June/July 2000 Column
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"Lateral Thinking for the Indian Lover"
Home / Features / Chops
 Indian Choppers Corner
   Part 5. Chopper Chiefs from Mild to Wild
   By Tim Pickering
Stage 4: Extend the front end

Take the stock Indian front end and extend it, to “achieve the chopper image”.  I don’t hear of this being done to leaf-spring forks, but it’s relatively simple to do with the post-war Chief girder and the 741 girder front ends.  The “Custom Harley Cookbook” by Mike Geokan extols the virtues of these fine Indian front ends for fitment to Harleys, and provides step-by-step instructions on how to extend them.  You can order this book ($11.95) on http://hoskingcycle.com/Cat_pages/catalog_page_7.htm.

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Click on pictures for full size

Here’s a post-war Chief which has received the extended treatment.  Quite frankly I don’t like this bike much, either.  I don’t like the post-war girder front end at the best of times, whether stock or extended.  And I don’t think that skirted fenders have any place on a chopper, even if they have been bobbed a tad.  Moen sent me this picture, and I think he mentioned that the creators of this bike are a part of the Virtual Indian community, so I better say right here, “Please - don’t take my comments personally!”  It’s your bike, not mine.  However I do feel that it still has too much garbage on it to really rank up there with the truly great Indian choppers. 
Believe it or not, this bike is very stock.  In fact, its owner has claimed (doubtless whilst having his throat firmly squeezed by an incensed originality freak) that the bike is actually over 90% stock.  And I for one am willing to believe him.  All he’s done is extend the girder, then change the seat, fenders, pipes and chainguard.  This is a good example of how you can achieve a pretty radical look (if that’s what you want) without butchering the bike beyond redemption.  Its also amazing the radical difference that little touches like a white seat-cover can make.
I would never now build a Chief like this for myself, and yet I just can’t help liking the look of it.  Maybe if I was still young and dumb and full of … nevermind-what, but now I’m a bit more conservative in my tastes.  Still, I take my hat off to this bike’s builder.  It’s got the lean, mean, clean and hungry chopper look and is totally bereft of garbage.  Even the armpit-fresheners seem completely appropriate and at home on this machine.  Just right for puttin’ across the American mid-west, if you strongly feel that extended front ends must be justifiable strictly in performance terms.  Or just right for simply posing around and enhancing your sex life, if it’s your own personal performance that you’re more concerned about. 
Stage 5: Fit a non-Springfield front end

Extending a Springfield front end is not for the faint of heart, notwithstanding Mike Geokan’s instructions, because you need to be reasonably skilled to carry out the necessary modificatons safely.  Secondly, there’s the social problem of showing one’s face to the Indian-owning public afterwards.  Not like in the ‘60s and ‘70s before Indians became so revered, and when their parts were still common fodder for the more “out-there” Harley chopper builders. 

Nowadays I think better results can be obtained more cheaply (in terms of social cost as well as financial cost) by going to a wrecking yard and getting any one of a multitude of Japanese cruiser front ends that look neat, have suspension that works, and a brake that works.

If you don’t mind trading off originality for performance but still want to retain period authenticity, you can always chase down a set of Vard telescopic forks for your Indian.  I have no experience of these other than pictures I’ve seen in books, but Jerry Hatfield uses a set of Vards and has kindly allowed me to reproduce his impressions of them in this column.

“I have a Vard front end on my 1938 Four.  These were made by the Vard Company in Pasadena, California, beginning in either late 1945 or in 1946.  They were continued into 1949, when Harley-Davidson brought out their telescopic Hydra Glide front end.  Indian introduced their telescopics just a year later, so the Vard market pretty much died at that point.

PLUSES:  I enjoy the fork for its smooth riding.  It’s an antique item to those who take a close look, because smoother ride aside the Vard fork has much less travel than modern telescopics.  The relatively short fork lowers the steering head over an inch, and an inch is a mile so to speak, when considering ergonomics.  Parked next to a telescopic Chief, its amazing how much more compact the Vard layout is.  I think the steering head is 2 or 3 inches lower.  So, to those with a discerning eye, this is an antique front end.  It is a “correct” front end for a bygone era (1946 – 1949), but NOT acceptable via AMCA judging standards (nor should it be) which relate to original Indian factory specifications.  The handling is sportier (quicker and more precise) with the Vard than with the leaf-spring front end, but I haven’t ridden enough Sport Scouts to compare the handling with the regular Sport Scout girder fork.  Another plus compared to the leaf-spring front end is the shorter wheel base, which about splits the difference between the Chief/Four wheel base and the Sport Scout wheel base.

