The 1948 Indian Chief

A look at the ins and outs of the 1948 Indian Chief.

Larry Kahns Indian Chief

Larry Kahn’s 1948 Chief features a right-hand throttle and left-hand gearchange.

Photo By Clement Salvadori

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If you wanted to buy a new Indian motorcycle in early 1948, you only had one choice: the 74ci Indian Chief. 1948 may have been a good year for the Cleveland Indians baseball team — they won the World Series — but it was not so good for the Indian Motocycle Company in Springfield, Mass. Harley-Davidson had just introduced its new Panhead, which featured hydraulically adjusted overhead valves, while Indian was making do with a flathead engine that had first seen the light of day back in the early 1920s.

Of course, if you liked sidevalve engines, still common in American cars following World War II, then Indian was your choice. The 42-degree V-twin had a bore of 3.25 inches and a stroke of 4.4375 inches, with a compression ratio around 6:1. A big Linkert carburetor fed the fuel.

Standard ignition was via a battery and an automotive-type distributor, with a manual spark retard/advance lever on the handlebar. Two separate pieces made up the gas tank, the left holding more than 2 gallons of gas, the right a further gallon of gas as well as the 2.5 quart oil reservoir for the dry sump engine. There are three caps on the tank, one on the left and two on the right, with the forward cap marked “OIL” — that’s where the oil goes. Stories from the era of Prohibition tell of riders carrying moonshine in the left tank and running on the right.

A four-row primary chain bathed in oil drove a wet multi-plate foot clutch. Here we should clarify the difference between a foot clutch and a “suicide” clutch. A foot clutch is not spring-loaded. Engagement takes place using the rider’s left foot to rotate the clutch pedal backward. If he disengaged the clutch and then put his foot on the ground, the clutch stayed disengaged. That’s different from a spring-loaded “suicide” clutch, which would leap into engagement with no foot to hold it. The Indian Chief used a 3-speed (or optional 3-speed and reverse), sliding-gear transmission, with a hand-shift mechanism on the side of the gas tank.

Indian offered the option of a left- or right-hand throttle, with appropriate gearshift placement. Legend has it that the police, a major market for Indians, liked the left-hand throttle so they could pull out their pistol and fire away at the likes of John Dillinger. Larry’s bike has the sensible right-hand throttle, as did mine.

Wheels were 16-inchers with 5-inch wide tires, with 18-inchers an option. Brakes were basic single-leading-shoe with narrow drums. A weight of 550 pounds, plus the rider(s), meant a little forethought was in order to pull the bike down from speed.

The front suspension used a hydraulically damped girder and coil fork. Plunger-style shock absorbers suspended the back of the “Double Action” Spring Frame. Each shock had two springs, the top cushioning the bumps and the lower providing a damping effect. They had minimal travel, but considering Harley’s rigid frame and more basic girder fork, the Indian’s suspension was a cut above the Milwaukee product.

Styling was enhanced by the famous Indian skirted fenders, which worked extremely well in keeping road grime off the rider. Rider comfort was enhanced by the sprung post on the saddle, and if you had the Buddy seat, it came with an auxiliary pair of springs that could be used traveling two-up. A Stewart-Warner speedometer sat on the two gas tanks, marked to 120mph. Not that a stock Indian Chief would even see three figures, but optimism is always good. The dash also included the ignition/light switch and a “battery discharge light” that lit up when the generator was not generating.

Indian only built some 3,000 Chiefs in 1948, a quarter of the 12,000 that came out of the factory in 1947. Ralph Rogers, the head of Indian since 1945, was trying to introduce new models based on British-style motorcycles (think lighter and smaller), but setting up production lines was taking longer than anticipated.

In July of 1948, Rogers got his first new bike in the Indian showrooms. Called the Arrow, it was an English-looking 220cc overhead valve single and was soon followed by the 440cc vertical twin Scout. Unfortunately, the rush into production showed that these machines had not been properly tested, and were not very reliable. Compounding problems, in September of that year Britain devalued the Pound by 25 percent, and the cost of English motorcycles in the U.S. dropped by 25 percent. The writing was on the wall; production of American-made Indians would cease within five years. MC 

Read about touring U.S. 101 on this classic bike in U.S. 101 by 1948 Indian Chief.