October 2000 Column
"Lateral Thinking for the Indian Lover"
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   Part Eight: FrankenChief - it's been done before! (Shock! Horror!)
   By Tim Pickering
There’s a saying, that “There is nothing new under the sun”.

I thought I was on pretty safe ground though, in thinking I was the only kid on my block, or any block you care to mention, to have concocted the notion of a Chief-engined, Triumph-trannied, bitsa-framed “special”.

Then I got an e-mail from a chap named Von Gill, who wrote in from Somewhere in England to say that not only has it been done, but he himself is the proud owner of such a scoot!

My fleeting disappointment at not being the only person on the planet to have schemed up such a bike was rapidly replaced by excitement over the precedent-setting value of his bike.  A chance for me to learn from somebody else’s cock-ups, in other words.  All sorts of questions began flooding into my mind, and I urgently wanted to see and hear more.

So this month we’ll do a wee feature on the “Von Gill Mongrel”, as I’ve dubbed his machine. That name really trips off the tongue, don’t you think?  Sit back, and enjoy… 

The Von Gill Mongrel - long, low, rakish, and remarkably tasteful for a seventies chopper.
Von Gill Mongrel
Click on pictures for full size
Mr Gill might object ever so slightly to my use of  “Von Gill Mongrel” as a name for his bike, not so much because it lacks poetry or descriptive power, but because modesty may not permit him since he isn't the bike's creator.  He’s in fact the fourth owner of this beast, according to his e-mail which, after confessing to being an adoring admirer of this column, continued as follows.

Apart from owning a Chief I have recently acquired another one but this is slightly different.  [Is this what’s known as “English understatement”?].  (1) It has a pre-unit Triumph four-speed box.  (2) A custom frame that was made from scratch.  (3) The Chief engine must have been breathed upon!!!  After we got it running after ten years not being on the road, it went like Billy F**k!!!! (4) The carb is a Bendix off a Sportster with a variable jet, can’t get it to run perfect so another carb will have to be sorted.  (5) The primary cover is H-D with bits added on for the generator drive which I think is gear-driven to the generator which is a Lucas unit so no night rides!  (6) Wheels and forks (which are extended) are Triumph units.  (7) Brakes: rear is Triumph, front disc Honda (we think?).  (8) Mustang tank, small jockey seat. 

There was also a Triumph magneto fitted which had been modified for the Chief, but with it standing the spark was crap, so I have fitted Chief coil ignition.  I had to mount a battery box as the original one was fitted inside the oil tank (horseshoe type), it was that small it must have been a torch one.

As I will be working on the bike over winter, I should find out how the bike was put together.  The primary chain looks like Triumph as this is what the clutch is.  I did have problems when we first started to run the bike as the clutch began to drag, I believe the clutch needs stripping to rectify the problem [Well, at least it only dragged, and didn’t slip!]  The generator is driven off the primary chain via a gear or another small chain, however this does require more investigation. 


Drive side shows a familiar sight - a Harley tin primary.  A bit too familiar for me, I think I'd prefer to make a unique one from scratch.

The only history I know about the bike is that it was manufactured in 1974 in Crawley England.  It was made for a customer who sold the bike after two years of ownership, then another owner from ’76 – 84/85 then to the guy that I bought it off this year.  I am trying to track down the original builder and get more information.  I bought the bike for my wife as there is no way she could ride a stock Indian with a foot clutch, so hopefully she will be able to ride this one. 

We hope so too, Mr Gill. 

Naturally these scanty details only served to whet my appetite, and led to plaintive cries for pictures to be taken.  The pictures were duly taken, after quite a bit of drama and risk to life and limb, not to mention his mate’s marriage.  Firstly, Gill’s son Connor (6 yrs) nearly perished beneath The Mongrel as it fell during an attempt to wash it.  His mate who was bringing the digital camera forgot to check the batteries if they were flat or not (they were).  Then the mate had to rush off because his wife had a bun in the oven.  What?  Not a bun, only a chicken?  Then what did he have to rush off for?  Then it rained (most unexpected in England, I would’ve thought).  After that, they had the usual fun and games trying to download the pix in what should have been a straightforward operation but almost never is.  Lastly, they must have been in a race against the onset of dusk, either that or they were striving for a particularly dark, brooding quality in each of their photographic compositions.

Well it should all be worth it, now that the Von Gill Mongrel can be immortilized in this, the epitome of taste and discretion, the Virtual Indian Chopper Column!  Placing Mr Gill firmly in a cyber-headlock, I was able to convince him to divulge more about where this chopper came from, and what it’s like to ride.  His story goes like this …

Triumph four-speed gearbox looks very much at home behind the Chief lump.  Notice, too, how the curve of the rear exhaust pipe has a much more pleasing sweep to it, when the stock Chief tranny sprocket isn't there to get in the way.
The Tale of Two Choppers

As all stories start a long time ago in a distant universe…

What a load a bollocks, anyway this one started 5 years ago when a new member joined our company, then the first of the good weather started, so out came my ‘53 Chief and to work I went. The new boy said “is that your bike” yes, next thing he say’s my neighbour’s son got one of those, all I could get from the conversation is that it was black with “Indian” on the tank and he said “and the engine looks like that”. 

So the following weekend I decided to have a ride out and visit my new work mate and find out more about this “Indian” well it was disappointing, my work mate was at home but the neighbour was not in sight. Anyway a few weeks later, I visited the village again. This time, some one was home. I walk up to the door and knocked, then a guy came to the door. Yes, can I help? So I said, I work with Pete next door and he say’s you have an Indian. Yes I have, came the reply.  Could I have a look at it?  At this point he asked why I had an interest in his bike so I explained that I also had a Chief and because they are quite rare in England it was good to share a common interest.

OK, but its not a Chief, he said.  A 741 then, is it? No, it’s a Chief-powered chopper!!!!!

Well that’s when my enthusiasm started to fade, as I was a devoted skirted-Chief fan.

But when the door opened to the garage my enthusiasm was rekindled.  There it sat, one Chief engine fitted to a Triumph gear box in a custom frame, it was black, and it had “Indian” on the tank, and I fell in love with it instantly.

I asked if I could sit on the bike, he said sure. So I then first sat on the bike thinking “this was made for me”, the controls were perfect and low. However, this was a bike that the wife could ride, as the hand change on the 53 was not suitable for her. So this bike fitted the bill.

Carb is from a Sportster, and due for a re-think.  Unusual that a ‘70s chop would not have something over the carb to stop your bell-bottoms getting sucked in!  I wonder what's under that chromed genny-drive cover?  I bet Moen is itching to find out.
Next question was “could it be for sale?” then the answer we all hate “NO” so as not to kill the conversation dead I said any reason why?  He sez “I got this bike back in the early 80’s and I love it”. So never to come between a man and his bike I decided the best part of valour would be to retreat while the going was good.  I did notice that the bike was fitted with a magneto which was a converted Triumph one, but he did admit that it was hit and miss at times.  So at that point I said the next time I was in the area I would call with the ‘53.

Weeks went past, and then months, because you could tell that he was not interested in parting with the bike so I did not make too much of an effort to call. Anyway a year to the month on seeing the bike I was on the ‘53 and in the area.  So I called round again without an appointment, he was at home and he remembered who I was. But this time when I was on the ‘53 it was like I had given him a Christmas gift. Out he came and was very enthusiastic about the bike wanting to know were it came from, how I got it, what it was like to ride etc etc, so this then gave me the opportunity to tell him all about my bike and he tell me about the Chopper!!!!

Has the Harley chaincase been narrowed?  After all, its only got a single-row chain running inside it.  Engine plates bolt to the crankcase tie-bolt lugs, rather than to the stock Chief engine mounts.  Strong enough, do you think?
I must have been there for hours, we talked about both bikes, and I then started to find out more about the chop.  It was made by a company called Kustom Corner in Crawley England in 1974. The story goes that the bike was made for a customer and originally painted metallic blue with murals, but there are no photographs to substantiate this. The bike then spent most of its life on the south coast until passing to the present owner.  He has run the bike on and off since then and he had it painted black, as he did not like the murals on the bike.

Other things came to light, like the electric’s had a problem with charging the battery, and it was hard to kick over, and it was a handful if you were not use to riding a chop.

On parting I said if you decide to sell the bike I would be interested.  At that remark he never said a word just thanks for coming and he may see me again… 

As the months went past, and then the years, I had forgotten about the chop and, as the saying goes, I  don’t like to “flog a dead horse”.  So that was that; then in December 99 about 2 weeks before Christmas the guy phoned, he’d got my number from his neighbour.

“Hi” he said, “still interested in buying my bike?”  At this point, always remember when doing a deal never sound too enthusiastic. Wish I had taken notice of that advice, “Yea yea!!!” came the reply, Ok he said come round at the weekend and talk.

Well over the next few days I was thinking how much will he ask? Will it run? (as I had not heard it running) and the other questions that go through your mind when doing “the deal” . 

Anyway the weekend came and I had to make excuses to the wife to say that I was visiting someone so as not to rouse suspicions as I was going to buy the chopper as a Christmas gift for her. 

[Why’d I never thought of that before?  Buy myself my dream motorcycle, and say “Relax, honey!  I bought it for you!”]

Pilot's eye view of the Von Gill Mongrel
I arrived at 11:00 am and we started to chat about the bike in detail. Who had  converted the Triumph magneto on the bike? Was it easy to start? When did it last run, etc?. But during the conversation I found that the bike had not been started for a few years and if I wanted to buy it the deal was sold as seen. Then the negotiations began in my favour I had the following as ammunition;

1. the bike had been stood for a few years and it would not start

2. he did say that the electric’s were hit and miss

3. the magneto did not produce a spark at all 

So we started the negotiations and the conversation went like this – Well, you told me that this bike has the following problems and it has not been started for a few years!!! He replied “But man, where the f#*k will you get another one of these offered to you this side of the planet!”.

Point taken, so we agreed on an amicable price between us, he was happy, I was happy ,but I don’t know if the wife would be?

The following weekend I returned with the cash, paid the man in full, but the bad news was that it was Christmas eve the next day and I could not get transport to remove the chopper, so an alternative plan had to be hatched.

Triumph gearbox is the early type (pre-1954) with a threaded adjuster running through the seatpost  to set primary-chain tension.  ‘54-on Triumph ‘boxes use a different type of adjuster, but follows the same principle. 
I had my camera in the car, so I finished off the film on the bike and then got the pictures in for development. Christmas Eve and the photos were returned, so I got the best photo of the bike, put it in an envelope and left it in old Santa’s sack for the wife.

[I can picture the scene.  “Thanks honey, a photo of a motorbike!  Just what I’ve always wanted, my very own photo of a motorbike!”]

The following morning, after opening the other gifts, Mandy finally got to the envelope. What’s this?  Your main present.  Opening it frantically, thinking I had booked a holiday or something of that nature, she came across the photo of the Chopper.  What’s this? It’s a chopper, baby.  Next question - have you bought this for you or me?  Well, I said, it’s a bit of both.

Anyway after the “you men are all the same” lecture [Aha!  Saw through this little ruse in a flash, eh!] Mandy did like the idea that she could be riding this bike next year.  Over the Christmas break I picked up the bike and got back to my mate Calvin’s workshop.

Well we got juice in the tank, new plugs, a weak spark but this only happened with the plugs out and you could kick the bike over fast enough to produce a spark. We tried to kick the bike over, but with the compression and the Triumph kick-start the bike would not fire. So we decided to tow the chopper with a Mercedes estate. Out came the rope, attached to the bike, fuel on, and away we went. Trying to start the bike in 1st, 2nd and 3rd gear then when it was in 2nd gear, dropped the clutch, and bang!, it fired up!!

I sat there trying to keep the engine revs going, as you blipped the throttle the exhaust was like a F16 after burner. The flames were massive, this because with all the bump starting fuel had saturated the wadding that had been stuck in the expansion pipe and caught fire!!

Do you have, or know about, an interesting Indian chopper?

Want to get it featured in Planet Earth's Indian-chopper Mecca, the one-&-only Virtual Indian Chopper Column?  

Get writing, get snapping, and send the results to 

No digital camera?  No scanner?  Just post your photo prints to

Tim Pickering, Marine Studies Programme, The University of the South Pacific, Box 1168, Suva, Fiji Islands

At least the bike ran, but the only way it would start was with towing.  So it was decided to convert this monster to coil ignition.  We fitted an Indian distributor and a decent battery box. When these modifications were embodied the chopper would start on the kick-start, the only problem was that when you started to ride the bike the carb would suck up your jeans, because of the lack of an airfilter. 

Apart from that the bike started, so out onto the open road, with this thing having 4 gears the pulling power was fantastic, the chopper went like “Billy F#*K”.  Both me and Calv after riding the bike commented on the difference the 4 speed makes. That’s about as far as I have got with the bike.  Hopefully over the winter I will get the bike running right and next year on the 100th  anniversary of Indian Motocycle I will have 2 Indian powered bikes, one being a chopper!!

The title of this story being the tale of two choppers, well the other chopper I acquired was one that was built by Raleigh in Nottingham England and this one is peddle powered!!!

But that’s another story…

Von Gill maintains the air of brooding mystery with his arty “shadowy-darkness” photography.  Or did he just screw up the lighting settings on his camera?
The pix led, of course, to a barrage of technical questions from me.  Such as:

(1) How has the generator drive been constructed?  V-belt?  Toothed-belt?  Chain?  Train of gears? Is it driven by a pulley, or a sprocket?  An idler sprocket driven by the primary chain, maybe?

(2) How was the Chief engine sprocket modified to take a Triumph primary chain?

(3) How does the Triumph single-row primary chain hold up under sustained use?  My own preference is for a T140 Triumph triplex chain and clutch basket, but maybe this is overkill.

(4) How much of a grip do the rear engine plates have on the crankcases?  They seem to attach Scout-style to the crankcase tie-bolt lugs, rather than to the special rearward-facing mounting holes used on a stock Chief.  For my FrankenChief I was intending to use the stock Chief bolt holes with L-shaped engine plates, because I'd presumed that the tie-bolt lugs on the cases would not be strong enough to use as engine mounts.  Maybe I’ve presumed wrong?

(5) Does the Triumph kick-start mechanism have the right gearing to easily start this crittur?  How long does a Triumph kick-start pawl last under these circumstances?

These are questions to which I’d already dreamed up a few answers in my mind’s eye.  More on that in the next issue.  The creator of the Von Gill Mongrel has already come up with their own solutions to these very same problems.  Solutions which have stood up to at least a decade of road use.  I look forward to learning more about its innards after the promised wintertime tear-down of this beast.  But I'll have to be patient, he's only just got the thing and hasn't ridden it much yet.

As for the overall style of this chopper, well, it’s surprisingly tasteful for a seventies chop.  You already know what I think about loooong forks and Mustang tanks, so I won’t dwell upon that any further.  One nice thing about teensy-tanks is that they let you see plenty of motor.   As a whole, the bike has a nice lean and rakish look, and I wouldn’t mind getting my own arse aboard it..

Of course there’s always things one wants to change.  Like, what’s with the number-plate and tail-light bracket?  Is it supposed to double as an air-brake, when you reach the end of the strip at Santa Pod?  I’m sure Mr Gill has his own plans for further development, and it will be interesting to see what the bike looks like after its winter teardown.  Who knows?  He might even re-instate the murals!

To me, the nicest thing about this whole story is the fact that a dyed-in-the-wool skirted-Chief fan could fall in love with a chopper Chief.  Maybe we should do what H-D did, and organise a nation-wide free test-ride programme for chopper Chiefs, to convert the unbelievers?  I bet even the most hide-bound Indian originality fetishist would secretly love it, and spend all their time checking out their reflections in the storefront windows as they putt dramatically up and down mainstreet.

For a future edition of Indian Choppers Corner, once Mr Gill has got the bike sorted, I’ll twist his arm to write a road-test comparison of his stock ’53 Chief and his chopper Chief.  It will be interesting to find out which seat is destined to be graced by the Von Gill backside most often!

This issue of Indian Choppers Corner is dedicated to the memory of Raymond Quai Hoi, b. 1 June 1943, d. 30 September 2000.  Fiji’s chopper pioneer. 

About four years ago when I was still looking for somewhere to put my Indian engine and gas tanks, I considered getting a replica Harley rigid frame and four-speed tranny.  I got as far as making this cut&paste “concept drawing”, then dropped the idea because it looked too much like a Harley.  The Von Gill Mongrel manages to avoid that fate by using a scratch-built frame and Triumph tranny.

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

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