BORN IN THE USA
Some classic bike enthusiasts will go to the ends of the earth to find their dream machine. One Australian couple didn’t have to travel quite that far, as Rowena Hoseason discovers…
Robert and Gillian took a really radical approach to buying their classic bike. They wanted a vintage Indian, and you don’t find many of them in Queensland, Australia. So they took a holiday in the US of A in the autumn of 2016, determined to find the bike of their dreams. You have to admire their dedication to this cause: the search for the Indian Chief led them clean across the continent! They landed in Los Angeles and hired a motorhome. A friend called to say that there was a huge swapmeet happening in Hershey, Pennsylvania… in three days. 3000 miles away. Hershey is the ultimate American classic and vintage autojumble: it’s like Founder’s Day and Stafford and Shepton and Eurojumble and Beaulieu all rolled into one – but with Harley and Indian machines getting all the attention rather than British bikes. It’s definitely one of motorcycling life’s ‘don’t miss’ experiences.
So Robert and Gillian revved up their engine and hit the road. ‘We averaged four hours sleep a night and got there the day before it started,’ Robert told me. ‘My wife and I spent the whole three-day swapmeet walking around the 9000-odd stalls, marking rows off our map when completed, and communicating via walky-talky.’
They were, of course, smartly attired in Indian-branded shorts and caps. So when Gillian was inspecting some Indian spanners on one stall, the next-door vendor flagged her down. ‘Psst. Wanna buy an Indian?’ That set the walky-talkies crackling like crazy, and pretty soon Robert and Gillian were off to New Hampshire to inspect a 1948 Indian Chief Roadmaster which had been dozing for a dozen years in pieces in an attic.
‘We then spent the next two weeks finding all the parts and organising money transfers,’ said Robert, ‘and my wife kindly spent three days packing it all up for the long trip home. Somehow we fitted the bits of the bike into various compartments of the motorhome and it went around the rest of the US with us, before getting shipped off on a pallet in LA.
‘While in the US we took the opportunity to visit lots of Indian motorcycle parts shops, and made several calls to my specialist Indian mechanic (also called Rob) back in Aussie. Jerry Greer’s Engineering in South Dakota opened up especially for us on a Saturday morning. Fabulous service and very friendly and efficient; can’t fault them. We managed to get 90% of the components we needed before we left. These mostly went in our suitcases; luckily my wife is not one for buying souvenirs!
‘ The bike followed us home within six weeks and we took it straight to the mechanic. He thought it was Christmas, opening all the parcels and finding all the parts of the bike. Original parts can be hard to source, but Jerry Greer’s and Kiwi Indian in the USA have lots of manufactured parts available. Some of the more difficult to source parts send people scouring the swapmeets in the US to find them. We were very lucky to have 90% original parts come with the bike, including the front Indian fender light which is in fabulous working condition. It all turned out to be in much better condition than we had hoped. Rob the mechanic mocked it up, then pulled it apart again.’
The Roadmaster was rebuilt exactly to 1948 specifications with some of its original period accessories – with a view to fitting the optional windscreen at a later date. With the mechanical side of things sorted, Robert and Gillian just had to decide on a colour scheme.
‘We took it to the world famous “Paint Doctor” in Maryborough, who did a fabulous job. We spent over 50 hours bringing the
tinware back to its original shape. The colour was chosen by my wife. While visiting every museum with lndians that we could find in the US, she found a couple with this paint and fell in love with it. Back home, no one knew how to get this exact colour, so I found someone online in the USA who sold me a paint chip. Hans the guru painter managed to match it perfectly. So now the bike certainly stands out everywhere we go amongst all the red and black lndians.’
And indeed, Seafoam Blue is among the standard colours listed for 1948. So far, so fabulous – but there’s always a fly in the ointment, isn’t there? This time, Robert pulled his knee joint apart shortly after returning to Australia ‘so I was pretty much laid up for the whole project. I could help with the wiring and some of the fiddly bits but even when it was finished I wasn’t able to ride it for three months.’
Even though the Indian’s owner was
hors de combat, the bike was in safe hands. ‘Rob is a motor mechanic extraordinaire,’ said Robert. ‘He’s very particular and has a wealth of knowledge. Needless to say, Rob the mechanic managed to force himself to endure the arduous task of testing and running in!’
At last, then, the Roadmaster was ready to ride. But before we get to the exciting part – what exactly inspired Robert and Gillian to go to such lengths to secure their dream machine?
‘Robbie always loved motorcycles and had dirt bikes when he was a young fella,’ explains Gillian. ‘After marriage and a child, the bikes were sold. When he started talking about getting a motorcycle again he was an “old” fella, and was looking at Harleys. I spent a lot of time in Europe and Norway as a young woman, and have very fond memories of traversing the top of the country one summer on the back of a vintage Indian. So I had one caveat: he could get whatever motorcycle he liked – as long as it was an Indian!
