* 2002 Christmas Special Issue *
Updating (and enjoying!) a 1947 Chief
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9000 Mile Test of a 12V DIY Electronic Ignition System on a Restored 1947 Chief
By: Alan Campbell
This morning, across the lake from where I live and work in Northern BC, Canada, fog lifts off still water. Blue sky, snow capped mountains and red - golden colored autumn trees emerge in brilliant sun.  A 1947 DeHavilland Beaver float plane barks, drifting a puff of blue smoke. I see the same functional art deco good looks as with Indian motorcycles from the same era. Chuffing, the plane warms and taxis out into the lake.  That vintage airplane and several more like it work hard all summer long, starting the workday just like this, year after year. They fly like the Indian Chief rides; steady and smooth. 'Puts a grin on your face. I want my Indian running again, durable and reliable just like those planes. The DeHavilland bush planes and Indian motorcycles have quite a bit in common, so the goal seems achievable.

Like my Indian, the DeHavilland uses a radial engine with technology from the '30's.  Air-cooled cylinders radiate around a single crank pin, which rotates to the tune of uncomplicated engine sounds.  Good looking by itself, the engine mounted up front makes the whole plane gorgeous. 

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Late 1940's DeHavilland Beaver float plane with original Pratt & Whitney radial 9 cylinder engine. At the dock, Tyee Lake, northern BC, 2002.
My first plane ride was in Beaver #7, in Yellowknife, NWT, with Max Ward as the owner pilot. This type of airplane fulfilled its design purpose then, providing air access for people and equipment to remote areas, and it does so today, maybe better than ever.  Interestingly, the Beaver airplane and Indian Chief motorcycle went out of production at about the same time. The planes get rebuilt time and again, just like the motorcycles. Some planes now log tens of thousands of hours. Instead of becoming worn out and faltering, over time the DeHavilland Beaver airplanes and slightly larger Otters now exhibit improved flying qualities, increased lifting power, greater beauty and work horse dependability.  If a person happened to fall ill while camping near the South Pole with dark winter storms immanent, the best hope for rescue in our modern Hi Tech World, would likely be a properly maintained and upgraded DeHavilland Otter, flown by its crew of two experienced bush pilots. 

There was a time when sending your float plane engine out for a scheduled rebuild might lead to some unwanted part swapping, with the consequence of very expensive future rebuilds. In the past, standards of mechanical work varied. Financial pressure might have lead to some deadly cost saving choices. About 20 years ago, I recall that every floatplane, even the Beavers based on the small northern lake where I live crashed. Some crashed twice. Beaver and Otter airplanes were not expensive in those days.  Times have changed though. Today's rebuild and overhaul practices mean the Beavers are safe, reliable, durable, and very valuable. I think the value comes primarily from the fact that the planes work and fly very well and remain today the very best choice for the design purpose.  Also, the Beaver is just as much fun to fly through the mountains as the Indian Chief is to drive down a winding two-lane highway in the autumn. 

I decided a few years ago that it would be a good plan to rebuild my Chief to a standard suited for motorcycle use, and really enjoy riding my bike again. I thought the engine would run fine for a while if I replaced the rings, de-glazed the cylinders and installed new valves. But considering the plane crash years, I sent my engine off to an Indian specialist with a good reputation and a large well established operation. I began work on the rest of the parts myself. Each part is beautiful in its own right, so the hour or so I spent daily on the bike was time thoroughly enjoyed.  Some new ideas improve the Beavers and Otters considerably.  A brand new radial engine on the market nearly doubles power and improves time between overhauls.  Some other owners replace the vintage radial nine engine with a turbine. Expensive, but that's what you need for the South Pole kind of trip. Other changes to floats, wings, avionics, and other parts, do improve lift, reduce stall speed, improve visibility, remove weight, increase load carrying and so on. The planes look much the same as in 1947.  But today, for the purpose intended, the updated Beavers and Otters fly and work better than ever. 

The Beaver roars. A miniscule pause, perhaps one power stroke, as the pilot switches between magnetos to make sure both of them work well. Water and air mingle in a rearward gush. Rooster tails appear behind the floats. A wing tips right, the left float clears. The wing tips left and the Beaver leaps airborne, climbs with its survey party and all their gear. The pilot cuts back on power, the radial engine ear blast changes to a steady rumble.  This plane is off over the hill now, but will be back for another load. And another load, for years to come. 

The main change that my Indian needed for dependable performance like this was the electrical system. The stock system just didn't have the oomph for riding with lights on, batteries topped up and easy starting.  I designed and assembled a 12-Volt system out of generally available, mostly agricultural grade parts, with the goals of reliable starting, smooth running, commanding horn and bright daytime running lights. Safe driving is essential to protect the rider, the public and the motorcycle. So far, I have 9,000 thoroughly enjoyed miles on this system. The electrical system works well, although there were some surprises with the engine. Some new electronic ignition parts have appeared on the market since I started this project, but the results may still be interesting. So here is a before and after ride report, with a description of the electrical system components in an appendix.

