Put to Pasture: 1948 Indian Chief Roadmaster

This lovely 1948 Indian Chief sidecar rig was restored in the 1980s and still wears all its period-correct accessories today.

1948 Indian Chief Roadmaster

1948 Indian Chief Roadmaster

Photo by Sedrick Mitchell

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1948 Indian Chief
Engine:
1,212cc (73.6ci) air-cooled, 42-degree sidevalve V-twin, 82.5mm x 112.7mm bore and stroke, 5.5-6.5:1 compression ratio (depending on tuning), 40hp @ 4,700rpm (standard tune)
Top speed:
85mph (est.)
Carburetion:
Linkert M344
Transmission:
3-speed handshift, chain final drive
Weight (w/out sidecar/dry):
550lb (250kg)
Seat height:
31.5in (800mm) w/Chum-Me seat
Fuel capacity:
3.7gal (14ltr)
Price then/now:
$800 (est.)/$15,000-$40,000 (w/o sidecar)

It was 1945. The war in Europe was almost over and America was winning the war with Japan. After 10 years of the Depression and four years of war, America was looking forward to prosperity and peace. Soon, Johnny would be marching home.

After years of privation and giving it all for the war effort, factories would soon be converting from war work to consumer goods production at a breakneck pace. Ralph Rogers, a businessman and former executive with Cummins Diesel, saw an opportunity. The returning veterans would need reliable, inexpensive transportation, and he was convinced he could sell it to them.

Setting the stage

The 1944 GI Bill meant millions of ex-GIs would be going to school, while others would go back to the jobs they had left before the war. Many GIs were introduced to motorcycles while serving in Europe, and a lot of them wanted to get a two-wheeler as soon as they were demobilized. Rogers figured these veterans would want small, modern motorcycles similar to the motorcycles they had seen in Europe.

Laying out a plan, Rogers met Briggs Weaver, formerly an engineer with Indian. Importantly to Rogers, Weaver had designed a range of lightweight motorcycles that could be manufactured inexpensively due to many shared features, really the first modular approach to motorcycles. Enthusiastic about Weaver’s designs, Rogers started looking for a standing motorcycle factory he might buy.

At the same time, E. Paul du Pont, the owner of Indian, was looking for a buyer. His general manager, Joe Hosley, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1940, and the factory had lost a lot of money during the war years. After several months of corporate intrigue, the Indian company was sold to a consortium headed by Rogers in November 1945.

Although the war was over and America was heading for prosperity, things were not going well for Indian. Overwhelming consumer demand meant that the few suppliers that were equipped for civilian production were working at warp speed and could name their own price, and Indian depended on outside suppliers for many items. To shore up Indian’s fortunes, Rogers started looking for outside financing. He arranged loans with several banks, and by the end of 1947 Rogers thought Indian’s problems were over. Rogers’ enthusiasm inspired others, and many people at Indian were as optimistic about the future as he was.

While the line of vertical Arrow singles and Scout twin lightweights that Rogers championed was being readied for production, Indian continued selling the aged Chief to keep precious revenue coming in. Rogers thought the lightweights were the future and the Chief the past, so updates to the Chief were kept to a minimum. The major postwar update from the 1941 version of the 42-degree 74-cubic-inch sidevalve V-twin Chief was a hydraulically damped girder fork, adapted from the front end of Indian’s 841 shaft drive military motorcycle.

Indian was not alone in selling prewar models. By government order, no civilian vehicles were produced after Feb. 9, 1942, so for 1946 most American firms were reverting to 1941 designs while gearing up for new products. Although many fast riders were agitating for Sport Scouts, police department sales were more important to the company’s bottom line and police departments wanted Chiefs, so that was the only model continued for 1946.

Chief development

The 1946 Chief continued the big skirted fenders first introduced in 1940 and now considered an Indian hallmark. At the time, however, sport-oriented riders, annoyed by the extra weight, would routinely take a hacksaw to them or just take them off and send them to the dump. The almost fully enclosed chain introduced in 1940 was still there, and brakes were single-leading-shoe drum front and rear. A plunger rear suspension and sprung seat helped smooth out the era’s often bumpy roads, for even though major roads were paved in the 1940s, most rural roads were dirt. 1946 was also the year Indian started giving Chiefs secondary model names, depending on which accessory group was sold with the motorcycle.

In 1947 Indian introduced the Indian head fender light design that has also become an Indian icon. Standard tires changed to 5 x 16-inch from 4.5 x 18-inch, and although the bike handled better with taller and thinner tires, the fat tires were more comfortable and perhaps more stylish.

There were few changes for the 1948 model year. Rogers was intent on launching his new lightweight line and Indian was struggling with the rollout of the new lightweight vertical Arrow single and Scout twin. The Chief’s frame was altered, the speedometer was run from the front instead of the back wheel, the horn design was changed and the generator now had a voltage regulator. 1948 accessory groups were the Roadmaster, the Sportsman and the Clubman. The Roadmaster accessory group, the touring version of the Indian Chief, included a lot of chrome, a sidestand and centerstand, a steering dampener, a “Chum-Me” double seat, twin spotlights, a windshield, and saddlebags. Standard colors included Indian Red, DeLuxe Black and Seafoam Blue.

