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Christmas 2006 - Original Chief
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Unrestored 1925 Big Chief
By Tim Pickering
I love unrestored old motorcycles.  Even when they look like this.  Especially when they look like this. 

Partly it’s because onlookers can have difficulty believing they are seeing an eighty-year-old motorcycle if it’s bright-red and shiny and as brilliant as a new pin.  Whereas this one really does look eighty-years-old – they need no convincing.

And partly it’s because I am terminally incapable of keeping any bright, shiny motorcycle bright and shiny for very long.  I like using them, and hate polishing them.  If I was ever to own any revered antique machine, it’s gotta look like this one.

Long-time VI readers will doubtless recall that I primarily like chopper and bobber Chiefs, and have been documenting efforts to create my very own FrankenChief in the VI Chopper Column.  Well, that project is still inching its way forward as a purist bobber concept with no compromises whatsoever, despite my closest friends (both of them) urging me to give up and just buy a stock repro frame for my ’44 Chief engine before I finally get too old to ever kickstart the damn thing.  Problem is, my career has now moved from having more free-time than money to having more money than free-time, if you know what I mean.  While I refuse to give up on the FrankenChief, I also want something that actually runs!

So, being in this situation of having a bit of loose cash (but not much free time), I decided to shop around for something nice, and already restored, and already a ride-away proposition, located in either Australia or New Zealand.  It would be a way of parking some money offshore from Fiji (where I live) in a dry climate where it won’t deteriorate, and I can go and ride it during my holidays.  I had it in mind to spend up to US$3K on a nice pre-war English single like an Ariel Red Hunter or Norton ES2.  The kind of thing that will effortlessly waft you along at a steady 55mph, all at peace with the world, with a rhythm as constant and reassuring as a mother’s heartbeat.  I started surfing classic-dealer websites, and eBay, and put the word out to friends (both of them) that I was looking for something “pre-war and interesting”.  I was not thinking “Indian” at that point, as my planned budget would not have been enough even for a 741 with the prices they fetch these days. 

Then came the fateful moment: I emailed Jim Parker with the same request – did he know of anything “pre-war and interesting”?  Barely half an hour after reading my email, he began opening that day’s snail-mail.  Out fell a grainy snapshot of a 1925 Big Chief, and a hand-written note from a bloke up in Queensland saying “Pliz find me a buyer for this”.


He was quite right.  It was my density … I mean, destiny.  In the words of some obscure playwright, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood …” etc, etc.  Or so I justified in my mind the sudden scraping together of a lot more than US$3K.

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Fabulous 80 year old Indian!

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About 25% original paint remains

Click to visit Tim's Franklin site
Charles B Franklin, Genius

Why should a 1925 Chief excite me, particularly?  After all, my own mental cut-off point for ride-ability in an old motorcycle had always been around about 1934, by which time re-circulating oiling, brakes both front and back, positive-stop gearshifts and drop-centre wheel rims had all come into vogue.  Was I going to actually ride this thing, or just spend my time looking at it?

Fortunately, I’ve ridden ‘20s Chiefs before.  Both Firedog in New Zealand and Jim Parker himself have previously been kind enough to let me loose on their respective ’28 Chiefs, so I already knew that these devices can go extremely well indeed.  Mind you, by 1928 the Indian factory was fitting them with front brakes as standard …

The clincher for me is that the helical-primary Chiefs and Scouts are simply such iconic motorcycles.  They are real landmarks in design.  H-D tried to ignore their existence for ten full years, but finally capitulated by dropping their fragile i.o.e. J-model range to release the copycat-Chief s.v. VL model.  Indian’s designer Charles B Franklin was a bloody genius.  I won’t labour this point any further, other than to direct you to for more explanation.  Suffice it to say that the flat-tank Scouts and Chiefs are the physical embodiment of his genius.

Come January 2006 and there I was in Melbourne, Australia, at the premises of the Last Indian Shop West of L.A.  The bike had been shipped down to Jim Parker from Queensland, and I had come laden with cash.  The grainy photos simply hadn’t done it justice.  It had about a 25% cover of jen-yoo-wine Springfield paint, and the rest was all “patina”.  Oozing oil from every orifice.  A bare-bones motorcycle.  High, wide, and very handsome.

The bike’s history: - it’s an original sold-in-Australia export model, discovered in dismantled condition in a motorcycle breakers yard in Queensland during the 1970s.  All of the parts appeared to belong to the same motorcycle and the bike was re-assembled as such, however its fuel tank was rusted beyond repair so the tank presently fitted is one from another machine.  The engine got treated to military Chief valves and alloy pistons.  The bike was used occasionally on rallies over the last thirty years before going to the present owner, who hoarded it but recently found himself having to sell off some bikes for personal reasons.

Jim first made me swear that I would always leave it as an “unrestored” machine.  “Mate, I can do everything on these bikes except factory paint”.  Then the bike got checked over by Parker staffer Adrian to make sure it all worked as it should.  For example, he installed a hand-lever for the brake (export models had both hand and foot levers, operating separate shoes on the rear wheel). 

