Upside-Down Indian: The 1937 Indian Four

The 1937 Indian Four has support despite the controversy surrounding it and its upside-down 4-cylinder design.

| July/August 2015

Claimed power: 35hp @ 3,600rpm (est.)
Top speed: 90mph
Engine: 77.21ci (1,265cc) exhaust-over-inlet inline four, 2.75in x 3.25in bore and stroke
Weight (wet): 515lb (234kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4gal (15ltr)/40-50mpg
Price then/now: NA/$25,000-$50,000

Was this the bike that killed Indian? Some enthusiasts say that when Indian brought out its still-controversial “upside-down” 4-cylinder design in 1936, the Springfield, Massachusetts, firm started down the slippery slope to failure. 1936 was the same year Harley-Davidson introduced its iconic Knucklehead, a stylish motorcycle with a look that still resonates today, while the “upside-down” Four faded from view.

The idea that the redesigned Four hurt Indian is held by no less than the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, which, in its summation of the model, said, “It was the answer to a question no one had asked: What was wrong with the Indian Four of the 1930s? As it turned out, very little. But that didn’t stop Indian engineers from ‘improving’ the design in 1936. And in the process, building one of the company’s biggest flops.”

Frank Westfall, an expert on American inline fours and the owner of our feature bike, disagrees — and most emphatically. “The ‘36 and ‘37 Indian Fours had a lot more power. The 1927-1935 Fours were dogs. Dave Holzerland is an Indian Four expert, and his 1935 Four is in top running order, but when I am riding my Henderson on a run with him, I have to pull over and wait. The Henderson — built in the Twenties — is faster than the Indian Four built in the Thirties.”

Frank has support from other Indian Four fans. “Red” Fred Johansen, Antique Motorcycle Club of America director, has no fewer than three 1937 Indian Fours, and thinks they are perfectly fine motorcycles. “They are supposed to overheat in hot weather, but that’s an old wives’ tale — they don’t. They were the Gold Wing of their day. They are comfortable and will go all day long. If one passes you, you will hear their sound — like a herd of bumblebees or a small airplane going by. There’s nothing like it.”

The Indian Four was based on the Ace, a popular motorcycle designed by William Henderson in 1919. The Ace was powered by an inlet-over-exhaust inline 4-cylinder engine, with chain final drive. It was smooth and fast, but the company that built it had suffered serious setbacks. Henderson was killed in an accident in December 1922, and the company’s financial management was worse than hopeless — a not uncommon problem in the Roaring Twenties. After two separate reorganizations, the patents and remaining stock for Ace were bought by Indian in early 1927.

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