MINUSES:  Few will recognise the Vard fork as an antique item.  Even among antique motorcycle enthusiasts, 95 percent will think the fork is just a stubby and a bit homely front end.  In this context, the Vard front end “robs” the bike of its antique appearance in the eyes of almost all beholders.  Very few people want a Vard fork on their old Indian or Harley.  Most think it ruins or at least degrades the antique concept.  I keep my Vard on my Four because, in combination with the ex Royal Enfield fender, it’s a very graceful looking front end (except from the side, in which case the fork needs to be longer to look “right”).  Also, it’s something different among the antique crowd, and “different” equals “fun” to me.  But I will never trade away the stuff I have to convert the front end back to original leaf-spring configuration.  I think a Vard front end is worth about $2000, but opinions vary.  I think a complete factory-original front end of any era is worth more.

CONCLUSION: Vards are mainly sought by people who have a bunch of Indians or old Harleys and are looking for something different yet “period” for one of their “riders” (play bikes).  I don’t recommend them for the average Indian or old Harley enthusiast.  But if you are a bit bored with your “fleet” of Indians and/or old Harleys, they’re great for a rider bike.  As a substitute item, I think a Vard fork lowers the value compared to the original front end.  As an additional item, as in my case, there is extra value simply because the Vard front end can be sold if and when it’s not wanted.”

So there you have it.  The pro’s and con’s of an authentic period front end that performs better than factory-original leaf-spring or springer front ends.  If you get “bored” with your stock Indian, fit a set of Vards.

The main message I’m getting from Jerry’s analysis is that antique restorers can be just as guilty as chopper builders when it comes to choosing looks over performance.   Faced with a choice of equally-authentic period front ends, Jerry’s view is that most antique restorers would rather choose authentic looks (i.e. looks faithful to the “antique concept”, whatever that is) in preference to better and equally-authentic performance.  Just as there exists a chopper “look” which builders try to emulate regardless of functionality, it appears there now also exists an antique “look” which restorers want to emulate, again regardless of functionality. 

Clearly a different set of values is being applied to stock Indians nowadays, compared to the values applied to them during the production era.  The very fact that a market existed for Vard forks back then is an indication that, in those days, better performance was valued more highly than factory-original looks.  If the reverse now applies, whereby antique “looks” are now valued more highly than period-correct functionality, then antique restorers and chopper builders are really not so far apart after all!  Both groups are each trying to recapture a motorcycle “look” from a bygone age, a “look” which in functional terms no longer has relevance.  Originality freaks are often quick to criticize choppers for alleged lack of functionality, yet these same people (according to Jerry’s astute analysis) themselves appear quite willing to sacrifice authentic functionality for looks. 

And I suppose I can relate to that.  Lets face it, if we Indian enthusiasts weren’t willing to make this sacrifice, then we wouldn’t be on Indians.  We’d all be riding late-model Hondas instead.  However I am labouring this point because it gives the lie to any claims that being a stickler for originality is somehow more “functional” than building a chopper.

Just a thought.  Meanwhile, on with the bikes!

This person has chosen some species of modern Wide-Glide type front end, performed some liposuction on the skirted fenders, and fitted a more rearward seat to give the obligatory “woman-in-labour” laid-back riding position so favoured by chopper pilots.  He’s also endeavored to enhance his sex-life with the ever-popular deoderising apehangers.  Apart from that, it’s all pretty stock.   Oh, he’s added flames.  Pretty radical, that!