Adrian was not completely satisfied with the oiling.  Using a bent wire dip-stick to check the level through the crankcase level plug, followed by more oil-pump adjustment and another 10-minute run down the road and back, he established that the pump on its highest setting was getting oil to about 1/8in. of the level hole but not right up to it.  Our goal was for me to take it for a “shake-down ride” on the annual IMCA Breakfast Run to Black Spur in the Yarra National Park.  Adrian advised using the hand plunger every 2-3 miles, until the exhaust went slightly blue.

On the day of the Breakfast Run, I rendezvoused at Jim’s house for a 6.00am start.  We pushed my ’25 and his own unrestored ’28 off the trailer, and did downhill rolling starts so’s to annoy neighbours other than his own.  By pre-arrangement there were two other Indian riders (military Chief, and ’36 Sport Scout) waiting for us at the bottom of the hill, to ride with us past farms and vineyards to the starting point of the Run.  It was chilly, and mist hung everywhere, and we had to watch out for early morning kangaroos.  These often leap across the road at that hour, on their daily commute back into the hills from nocturnal grazing in Melbourne city’s outer ‘burbs. 

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Tim trying out Chief

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Feeling good

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In all its unrestored glory!

I faithfully did the hand plunger thing, pulling it out and pushing it straight back in again.  The plunger seemed to suck itself back in of its own accord, and I can’t say the exhaust really went blue at all.  Still, the engine was roaring away and pulling strongly.  I was having a ball.  Riding these suckers is like sitting astride a fast-moving farm gate.  The handlebars are long, like a wheel-barrow, and the bike stretches out for what seems like miles in front of you.  But so slim!  Scarcely wider than a bicycle.  I was enjoying myself immensely. 

Until the front exhaust header pipe fell off.

The header pipe nut had unscrewed itself, and the whole system was dangling by the rear header.  Luckily one of our companions had a wrench that suited, and I could do it up again.  But it kept vibrating loose and falling off at ten-mile intervals for the remainder of the Run.  After a while I figured out that I should stop as soon as I could see the nut dancing around a bit, and pull over to tighten it before it fell off completely.  Holding hot metal in position to thread a nut up again is something to be avoided, if possible.

At the Run rendevous, everybody was a-buzz about this latest old Indian to appear out of the woodwork.  Most everybody in the Indian Motorcycle Club of Australia knows who owns what, and precisely where all the known Indians are located.  So the appearance of my old crock, riding alongside Jim on his equally un-restored and decrepit ’28 Chief, took everyone by surprise.  “Mate!” I heard other club members say to Jim, “Why didn’t you tell us about this bike!  I’d have bought it in an instant!”  I thought again about destiny, tides, etc, etc.

The object of the IMCA Breakfast Run is to ride out to a twisty canyon road up through virgin eucalypt forest to a place called Black Spur, then come back down to a campground where gas-fired barbecues stood ready to cook up a colossal “English” breakfast.  All went well with my Chief on the flat bits, but at the canyon itself I felt power dwindling as the ascent got steeper, and all others in the Club roared past me.  Power got less and less, and I decided that all was not right, so brought the plot to a stop.  The engine died immediately, and I felt a wall of heat rise up and hit me from the engine department.  Yep, the pistons were nipping up.

I turned around and coasted back downhill, free-wheeling about five miles until the road gradient finally went against me.  Then I sat, and listened to cicadas chirping in the eucalypts, and watched the Sunday boy-racers whistle past on their Made-in-Japan crotch rockets, until finally … yes!  A distant sound of fast-approaching wheat combine-harvesters!  With that much valve-gear clatter, it could only be a bunch of Indians!  Sure enough, the Club was finally breakfast bound, and Jim pulled over to nurse me along.  “Start it up” he advised, “and take it slow, these things can tolerate the occasional bind-up.”  So I did.

One big breakfast and oiling-system post-mortem later, I found out that I had been doing the hand plunger thing all wrong.  One is supposed to pull the plunger out, wait the length of time it takes to light up a cigar, then firmly push the plunger back in.  If you do that, then you really feel the plunger “bite” on the oil.  I had been pulling the plunger out and immediately pushing it straight back in, without waiting long enough for the pump chamber to draw up oil.  The cold morning had made the oil a lot thicker, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Lots of eggs, bacon, fried tomatoes, toast, orange juice, hot coffee and dodgy yarns later, the usual Sunday busloads of picnicking Melbournites were now arriving so we cleared out of there.  The sun was now high in the sky, the mist had all burned away, and Melbourne was well on the way to another 40-degrees-Celsius summer day.  It was 50 miles back to Jim’s place, but I now knew how to do hand plungers properly, so we steamed along at a steady 60mph with me happily plungering away and making this thing smoke like a bastard.

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Jim Parker (left) and his '28 with IMCA Club Captain Connor Murphy

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Assembly point at the start of the annual IMCA Breakfast Run

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Tim (left) with '25 Chief and Jim Parker with '28 version at the Breakfast Run (just before Tim cooks his Chief on the ascent!)

