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Irish Motorcycle racer Charles B. Franklin, designer of the Indian Scout & Chief
by Harry V Sucher, Tim Pickering, Liam Diamond, Harry Havelin
Most of us have a vague idea that someone named Charles Franklin was part of the TT winning Indian team in 1911, came to the Wigwam from Ireland, and designed the first Indian Scout. We also, sort of, know that the Scout grew into the Chief shortly after, and that the basic architecture of the engines didn't really change much after that. If you squint a bit, it is easy to see the 1920 Scout in a 1953 Chief.
What is not really common knowledge, though, is just how technically interesting that first design truly was, the context of what was happening in the rest if the industry at the time, and just who Franklin actually was and how he earned the insight and experience to do what he did.
From the earliest times of motorcycling (and motorcycle racing), Franklin was one of the most active riders in Ireland. The first part of the book is a fantastic piece of research to put together the picture of those early years, and to give us a good idea of who Charles B Franklin, the man, motorcycle racer and engineer, really was.
The book is also a fascinating look into early racing in Ireland and beyond - Brooklands etc, as well as early US racing, and the development of the fabulous OHV racing engines - and into the technical and business practices at the time, giving us a clear perspective on the development of our Indians. It isn't all background and history, even if there is a ton of great photos and stories not seen in print before (to many, the book will be well worth getting just for this alone). To the delight of all gearheads, there is also a strong technical discussion of exactly what the Scout was, how it came to be so, and what the altenatives at the time would have been.
To read this book - and compare it to how it feels to actually ride an Indian today - bores a tunnel back through time and puts us directly in touch with Franklin and his people at the Wigwam.
Knowing why our Indians are built the way they are, and getting to know the man who laid out the design, sort of adds an extra dimension to the experience of riding an Indian now. For that experience - maybe particularly for those who haven't ridden their Indian in a while and may have forgotten a little just how magical these bikes are, and for those thinking about getting one - read the afterword from the book below.
If you can only have two Indian books in your library, make it The Iron Redskin and this one.
On the Panther
Publishing website you can read a very detailed review by Jerry Hatfield,
see a list of the contents of the book - and buy it!
- Why Any Of This Still Matters
The roar of the exhaust takes on an added crackle as you roll the left-hand throttle further. With this extra surge of power you quickly close the gap. Swinging out into the opposite lane of the rural black-top, a Toyota family saloon bumbling along at a mere 70 mph is easily conquered and left bobbing in the wake of this impressively large motorcycle. Mercifully, at 70-plus the main noise you experience is the rush of wind past your aviator goggles and open-face helmet. The full force of this big vee’s thunder is concentrated in a zone about ten feet behind the elegant snail-shell rear fender.
A rolling countryside of vineyards, orchards and sun-browned paddocks streams past as this machine hastens you on toward the eucalypt-covered ranges in the distance. This is Melbourne’s Yarra Valley, and today’s goal is Black Spur followed by a large English breakfast near the Maroondah Reservoir. The sun is high enough in the sky now to have dispersed both the morning mist and the leaping kangaroos that pose a routine riding hazard for any dawn start in rural Victoria.
Beyond the broad, shapely tear-drop gas tanks, a sweeping set of chromed cow-horn handlebars curve back to put the grips comfortably at hand. Flat foot-boards allow you to shuffle your legs back and get some of your weight onto the balls of your feet, putting you into a slight cafe-racer crouch. This bike had been such a ‘bus to manhandle back at the car-park rendezvous, but on the open road it’s in its element. With a sprung pan-saddle to ease you gently over the road shocks, and two inches of rear suspension movement to take the sting out of the more serious bumps, you feel supremely comfortable. To Sydney and back? Twelve-hundred-mile round-trip? Not a problem. Balanced against a cushion of wind that takes all strain off your arms, you feel ready to carry on riding forever. At 70 mph the engine is only just getting into its stride.
This is a 1953 Blackhawk Chief, the last of the line. Nothing made after that date is a real Indian. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. This is the last Indian to retain design elements bestowed by the model’s creator Charles Franklin in 1922. There’s even a few component parts still the very same as those of a first-year ’22 Chief!
You had given a head start to the older
and smaller Indian models in the Club, because
The road is climbing steadily now as the foot-hills are approached. This is where a big lazy motor really comes into its own. There’s a ’36 Sport Scout in front of you, doing well on the flatter sections because those Forty-five motors are rev-happy and can really be spun up when the occasion demands. On the steeper inclines you can see its rider having to reach for second gear and rev it out, yet even so it’s now holding up traffic. Scouts have the advantage around town and in tighter going, because they are more chuckable and much better braked. You’d swapped bikes with a club-mate and tried one earlier that day, so you can now appreciate a Sport Scout’s good points. It was infinitely more user-friendly and manageable in terms of ease of starting and low-speed handling. But it felt sooo gutless after stepping off the Blackhawk.