Personally, I think that fitting a modern front end is an excellent idea.  Firstly, the unwanted stock front end can be used to extort an exorbitant amount of money out of a hapless antique restorer (more than US$2000, according to Jerry) which can then be re-invested in your engine rebuild (though Jerry recommends you instead hoard away the stock forks, to maintain the value of your scoot).  Secondly, you get suspension that works and a front brake that works.  Thirdly, you get clean, simple, elegant good looks with a minimum of garbage. 

For me, improving the breed is the name of the game.  My recent near-death experience with a nincompoop taxi driver has thoroughly convinced me of the need for a good front brake.  Riding an Indian in heavy traffic with the stock brakes will bring home to you very sharply the reason why many Indians are now trailered to meets and only get ridden in the parking lot.  It doesn’t have to be this way!  I’m sure that hydraulic slave cylinders from a small car (for example, a Morris Minor) could be retrofitted to the Indian brake backing-plates, with both wheels braked simultaneously Guzzi-style by a master cylinder discreetly located behind the gearbox and actuated from the foot-brake pedal.  Anybody want to start a VI Project Group on this?

Here’s another non-Springfield front end on an otherwise pretty stock Indian Chief, featured in Ozbike magazine some years ago.  The bike’s builder, a fellow identified simply as “Grot”, or “Snot”, or something like that, has chosen to install fork legs and twin-leader front brake from an early model of the liquid-cooled Suzuki GT750 (nick-named “Water Buffalo” in the US, or “Waterbus” in Australasia).  The triple-tree is of his own manufacture.  He has also laced both wheel hubs to Harley-style 16” rims and fitted balloon tyres front and back.  I don’t like the fat front tyre, it makes the front end look too obese.  Personally I would go for a slimmer 18” tyre at the front.

Other mods include bobbed fenders and more-rearward seat, plus the slinky-looking exhausts which have the appearance of being quickly-detachable for use in the smoking of hashish.  For those who’re interested in alternative carburetors for Chiefs, he’s fitted an SU and claims to be pleased with the results.  The article’s photos reveal that the SU sticks out a fair way and this could explain why, in all the shots that showed  him standing, his left leg appeared to be always bent outward at the knee.

Now we’re starting to get radical in appearance, but again without departing too much from stock and without foreclosing the option of returning it to stock.  This is a photo contributed by someone known to this list, so maybe they can tell me more about it.  As far as I can tell, the only changes are a long tele front end that appears to be of Japanese origin (or possibly Harley), a set of armpit-freshening apes, and a king-‘n-queen seat with sissy bar.  All very acceptable and chopper-like, and, if I may say so, a vast improvement on the stock Chief layout.  Yet it shouldn’t get you lynched at an AMCA meeting, because it can all be easily returned back to stock.
This bike, built at the famous Leenes Indian emporium in the Netherlands, has a Suzuki front end with twin discs.  Another excellent idea for doing battle with modern traffic.  It’s a neat and tidy front end, too.  This is not a bad-looking bobber, although use of a Mustang tank doesn’t really blend with the bike’s lines and it exposes a lot of unsightly frame castings.  Better to use a tank from a BSA or Matchless, as described in last month’s column.  They’re probably more easily available in the Netherlands, too.  Also worth mentioning is the SU carburetor.

I’m not sure what that oval device is, on the frame beside the rear wheel.  I’d like to think it was a friction-driven dynamo running off the rear tyre, to provide impetus for the necessary electrons .  But I see there is a stock generator for this already.  Its shape and ornamentation make it look like a ladies cosmetics case.  Maybe it is?

With this bike we are getting to the extreme end of radical, though as far as I can tell the frame is uncut and has simply been molded.  Fair enough, too.  If you’re going to dispense with the stock tanks and run something as teensy as this, then you better do something about the ugly castings that go into a Chief frame.  Apart from the tiny tank and the molding, most of the radicality derives from the extended girder.  Is that a chromed and extended 741 fork, or an after-market Harley item?  Personally, I don’t this bike much.  Without raking the frame, it makes the whole bike sit too high.  Or is the rake of the steering stem in fact about right, but it’s the sidelinks that make the fork-blade angle far too steep?  Whatever, something doesn’t look quite right about the front end.  Usually if something looks right then it is right.  And if it doesn’t look right … well then.  I’d be interested in any feedback on how this bike actually handled. 
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