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1951 DeHavilland Otter float plane, recently upgraded to turbine power. At the dock, Tyee Lake, northern BC, 2002.
First, I want you to know that I don't personally feel inclined to show my bike before judges. I'm the judge of this bike. The insurance company and me actually. Since the first ride, mostly what I've wanted is another ride. After all these years, I still have a big grin on my face when I finish a ride. I try other bikes, but I like riding my Indian a lot. I like exploring for trout streams, running down the back roads, and making regular runs to the post office. In the summer, daylight comes early, and a before breakfast ride starts the day off fine. So when I rebuilt the Chief, everything that might crack or break like nuts and bolts got replaced. I saved the old parts in case someone wants them for show. I installed modern brake linings and Avon radial tires. I used powder coating and modern paint applied by a great local artist.  I used red Locktite. 

I want to point out here also, that I am an amateur Indian motorcycle enthusiast.  I am not a qualified mechanic or automotive engineer or electrical engineer. The Indian manual is rather thin. But the people who rebuilt my engine and others gave freely of high quality advice and assistance. Even though I'm discussing some experiments with my own bike, this is amateur play, not professional work. I do not necessarily recommend any modifications to the standard design, which does work.  So, first, I will describe what it was like to ride the original set up with a motor that had good compression, good tuning, worn stock Indian tires, a functional generator, a 6 Volt Indian battery that held a charge, worn valve stems and the capability of going as fast as I cared to go, summer after summer.

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The bike is nearly ready to start for the first time. The ignition kit upgrade hides under the seat. The DeHavilland Otter with turbine upgrade floats at the dock across the lake, barely visible in this picture. 
The 6-Volt Ride
So it is 1969, late September, Sunday morning at the family cabin on Christina Lake in the West Kootenays of southern British Columbia.  Morning is hot and sunny. Indian Summer. Golden light. Multihued birch and maple leaves greet the eye and I smell cedar, larch, and earth. Frost at night took the bugs. My 1947 Chief rolls easily from under the deck, then with heaving creeps up slope to the driveway. I'm puffing.  Check the gas.  I add some from a red metal can.  Check the oil. I add some greenish 50W Valvoline. I like the smell. 

No helmet. No gloves. No goggles. Blue jeans. Boots. Sweater.  The starting ritual is memorized from page 35 of the" Indian Riders' Instruction Manual", Pierce Motor Center, 933 So. San Gabriel Blvd. San Gabriel, California. Phone 283 1310.  Memorized because I keep checking to make sure I've got it right. Sometimes takes a lot of kicking. I hear Sam's confident, supportive voice.  Page 35 preliminaries done, I turn the original key and kick with a bent knee. It coughs. Kick again, nothing.  I retry the sequence and it coughs twice, doesn't catch. I probably need to charge the battery, and there goes the morning. First, I clean the points with folded 230 wet and dry paper.  A streak comes off.  I clean with alcohol on a Q-tip. More black.  Then try again.  It catches, barely. Runs rough, smoothes.  Oil lid off.  Thick oil ejaculates. Hmm. I wonder who's idea that was? I lift the choke lever.  Bike hesitates, starts to die, so I nudge the choke back down, rev the throttle just a little, with only moderately satisfactory response.  I wait with tension, feeling pain in my right inner thigh and inner knee. Irregular quivering gradually becomes a steady beat. The engine becomes convincingly dependable.  Bare hand on the cast iron fins. Warm.  Time to go.  Into first gear. CRUNCH!

The Chief hesitates going uphill, the chain snatches, the bike lurches, but judicious retarding of the spark keeps it climbing. It is going to be a great day! The Chief does run well all day.  Winding down the back roads, smooth power pulls through the turns. The bike skids and I scratch the bars in a moment of excess.  Further on, scenery is best enjoyed with smooth loping. The rhythm of the power pulses connects deeply like the melody of my favorite tune. "Blue moon…."  A happy moment for sure.

Off the pavement, I explore a new logging road. Doesn't go far, but I find a great view of the lake. I get gas at Mada's store which has a little bit of everything, including, displayed on crushed ice, a spectacularly large rainbow trout, caught by one of my pals. I dream of catching a fish like that one day.  Then, I get our mail from POB #17.  Back on the straight freshly paved highway, perhaps inspired by the record size trout, I try to "break a ton".  Close, but not today. Maybe with better tuning. Then off another back road there are dainty little cutthroat trout lurking at McCrae Creek. I stop awhile and check out the creek. No people. Just me, my bike, and the hot dry outdoors. Eventually, it is time for home.  With failing light, I glide downhill to our home, backfiring satisfactorily.  I know blue flame cuts the dusk. My mother waits at the door. She is pretty. She smiles. She waves then wrings her hands unconsciously.  It's grouse for dinner. The family is sitting down. I don't want to get off the bike. Waves of heat bathe my legs. I hear ticking and clicking. I feel connected, and don't want to go to school tomorrow. Another whole day to ride would be nice. I've got the big Indian motorcycle grin on my face.



The 6V Ride

Planning the Rebuild

12V System

The 12V Ride


Unwanted Surprise


Components of the 12V system
Planning the Rebuild
When the time came I found myself thinking about hard times kick starting and I actually felt a pain in my leg. In the '60's, I took the headlight off, because there was no point with only a few amps of generator output. But today's traffic and driver habits require attention to safety, reliability and the law. I considered converting my 6V Autolite generator to 12V, installing a variety of different generators or alternators, upgrading to digital electronic ignition, fuel injection, starter motors, Harley transmissions. Belt drives. Individually, these thoughts didn't sit well. Too complex. It wouldn't be an Indian anymore. I wanted my Indian Chief to remain an Indian Chief, to be smooth, reliable, durable, straight forward and safe.  My clear goal was and remains the wonderful grin my Indian Chief puts on my face when I ride.
More information on
updating and replacing 
Indian generators on 
the Generator Page 
in the VI Archives
I'm not sure where that Indian motorcycle grin comes from, although it seems to be well known to Indian riders.  Perhaps the grin comes from riding a handmade piece of fine art. Flowing out of the direct connect between the rider's nervous system and machinery like the throttle, spark, fuel mixtures, choke, clutch, brake friction, and crash box gears, the rider can't help but feel alive and in control. For example mechanical brakes connect the rider's foot directly to the dragging pads in the revolving brake drum. You, the rider, feel with the sole of your foot everything but the heat. Wonderful! Changing the Indian square cut gears and going for a walk have a lot in common. Impossible if you think about the fundamental mechanics. 'Takes years of practice, but eventually, you trust your instincts for timing and do it.  Works well, feels great. 

Alternatively, could be the Indian Chief Motorcycle Grin could be just an odd biological issue relating to the unique 42-degree side valve radial engine vibration harmonics interacting with the rider's bum. 

I made a cold phone call to Michael Breeding, who manufactures replacement castings and fine tools for Indians. Turns out we have quite a bit in common besides a passion for Indians. When the conversation turned to tools and parts, however, he began by talking me out of buying one of his excellent tools, and gave me good instructions for making my own. This I did, and it worked great. I got great advice about tuning and Indian reliability or lack thereof.  When I hung up, I realized that I loved my bike almost the way it was - stock 47, except for the aching leg and parts falling off.  Unsure of how to proceed, I phoned fuel injector manufacturers, digital ignition people who were willing to collaborate with me on fuel injector development using my software engineering. I phoned well know Indian specialist who had had some electronic ignitions made up. "Well why in the dickens would your want to replace a beautiful bronze Linkert with a fuel injector-for a Flathead!"  Good question. Actually he didn't say  "dickens". Another supplier of parts and service enthused over how much fun it was to adjust the points, or fix a broken ignition with bits of this and that presumably found out in the desert under a rock. I told him about once using a boot buckle from the ditch.  "You can't do that with a Goldwing!". Someone else pointed out that the point ignition might actually offer tuning opportunities for racing which might not be fully appreciated by the neophyte. 

12-Volt Indian Chief System
For my riding needs, which include obeying the law, the fundamental issue is ample, dependable, well-regulated 12-Volt electrical energy and absolutely reliable starting and running.  I'm not prepared to ride with less. 

Ultimately, my 12V conversion involved a system of components with no dramatic change from the 1947 basic, almost agricultural, design concept. I disconnected the condenser and connected a homemade amplifier that uses a few transistors and no digital circuitry.  In the original design, the stock condenser serves to smooth some electrical static from the on/off signal sent by the points to the to coil. The coil transforms the signal to high voltage sparks for the plugs, but the static gets transformed too.  I merely replaced the condenser with an amplifier. The amplifier takes a lower power but noisy on/off signal from the points, and telegraphs a new, precise, high power on/off signal to the coil.  Plugs spark strongly and uniformly every time, with no static in the spark.  I handmade my point signal amplifier for a few dollars out of readily available parts. Indians are handmade bikes after all.  This gizmo hides under the seat, so an easy change of wires gives back the 1947 condenser/ point system in its entirety if I want.   I used resistor plugs with RF wires so radio frequency waves don't confuse the transistors, threaten my body parts or muck up the radio environment for other people.  The plugs get an awesome jolt, so if I used an insulin pump or a pacemaker, or had heart trouble, or was even slightly timid, I wouldn't be messing around with this stuff. Too much zorch.

For the headlight, I used the brightest halogen sealed unit I could find at the auto parts store. It draws serious amps, but I see the beam pattern on the pavement when the sun goes behind a cloud. I used a high power tractor horn that looks much like the original but demands attention when you push the button.  Dreamy drivers do see the light and hear the horn. For 12 Volts I used a Kubota alternator that puts out 40 amps hot, looks like it belongs on a tractor or a Chief and comes apart easily revealing nicely machined maintainable internals in the spirit of Indian of Springfield. Stark's bracket fits well, machined out to accept a larger diameter grade 8 through bolt. I think the stock Autolite generator is marginally better looking than the Kubota alternator. However, I like this alternator, and it is conceivable that Indian would also have used it, given the opportunity. 

The 12-Volt Ride
2001. It is late September in Northern BC. Sunday. Indian Summer. Morning, and warm. No bugs. Golden light. Piercing blue sky. Snow capped mountains.  14-year-old daughter doesn't want to climb up to the alpine meadows and the glacier. Homework ?? I don't know!  I take off my boots. I lock up the bear attack safety equipment and feel slightly confused. This has been a distressing September, and lots of people are unfocused right now.   The phone rings.  Rob who has a 4-cylinder vintage Japanese bike talks up a ride. "Meet you at the Telkwa and Bulkley Rivers." 

The Chief rolls out of my office where I keep it. Priming ritual from page 35.  Also, I prime the oil pump, which I didn't have to do before.  Click with the original key in the original ignition switch. 1/4" brass tumblers make contact. The Ammeter jumps to 4A.  I Kick with a bent knee and Wham! The Chief erupts, then quivers with a staccato engine beat.  Lifting the oil cap, I see glorious ejaculations of golden Amsoil V twin Synthetic. Hmm fascinating indeed.  Straddling the Chief, feeling the quiver, hearing the sound I can barely wait to ride. Bare hand on iron cylinder fins. Warm.  On with the insulated Harley gloves. Zip up the Roadcrafter, and snap down the Shoie Lexan faceplate.  Some things aren't the same.  But then I shift into first. CRUNCH!

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The alternator bolts solidly to the Stark alternator bracket in the up position. Adjust belt tension by moving the assembly up or down the down tube. I use a bottle jack for up and down, and a pry bar for back and forth adjustment.
I rotate the clutch pedal with my left foot, retard the spark advance by rotating my left wrist, ease off on the front brake with two right fingers, advance the throttle by sort of rotating my right wrist while easing off the brake lever and lift my right boot. The Chief pulls forward like a tractor and balances like one to.  Not a lurch or hint of chain snatch.  Up the hill to the stop sign, and each piston stroke pulls like it's steam power, effortless, without hesitation, and with delicious rhythm.  At the stop sign, I enjoy having to start on the hill and in gravel. Down the two-lane paved road a slight engine pitch change signals it's time to adjust the Linkert.  Click!   Choke lever moves just right. So satisfying to drive and control. Good advice!  Indeed. Who would want automatic fuel injection? Thanks again. 

I don't scratch the crash bars any more. But the twists and turns around the lake are fabulous fun. Power comes on like water gushing from a squirt gun. Twist the throttle and whoosh.  Brakes are fine.  I low wave a Harley going by, swing downhill to the valley and pull up on the grass and wait where the Telkwa and Bulkley rivers meet.  I can feel boulders rumble underwater in the riverbed. The Harley I passed earlier rumps up. He must have done a Uey right after we passed on the High Road. We take off our helmets.  I look at the Harley.  I see mostly engine and wheels.  Two clean black cylinders each dangle a plump red ignition coil. I think Brahma Bull. Minimal hammered fenders. A bit of taillight. Not much to it besides engine and wheels. Fresh tires. I look at the Harley rider.  The guy has a lumpy Charley Brown grin smeared on his face as he looks over the Chief.  "It's the real thing in' it? Not a copy from Japan."  "Yep!" We chat and he clearly relaxes hearing that this is my first vehicle, and remains appreciated, enjoyed and well cared for as the day I bought it, when I was a teenager, 35 years ago. Nice guy. Then pal Rob, drifts up with the 4 cylinder  Japanese bike sounding like a herd of Rolexes.  After introductions, we plan a ride down river to Old Hazelton, about 60 miles, where we will have coffee, and then come back home. We begin, but the others wait to see and hear my Chief start. First kick. Wham! And it goes staccato. I see terrific grins and unconscious nods of approval. Shortly, it seems we need to stop for gas and they wait again for the first kick start. Again, big grins and nods. Yes the Chief just erupts into action. 

On the way out of town, I let the Chief breath a little as we move up to the highway speed.  And the Harley rides alongside for a while. Boy it's loud.  We pick a standard three bike formation and swap positions a little. It's hot and sunny. The Autumn colors radiate reds and yellows. Little traffic. Glaciers above. The wild untamed river roars then glides then swirls close to the highway following its unrestricted natural course to the Pacific Ocean. 

I see Harley Charles take one hand off the bars and shake it like a cat with a wet paw.  Switching, he shakes the other hand.  Then one foot. Quite flexible actually. Must be an athlete. And then the other foot.  I appreciate my smooth Indian.  The subtle vibration feels good on my feet, not apparent on the bars. My mirrors are clear. It has always been a smooth bike.  At a certain point, where the valley narrows, it gets really cold. Always does at this place. Must be a glacier close to the road. Then WHACK!  On my visor.  A rock, maybe from my own tire.  Thank you lexan.  Good thing or I'd be missing teeth about now.

We cross a one-lane bridge with expanded metal deck and precious little side railing.  Clearly visible 200 feet beneath us, the substantial river boils through the straight walled canyon. Tires whine and shimmy on the irregular see through road surface. It's important to focus on steering.

On the other side, children wave. Cars honk. We park in formation at a restaurant, and sit down in the outside walled garden. We see yellow flowers in the garden.  Roche de Bull, one of the truly rugged Coast Range Mountains looms hugely. Turns out part of it fell off a while back and shook the World. Seismographs everywhere picked it up. Could happen again, anytime.

We drink coffee looking up at the mountain above. We hear the Harley is a drag bike limbering up a fresh motor for the first race next weekend.  We talk about drag racing a bit and one of the great racers we know, the Canadian champ actually. And yes, the Chief does start every time on the first kick. Absolutely. Harley Charles says he rode along side up Jake Brake Hill in order to hear the Chief. "Fabulous sound ". "Noticed it went up the hills just fine."  "Yep, pulls well. Always has."  Robbie talked about how the Indian waxed his 4 cylinder going out of town.  Not possible of course, but fun to talk about. Red swoopy fenders do look fast.  But then, uncomfortable silence.   Folks at the next table exchange guttural European words with increasing volume. We don't understand the language, but we comprehend uncomfortable meaning, catching a word here and there.  Growing in volume and apparent angry passion, their discussion crushes our pleasant chatter. No one else is there. It is hot. We are not going to talk about what happened last week in New York City.  Can't.  I desperately want things to be different. I feel physically tense, anxious right along with everyone else in the World I guess.

Then there is order. The loud voices quiet.  Peripherally, I sense, but don't see a long moving shadow.  Following the shadow, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police approaches.  This isn't the red serge with the riding pants, the high polished riding boots with chrome spurs and a Boy Scout hat.  No. This member wears a substantial bullet proof, knife deflecting dark blue vest, heavy clothing that would do well in a fist fight, steel toed boots, hand radio, ceramic baton, cuffs, big can of Mace, sidearm suitable for snuffing a diesel engine, and a log book with pen attached.  "Good afternoon gentlemen."  "Yes officer, it certainly is lovely today."  I observe the now quiet individuals from the adjacent table sift off, one by one.  "Those bikes are beautiful gentlemen. Yours?  I was driving and had to stop to admire. But I notice the Harley doesn't have a plate?  Could the owner please show me your registration and your driver's license."  Charles fished papers from a rumpled leather vest pocket with a wry grin. Then, I saw body language change to that of a responsible competent member of society. The officer looked our Harley rider strait in the eyes and said "Charles?"  "Yes, of course he said."  The officer made a hand radio call with instant results. "Says the Harley is red. Yours is silver."   "Mumble spray paint."  "And the plate?"  "mumble, mumble, coulda felloffit."  I'm pretty sure I heard the words "mumble mumble."  Well some of the great work stays the same. 

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The ride around the lake offers some
great views and almost no traffic.
Gentlemen, we have a red Harley, properly registered and well insured in the owner's name. Also, excellent driving record Charles. Keep it up. I'm satisfied.  I want you gentlemen to enjoy the afternoon, and ride safe.  I very much like your bikes." "Beautiful work!"  She took off her hat and radiant golden locks tumbled down, gleaming in the afternoon sun and her blue eyes sparkled a genuine heart-stopping smile.  Gosh! 

I'm sure my wife will understand when she reads this. "Ha!" she says. But she appreciates all my Indian Chief adventures. 

On the ride back, we get fuel.  The Harley and Indian take about the same, which is lots. The 4cylinder takes little.  Late afternoon autumn light in the North oozes color.  The fields, leaves, tree trunks, rivers and creeks seem to vibrate. A yellow B-Train loaded with copper ore for the Port of Prince Rupert runs towards us, heading West in the oncoming lane, filling some of our lane too. We move over, I hear its turbo whine, and the air blast rocks my bike. Indian leading, we bypass inviting side roads to undiscovered places, entirely unsuited to the other bikes, but we enjoy some fine low traffic, bug free highway cruising. Then the last big curve before town beckons. I let the Chief breath a little; it squirts ahead.  And then I vaguely sense the vibration of a powerful radial engine.  I vaguely think about a 980 HP De Havilland Otter floatplane streaming spray leaping skyward off the lake. The Harley blasts past and I feel a hammer blow in my chest. Then its gone. Like clicking a switch. There, then gone.  Fast!  Later, 4 cylinder Rob pulls past, almost silently, then arcs off for home with the hi five wave. I ride through town alone, then up a big hill.  A pimpled teenager in a rusty pickup tries to race.  I bend over the handlebars and very carefully ease off the throttle with my right hand. The pickup slowly pulls ahead issuing worrisome sounds and odd metallic smells.

I have to turn left at an unregulated crossing, off the main two-lane highway.  But I own the road, no traffic ahead or behind. I signal with my left hand, then throttle back with my right hand, retarding the spark with a full twist of the left wrist. Motor pitch drops 1/2 an octave. Chug Chug Chuff Chuff Chuff.  I brake a little with my right foot and right hand. I flick the bars right, then while feathering the clutch with my left foot the bike leans and gracefully swoops its 90 degree left turn on to the side road home.  And I'm grinning of course, and I'm still feathering the clutch with my left foot, and slowly advancing the spark with left hand and advancing the throttle with the right hand so the bike pulls up to highway speed still in top gear.  Today, fast motorcycles like Charles', make the upper speed potential of an Indian motorcycle seem trivial. Nonetheless, the Chief remains very satisfying to drive in terms of the huge amount of control the operator has over the bike.  So I stop to perform a Chief maneuver for the explicit purpose of accurately describing how smoothly the home made electrical system regulates the engine.

Bike's in high gear, stopped on a straight road, very slight incline, engine chugging, and warm but not hot. Idles smooth. I retard the spark all the way with a complete twist of the left wrist. Chug Chug Chuff Chuff.  With the left boot, I rotate the clutch treadle forward until friction gently takes up the backward downhill pull on the bike. I ease off on the front brake with two fingers of my right hand, while rotating the throttle a little with the rest of my right hand and pick up my right boot. The Chief eases forward, balances, and then gains speed. I slowly advance the throttle with my right hand, slowly advance the spark with my left hand by rotating the handle bar grips. Simultaneously I increase the clutch engagement with my left foot. The bike pulls ahead without a hint of chain snatch or lurching. And soon the dial says 75 mph.  I could not have done that with the 6Volt system, or for that matter with any electronic fuel injected demo bikes I have tested recently. But this kind of smoothness makes the bike fun to ride both on the two lane highway and on side roads, hay trails and logging roads, poking along, trout fishing or just exploring. 

But it is dusk. Gearing down on the hill before my driveway, instinct times  gear changes. Click, whrrr. Click, whrrr. Square cut gears slip apart and together again without a hint of clash. Magic. I'm grinning.  Up the drive, chuffing at brisk walking speed, I feel the grin spreading.  I turn stop, and shut the bike off.

My teenage daughter, the one who didn't want to go hiking, runs out the door and up to the bike. She says it is time for dinner. "The big Cutthroat trout."  "Hey dad what's so special about Led Zeppelin? It was in my Social Studies homework.  Can we listen to your records tonight? " Bounce Bounce. Pony tail bobbing. Oh ya! What a great day!  I get up off the seat reluctantly, savoring the last warm moment. Hand on the oil pump, I find it pleasantly warm. Fins are hot but briefly touchable. Oil in tank is tepid. There is no ticking or clicking.   Takes 1/2 a liter of oil. It is getting about time for an oil change. Takes lots of gas from a red plastic jug. Dinner time. The family is sitting down. There is work and school tomorrow. 

My 1947 Indian Chief is more fun to ride now than before as indicated by the operator's grin. The bike responds accurately to controls, rides comfortably and feels safe. The Chief fascinates beautiful women. Always has. My wife and daughters like it particularly. The eruptive start and 42 degree side valve radial engine sounds delight even normally blasé folks. The bike attracts children.  The Chief is great for a before breakfast or lunch hour ride. I enjoy exploring older back roads to find new fishing spots and just generally see what's there. One of the Indian specialists recommended that I get a cell phone for help in case of breakdowns.  Never used it. 

In some ways the bike performs better now than when I first purchased it in 1967. It is safer. The well functioning headlight and attention grabbing horn averted one T-bone crash for sure. The light and horn alerted a mother with Suburban load of kids. Leaving a roadside gathering of children and parents she hesitantly started to back across the highway, in a non-standard maneuver.  I saw kids bouncing, dog leaping, and the tense mother looking left several times but not right towards me, just as I sifted around a nicely banked corner in the right lane.  I depressed the horn button, and gripped the brakes, rear tire howling. She saw my bright light and stopped, arms thrashing the air. My Avon tires didn't skid. The Suburban stayed frozen, half on the road and I passed safely.

The engine power comes on so smoothly that I wouldn't consider installing a torque evening device. In contrast, if I had to use the old Springfield Indian tires again, I absolutely wouldn't ride. The radials stick to the road and ride safe. At 7,000 miles, I added a King Clutch, and the clashing first gear start up disappeared absolutely. The steel plates required hand fitting, which is fun.  The Amsoil synthetic engine oil I picked seems to pump better than the standard oil I used for break in. This oil in particular seems to have quieted some odd sounds that  came with the rebuild. In summary, I see quite a bit of added functionality here, and it comes from the whole system, not just the ignition I made for a few dollars with a soldering iron one sunny winter afternoon. 

Unwanted Surprise
I enjoy taking my bike apart and putting it back together cleaned and adjusted even more now than I did when I was a teenager, although rebuilding the engine seems quite daunting. With the synthetic oil, parts are clean. Mechanically things seem straightforward and uncomplicated. At first, Sam Pierce was a big help, but today things are better still. I don't worry about not being able to find the parts I need.  So the ideal winter project was to go inside and install the King Clutch.  Whow! I found the transmission set up wasn't even remotely correct, according to the manual. For starters, the primary chain was rubbing on the case. This concerned me, but it created a mechanical opportunity.  It is fun to measure carefully use good tools, set up nicely machined spacers, install shims, and tighten up a brand new nut. Michael Breeding transmission tools fit very satisfactorily and add considerable pleasure to owning an Indian Chief these days. 

At 9,000 miles, I lifted the engine onto my workbench even though it still had nearly perfect compression.  A tappet had broken.  I wanted to know why. I took off the oil pump, cams, and cylinders.  The exhaust valves showed a few pits but were quite operable.  As more parts came of, it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at a show motor. Very beautiful on the outside, but not on the inside. It didn't look safe to ride far and wide the way I had been riding for the last two years. After phoning around, I concluded this was not unique, and quite reminiscent of the bad days with small aircraft maintenance. Worse, I had a welding warped case half, which could take a while to replace. 

If I hadn't gone looking for why the tappet broke, my engine might have run for another year, maybe more. I could throw it back together with new rings and hope the wheels didn't walk away through the cracked welding. Many bikes need work from time to time. Rob's bike had some electrical issues with charging. The drag bike would have lasted two or three weekend races before a major overhaul. Another friend had to change a water pump in a vintage Goldwing at incredible cost. I had a problem free 9,000 miles on my commercial rebuild.  Basically, all I did was fill up the gas, change oil and replace tires.  But not now. It took me a few months to come to grips with the fact that I was actually back to a pile of parts, and not as many parts as I started with either. To keep things on the positive side, what I found inside my engine was really an invitation to rebuild the engine again, but this time, to the same standard as the rest of the motorcycle with the very clear goal of durability and reliability. This viewpoint wasn't easily arrived at. But today, the new engine is nearly ready for spring. 

End of part l

Next: Part II - Building an Indian Engine for Durability and Reliability, then Riding It. I'm not sure what is going to happen here, but we will find out.

Click to view full-size
 In the final analysis, these upgrades
don't change appearances much. The bike looks fine coming or going.
Components of the DIY 12 Volt Conversion for a 1947 Indian Chief Motorcycle

This appendix describes the 12-volt system that works well on my bike, using fuel from northern British Columbia, Canada. Some of this fuel has toluene in it to clean injectors, but smokes up spark plugs in some of my other low compression engines. I think the bike runs well, all the time, not just after a tune up, and I attribute this to the whole system rather than any one individual component. These component parts were available in 1998. Now, in 2002, several 12V high power generators and a choice of distributor mounted electronic ignition kits specifically for Springfield Indian have appeared on the market, and these may work even better. Each component that I used improved performance noticeably, and together, as a system, the improvement in performance, starting and general motorcycle riding is substantial. These are the parts:

Alternator - Kubota 15881-64200 crosses to Wilson 5313.  Low RPM terminated, steep output curve. 13.5 V, 40 A. hot. No charge at 400 motor RPM. Changes to adequate charge at 500 RPM. The motor idles well, but not for long if you leave the headlight on. This part is well made tractor quality equipment and is expensive compared to other small alternators that could be made to fit. I shortened both + stud and insulator in order to clear the rear fender. I used a grinder and belt sander for this. Alternator attaches with the Stark bracket bored to accept a grade 8 alternator  through-bolt. The alternator is installed in the fully up position and then bolted firmly in place. I use a small bottle jack, straight edge and pry bar to adjust belt tension and alignment, in the conventional, time proven Indian way. Napa supplied the alternator from here www.wilsonautoelectric.com.

Pulleys and belt - Short belts transmitting significant power to small pulleys require accurate alignment and power rated belts with cross section profile matching the pulley profile. I used new Greer pulleys featuring larger than stock driven pulley. V pulleys wear, and it is a good idea to replace them as part of a rebuild. A spacer was required at the alternator pulley. I measured thickness for the spacer with parallel rules and hired the local machine shop to set up the spacer and fit the Greer pulley to the alternator. 

The fractional horsepower rated belt supplied by my rebuilder is engineered to work with fractional horsepower systems like the Autolite generator.  This belt worked well when my bike was drawing probably 5 A.  Then, I turned on the headlight and started using some real power all the time.  Riding lighted up, the belt shredded in 400 miles.  The replacement Gates power rated 6820 required no adjustment in 6,600 mi. and looks hardly used. I replaced the belt when installing the King clutch, only because I could do it easily and wanted to leave things tidy. http://www.gates.com/

Battery - For looks, I tried a Harley sealed glass pack battery, and it expired quickly. This type of battery requires slightly different charging voltages than wet lead-acid batteries, and in retrospect, the 13.5 V alternator output may have been the culprit. An inexpensive wet lead-acid auto parts store battery works fine, but looks like an inexpensive auto parts store battery.

Wiring - I built my own loom using marine grade wire sized to handle the high current loads. This grade of wire has many fine strands, each one of which is tinned to resist vibration and corrosion. I armored the wire bundles. The handlebars have new reproduction Indian wires. Works well.

Fuses - The alternator can send more than 50 A to a ground short. Welders use this kind of current.  I fused every separate circuit with waterproof mini spade fuses.  On the main line, I fused the (+) side of battery at 30 A and put no fuse to (-) ground. 

Headlight - I used a reproduction headlight from my Indian parts supplier and put the Indian headlight away again.  I installed the brightest halogen sealed unit I could find. Even better lights may be available soon.  The repro headlight looked original but wasn't up to the Springfield Indian quality standard.  It came with a ground fault. I had to replace the utility grade pop rivets in the headlight with stainless bolts and lock nuts. Now the headlight looks fine and works well.

Horn - The WOLO 37012L2 horn looks much like the stock Indian horn. It draws more power, about 4A total, than common horns but something about the sound absolutely commands attention.  I think the intended application is for warning on a fork lift or yard tractor used industrially. www.wolo-mfg.com/indust.htm

Click to view full-size
The alternator bracket needed reaming to match up with the alternator's bolt hole. A grade 8 bolt holds well. Note the heavy gauge copper alternator grounding strap. The alternator grille covers an internal regulator, and a spade connector not shown can drive a tachometer.

Electronic Ignition DIY Kit - I use a Velleman K2543 and I like it. It works well and is fun to assemble. I smothered the electronics in epoxy as suggested for waterproofing and installed the finished gizmo where wind dissipates heat. This ignition gets triggered by the stock ignition points instead of a magnetic or optical interrupt switch.  You can fine-tune the stock ignition point settings.  I discovered that point gap not only regulates dwell angle but the gap also defines a relative differential between front and rear cylinder spark timing, on my bike at least. And I found a sweet spot. This sweet spot gives the liquid squirting feel to rolling on the power.  So the points really are fun to adjust. 

