Centenary Celebration: Riding a 1911 Indian Racer Replica

No remnant remains of the Indian racer motorcycles that finished 1-2-3 at the inaugural Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race in 1911, but a close replica was part of the centenary celebration

centenary celebration Indian racer - disassembled gearbox of racer

The troublesome gearbox finally worked right once a missing locknut was made and installed. The engagement dogs on the gears also had to be undercut.

Photo by Ken Richardson

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1911 was a historic year for Indian, as three Indian motorcycles placed 1-2-3 in the Senior Tourist Trophy in the inaugural running of the now legendary Mountain Course at the Isle of Man motorcycle race. The cycles, special machines built at the Indian factory to comply with TT rules, were 580cc “little twins” with a two-speed transmission from the company’s 1,000cc “big twin” to cope with the demands of the hilly course.

Though none of these special machines survived intact to the present day, former Antique Motorcycle Club of America president and vintage bike collector Peter Gagan located a 580cc Indian racing engine in England some 10 years ago that may have powered one of the original TT machines. Unfortunately, the records to verify that do not exist, but Peter decided to use the engine as the basis for a replica using a 1911 Indian frame and transmission.

Since no drawings of the TT bikes exist, frame modifications and exhaust pipes had to be fabricated according to photos of the originals. The replica Indian racer bears number 26, the number on the bike that Oliver Godfrey rode to first place in 1911.

For the centenary celebration of the Isle of Man’s famed Mountain Course, Peter enlisted racer David Roper — the first American ever to win an IOM TT (in 1984) — to ride the 1911 Indian replica in the celebratory Milestones of the Mountain Parade Lap this past June 10 at the 2011 Isle of Man TT. A great idea, but, as David learned, one much easier said than done. What follows is David’s account of his bid to ride the Indian at the Isle of Man. — Editor 

The Die Is Cast

When Peter asked me to ride his 1911 Indian, I figured it would be a fun challenge. I knew it would take some practice to master the bike, as it has a left-hand twist-grip throttle and a right-hand twist-grip ignition retard/valve lifter. Then there’s the right-hand lever clutch, the right-hand gated tank side-shift lever, no front brake and two rear brakes: The first is an internal expanding brake operated with a right foot pedal, the second is an external contracting brake operated with a left handlebar lever. It’s a lot to learn.

Though I was hoping for some seat time on the bike before it left for the isle, it just didn’t happen. The Indian got to the isle just three days before I did, and immediately we noticed some things needed attention. First, we discovered there was a lot of drag on the rear wheel. Removing the wheel revealed the axle was loose in its bearings and, worse yet, that there was drag in the gearbox. Fortunately, the two resident Indian experts on the island, Richard Birch and David Plant, were on hand to help. David offered his well-equipped shop and Richard set to work making a new rear axle and spacers, while I removed the gearbox and stripped it to locate the source of the drag.

We finally figured out that the lay shaft gear was hitting the main shaft bearing outer race because the clutch release mechanism was missing a locknut, which in turn allowed it to move inboard, pushing the bearing in too far. Richard made a replacement locknut, cutting the internal thread on a lathe, with many trials required to get the fit right.

After reassembling the gearbox, clutch, primary drive and rear wheel with a new, narrower chain to keep it from rubbing on the frame, we discovered the gearbox wouldn’t stay in gear. We removed the gearbox again, took out the gears and sent them to a machine shop to undercut the engagement dogs so it would stay in gear.

We were still able to run the bike — even without a gearbox — thanks to a portable electric starter that Peter designed that plugs into the engine sprocket. The engine ran somewhat erratically and we found a crude and worn carb needle and air valve. Richard made a few needles of different lengths and tapers, and a new air valve, and we re-soldered a leak in the oil tank.

On the Wednesday before the Friday parade, we got the gearbox back together and, after making new mounting studs, installed. That evening, the bike moved under its own power for the first time — on David’s lawn. Unfortunately, I had trouble keeping the speed up over the rough grass, and the handlebars kept moving and a footrest sagged.

More Practicing

The next day, we took the bike up to some quiet roads on the very north of the island and, after many trials, rode the Indian a few miles at about 30mph. We discovered that the Indian seemed over-geared, as it would barely maintain speed in high gear on level ground.

We made some phone calls, and found a 40-tooth sprocket that we thought we could overlay on the 35-tooth Indian sprocket. The Indian sprocket was glass hard, however, and we had to anneal it before it could be drilled to bolt the new sprocket to it.

That afternoon, I went to the riders briefing. Richard brought the bike to Douglas that evening for a “slow parade” and interview on the Promenade downtown on the sea front.

A section of the Prom was blocked off, and a loop was made running down one side of the road and back up the other, with a couple of very tight turns at either end. After racers Charlie Williams, Luigi Taveri, Mick Grant, Nick Jefferies and a few others had a go, it was our turn.

The Indian sputtered and died after the first push, but we got it going with another try. I wanted to keep the engine speed up to prevent stalling, and dragged the brake with a fair amount of throttle the first time through the tight corner at the bottom and carried too much speed, almost hitting the curb.

The next time around I tried modulating the throttle but actually picked up speed. The 25-year-old 28 x 2.5-inch clincher front tire, with 50psi of air in it, slid. I just barely saved it.

Ready for the Lap?

The plan was to meet up at the paddock the next morning and wait for the parade to get started after the Senior race. That night, I realized I had never started the Indian from a standstill with the clutch, and I thought I should practice that. I called Richard, and we agreed to meet at the north end of the island the next morning.

The bike seemed very sluggish even with the lower gearing, and the engine died several times. Because it also seemed to be running very hot, we decided the timing must have been retarded. We found the point gap had closed up and, after an adjustment, we went to try the bike again, but now the left handlebar gave way.

We went to David’s shop again to braze the handlebar and set the timing more carefully. As soon as we got there, we got a phone call telling us the parade had been moved up to before the Senior race, rather than after it, to give the roads more time to dry after a shower had passed through. We were out of time; in fact, we were late.

We headed straight for the paddock, and by the time we got there, the first machines had already left on their lap. We put the Indian at the back of the line and, when the last bike had left, parked it in the scrutineering bay on static display. Our “run” was over before it ever began.

In the End

Although it was a disappointing end, we all had a great time in spite of it. We saw some spectacular racing, explored the absolutely gorgeous island that is the Isle of Man, and met some wonderful and supremely capable people. The reality is that we probably needed another week to make the Indian right, but we just didn’t have it.

Still, Peter’s Indian might yet make its lap of the Mountain Course. Richard Birch was going to go through the engine and make it right, and Peter was going to return for the big Indian Rally at the Manx Grand Prix at the end of August. Here’s hoping the old saying “better luck next time” holds up! MC