to blah blah blah.”  Audience participation is welcome, and you can find my e-mail address at the top of each column. 

It is worth re-capping how I arrived at this point of Chief-bobbing, seeing as how my entry into Indiandom came through 741 ownership.  I certainly didn’t hit straight away on the idea of getting a Chief because, where I come from, they are unobtanium.  A near-impossible dream.  Thanks to the Depression-era trade policies of the USA and the British Empire, the post-1930 Indians in New Zealand and Australia are mainly 741’s.  

In fact, at that time, I only knew of one person in Wellington (my home city) who actually had a Chief, and that was Dave McPhail, who’d bought it off the chap who’d won it in an Iron Horse magazine readers’ competition.  It’d caused a big furore over in the States when it was revealed that the magazine’s first prize of a ’47 Chief had been won by a foreign reader, and was destined to leave the US.  All sorts of letters got written to the editor about “America’s heritage” being taken away overseas.  Idiots!  Don’t they realise that Indian were always an exporting company!  Aren’t they aware that for every Indian “lost” overseas nowadays, another returns from Argentina, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, or other such places where the Yankee dollar is King?  Don’t they know that Indian heritage is our heritage too?  Did not my own grandfather arse off his Indian in 1936 on the hairpin bend in Wellington’s Brooklyn Hill road, leading to an ultimatum from my grandmother-to-be that he should either choose her or choose motorcycles?  Since he chose the former (the wimp!) it could almost be said that my father, and hence me, owe our very conception to Indian motorcycles!  

Anyway, naturally I had said to Dave that if he should ever think of selling … to which he just laughed and said “Take a number and join the queue!”  I couldn’t have afforded it anyway. 

So, with Chief ownership in the realms of Fantasyland, I  kept on riding my 741 and kept trying to think of ways to make it bigger.  Taller.  Longer.  More grunty.  More befitting a fellow of my 6’1” and 16 stone. 

But there really isn’t much one can do to a 741 apart from bore it out, or, if one were to get really carried away with a rush of blood to the brain, stroke it.  But it will still be a small motorcycle.  If you try cutting its frame to enlarge it, or try to fit some other taller v-twin lump, the proportions are thrown all out of kilter.  It would become a very ugly duckling indeed.  There is only one type of engine that fits well into a Scout/741 frame, and that is a Scout/741 engine.  While it’s true the Scouts have made an excellent contribution to chopperdom, they did so only with their girder fork (heaps larger and stronger than all the spindly English girders) and not with their frame. 

Around about this time, I stumbled into Ariel ownership.  Now Ariel single-bangers are just as small as 741’s, so you are probably wondering why I didn’t instead save up the money and start a Get-a-Chief fund.  But Ariel singles are bikes I have always admired for their elegance, simplicity, and down-right handsome good looks.  They are relatively long-wheel-base at 56”, so don’t have the sawn-off, kicked-in-the-arse look of the rigid BSA or Matchless/AJS heavyweight singles.  Added appeal stems from the fact that, like Indian, the Ariel factory was a gallant underdog of the industry.  So when a NH350 basket came up at the right price with VH parts included, I grabbed it.  And when I set down two of the spare NH350 cylinders and heads onto the shelf next to a 741 crankcase, I suddenly found myself standing stock-still, with pursed lips and slightly-furrowed brow. 

It’s been done before.  Not with a 741, to my knowledge, but with Harley WLA cases and Matchless G-80 500-cc top ends, to give an XR-style OHV 1000-cc V-twin.  I’d seen a tiny, grainy black & white photo somewhere, and remembered that it was a bit of a squeeze getting a carb onto the front cylinder head, and an even bigger squeeze getting the whole lump into its Norton Featherbed frame.  

Of course, putting an OHV 741engine into a 741 frame would be out of the question, mainly for reasons of butt-ugliness.  Aesthetically, 741’s do not take kindly to being cut up and stretched.  The Ariel frame, however, seemed to have marvelous possibilities.  They are very Harley-like in overall layout and proportions, though a bit smaller.  The front down-tube doesn’t reach to the bottom rails, so the engine is a stressed member or “keystone” like on the 741/Sport Scout.  In contrast to the 741, it seemed to have plenty of space for a taller v-twin (after all, VH500 singles are tall motors) and the design layout makes it relatively easy to stretch the frame further if need be.  Ariel frames also give you the option of rigid or plunger-suspension.  The seller of my Ariel basket had invited me to choose whichever frame I preferred.  Considering myself a hard-core biker (in my dreams!), I had, of course, opted for a rigid. 

After much staring into space with a blank expression (deep thought, not a coma) I eventually backed away from this OHV 741 idea.  To work well, I would have to get special cams made up; (1) to give the correct valve lift, (2) to allow for the fact that both heads would be facing the same way (exhaust valves at the front), and (3) to give more-appropriate OHV valve timing.  This was (and still is) uncharted waters.  Possibly, NH350 cam lobes can be cut off and welded onto 741 camwheels.  Then again possibly not, since the angle of movement and amount of lift of each cam-follower with respect to cam and pushrod has to be taken into account.  To simplify these timing chest problems, one could abandon the XR- or Vincent-style cylinder head layout and go instead for one-forwards one-reversed heads with single carb in between, like on most Harleys and Indians.   But this would mean getting a mirror-image Ariel head specially cast up as a one-off.  All this was way beyond my competence or capacity to pay others for. 

And I still have the words of Mike Dimschiff (proprieter of Harley Speed and Custom) ringing in my ears.  While I was burbling away to him and Dave McPhail about these grandiose plans, Mike just scratched his whiskers and said “But at the end of the day, you will still only have a light-weight V-twin.  And a very highly stressed one at that”. 