‘Polaris had just bought out Indian and were relaunching the brand. They had the new 111 motor on display at our small country town, and Australia was to be the first place to get 111 of the new motorbikes. Robbie ordered one, sight unseen, and we ended up with number 87. He fell in love with Indians as soon as he started riding it, and then wanted to join in all the fun with the vintage ones. According to some people, the only real Indian is a vintage one!
‘We joined the Historical Motorcycle Club of Queensland, found a 1929 Scout 101 and started going to rallies. I was feeling left out and had a couple of small practise rides on the Scout. After a few drinks one night, Robbie said that if I could start it then I could have it. With the help of some Dutch courage I started it on my own – and so Robbie needed another vintage Indian.
‘That’s how we ended up going to the USA to find one.’
And what they found, as we’ve mentioned already, was a Roadmaster variant of the Indian Chief, manufactured in 1948. The Indian company had recently endured one of its many changes of ownership, so the evergreen Chief was pretty much their only production model for a couple of years after WW2, while deals were done and new designs finalised. At that time, American industry was on the rebound from wartime constraints so heavilychromed highlights were the order of the day. Combined with a series of mechanical upgrades, these prevented the Chief from looking too outdated. The model was, after all, first sketched by Charles Franklin himself for the 1922 season…
For its post-war incarnation, Indian replaced the Chief’s old leaf-spring girder forks with the hydraulically-dampened front end they’d developed for WD models. They kept the Chief’s huge, hallmark mudguards, although many fast lads in the 1950s put paid to these with hacksaws, so finding an original set these days can be tricky.
At the back, the Chief benefited from Indian’s plunger suspension set-up which arrived in 1940, neatly leapfrogging HarleyDavidson’s rigid models. Each ‘double action’ shock absorber had two springs; the upper one to absorb impacts and the lower one to provide damping. Combined with fat tyres and a sprung saddle, this offered a significantly superior ride to the rigid machines offered by the competition… yet the Indian’s engine looked distinctly old-hat compared to the new panhead Harley with its fandango hydraulically-adjusted overhead valves.
The second part of an Indian’s model designation reflected the accessories which were sold with it. The Roadmaster was the touring version with a range of optional extras: two stands, steering damper, double ‘Chum-Me’ saddle, twin spotlights, windscreen and saddlebags. Alternatively, purchasers could choose the mid-range Sportsman or the base-level Clubman.
Around 40 horsepower was transferred via a four-row primary chain, which lived in an oil bath, to the foot-operated multi-plate wet clutch. Depending on its state of tune, a Chief from this era with hot cams and matched exhausts could see 100mph. In touring trim, running around 6:1 compression, the 82.5mm by 113mm motor could haul the bike’s 560lb mass up to 85mph or thereabouts.
Gears were changed by hand; the Chief used three ratios as standard with reverse as an optional extra. Customers could choose whether to have the throttle and gearshift located on either left or right. Whichever twistgrip wasn’t connected to the carb would operate the advance / retard function of the car-type distributor. The Linkert carb was fairly primitive by the standards of the time; the throttle needed to be manually closed, and they were linked by a solid wire, not even a cable.
Fluids were stored in the huge, swooping fuel tank, which employs a three-in-one arrangement; two petrol tanks and an oil reservoir, with three fillers to match. It doesn’t pay to get them confused, obviously!
In the first year of production after WW2, Indian assembled just 2800 Chiefs. To put that number into perspective, it’s useful to know that in the same year 9064 motorcycles were imported into the USA and sold; 8596 of those imports came from the UK. ‘Many old established dealers were now becoming alarmed at the almost dramatic appearance of British and continental machines on the heretofore static domestic marketplace,’ observed Indian expert Harry V Sucher.
For 1947, Indian upped their game and manufactured 11,850 bikes, but output fell back to 3500 units in 1948. The Chief was far from cheap at $1295; the company’s increasingly precarious financial position meant their retail prices soared in a couple of years. Despite the problems at board level, however, they kept fine-tuning and tweaking the Chief’s specification. Updates included the iconic Indian-head mudguard mascot and a change to slimmer tyres on bigger rims. The swap from 16-inch to 18-inch wheels probably sharpened the Chief’s steering, but the earlier balloon tyres gave a more luxurious ride on bad roads.
For 1948, Indian made a range of detail improvements to their 74-inch, 42-degree sidevalve V-twin. A new ‘Hydra Feed’ geardriven oil pump was touted as ‘the biggest forward step in engine lubrication since Indian’s dry-sump oiling was introduced.’ A series of five operating gears ‘insures
instant priming under extreme temperature variations, and a controlled, positive force of oil at all bearings in proportion to engine speeds.’
