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Home / Index / Bella
My Life With Bella
by Chris Ireland

It all started when I was a schoolboy I guess, because I recently found one of my doodles. I’d drawn a Chopper, but when I looked at this scribble I realized it wasn’t a Harley or Triumph. I’d drawn a flathead vee-twin, and there’s no doubt at all it was meant to be an Indian. 

Eventually I saved some money and bought my first real bike, a completely standard & original 1930’s KSS (OHC 350….very rare) Velocette, mine for £12.50. It stayed standard for less than a week, because that was the time I went to see “Easy Rider” at the cinema, a film that was to change my life. It was possibly one of the first bikes in the UK with a raked frame, to accommodate the 15” overstock forks.

I rode it into work one day and one of the blokes looked at it and said “I know where there’s an old bike if you’re interested. Of course I was! This would be @ 1969, and there were plenty of old bikes left in sheds and going for silly money, for example I bought an A7 BSA plunger for £6, and a few years later, an A10 Super Rocket for £50 (from a bike shop). 

Anyway, that weekend I went out to an old farm with my mate from work to look at this “Old Bike”. I was a little disappointed as the farmer had cut the front and rear off to make a trailer, but the engine seemed complete under all the dirt, so I bought it for £10.

When I got it back to work I pressure-washed it and to my delight the word “INDIAN” appeared, cast into the primary, so I guess I had a pre-war Scout. I decided to have a look inside, and took the heads off. Blimey, there was grease on the tops of the pistons, it had never been run. I stripped what I could off it and had the lot chromed, but after a while I lost interest in it and sold it for £45.

Now, you’ve got to remember that back then there wasn’t a lot of interest in old bikes, and I’d never even seen an Indian, apart from in the odd American magazine, so getting rid of it was no big deal. Unfortunately it’s one of the daftest things I’ve ever done. 

The next bike I bought was a Harley Davidson, but not just any, this was a 1929 “JD” with the external pushrods & rockers, plus it had some real history, its last owner was the Duke of Hamilton, the man who arrested Rudolf Hess! Not bad for £125, but time was progressing and prices were going up. 

I didn’t remain Indianless for long, and bought a pre-war Chief (in bits) for £450. By now I was running a Custom Bike shop (called Desperate Dan’s) and ended up selling it to pay the wages one week, but the lad who bought it off me spent several years restoring it, and it’s still on the road and looking beautiful.

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Schoolboy doodle.

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£12.50 Velocette.

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 £6 BSA.

<-- Click "Desperate Dan's" link for tons of interesting reading, and pictures of
fantastic custom built bikes and trikes.

One day about 20 years ago I received a ‘phone call, it was my old mate Colin. “Would you like to buy my Indian Ratbike?” he asked. I never even knew he had one, but asked him how much. £1000 - I told you prices were rising. He couldn’t have rung at a better time, because I actually had £1000! I bought it “sight unseen”, but he was 300 miles away. As luck would have it, another mate was fitting a kitchen in the same town the next week, and had a big van, so I gave him the money & Colin’s address. A few days later he pulled up outside my workshop. “Have you actually seen this bike?” he asked, as he opened the doors. “It’s the biggest pile of shit I’ve ever come across”. He wheeled her out and it was love at first sight. She was beautiful. 

You couldn’t see most of it for oil and years of neglect, a real rat, not contrived. The front forks & rear wheel were off a Matchless, but the rest was INDIAN. I turned on the petrol, switched the ignition and kicked her over. She fired first kick and sat there ticking over, then I noticed the rear plug lead was hanging off! Her registration was BEL 365A, so from that day she’s been called “BELLA”.

“There’s a load of crap in boxes in the van” said my mate. Colin never told me there were any spares, so that was a bonus, and we unloaded them and put them in a corner, where they sat for nearly 3 years, until one day I decided to clear out the place. I decided to go through the boxes and couldn’t believe what was there. Three more engines & gearboxes in bits, frames, and boxes of new parts in Indian wrapping.

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Bella in all her glory.
I rode her as she was for a few years, the only addition being a pair of 18” apehangers on 6” risers, and a conversion to 12 volts using a Citroen 2CV alternator, until one day I bought a set of original Harley ’45 springers, complete with front wheel, fully chromed and extended 12”, for the bargain price of £125, and they were fitted along with a drastic frame rake, the very same day, and that’s how she would stay for many years to come. My only regret was that I pressure washed the engine and back wheel, because it took about 10 years to get it back to how it was.

I had some excellent adventures on “Bella”, she took me all over the UK, regularly breaking down, but always getting me home. One of my most memorable rides was to a party in Wales, a round trip of nearly 600 miles in a weekend. So memorable that I wrote my first ever story, for “Back Street Heroes” magazine. Whilst recounting my tale to Colin, he wasn’t remotely surprised, and told me a few of his stories, like how no-one would ride behind him because they got covered in oil, and how, on a trip to Belgium, she packed in and he simply pushed her into a ditch and jumped on the back of his mate’s bike, returning with a van a few days later. It was still in the ditch! No-one would ride behind me either, and I always took the vast consumption of oil for granted until I realized there should be a cover over the dynamo chain.

I’d owned “Bella” for about 3-4 years when another addition to my stable appeared in 1993… a little girl, my 5th child. Something told me to give her an Indian-ish name, and I decided to call her Geronimo, but my better half put her foot down big-time. As my surname is Ireland, we called her “Erin” which, as it happens, is Gaelic for Ireland, but I managed to get my name, and Erin Hendee Ireland, who is now nearly 18, loves her name.

Here’s a sad bit. One night I went to a party on the old girl, and feeling the worse for wear next morning, I jumped on without checking the oil. It seized, and was wheeled into a corner of the workshop to be forgotten for several years. This would be mid nineties. Around that time I relocated my business to a large three story building with living accommodation on the top floor, and I thought it would be nice to have the Indian in the living room, so we borrowed a large forklift and put it on a pallet. Just as we got the front wheel through the window, the pallet snapped, and a couple of the lads managed to hold her, dangling 30ft in the air. Luckily there was a large cast iron radiator under the window, so we tied her to that while we decided how to get her inside.

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Show winner!

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Hanging on!

Things were going great. I had decided to specialize in building V8 trikes, when one day I was involved in a freak accident which resulted in my badly burning my legs & hands (petrol). Even though I was off work for 6 months, the workshop purred away as I had five people working for me, but it must have affected my mind, as in 1999 I had a nervous breakdown and shut the business down, with seven almost finished V8’s in the workshop, and a waiting list of 2½ years. I had just bought a house but it had no workshop, so the Indian and the JD Harley were parked in a chicken shed on an old farm. All I brought with me was my toolbox, as I was too ill to worry about emptying the workshop, but that problem was solved when thieves raided the place (they had a lorry with a Hiab) and took everything I had accumulated over the 20 years I was in business. The workshop had a fully equipped machine shop and metalwork shop complete with a 12ft wide 6-head profile burner. They took the lot, but I was too poorly to be bothered. What people don’t realise, is that a nervous breakdown totally incapacitates you. I sat in front of the telly for 18 months, not daring to go outside, answer the phone or a knock on the door.

Time heals, and I recovered, and the Indian helped. I sold the Harley and built a small shed at the side of my house, and Bella came home. The first job was to get her running again, and I joined the Indian Riders Club to get help and advice, and met Robin Oakley at RTO Engineering. Robin rebored the barrels to take Royal Enfield pistons, and fitted huge valves, as well as doing a bit of gas flowing. He did a nice job, I was pleased, and started a full stripdown and rebuild in Olive Drab. What excellent therapy, sitting in my little shed tinkering with the bike and listening to the waves (my place is right on the edge of the cliffs). I decided it was time I sorted myself out, and bought tickets to the Indian Owners Rally

This was a big step to my recovery, as it would be my first trip back into the real world, but I couldn’t go on my own, I daren’t, so I took Erin Hendee with me in the van, with the Indian in the back. It was great, I met Mads and Moen there, and Erin got a ride in an Indian sidecar. Bella had become a part of my life.

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Bella after her first rebuild.

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Before being reborn as a trike, Bella had a spell as an Asian-inspired lowrider!

Slowly my little shed started to grow until it’s now 40ft long (built from wood scavenged from old holiday chalets) and once again I have a decent workshop with lathe, a good welder and all the essentials to be self sufficient, and the urge to build something was pretty strong. 

The Indian was stripped down again and re-surfaced as a lowrider, complete with a 10” car wheel in the back, but it wasn’t really rideable and I cut it up. 

A year later Bella rolled out of the workshop, but now she was a pretty stunning trike, funded by the sale of the original “Ratbike” rolling chassis. I even got her through the MSVA inspection. The trike was nice, but the urge to rebuild was too strong to resist (apparently I suffer from Manic Depression, and this was one hell of a manic period).

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Lowrider rear end.
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Trike details.
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Trike chassis was sold to finance the land speed racer project.

Four years ago, with a couple of mates, I started a magazine, “Brit Chopper” and through that, a suggestion was made. “Why don’t you go to Bonneville?” Poor bike, the engine was pulled from the trike, which was sold on eBay to finance the next build (I have very little income and get no Government handouts). Bella was about to be re-born, as a Bonneville Salt Flats Racer. 

This is definitely going to be the last build, and if I can manage to raise the money to actually take her to the USA, she’s going in my living room when she gets back. Looking back, I only really loved her when she was an oily, rusty Chopper. Maybe I ought to put her back to how she was?

I’ve written too much here, so I’ll do a separate feature on the new build... it’s actually done and running, with much help from Moen at IPE

Bella in land speed racing guise. 
Story to come!
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