Click for more info on the IMCA
Click for more info on the IMCA


I got to ride the bike several more times around the vicinity of Jim’s shop, before having to get back on the plane to Fiji again.  Everywhere I went, it attracted attention.  Gas station managers would say “Wait here, don’t move!  I’m gonna call over my apprentice, and show him what a real motorcycle looks like!” 

The handling does take a little getting used to, but it wasn’t long before I was flicking it left and right around the roundabouts like a real pro.  And for any readers out there unaccustomed to Indian controls, let me say right now that left-hand throttle, foot-clutch and hand-shift on a motorcycle doesn’t faze me in the least.  One simply forgets that this is a motorcycle, and lets car instincts take over. All manual-shift car drivers are accustomed to using their left foot for a clutch, their right foot for a brake, and one hand for shifting gear.  And don’t worry about having to remember in the heat of the moment that the throttle is on the left because, to increase speed, one simply rolls both wrists inward - the other (right-hand) twist-grip is for the ignition advance. 

The main worry on this bike is the feeble brake (singular), with its one internal expanding shoe and one external contracting band, both operating on the rear hub.  To reduce speed, it’s as though you need to apply in writing to the Brake Department.  Changing down to second and using engine braking is more effective.  Can anything be done about this?  With decent brakes, city riding would not be completely out of the question with this machine.  It certainly has enough power.

Do I like it?  Yep.  Worth every last penny.  Which is more-or-less what it took for me to buy it.  I am a happy camper.  My next goal is to take it on the upcoming IMCA Gypsy Run, a re-enactment of the 1927 Indian Club tour from Melbourne to Sydney and back along the Pacific Highway.  But I shall want the oil pump looked at first, to check it for wear.  Need to “turn up the volume” just a tad.

The bike has a few bits and pieces missing here and there.  If anyone can be of any help whatsoever (email me) I am on the lookout for the following (original parts, or quality repops.): 

battery box
ammeter box
later ‘20s type Mesinger saddle (sans seatpost) like on Jim’s ‘28
rear carrier frame
two-circuit carburettor (e.g. Schebler DLX “Deluxe” or Linkert M88).

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Brake (singular) has one internal expanding shoe and one external contracting band, both operating on the rear hub

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Missing horn. See wish list to the left


And lastly, some advice on total-loss oiling.  I managed to find (on eBay) a 1st edition of JB Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, written in 1942 when total-loss oiling had only been out of production for five or ten years, therefore still very relevant to his readership at that time.  This is the only written advice I have yet found on the subject.  If you, like me, have such a motorcycle and you’re not completely confident about its oiling, then JB’s book is worth quoting here in full 
The Mechanical Feed Constant Loss System

This was the earliest type of motorcycle engine lubrication system using a mechanical pump.  This method of lubrication was used on all Harley-Davidson models up to and including 1936 except for the 1936 61” introduced with Dry Sump oiling.  All Indian Twin models up to and including 1933.  Most British models used this system up to 1928-29, a few makes, notably AJS, used it as late as 1931.

The oil supply is kept in a separate tank, usually a gas tank compartment, oil is fed from the tank to the engine by a very slow turning mechanical pump, usually worm driven off one of the camshafts, gearing the pump down so that it runs about 1/10 or 1/20 engine speed.  Oil is delivered at a rate of about 20 or 40 drops per minute at a motor speed equal to about 20mph.

About 1/3 to ½ pint of oil only is maintained in the crankcase when the supply is correctly adjusted.  A hand pump is fitted to the tank on some models for supplementing oil supply when driving hard and for refilling crankcase to running level after draining.  The crankcase is all that requires to be drained on this type as used oil never returns to the tank.  Drain crankcase every 500 miles and refill with 1/3 to ½ pint or 3 to 4 shots from the tank hand pump where fitted.

It is not possible and also very inadvisable to try to get really economical running with the constant loss system.  For a Harley or Indian Twin the pump should be set to give an oil consumption of 600 to 1,000 miles per gallon.  A more economical setting should not be attempted unless the machine is driven with extreme care.

To test for oil pumping – There being no indicator on most models with this system, the rider may often wonder if the motor is getting oil.  The consumption rate of course, is a good check, but if there is reason to believe oiling may have stopped suddenly there are three quick ways of checking: -

1. Note the exhaust, a trace of blue smoke should be evidenced when the motor is suddenly accelerated.
2. Drain crankcase and note whether the usual amount of oil drains out.
3. Remove oil feed line from pump, stop up pipe, start motor and feed oil pump with oil can and note whether or not the oil is sucked away.

Any of these simple tests will enable the rider to quickly set his mind at rest as to whether the oil pump is working or not.

A method recommended by some factories for determining correct oil adjustment on this type is to drain crankcase, put in a determined amount, say 1/3 pint or 3 hand pumpfuls.  Run the machine 10 miles or so of representative driving, drain crankcase and note whether more oil or less oil comes out than was put in after last draining.  If much more, oil supply should be cut down, if much less supply should be increased.  Keep track of your mileage and oil consumption figures occasionally and you will easily be able to judge suitability of oil adjustment.

Copies of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics seem to be available from British Cycle Supply Company in Canada


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