This particular Chief boasts a full 80 cubic inches, with Bonneville cams and some fairing of ports and carburettor internals. With an engine bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, in higher tune and propelling a lot less weight, you just know that having enough power on tap will simply not be an issue. When you crank that throttle grip, the bike gathers up its skirts and responds eagerly. It simply does not slow down for hills. You romp up them effortlessly, the same as if you were on the flat.
This abundance of power comes in handy right about now, as you become surrounded by the lush greens and browns of virgin eucalypt forest in the Yarra National Park. The road is winding upwards through the woods in a series of loops and hairpin bends. Such a thrill to wind the throttle on and power out of every bend, feeling the bike leap forward. It is surprisingly manoeuvrable and your stance is almost racer-like as you straighten out these twisties. It’s the pre-entry braking that needs care, for either brake used by itself provokes an involuntary ‘Oh my God!’, while both used together are barely adequate. You find it best to get your speed correct before you go in, because applying the front brake half-way round makes the bike want to sit up straight and then you run wide. Still, you are pleasantly surprised at how well the Blackhawk can be flung around through a series of tight bends. It almost feels ‘modern’.
The road levels out to a saddle atop the range, and in the lay-by you see a cluster of bright primary colours and gold pin-striping gleaming in the sun. The Club marshalls direct you to turn and go back down off the Spur to the picnic ground. Downhill now, and the engine barely ticks over as you coast to the day’s final destination. You’re riding one of the fastest machines in the Club, so are not surprised to be one of the first arrivals in the car park by the barbecue area. Rolling to a stop, you let the engine keep on running for half a minute before shutting off. You just love the ‘potato-potato-potato’ of that deep-sounding engine at idle. You suddenly feel that Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is not so clichéd after all.
There’s a group of modern Harleys already present, and their owners remain poker-faced about the steady stream of scarlet-and-gold now pulling in. It’s interesting to observe the studied indifference feigned by some modern-Harley riders when an example of the only motorcycle brand on the planet way cooler than their own suddenly shows up. But hey, the age-old rivalry is all in good fun these days. Owners of equivalent-age antique Harleys are generally welcome at Indian Club runs, so long as they remember their station in life and keep well to the rear of the pack.
|A few snapshots from the book.|
|The bikes are all parked, saddle-bags are opened, and next thing there is bacon, eggs, sausages and all the trimmings coming off the barbecues, with hot coffee to wash it down. That kookaburra perched on a nearby branch may look cute, but they practice on lizards so you keep one careful eye upon it and the other on the fork-load of bacon you’re now raising to your lips. There’s good natured banter amongst this group of people, who’ve known each other since the days when Indians could still be found in derelict barns and purchased for $50. A committee of advisors has formed around one machine as it undergoes some running repairs. Your own gaze keeps straying to the rolling sculpture that has brought you this far today in such effortless speed, comfort and style.||
time to go. The sun is high in the sky now, and the first car - and bus-loads
of day-tripping Melbourne suburbanites are arriving. Soon this picnic area
will be awash with nosey rug-rats. You approach the Blackhawk with a determined
look in your eye, because getting it started again requires an element
of willpower as well as technique. Nowadays one can always kit it out with
an electric starter, as pioneered by Indian in 1914. Your own view is that
mastering the starting drill is all part of this bike’s mystique. It’s
still quite warm so won’t need any choke, but these are thirsty motors
that always want a lot of throttle when starting. Kicking it over while
standing astride is not at all ergonomic, owing to the over-hang of generous
cylinder finning around the exhaust valve area. Better to leave it leaned-over
on its side-stand, get alongside it, then rear up and give it a long swinging
kick with plenty of follow-through. To make things worse, now those Harley
guys are watching.
It’s all cool though, because the second kick does the trick and you roll back the throttle and ignition advance grips until the power strokes can almost be counted over the din of clattery valve gear. At a slow idle the hand-change lever can be used to surprise it into first gear with just the normal amount of ‘crunch’. Give it more advance for a faster idle, and you’re ready for the off. The engine note scarcely alters as your left foot rocks the clutch up to the friction point and the bike lurches into motion. There’s fifty miles of open country roads ahead of you before you again strike Melbourne’s northern suburbs. You know you’re going to enjoy every single minute of it.
There are other classic bikes that make similar power and maintain similar cruising speeds, often from half of the engine displacement and one-tenth the current purchase price of an Indian Chief. A Triumph Bonneville is a case in point.
You don’t care. That case in point is beside
the point. It’s not what it does. It’s how it does it. This Chief is just
such a pleasure to ride. It spoils you for riding any other type of motorcycle.
When all else has been said and done, it’s the fun of riding-days like
this that most brings us to say:-
More reading here
Jerry Hatfield reviews the Franklin book.
Jerry Hatfield is the
author of several great Indian books, among them: