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Christmas 2008 - 1951 Chief Project
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 A Chief Too Far
The reminiscences of a newbie
by Jeff Reynolds

When Moen first approached me to write an article for VI Magazine, my reply was, “What could I have to say to this well-seasoned community of Indian veterans? My article would have to be titled something like ‘Complete Newcomer Takes on Much Too Big of a Project, Gets Bogged Down Innumerable Times, Makes Uncountable Mistakes and Wastes a Ton of Money.’” Moen’s response was “That’s exactly what I had in mind!” (because Jeff's story highlights some of the typical problems faced by first-time Indian restorers, and maybe we could help someone avoid some of them in the future - but, besides that, it is also a great story and a fine Chief! Moen) Well, okay. Maybe there is something to be learned from my mistakes. So I am warning you right now, don’t look to this column for technical tips, innovative engineering upgrades or even a happy ending. This is a tale of woe that has yet to find redemption. I can, however, offer an opinion about what to do and not to do when seeking to acquire a vintage Indian with no prior experience. And that is all I can offer: an opinion. I’m not looking to debate the merits of my conclusions. Others will differ with me on their views, but I can only speak from my own trials and how I would do it differently if I had it to do over.

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Make-shift supports are set up to get the engine into the frame. All of this was a one-man operation.
Why an Indian?

The story began in 1997, when I got the itch to get back into motorcycling after a hiatus of over two decades. My interest had always been long-distance travelling, and my life-long fascination with old machines brought me to look at a vintage American cruiser. I was not interested in getting into the Harley scene, so an Indian became the logical conclusion. My cruising began of a different sort, on the internet trying to research and educate myself about the marque. It wasn’t long before I ran across the websites of Starklite, Jerry Greer, Kiwi, among others, and this very VI community. I looked at all the different models, weighing the merits of each. I came heartbreakingly close to acquiring a ‘38 Four for a song, but it escaped my grasp simply because I didn’t realize what a once-in-a-lifetime steal it was, and I was concerned about whether it was practical to use such a rare and valuable machine as a daily rider. My cautious nature kept me on the sidelines looking and listening until May 1999, when I finally plunked down the cash and purchased a ‘51 Chief basket case from George Haase of Placerville, CA. Soon after bringing the pile of mud-caked, nearly unidentifiable mess home, I had one of those ”what the hell have I done” moments, but I remained confident that I could handle this. It was, of course, my belief that a basket case was the least expensive way to acquire an Indian and that I could repair and rebuild it on the cheap by doing most of the work myself.

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The engine in place and anchored.
Lesson One: Paying good money doesn’t necessarily mean you got good parts.

I came home with what appeared to be most of the major components of a motorcycle, along with a list of the parts in this heap and their corresponding price if purchased separately, showing a total for the value of this project as a whole. What became painfully apparent as I tore into each section was that a fair amount of these parts were worn beyond use and beyond practical repair and that they would need to be replaced. What I had purchased as a complete set of forks, for example, had pitted and scored upper tubes, one fatigued spring, the other broken in half, as well as a majority of the smaller internal parts corroded. The engine was assembled when I received it and by reasonable assumption looked to be just in need of a rebuild. The reality was that there was not a single usable part inside. Parts such as pistons, valves, bearings and even pins could be expected to be replaced, but I had bent connecting rods, cracked hardened surfaces on valve lifters and pitted bearing surfaces on the flywheel. I would have been ignorant of these problems had I not eventually decided to take the engine to a reputable rebuilder, but that is another story in itself. A more experienced enthusiast would probably have expected as much, but I was a novice. Live and learn. It wouldn’t be the last time.

One of the first jobs I engaged was to compile a list of what was missing so I would know which parts I needed to purchase, and which I could strike off as I acquired them. Despite the fact that this was a Herculean task, it turned out to be one of the wisest things I did with this project, as it was immensely helpful in organizing the process. With the help of Jerry Greer’s invaluable parts catalog, I logged every bolt, washer and cotter pin by parts group and part number. Eventually this list grew to ten pages of 10-point, space-and-a-half type.

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The engine as I brought it home. It looks tired and worn from many years and many miles, but looks are deceiving. This engine probably never ran in this condition.
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The underside of the frame at the battery tray. Looks like it was salvaged from many years in a barnyard.
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The frame bottom rails. Note the welded plates for mounting some mongrel engine, and the cut off right footboard mount.
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Wheels were in remarkably good shape with very minimal scrapes to the rims and all but a few spokes came off without twisting or breaking. Unfortunately, it proved to be impractical to reuse the spoked and rechroming the rims was going to run $350-$500 each.
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The forks look pretty good from the outside. These were hacked ‘52-’53 forks until John Bivens did an expert repair and conversion to ‘50-’51
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The rear shocks showed a few years of neglect.


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The seat post also had plates welded to it for mounting another engine. Despite the molestation, the frame cleaned up nicely and proved to be very straight.

Lesson Two: You can’t build a Ford without a Ford factory.

I don’t imagine that it should have been a surprise to me, but if I thought I was going to rebuild an Indian in my garage with a set of screwdrivers, I was mistaken. Not that I intended to do mill work or flywheel balancing or anything to that extent, but I did hope to do as much of this project myself as I could, not only for the experience but to save money as well, and that is the part that became more and more elusive. Seems that every time I had a different task to perform, I was buying a new tool. I will admit, I’m a tool junkie and don’t do well with side-of-the-road improvisions. Having done my fair share of automotive work and home remodeling, I’ve always believed in “the right tool for the right job.”

And so it went with this project: I needed to remove the clutch sprocket nut, for example, and it’s a trip to the hardware store to pick up a $75 wrench. However, in this case, a week later I’m walking down an aisle at Harbor Freight and see a set of 10 wrenches, 1 3/8” to 2 1/2” for $50, so I buy them and take the other one back. At this point I had abandoned my principals and found myself going to Harbor Freight first, knowing I had a lot of tools to buy before this was over. So there it began: parts washer, blasting cabinet, media reclaimer, shop press, lift table, and on, and on... until I had essentially equipped an entire shop. In the final analysis, all tools served their purpose, but some were more valuable than others. The blasting cabinet - definitely couldn’t have gotten by without it. The shop press has probably already paid for itself several times over. And the lift table may not have costed out yet, but it makes the assembly process much more comfortable and practical. Still, when I look at my newly tooled up shop, I have to believe I am obliged to do another project when this is over to justify all the expense.

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Fall of 2007, eight years after this project began, and the first parts go together as I fit the forks to the frame. See if you can spot all the Harbor Freight shop tools!
Lesson Three: All repair services are not the same.

While breaking into the engine I found some baffling makeshift fixes done by a previous owner. For instance, the transmission was packed with thick, dry grease the consistency of clay. When I got it all dug out, I found the reason to be that something like a ball bearing had gotten into the transmission, falling between a gear and the wall, punching a hole in the case. Instead of fixing the crack, the owner replaced the oil with grease.

I was fortunate enough to find a local engine block repair technician who was a real artist and craftsman. Don of AlumaTech in Santa Rosa (since retired and defunct) was the kind of guy who was not afraid to take on a one-off job, or one that was unusual or with special instructions, just because “that’s not what I do everyday.” He repaired cracks in the engine and transmission cases, repaired broken and bent fins on the heads and was able to rebuild the broken out baffles in the engine.  The repairs were solid and undetectable because the surfaces were retextured after welding and grinding. I even had him do such things as repair the hex surfaces on an original intake manifold nut that had been driven on and off with a chisel.

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The cylinder heads after some excellent treatment at AlumaTech. Many fins were broken or bent, but they look factory fresh now.


I was not so lucky when I went searching for someone to repair the gas tanks. Although I was building a rider, part of the challenge for me was to bring this bike back to showroom condition with all correct methods and finishes, and I was determined to stay true to that goal, even when it may not be obvious to the casual observer. The tanks I had were in remarkably good condition, showing no signs of damage or rust inside. But the left tank was from a ‘50 or ‘51 police bike with no emblem lugs, and the right was a ‘48 tank with soldered seams and smaller petcock hole. I began calling around the west coast, including my local radiator shops, looking for someone who could disassemble the tanks at the seams, inspect and repair any hidden sheet metal damage, add the lugs, replace the larger petcock and braze the tanks back together. No one I spoke with was willing to commit to disassembling the tanks because of the silver braze on the police tank, until I called Mattson’s Radiator in southern California. I described each request and was told, “Yeah, we can do that.” Satisfied with that answer, I packed the tanks, wrote a detailed instruction list as to my requirements, including a caveat to call me if there was a problem with anything I had asked, and shipped the tanks to Mattson’s. Click to view full-size
The tanks before their “restoration”, the biggest screw-up of the project. May they rest in peace.
A couple of weeks later I got a call that the tanks were done and I could just give them a credit card number and they would ship them back. Despite the fact that the final cost was three times what was estimated to me, I paid without complaint, figuring at least I got the job I had wanted. What I received was anything but. The tank had not been disassembled but was cut open, the petcock hole had not been changed, the seams of the ‘48 tank were again soldered and the tanks were slathered in heavy bondo. In short, everything I had requested to be done was not, while what I had asked not to be done was. In addition, I had sent my original tank emblems with the tanks so they could be used as a template to fit the lugs correctly. They took it upon themselves to rechrome them, but did not bother to fix the dents and scratches or clean them first. I called to complain and eventually got them to allow me to return the tanks and they would make good. I told them I was not in a hurry because the bike was a long way from finished, and all I was concerned about was that the tanks be done as requested.

Months went by with no word, until I finally called to find out the status. The guy who had been my contact had been fired long before and no one had ever heard of me or my tanks. Finally, after relating the story to J.R. Mattson, he did some research and found the tanks buried on a shelf, where they had sat untouched. The emblems, which I had returned to have the chrome stripped, were nowhere to be found and have never been seen since. J.R. agreed to proceed with my repairs.

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Once the tanks are on, this thing really starts to look like something. So discouraged with the ordeal and results of the tank restoration, I ended up with a new set of Iron Horse Corral 4 1/4-gallon long-distance tanks.
A few weeks later, and the tanks show up at my house again. The solder on the seams had been removed and a crude weld applied, the excess heat having warped the panels and the flange at the back was nearly burned away. Once again I called to complain and was told by Jack Mattson that nobody cares about the things I had requested, that Mattson’s knows how to repair a tank and that’s how they do it. When asked why they had promised to do the rebuild to my specs in the first place, there was no response. I ended up making arrangements to physically bring the tanks in to them to discuss the problems, a 700 mile trip each way. The best I could do at this meeting was to get the flange rebuilt and reground to shape, but the welding heat again charcoaled the tank sealer inside, which I was told wouldn’t affect its performance. After this ordeal, I couldn’t trust this to be acceptable, so I had to insist that the sealer be redone. The last issue was still to find the missing emblems, but a series of phone calls later to follow up on this finally ended with being told that Mattson’s was done with me.

At the end of all this, I had paid for a perfectly fine set of tanks, paid as much again to have them restored, had them ruined by warping and finally corrosion, paid for an original set of emblems, paid for rechroming them, had them lost, and eventually had to purchase a new set of Iron Horse tanks and repro emblems

Lesson Four: Penny wise and pound foolish.

After the experience with my tanks, I was a believer that it is always best to deal with a local shop when outsourcing work. For the most part, this has proven to be true. Walking into someone’s shop and talking face-to-face provides a trust for both parties. But not always.

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Fitting oil and gas lines required some real bending finesse at times.

I took my generator to A&C Rebuild, a local electrical shop, who was recommended to me by Jack Hurt, the Splitdorf guru in Santa Rosa. At the time, I was just looking for a simple, solid 6-volt rebuild. I brought in the generator and assorted parts I had acquired such as brushes and regulator, and we looked over the job together. I told him I would do some research and get him the output numbers that should be expected, but was told that he didn’t need that, he has been doing this for twenty years and he knew what he was doing. Okay, good enough.

Shorty thereafter, I start getting calls with questions: this is a positive ground regulator and it should have a negative ground; where do I get the coils for this; and so on. I, in turn, asked a few questions on the VI list and eventually pique the opinion of Frank Vandevelde that I should be concerned about the rebuilders abilities, and I start to worry. Not this again. To make this brief, I ended up going back to the electric shop after about two months of waiting to find my generator in pieces on the front counter just where I had left it. The owner then admitted to me that it’s too hard for him. I gathered up my parts and left before I had a chance to thank him for not doing a job that might have ended up setting my Chief on fire.

I immediately sent Frank an email and made arrangements to ship the generator to him, along with the decision to have him do a 12-volt conversion. In short order, the generator was back to me looking beautiful and done correctly, and I’m sleeping soundly knowing I won’t be stranded along some lonely road with an electrical failure. It wasn’t the cheapest way to go but well worth it in the end.

As previously mentioned, my engine ended up going to Doug Burnett in Merced, CA due to a red-flag conversation I had with Michael Breeding. I had already disassembled, repaired the cases and purchased some expendables such as valves and pistons. But Michael warned me that there were too many things that can go wrong and that even after forty years of working on Indians he still did not do his own engines, so I though I had better not expect my luck to suddenly turn in my favor. When I arrived at Doug’s he looked over what I had brought and immediately saw problems with the valve lifters. We miked the cylinders and found that one was at .010” over, the other at .040”. One was sleeved and the other not. Later I got a call informing me that the connecting rods were bent (they had vice marks on them as if they had been deliberately sabotaged) and that the flywheel bearing surfaces were pitted. He said that although the engine was together when I got it, it could not have run in this condition, “at least not for long.” Who knows if a sharp-eyed machinist would have noticed all of these things for me, but I certainly wouldn’t have, and I shudder to think what the result would have been if I had done the rebuild myself as originally planned.

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Lights and other peripherals go on. With the help of Greer’s catalog, I was able to be sure I had all parts on in the correct order, but this was still a jig-saw puzzle as far as the assembly sequence. I had to remove and remount many sections throughout the process in order to get some parts to fit. I should have kept notes on the sequence!
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The front fender was mounted by using wooden blocks to get the wheel clearance even and then marking the fender for drilling.
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The rear wheel and fender are mounted and it begins to resemble a motorcycle.
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Clutch linkage goes on and air cleaner looks cool and protects the carburetor throat, but will have to come off later for fitting gas lines.

Lesson Five: Down the home stretch, nothing else can go wrong now!

Year eight and I finally put two parts together, beginning the dry fit on the Chief. Everything went relatively smoothly, with just a few interruptions due to family life and some running changes, such as swapping fender tips three times which required rewelding, grinding and redrilling holes. But by spring of ‘08 I had everything mounted and fitted correctly. I had been taking progressive photographs throughout this process, so I thought I would take my last shots with the bike complete before I began tearing it down again. Just for the sake of aesthetics, I put away all the scattered tools and removed the tiedown strap that was keeping the bike stable on the center scissors jack that had been used while I had the front wheel off. What had not occurred to me was that when I had removed the wheel, I had deflated the tire to give more clearance, and I had not fully inflated it again when I clamped it in the chock. I was standing on the right side of the lift rolling up the strap when I noticed some movement in my peripheral vision, and I looked up to see the Chief coming at me. I quickly reached over to catch it and put my thighs in under the engine and tanks, but I was no match for 800 pounds of Indian.

If there can be any scenario in this situation that could be considered fortunate, I suppose I had found it. As it happened, I had just purchased a rolling shop stool that week and it was on the floor right beside me. When the Chief came down, the spot light hit the stool, the tank and engine hit me, the handlebar just touched the garage floor, the tires hung by no more than an inch on the edge of the lift platform, and there it stayed. After a brief evaluation, I could tell that I was not supporting much of the weight, so I eased myself out from under the bike. It remained in place while I ran in the house to get the assistance of my wife and nephew who were fast asleep in bed. We managed to hold the Chief in place while my wife lowered the lift, and all in all, the only damage was a crushed bezel and shell on the right spotlight. Had anything in the alignment of elements been different, the story would have been radically more tragic.

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The final few assessories are fitted such as defender bumpers and luggage rack. Fenders came off and on a number of times for all the fitments involved. Note the reshape of the shift lever to the larger tanks, one of the jobs that the shop press did so beautifully.
Light at the End of the Tunnel.

With parts sorted and out for finish, I should only be facing the final assembly at this point. But I won’t make any predictions yet. I continued to make alterations through the summer and fall even after the bike had been disassembled. It will be very close to ten years by the time the Chief is ready to kick over for the first time. 

Aside from the sampling of setbacks I described here, a number of things conspired to drag this project on. First of all, it was probably not the best time in my life to begin something like this, as I had two young boys at home when I began. One is now a sophomore in college and the other a sophomore in high school, so that has freed up some of my commitments in the last couple of years. Also, money and time never seemed to agree to be available together, so there were long periods when the project sat idle. The ordeals I have related had a tendency to knock the wind out of my sails a time or two, and often problems left me stagnating while I researched the correct answer. I came to realize that the answer is not always concrete, and often you just need to make a decision and move on. As many of you are aware, I have asked countless questions on the VI list, making a pest of myself and annoying the veterans constantly, but still more often that not, the answers were as varied as those who replied, and I still had to make my own choice in the end. Originally I was determined not to cut corners and make compromises, but I have learned to accept that this first project may not be perfect.

The Virtual Indian mailing list is a good place to ask for help and advice - as well as for keeping up with what's happening around the Indian-world.
What Have I Learned?

For a first-time project, don’t buy a basket case! Probably not for the second project either. There are far too many unknowns involved for the inexperienced rebuilder. If I had it to do over again, I would start with a running bike, at the very least. I’ve heard more than one story of buying a “restored” Indian that had to be rebuilt, but the advantage still is knowing the bike is, for the most part, complete and everything generally works.

As Fred Haefele stated in his book Rebuilding the Indian, you can rely on the 5-10 law: for every five thousand spent on a basket case, you’ll have another ten thousand into it. Or twelve, or thirteen. That has certainly been my experience. When I consider what a fully-restored Chief, from a reputable shop, cost when I began, I would have paid approximately half, MAYBE two-thirds, of what I have into this project already (still have to pay for paint, powder coat, chrome and cad), I would have been riding for the last ten years, and I’d have saved enough to keep me in gas and oil for the rest of my life. Knowing this bike as intimately as I will is certainly worth something, but let’s be practical here. I have paid the price of trial and error, some very expensive lessons, and may continue to do so before the Chief is on the road.

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The last of the fitting is complete, the morning after the bike fell off the lift. My son, who up until now showed no interest in this project, seems to be excited. This was, however, far from the last tweaking that would go into the Chief before everything went off for finishes.
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