I see a down side to points in an electronic system. The points seem especially vulnerable to getting wet. Also, even a minor oily film on the points will shut off the ignition entirely so the bike doesn't run at all. I clean the points every 500-mi. oil change, using a Q-tip and acetone or alcohol. I don't ride on wet roads.  The transistor ignition draws about 4 A. Do be careful. The spark plug current side seems much more powerful and dangerous than with an ordinary ignition. I found the ignition kit here. www.qkits.com/serv/qkits/velleman/pages/K2543.asp

Coil - The system requires a no resistor coil. Napa part 27460 works well and looks good.

Distributor Cap and Rotor - I purchased distributor cap and rotors from two different Indian repro parts suppliers. Both failed electrically.  These parts ran well for a while, then after rough running developed, inspection revealed spider web patterns inside the distributor cap. One cap tower fell off.  Napa parts AL143 and AL32 worked fine with some trimming of the springy end of the rotor electrode. Haven't tried my original, very solid 1947 Indian cap and rotor.

Ignition points - The points from my Indian parts supplier work very well and are very nice for fine-tuning.  I used one screw on the anvil base plate. Nice part. But some Napa parts seemed quite similar.

Spark plugs - Champion J6 and J8 plugs worked well until they dusted up with carbon and began shorting to ground. I've noticed this carbon dust with my other low compression engines lately. Chain saw, 2 cycle outboards, snowmobile and cast iron side valve rototiller engines all suffer the same; new, special for the north fuel formulations possibly. My truck works fine though. Perhaps the fuel only works well under high compression?  Anyway, I tried all the discussion group recommended types of plugs and many other types of spark plugs that just happened to fit the hole, just to see if one type might lick the carbon problem. Most types shorted out with carbon in a few hundred miles. Midrange plugs worked best.  The short Bosch super R6871 most resembles the original Indian plug, but carbons up eventually and shorts out.  However, beginning with finding the right plug, I first began to notice tractor like pulling in the engine. I'm glad that I kept trying different plugs.  It is fun to make a good discovery after owning my bike for years. The sound and feel of the engine does vary a little with each different plug. Bosh midrange platinum plugs do carbon, but not fatally, deliver noticeable tractor like pull and perhaps more high-end power than other plugs. I did inadvertently whip my bike up to 88 mph on the dial while passing near the crest of a hill using high end Bosch Platinum plugs. 4 cylinder Rob liked the sound. But I don't like the slightly harsher popping sound from the engine or the white burned look on the end of the insulator.

Now, my favorite plug by far is NGK XR5 5953 V-Power. Immediately on first use, I noticed that every power stroke is the same, even and steady. The bike pulls well right away, even cold. Also, when retarding the handlebar spark adjustment, I hear a clear change in engine pitch from Chug Chug to Chuff Chuff. Drops about 1/2 octave in pitch.  I also discovered that when I went back and tuned hi and low speed needle valves, distributor timing and point gap, that the response was much more clearly defined than with other plugs. In fact this is where I discovered the sweet spot in the point gapping.  As an inexpensive alternative, Motomaster V-Groove TRH79 plugs look similar to the NGK V-Power and work well. After about 1000 mi., little blisters appear on the electrodes of the V type plugs, but these brush off. The plugs color well, and align properly in the cylinder head.  They run well for thousands of miles. I found these references helpful.

Spark plug wires - Theoretically, the stock copper core wires will broadcast electromagnet radio frequency energy off the high voltage spark. This could interfere with the transistors in the ignition kit and other electronics nearby. In use with the new 12 V system, my original 1967 copper core plug wires caused the bike to backfire a little, run irregularly and perform badly. I tried a selection of RF wires and they all worked well. Equally useful were some used wires from my 1991 Ford truck. The very best wires were some expensive high performance wires, which made the bike run perceptibly smoother in my opinion.

Tanks - I installed welded steel tanks, not knowing how solder would hold up to new fuels in the future, and not wanting to worry about leaks around the high output electrical system.

Air filter - K&N air filtration seemed to improve performance perceptibly. 

External carburetor lube - A little shot of Fluid Film on the moving parts of the Linkert carburetor gives a lasting, crisp and satisfying feel to the needle valve and choke lever adjustments.  I like this much better than other lubricants. www.infomrt.com/FluidFilm/

Oil - With the new motor, I used Castrol 50W V Twin oil, changed it regularly. The motor loosed up, and at about 3000 miles, I switched to Amsoil 20W50 V twin oil.  The engine works much better when cold with the synthetic oil. Immediately after installing V twin synthetic, some previously quite worrying engine sounds became less worrisome, and kick starting became easier. I think the engine runs smoother at high speeds as well, and I notice with this oil that the engine does not heat up or make ticking sounds when it cools. If I wanted, I could go between 500-mile oil changes without adding. I don't need to prime the oil pump as often.  The oil pump warms, but I can always leave my hand on the pump. This cool running effect is quite dramatic compared to the non-synthetic V twin oil. 

In the gearbox and clutch I settled on Penzoil synthetic 5W30 after trying many different types of oil. This SG rated synthetic oil improved stock clutch performance significantly over other oils, and seems to work well with the King Clutch


Click to view full-size
The electronic ignition kit solders together nicely. Casting the finished project in marine grade, West System epoxy makes it tough and
waterproof. I left the cooling fins exposed.

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