The Chief’s frame was also modified, a voltage regulator added, the speedo drive moved from the back to the front wheel and the sidestand (sorry ‘Jiffy Stand’) was improved. Even so, it struggled to maintain market share – because when the pound was devalued, BSA and Triumph motorcycles gave a lot more bang for a lot less buck…
Pressure to further modernise the Indian V-twin led the company to experiment with Vincent engines while they refined their lightweight range, but they struggled to make an impression against cut-price overseas competition and production stopstarted until Indian went out of business in 1953. So Robbie and Gillian’s 1948 Roadmaster is a rare beast indeed – and getting to grips with a vintage Indian isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Just starting and setting off aboard an old Indian like the Roadmaster is no easy accomplishment – as Gillian explained. ‘Starting has been a huge learning curve as there are set procedures. First: ignition off, full choke, full throttle, two big kicks, Second: choke back up to top then down one notch, slight throttle, no advance, ignition on, then KICK. Bike SHOULD start. Bike upright, open oil cap to make sure it’s pumping oil, warm up, choke lever to top once warmed up, bike stand up, left side foot clutch down, right hand gear shift lever forward into first gear, right hand throttle advance, gradually turn the left hand throttle while releasing left side foot clutch.
‘If you don’t stuff it up and stall it, away you go!’
Next, of course, you have to change gear ratios while… actually… moving. Again, this takes some practice to get perfect.
‘ There are three gears. While changing gears, depress the left side foot clutch, slowly pull the right gear shift lever into second, the slowly release the left side foot clutch back up. Gear changes should be done slowly and smoothly…’
Once they’re on the move, Gillian reckons that the Indians offer a surprisingly sophisticated ride. ‘ They handle very well. The sprung seat and rear suspension make it a smooth ride through the bumps,’ she said, and the steering benefits from correct adjustment of the steering damper. ‘As with all old bikes, braking is a bit steady but still very good. There’s no lag with the long brake connecting rods.
‘ The 1200 Roadmaster is a heavy old bike, and they made them to last in those days, with a consequently heavy frame and components. Low-speed manoeuvring can be quite difficult,’ as you might expect on a machine with a 61-inch wheelbase, ‘but the big engine produces quite a bit of horsepower. Our other vintage Indian is a 600; altogether a smaller bike and very easy to manoeuvre.’
The Scout may well be a more nimble ride, but it’s the Roadmaster which gets all the attention. ‘Everybody oohs and aahs about it,’ explained Gillian, ‘from grannies to butch bikers to Joe Blow. The blue colour pulls them in and then, when they realise it’s an Indian – sometimes it’s hard to get back on the road after a stop with all the attention!
‘It really has the wow factor, on top of decent power, reliability and handling. Plus it makes quite a bit of noise when you fire it up, and settles down to that nice throaty sound that all V-twins have.’
Robbie also rated the Roadmaster’s build quality and the standard of workmanship, ‘especially considering the manufacturing processes they had available back in the 1940s.’
After their epic adventure, travelling halfway around the world, finding the Roadmaster, rebuilding it and then learning how to ride it; not to mention spending a considerable five-figure sum on the machine itself and its restoration… after all that, did Robbie think it was all worthwhile?
‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘I’d do it all exactly the same.’
Above: The 1212cc sidevalve engine typically output 40bhp at 4700rpm in its top-of-the-range Roadmaster state of tune, giving the machine a top speed of 85mph Right: Beauty in blue. No doubt there will be some folk who will dislike this, but the whole of RCHQ is a bit in awe!
Right: The drive to the dynamo is also on the left of the engine, and the generator itself is also a minor thing of wonder
Left: A branded battery, no less. Some manufacturers retain this tradition to this day
Above: Commendably compact primary drive works well, while any rider familiar with heel’n’toe shifts will need reminding that this pedal is for the clutch
Left: When this Roadmaster was built in 1948, Indian’s only real rival had just introduced their new Panhead engine with hydraulically adjusted overhead valves. The Indian Chief had to make do with its flathead (sidevalve) arrangement
Right: Lots to look at and lots to do. Life is never dull with an Indian
Above: The sprung saddle positioned the rider 31.5 inches above ground level; unusually high for a bike of this era
Carburetion was by the 1¼” Linkert M344. Sadly, you can’t see it because it’s shy and is hiding behind its air filter
This exhaust will sound seriously sweet, at a guess. Observe the rear brake linkage: it’s a pedal and a pair of rods, not a cable in sight
The final drive chain is almost fully enclosed beneath all that bodywork Above: Detail…Left: SLS drums front and rear provided ‘reliable’ braking back in the day. But 550lb of motorcycle (plus rider) isn’t going to stop in a hurry. Those girder forks must be stronger than they look, too