Well, that did it.  That finally decided me.  I would be wasting my time trying to make a 741 any better.  I would simply have to get bigger.  By hook or by crook, I would have to lay my hands upon a Chief. 

Around this time a new Chief appeared on the scene.  Ross Vinnell migrated from Australia to New Zealand (a reversal of the more-usual trend) and brought part of his bike collection across.  His two runners were a rather tired ’38 Chief and sidecar that he used as a workhorse and gave minimal maintenance, and a ’47 Chief that was going to be his top-notch restoration.  His heart must have been softened by the faraway and slightly desperate look in my eye, because he offered to let me take them for a blat down the Wainuiomata coast road.  In this I was extremely privileged.  Up until then I had only ever seen one Chief in the flesh, and had not even sat upon it let alone ride it. 

The ’38 Chief was a handful.  I suspected that Ross may not have read that part of the Military manual on how to set up a sidecar, as his outfit had a lot of what yachtsmen call “weather helm”.  Going up the Wainuiomata Hill at 40 mph, I needed the width of all three traffic lanes to get around its bends.  At times the leaf-spring front end would set up a most nauseating wallow.  The ’47, though, was a real eye-opener.  It felt extremely modern and sporty in its handling.  Quite flickable, not at all the old bus that I’d been expecting.  The brakes were a bit of a worry, but everything else about it could hold its own in modern traffic.  Throttle roll-ons in top gear were a real thrill, and kept me amused for almost 45 minutes while Ross struggled to keep up with me on the ‘38-&-chair, until I remembered my manners and headed on back.  I was hooked. 

Well, I was hooked on the way it rode, but not on the way it looked.  Mr Hatfield’s Buyers Guide says that you either love skirted-fender Chiefs, or you hate them.  I fall into the latter category.  If I had lived in the ‘40s era, I would have been one of those “bobber” philistines who ripped the fenders off their Chiefs and employed them instead as horse troughs.  Ross’s ’38 Chief was more what I had in my mind’s eye, being rigid and more minimalist in the mudguard department. 

Well, it turned out that Ross is the prudent type who always keeps about three or four spare engines handy for whatever-it-is he happens to be riding.  Stashed in his shed were extra Chief lumps ranging in condition from bolt-in-straightaway to most-of-it-missing, needs-a-lot-of-work.   Now, Ross likes people to visit and talk about his stuff, look at his stuff, touch his stuff, even drool on his stuff, but almost never does he sell any of his stuff.  Which is presumably why he still has it.  After all, they’re still making money, but they’re not still making complete Chief engines (well, not quite yet, anyway).  So it came as a pleasant shock when my heavy hints and pleading looks led to him agreeing to put together a boxful of the essential castings and timing chest parts for me.  But no engine internals.  For that, I would be on my own.  So, for US$875, I became the proud owner of a ’44 Chief engine (ex-Australian military) with no crank assembly or pistons, and heads that looked like they’d been dropped from a great height. 

Thanks, Ross!  You got me started!  Being a hotshot management consultant and therefore computer-literate, it’s only a matter of time before you surf on in and read this.  How’re you doing?  How are the kids?  Good on ya, that’s the story. 

Well, now I was started upon a quest.  A quest to find the rest of the missing engine bits that I needed, and a quest to find a frame and running gear to drop it all into.  I had already left New Zealand and gone to reside in Fiji by the time the Chief deal went through.  And at the shipping agents in Suva, as I rode my 741 out of its crate to the admiring glances of the staff there, I was told “There’s another old bike like that stored here in the wharehouse.”  At the back between piles of copra sacks I was shown a rudely-chopperised pre-unit Thunderbird, with enough parts for a second one in about five tea-chests.  They told me the name of the owner, and I was able to score the lot for US$250.  So that kept me amused for the next two and a half years, but all the while I was scouring the globe for bits to complete Project Chief.  

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The reason the writers' names are blue and underlined is that they are "live", in case you missed that. This means you can click on them and have a mail form pop up (with most browser programs. If this doesn't work with your browser you should still be able to figure out the email address by passing the little mouse-arrow over the name). Useful if you want to tell the writer what you think of his piece... Moen 
Pic One. My 741. There’s not much you can do to make it bigger.  Incidentally, the sleek little BSA tank fitted here is one of the best-kept secrets of chopperdom.  The oil-tank is from a rigid Matchless/AJS, and is made-to-measure for a Scout.  Take note, builders of 648 lookalikes. 
 Click on pictures to see full-size 

Pic Two.  My Ariel basket is similar to this model, with cast-iron barrel&head and separate pushrod tubes, however I opted for a rigid frame rather than plunger like this one here. 
Pic Three. Matchless OHV top ends on HD 45" bottom end, living in a Norton frame with a Norton Gearbox. 

Pic Four.  My Ariel basket, with an Ariel OHV head sitting on 741 cases. The possibilities of this really got me thinking for a while.   Incidentally, the frame’s gearbox bottom-mount has exactly the right spacing for the 741 gearbox. 
Pic Four B.  The same photo, cut up to stretch the frame about 2 – 3” and make room for the front cylinder. 
Pic Five.  My “artists impression” of an OHV 741 in a suitably stretched Ariel frame, with a stock NH350 below it for comparison. The result would be lightweight and go like a cut cat.  But it would still be a small motorcycle. 
 Pic Six.  The Chief Deal, spread out on Ross’s workbench.  Mine for US$850, and the beginning of my quest. 
Pic Seven.  As-found ’56 Thunderbird, with “groovy” forks, to keep me amused in the meantime