have always wanted a 1941 Chief, the first year with leaf spring fork,
skirted fenders and 16” wheels.
I probably wanted it even before I knew I wanted it. Long before American v-twins entered my life, I bought myself a Danish Nimbus straight four (because old hardtails just rule). Not long after, my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Pip gave me Jerry Hatfield’s "Indian Motorcycle Buyer’s Guide", where the picture of a ’41 Chief was the one I kept going back to, again and again.
Until a few years
ago Indians were somewhat distant, elusive, even mythical creatures to
me. You didn’t see them at rallies, much less on the street, unlike old
Harleys, some of which I had acquired by then. Eventually Mads Johnsen
- builder of the Alma
Four - put me in touch with Moen, who has his Indian parts business close
to where I live in Copenhagen, Denmark. That helped demystify the brand
a little. At some point thereafter, the idea of owning an Indian must have
lodged in the back of my head, so I started gathering whatever info I could.
Are the skirted leaf spring models the best looking Chiefs of all? Here is one from this year's International Rally in France.
Link to video of a 341 in Japan here.
to 2006, and I was on my way to California, Pip by my side. Just on vacation,
but figuring I might as well check out some Indians while I was there,
a few phone numbers and addresses were brought along, helpfully provided
by Moen. Donde, a member of our Killerbobbers club/workshop, had been there
not so long before, and had managed to talk his way into Otis Chandler’s
otherwise closed motorcycle museum
near Oxnard. So that was where we were heading now, my main aim being to
finally see a real, live Crocker.
In Oxnard we stopped at the Top Dead Center motorcycle shop, to ask for directions. There we met John Parker, who offered to show us the way to the museum. Which, by the way, was still closed, but while standing there and talking, I mentioned my Knucklehead (JP lifted one eyebrow), and later that I also was on the lookout for an Indian (another eyebrow went up). To make a long story short, we ended up at John and his wife Jenny’s place for lunch. Both are super cool people, very nice and helpful. Jenny also owns the renowned Trophy Queen shop - lots of cool Christmas presents for your wife or girlfriend (or both!) here.
While talking bikes I said I was going to see RedFred, prompting John to have me take along a picture for him, and not say it was from John. It showed RedFred’s Indian with a rubber chicken stuffed up under his bike’s rear fender – apparently somebody thought he was a pansy for not drag racing his bike at a previous meet.
A week later, in
San Fransisco, we met RedFred. At the time we knew little of his standing
in the Indian motorcycle community, but I just thought the man was as friendly
and cool as John and Jenny Parker had been. Saw his collection of motorcycle
stuff, too. Of course I asked if he might have a ’41 Chief lying around,
that he didn’t care for, to which he replied, “No. I’m a buyer, not a seller”.
Guess I had to look elsewhere.
1941 Chief at Bob's place. All there and with great patina.
it turned out that RedFred knew another man, Bob, who apparently had a
bunch of Indians at his place not too far away. At RedFred’s suggestion
we met up the next day, and went to see Bob, whose collection consisted
of seemingly every model ever produced at the The Wigwam. They were all
painted the exact same shade of red.
Knowing that I now
was becoming serious about getting a ’41 Chief, RedFred had already warned
me that nothing at Bob’s was for sale. But just in case he might want to
sell something after all, Bob would mention a price to which I could say
yes or no. Bob doesn’t believe in haggling, and if I ignored that fact
and tried anyway, we’d be out on the street in no time.
Allan on the motorcycle of his dreams.
Fits just fine!
Bob’s place I looked long and hard at all the stuff and, still in the process
of learning, picked the man’s brain about all things Indian. Along the
way I carefully suggested the possibility of the remote thought that I
might, just maybe, kinda want to buy an Indian, but like RedFred had said,
Bob wasn’t selling. However, after a while it seemed like he was giving
in a little bit, and a tarp got pulled off a ’47 or ’48 Chief basket case.
I said it looked fine, but I really was interested only in the spring fork
one with skirts.
Tarp went on the bike again, and I was back to square one.
"So why [the …] only a ’41, and what did I know about Indians anyway?", Bob inquired. Well, I’ve been riding since I was seventeen, and learned early on that I might as well go for what I’m going to end up with anyway, without all the detours. That’s what put me on my Knucklehead, after brief stints on the Nimbus and some other big twins. A few more hours went by, and eventually another tarp got pulled, revealing a ’41 Chief. It was scruffy, just the way I like them best, and it had all the right parts.
Bob called his price, I said ok, we shook hands and the deal was done. Simple as that. As mentioned above, I hadn’t expected to actually buy anything on this trip, so of course I had no cash with me. No problem. Bob didn’t even want a deposit. “Pay me when you get home”, he said. I think he found it sort of amusing that the bike was going to Europe, but who cared at this point? I now had the motorcycle of my dreams.
First thing on the
agenda, right after dropping of the luggage at home, was to go straight
to the bank and transfer the money. The Indian then arrived two months
later, in a friend’s container along with five cars. Later the same day
Moen dropped by, and we spent a couple of hours cleaning green goo out
of the Mikuni carb, changing the oil, priming the pump, adjusting the ignition
and fitting new plugs. A few kicks and it started right up. The engine
sounded great, and the whole thing even smelled right. Bliss.
Chief still looking good in broad daylight. Proud new owner is munching a Danish (he's from Denmark after all!) building up for starting hotted-up engine at a later date.
came the usual idiot
decision of tearing the Chief apart for a rebuild. I could have run it
as it was, right then and there, but no - for some reason I just had to
get a lot more power between my legs. Nothing, least of all common sense
or my feeble finances, was going to stand in the way. So out came the wrenches,
off came the parts, and away went the engine and gearbox, down into Moen's
While Moen was doing his thing on the drivetrain, I took care of the aesthetics, quickly done with $60 worth of semi-gloss rattlecan paint, topped off with large Indian script on the tanks. Charley, my Knucklehead, was running fine, so there was no real rush getting the Chief done. A lot of work was needed on the chassis when I got deeper into it. Everything inside the wheels and brakes was renewed, forks and frame straightened, sheet metal fitted etc etc. Spending twice again the original purchase price on the rebuild had nothing to do with the speed at which things were progressing.
In due course the engine and newly rebuilt 3-speed trans returned, and Donde and I spent a few days installing everything. Then Donde looked at the list of Things To Do and said; “Ah, I think we’re done”. Me: “What!?!”. “We’re done. Everything is ready”. We looked at each other. Well, I guess this had to happen at some point.
Ignition on, and with three twists on the right hand throttle (pumper carb) and - seeing that the compression was now a lot higher than stock and everything tight in the new engine - all of my not inconsiderable girth on the kickstarter, Big Chief Frothing Madness fired up with an otherworldly, beautiful roar, a noise so insane that we both jumped away from the bike and started laughing hysterically.
Apart from the fact that the kickstart arms and pedals keep self-destructing (three of each, but with the engine loosened up and all-new parts in the kicker department it should be the last), there has been no mechanical trouble at all. Still can’t catch the crotch rockets, but the Chief feels fast enough for me. It isn't by accident that it goes pretty good, though. It is now 80” with Truett & Osborn stroker flywheels, new H-profile rods, coated forged Ross pistons, Bonneville cams and followers, IPE electronic ignition in stock distributor and a 38 mm Dell’Orto carb. And the engine has been put together right, which is at least as important as the list of parts.
The Chief is perfect. Everything I wanted and more. Looks stock and almost is, but with this twisted Dr. Jekyll side, that commands respect even from the owner.
Allan has really made the Chief his own. With strong running engine, and everything fixed, adjusted, lubed and fettled, the Chief now works as good as it looks.