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End of the Line: 1953 Indian Chief

1953 Indian Chief

Engine: 1,300cc (79.84ci) flathead air-cooled 4-stroke 42-degree V-twin, 3-1/4in x 4-11/16in bore and stroke, 6.5:1 compression ratio, 50hp at 4,800rpm (American Motorcycling, December 1952)
Top speed: 92mph (period test)
Carburetion:Single Amal Type 6
Transmission:
3-speed, left-hand shift, left-foot clutch, chain final drive
Ignition:
6v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Dual downtube steel cradle/62in (1,575mm)
Suspension:
Telescopic forks front, dual plungers rear
Brakes:
8in (203mm) SLS drum front and rear
Tires:
5 x 16in front and rear
Weight (dry):
570lb (259kg)
Seat height:
30.5in (775mm
Fuel capacity/MPG:
3.4gal (12.9ltr)/35-45mpg
Price now:
$25,000-$50,000

Matt Blake started learning about Indians when he went to work for Sammy Pierce, known to many as “Mr. Indian.”

At the time, Sammy was managing the Steve McQueen estate’s motorcycles. “During that time, I got hooked on Indians.” That was a while back, but Matt has stayed hooked. His aim in life is to keep classic Indians on the road. At this point, it looks like he is succeeding.

After the job with the McQueen estate ended, Matt started a business manufacturing tanks, fenders and other sheet metal pieces for Indians. He also does restorations and repairs. In order to advertise his business, he goes to a lot of classic bike events (well, at least that’s why he says he goes to all those events). Matt was at the big Davenport, Iowa, show and swap meet when he met Mike Oddo, the third owner of the 1953 Chief you see here. They started talking, and Oddo hired Matt to restore it.

Matt Blake aboard the Chief.

Indian’s past

This Chief represents both an end and a beginning. When this bike was built in 1953, the Springfield, Massachusetts, Indian factory was about to close, the victim of bad management and a severe downturn in the motorcycle market. The year after the Springfield plant closed, some of Indian’s former employees formed the Antique Motorcycle Club of America Inc., marking the beginning of the classic bike movement. The AMCA started as a small regional organization, but started forming chapters outside of New England in 1970. Enthusiasm for old bikes really took off in the 1980s and has never slowed down.

While 1953 was the last year the original Indian company made motorcycles in the United States, the end of Indian sparked the old-bike movement that ensured that this 1953 Chief — the end of the line — would be preserved and appreciated. The old-bike movement also helped create the conditions that would lead to the return of Indian as a brand.

The rise, fall and return of Indian reads like a novel. Indian was once the largest motorcycle company in the world. Around World War I, Hendee and Hedstrom, the two men who had been responsible for Indian’s success, retired. Management went to a group of financiers who had little understanding of how to make a go of a motorcycle company. In the 1920s, some people in management were literally stealing from the company treasury.

At this point, E. Paul DuPont, a member of the DuPont paint family, bought stock in the Indian company. He soon learned of the underhanded dealings, and used his knowledge to buy out the prior owners and put his own people in. With DuPont’s competent manager running the business, Indian looked ahead to a bright future.

Then the Depression hit. Sales dropped like a rock. DuPont was forced to use his own money to prop Indian up. By 1935, the company had gotten back to its feet, but still had to make payments on back debt, some of which was owed from the time when the thieves were in control. As the 1930s struggled to an end, it was becoming obvious that the United States would soon become involved in World War II, and Indian started exploring contracts with the U.S. Army and Allied armies in other countries. Sales to France ended when that country was overrun by the Nazis. After the main U.S. Army contract was awarded to Harley-Davidson and his long-term manager died, DuPont decided to throw in the towel and find a buyer.

The buyer he found was Ralph Rogers, who took over the Indian company right after World War II ended. Ralph Rogers wanted to build lightweight motorcycles, similar to the bikes then being built in England. It was a good idea, but the vertical single and twins Indian ended up building were not well designed and suffered from lack of quality control. While Rogers was trying to overcome these problems, Indian continued to build 74-cubic-inch V-twin Chiefs. They were fast bikes, but the engine design was somewhat outdated. Rogers also tried to relocate Indian to a new factory while he was working out the problems with the verticals, and, with too much going on at the same time, 1948 production of Chiefs was cut to 3,000 bikes. In retrospect, this was not a good move.

Motorcycle choices

Many GIs had encountered motorcycles in Europe, and liked what they saw. Indian sold thousands of motorcycles to returning veterans, and probably could have sold thousands more if they had produced the bikes that buyers wanted. In the 1940s, American motorcycle buyers had a choice — they could buy an Indian Chief, with a sidevalve engine, one of the new, unproven Indian verticals, a Harley-Davidson with overhead valves, or one of the newly imported foot shift English motorcycles, which were much lighter and easier to ride. The English bikes were also proven designs, and much more reliable than the Indian vertical twins. With Indian behind on deliveries to dealers, many Indian dealers opted to sell Triumphs and BSAs.

The final blow came when the British government devalued the pound in September 1948. Britbikes were now not only easier to ride and more reliable, they were also cheaper. With bankruptcy staring him in the face, Rodgers worked out a deal with J. Brockhouse and Co., an English conglomerate. In return for a $1.5 million loan, Brockhouse got the right to supply Indian dealers with motorcycles, some made in the Indian factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, but also AJS, Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield and Vincent bikes made in England. Production of 1949 Chiefs was halted in order to concentrate on problems with the verticals — another bad move. Brockhouse became unhappy with the continued losses, and started a campaign to force Rogers out. He resigned in January 1950, and Brockhouse management took over.

The single Amal Type 6 carb and its shiny Indian air cleaner (above).

Chiefs hold on

Production of Chiefs was resumed for the 1950 model year, with the telescopic forks that had been designed for the 1949 Chiefs. The front fender had smaller skirts than those on previous Chiefs. Matt Blake explains that Indian reused the same sheet metal “crown” form for many years, simply making changes in the sides of the fenders. “By 1953, the crown form was basically worn out. We used a stock fender to make our form, and had to carefully adjust our form because the stock fender crown was not straight.”

The biggest change for the 1950 Chief was a longer piston stroke, which bumped the cubic capacity of the engine to 80 cubic inches. Compression was increased, and these engine changes resulted in 50 horsepower, 10 more horses than the previous model. A compensator sprocket smoothed out power. A 3-speed transmission was standard, with a 4-speed (or a 3-speed with reverse, for sidecars) optional. Hand shift was standard, although the few Indians built in 1949 had foot shift and hand clutch. For the past 48 years, Indian had built bikes with a left hand throttle and right hand spark advance. The 1950 version had right hand throttle as standard — the same as Harley and the Britbikes.

By 1951, Indian had largely given up on the verticals, and was building only the Warrior and Warrior TT versions of the design that Rogers had championed. The 1950 version of the Chief was continued with a few cosmetic changes.

In 1952, the Chiefs used the same muffler that had previously been used on the Warrior vertical twin. The fender skirts were shortened again, and a bench seat was an option. The Linkert carburetor company, which had made all the carburetors used on Indians since 1941, refused to manufacture carburetors for Indian for this model run. There are two stories: Either Indian was not paying its suppliers, or the model run was too small (Indian planned to build around 500 Chiefs) for Linkert to make special carburetors. So Indian went to British-built Amals. Most Indian aficionados hated the Amals — they had no experience with them, and they were more tricky to tune than the tried and true Linkert — and at least some 1952-1953 Chiefs either came with a leftover Linkert from 1951 or were retrofitted with a Linkert by the first owner.

The 1953 Chiefs were very similar to the 1952 Chiefs with some minor changes to the kickstart and the fender tabs. About 350 were built before the Springfield, Massachusetts. Indian factory closed for good. Brockhouse badged several different English motorcycles as “Indians” for several years, then sold Indian to another English firm, AMC. After AMC went bankrupt in the mid- Sixties, the Indian name and trademarks went through a murky period, which finally got cleared up in court years later.

With expanding interest in all things vintage, several undercapitalized companies started motorcycle manufacture using the Indian name in the 1990s. In 2011, the Indian name and trademarks were sold to Polaris, which had the deep pockets necessary to develop the brand. Today, Indian is charging ahead, racking up flat track championships and enjoying skyrocketing sales.

Mike’s Chief

Mike Oddo is the third owner of this bike, which has a serial number indicating that it was built in the middle of the 1953 production run. The first owner bought it new from a dealer in New York. The factory may have built it partially to New York City Police Department specs — the NYPD mostly used Indians for patrol purposes until the Springfield factory closed — but Matt believes that the bike left the factory in civilian clothes.

It has the solo saddle, while most non-police ’53’s had bench seats. Police rear fenders had a special hole for the siren drive, but the original fender on this bike was bobbed, with the part with the hole missing. However, many police bikes had Linkert carburetors, instead of Amal, and the bike has the stock generator instead of the high output generator requested by police departments. At this point in time, there is no way to tell for sure whether or not the bike was originally meant to be a NYPD mount.

1953 Indian Chiefs are rare — about 350 were built during the model run. The bike is also unusual in that it came with much of the original bodywork and other parts in useable condition, including the tank, front fender, Amal carburetor, most of the engine, and front forks.

Motorcycle maestro Matt Blake restored the Chief, which won first place in the American category at the 2019 Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

Mike sent Matt the bike in crates. The owner has started restoring the bike before he decided that it would be better if a professional took over. Matt started by making a careful list of what he had — and calling the owner to look for more parts. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it is very easy to misplace parts once a bike is apart. Almost everything that was missing showed up in another box.

On Matt’s recommendation, Mike sent the engine to Burnett Motors in Merced, California, a specialist in classic Indian engines. Matt started by rebuilding the forks. “One of the nice things about working with Mike was that he wanted the bike to look good, but not over-restored,” Matt says. “You have to remember that these bikes were built as everyday transportation. The paint wasn’t perfect and the chrome wasn’t perfect. The biggest problem I had was getting the Amal carburetor to not leak,” Matt says. “The jet block was not mating properly, and I had to make special cables and rebuild the carburetor a second time. Indian used two separate wiring looms on the ’52-’53’s, which is unusual. One harness goes to a button on a footboard.” Wiring looms are available aftermarket and Matt installed new ones. He continues, “The ’53’s used a 6-volt system and a generator, with a mechanical regulator, and it works, as long as you use a big enough battery.” Matt points out that the ’53 had English-style lever controls. “The right lever is for the choke. You push it forward for the choke to be on, and you have to set the lever tension.”

The engine came back from Burnett Motors. Matt installed it in the frame and mounted the Amal carburetor, which he had finally beaten into submission. An Iron Horse Corral rear fender, correct for the year, replaced the sawed-up original. Mike gave Matt permission to take it to a few shows before shipping it to him in the Midwest. The bike won first place in the American motorcycle category at the 2019 Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, California.

On the road

A 1953 Indian Chief, like any mid-1930s and later Indian, is very rideable today, provided a little care is taken, and Indians regularly turn up on vintage runs. Matt emphasizes that the best way to keep an Indian Chief running is to follow the advice in the rider’s manual that Indian provided with every new machine. The manual was very complete, almost the equivalent of a modern service manual, and copies for most years are available from people who sell Indian parts. “The break-in instructions are important. You can’t go over 50mph for the first 500 miles, and you need to vary the speed.” One chore that the manual emphasizes is the greasing schedule. Chiefs have numerous Zerk fittings, and it is important to go over the bike with a grease gun on a regular basis. Another essential chore is changing the oil. Matt likes to use 40 weight oil, but goes up to 50 weight if the temperature is over 80F. The ’53’s have a separate transmission, which uses 80 weight gear oil.

Matt likes all Indians, but he is partial to the telescopic fork 80-inch models. “The front end is far superior to the girders, and comparable to a modern bike. The telescopic forks are the best front end for a Chief. The engine, with the anti-chatter sprocket, is smooth as silk, even though it’s still a flathead. It’s the most refined, comfortable bike.” MC

Published on Apr 15, 2020

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