September 2000 Column
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   By Bob Kelley
How do we define an antique motorcycle in its purest form? Since the mainstream Indians all have kick-starts and handshifts and side valves or F-heads, we can rest assured that our credentials are in order as riders of genuinely old and primitive iron. Even among us insiders, though, there must be shades of gray. If we peer deeply into our hearts, we may even make out the faint profiles of a practical-minded dilettante arm-wrestling with a hard-core connoisseur for control of the premises.

Before anyone gets the idea that I’ve found my way onto a soapbox to gloat about my own commitment to the crude and hoary end of the spectrum, I’ll concede right off that my 101 comes nowhere close to measuring up to the ideal I would propose. That would be a 1915 twin. The beauty of this 61” model is it’s the first year for the three-speed transmission that would allow you to get out and actually do some riding on modern-day roads, which is the point of the hobby, and it’s the last year for the F-head engine developed by company co-founder Oscar Hedstrom. With divine intervention, you might even find one equipped with a carburetor of Hedstrom’s own design, by this time an optional substitute. The standard Schebler model was simpler and cheaper and being used with good results throughout the industry, but none of that holds a candle to “Hedstrom carburetor” and the patent date stamped on the casting. For those who don’t mind some incorrect retrofitting in the interest of roadworthiness, the three-speed transmission will fit the earlier machines, provided they were equipped with a two-speed to begin with, which takes us back to 1910.

Why stop there, you say, what about the models from that period with bicycle pedals or a belt drive? The pedals do have a certain attraction, though I get the impression that using them to start an engine is more an exercise in athleticism than nostalgia. Just once I would like to pass one of my local police lying in wait for speeders while I stand up and furiously pump out “pedal assist” to climb a hill. But in the next instant, I’m sure I would be praying for the power and gear ratios to retire me from this duty. As for the belt drive, while the antique charm is beyond question, I see this as a sort of dead-end detour that the industry dismissed early on. One of the strengths of the first Indians was their chain drive, and the belt drive’s temporary fix of allowing clutch-style slippage to order – using a long lever sliding along the gas tank – was soon outweighed by its uncontrolled loss of bite in wet weather and inadequacy for transmitting the power of increasingly advanced engines. It’s more a curiosity than anything else, though I’m sure many of us harbor a soft spot for the old belt-drive trundlers.

So now we’re out on a 1915 twin coming to a red light in front of the 7-Eleven. With no front brake, it’s best to throw out the rear anchor with plenty of time for a gradual stop. The clattering intake rockers provide a sort of frenetic marionette show for curious bystanders. As the light turns green, we feather the clutch and go bouncing stiffly down the road on leaf springs front and rear, trailing a puff of smoke thanks to the total-loss oiling. My later total-loss machine doesn’t seem to do this, but film clips of the earlier models often show them sending off appropriately Indian-style “smoke signals” on acceleration. I don’t know why there would be a difference. Galloping along, the 1915 twin is not only an emissary to the present from motoring’s early days, it’s a link between the later Indians we know so well and the previous golden period when the company came full flower as the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with its all-time production peak occurring in 1913. Harley was little more than a pesky distraction then. The twin sits right at the threshold to later chapters in the company history. Its transmission is so similar to that of a 1953 Chief that some parts are interchangeable. Yet its engine is a direct outgrowth of the original Hedstrom design.

Models much earlier than this seem too alien and spindly and bicycle-like for me to relate to as legitimate motorcycles. Maybe others feel the same way about a 1915 twin, or even my 101. At the other end of the continuum, I have trouble seeing anything with telescopic forks as a full-fledged antique, though a Blackhawk Chief or nice Panhead is certainly a timeless classic in its own way. On the open road, either would serve an all-you-can-eat dust buffet to the models I most admire. In principle, I favor the purity and archaic character of a hardtail and a handshift. But the rear plungers on a Chief look great, so exposed and low-tech. Plus, the splash you make with the old iron is mostly about the jarringly anachronistic profile and crude mechanical flavor. Who’s going to notice a footshift or a nicely integrated sprung rear? Well, let’s at least give credit where credit is due to the riders who sacrifice comfort and convenience and rack up some serious miles on the minimalist early designs. I suppose someone who rides even more can build up enough credits to atone for having a sprung rear or footshift, if that sounds fair.

Blast it all, now we’ve started down the slippery slope toward modern designs. Let’s try this again. Anyone for cartridge forks and acetylene lamps? Wooden wheel rims and tiny levers near the steering head to control spark and throttle? Ah, one day we’ll pool our money and buy a two-wheeler-only theme park where we can ride that stuff around. Let’s call it “Camp Gone Around the Bend for Good This Time.”

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!
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