Indian continued having problems with suppliers and quality control, issues which helped lead to the company’s ultimate demise. The new vertical lightweights had serious lower-end problems along with a host of other issues, and if that wasn’t enough for the beleaguered Indian lightweights, in September 1948, England devalued the pound and almost overnight British imports became 20-25 percent cheaper than they’d been. Why buy an unreliable and expensive Indian lightweight when you could buy a Triumph or a BSA?

Known for their reliability, Indian’s Chief line had a much better reception, so there was a great deal of buyer frustration when Chief production was temporarily suspended in 1949 so Indian could concentrate on making the lightweights a going proposition. Although sidevalve top ends are now seen as an antique feature, to Indian fans of the 1940s and early 1950s, the Indian Chief was a perfectly good motorcycle. Indian engineers were very good at getting the most out of that sidevalve engine, and its performance was as good as, and often exceeded, Harley-Davidson’s overhead valve machines. A Chief in good tune with aftermarket camshafts could top 100mph.

Meanwhile, Ralph Rogers, still trying to get the lightweights off the ground, had borrowed a lot of money from an English industrial firm with motorcycle interests named Brockhouse Engineering. The terms of the deal were draconian: Brockhouse would manage a company called Indian Sales. Indian Sales had the exclusive right to sell to Indian dealers, and could also sell Norton, Vincent, Royal Enfield and other British motorcycles to the dealers. The Indian factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, would only be a supplier to Indian Sales. The deal blew up in January 1950, when banks that had made previous loans to Indian sided with Brockhouse. Brockhouse took over Indian and threw out Rogers. Chiefs were built for three more years at Indian’s Springfield factory until production ceased in 1953.

Sidecars

When Arnold Holliday, a World War II pilot who had flown 33 missions over Japan and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Three Oak Clusters, and the New York State Distinguished Service Medal, finally returned home from overseas service he promptly bought a 1948 Chief. Arnold stayed with the military, moving to the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. Arnold kept his 1948 Indian, at some point hanging a sidecar on it. He continued to treasure his Indian, treating it to a restoration in the 1980s. At that time Arnold was in the military only part time, and went to work for the local telephone company. There, he met Ronald Cornell, an outside contractor. When Ronald, an avid motorcyclist, learned about Arnold’s Indian outfit, he tried to buy it from him, but Arnold wasn’t interested in selling. Thirty years went by, and then about eight years ago Arnold, by then in his 80s, finally decided it was time to part with the Chief, selling it to Ronald.

Arnold was a modest man, and Ronald only learned about his war record at his funeral in 2014. Ronald, who has his own restoration facility and has restored several motorcycles, took his treasure home and went over it. He started by checking period books and magazines to determine what the Chief looked like when new and discovered that Holliday’s Chief was not only stock, it had all period accessories. It was also in good running order, needing only detailing and the stock chrome strips applied to the factory Indian sidecar. Indian made sidecars from the beginning, in 1901, and all Indian Chiefs were built with sidecar lugs to attach a sidecar on either side of the bike.

Matt Blake, owner of Iron Horse Corral, manufacturer of fenders, gas tanks and sidecar bodies for Indians, built a 1948 sidecar outfit from scratch and put 40,000 miles on it over 15 years. He says an Indian sidecar outfit has to be set up properly to handle properly, and strongly urges Indian owners to get copies of the postwar Indian rider’s manual and the factory repair manual, both of which are available free online if you join the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. The repair manual has instructions for lining up the sidecar and bolting it to the motorcycle, showing how the bike must lean 2 to 3 inches (approximately 1 degree) away from the sidecar. It seems counterintuitive, but once someone is sitting on the motorcycle, it looks right. Matt has taken friends for rides at speeds up to 55mph with no problems.

Matt also suggests paying attention to brake setup. Many Indian sidecars have a brake in the wheel, and using an Indian accessory known as a “brake equalizer,” which modulates the brake pressure of the rear motorcycle brake and the sidecar brake, makes it much easier to stop the outfit. He gets his brake shoes recovered by a truck brake recycler and suggests using a soft material. “It doesn’t need to be fancy,” Matt explains. “With soft shoes, there’s very little break-in period. They wear quickly, but most people who own Indians don’t ride them every day. My outfit stops on a dime. It’s a lot of fun and safe to highway speeds.”

Ronald prefers to ride slower. “I like to do 40-45mph with the sidecar. It will go that fast comfortably. The Chief will run 60-65mph if you want to scream it, but it’s an old bike and you have to treat it like an old bike.” Ronald thinks Indians were a bit faster and handled about the same as rigid frame Harleys of the same era. Although Arnold let the bike go, Ronald hopes it will stay in his family. “My three sons will end up with it,” Ronald says. “It’s a family heirloom — fun to look at and good nostalgia. It’s great to have one.”

Ralph Rogers didn’t think the future was in the Chief, certain the nod would go to his new lightweight models. Ironically, 60-plus years later the bike Rogers mostly ignored during his tenure at Indian became the model that still defines the Indian brand to this very day. MC