Motorcycle Classics

1948 Indian Chief from Illinois

Discover a classic iron Indian's second life.

Henry “Hank” Fajardo is as Chicago as they come. He still calls the Ukrainian Village neighborhood he was born in, home.

He recalls a typical Midwest childhood before modernist condos replaced workman’s cottages that dotted the 130-year old area. Before $1,000 strollers appeared on condo-lined streets, Henry and friends begged, borrowed and “liberated” dirt bikes to raise light hell on empty lots and alleys.

An early meeting with Chicago’s Finest made an impression. Jumping a single curb within sight of a CPD cruiser earned him a seat in the back with a call to his father to pick him up. Henry doesn’t remember the punishment, just the fear. But he kept throwing legs over bikes.

Youth became young manhood and new bikes meant a bigger playground. The late 80s were a golden era for sport bikes. Honda Hurricanes, GSXRs and FZRs ruled Lake Shore Drive and the expressways. Henry and friends beat their 600cc bikes into the ground, occasionally exploring the liter class. The famous Highland House in Highland Park was usually the destination, over-revving and pulling tasteful wheelies along the way.

Then adulthood arrived, along with careers, houses and families. Sport bikes were sold, swapped for cruisers or sometimes just put away for good. It’s hard to argue with new priorities that need diapers, formula and fathers with fully intact limbs. But the love of two wheels endured. He even became a certified state instructor for Ride Chicago, putting a responsibly ironic flourish to his younger years.

Itch, meet scratch

Having mastered adulthood with a house, happy wife and kids, attention turned to his garage. Or filling it. Friends had made the jump to newer Harley cruisers. But Henry’s tastes wandered.

He explains, “Everyone should have more than one bike in the garage. One for cruising, one for mountain carving, one for the track and dirt. And a classic wouldn’t hurt.”

An accomplished photographer, he’d shot a number of Knuckleheads and Panheads at meetups. He’s always liked jockey shifters and old chrome. The classic Chicago man was smitten by classic iron.

motorcycle headlight handlebars and gas tank

The initial search began for anything from the 1930s to the 1960s. Leads were few and far between. But one popped up in Lincolnwood — a 1948 Indian Chief. It was complete, turned over and still had everything it came with in 1948, both good and bad. And it was black.

Henry wasn’t an expert on anything Indian — but the owner was. Sellers always say, “I know what I have.” But this one did. Deals weren’t just being handed out. This wouldn’t be easy. Henry was at a crossroads.

Shifting winds

In 1943, Indian was also at a crossroads. Would they innovate their way to the future or lean on bank they already had? They chose the former, following the path of one of their own.

1943 saw G. Briggs Weaver, Chief Engineer, leave Indian to join Torque Engineering along with two fellow Indian alums. Founded in 1940, Torque Engineering was developing a new line of small displacement motorcycles. Weaver had worked with owner E. Paul duPont since 1916. Though Indians had seen little styling updates since 1930, Weaver was instrumental in revising the Ace-type four-cylinder and its redesign in 1938.

Torque Engineering was founded by Ernest and John Stokvis, who previously worked for an import-export firm dedicated to Royal Enfield, DKW and even Indian motorcycles. Their interest in smaller, newer engines was likely inspired by the European machines they imported.

Harley-Davidson and Indian regarded overseas competition with outright hostility and disdain. By controlling the AMA board and its magazine Motorcyclist, both companies made sure competition rule books were stacked in their favor. Even Motorcyclist did its part. If foreign machines won or placed, they were only mentioned in the box score. Race journalism and color commentary only applied to American iron. The future was coming, but the fix was in.

Even before the war was over, the tea leaves were clear. Foreign boxers, parallel twins and singles were gaining interest. Sales numbers were miniscule, but they showed up at AMA competitions, welcome or not. Billy Matthew’s win at the 1941 Daytona 200 aboard a light, well-handling Norton International raised eyebrows.

Indian doubled down and bought Torque Engineering outright. They were reaching for the future, grasp notwithstanding.

Selling and buying long

Henry wondered if his reach was exceeding his grasp. He stared at the online ad.

“When you buy something like that, it’s like, can you even ride it? That’s where I was at with the Indian.”

Henry contacted the seller, whose first words were, “How do you know about this?” He explained how ads on the internet worked, which began an uneasy courtship. The seller wasn’t exactly ready to part with it yet. But repeated calls made him relent, and eventually, Henry got a first look at the Indian.

“It was like something out of American Pickers.”

A 2-car garage held rusty gems, but a flashlight revealed the Chief in the corner. Henry climbed over other bikes and eventually uncovered the prize. Sort of.

“It was in crappy shape, really dusty, pitted here and there with rust. But it was a bit of a unicorn.” It seemed to be calling out to Henry to save it.

The Chief was likely a Sportsman, as opposed to Clubman or Roadmaster, depending on options or trim. Roughly 3,000 Chiefs left the factory in 1948, depending on your source.

Flashes of chrome hinted at treasure underneath. And it ran, despite ten years in storage. The courtship had begun. The owner stalled a bit. He wanted to pull it out of storage, maybe clean it up or consider other offers. An older gentleman, he’d acquired it in a trade, but by now couldn’t properly kick the bike over. Saying goodbye was hard.

But a month later, the Chief finally saw daylight. It ran rough. But Henry was undaunted and made an offer, which was immediately shot down. The owner “knew what he had.”

“Cheap at any price” comes to mind with Indians. Henry knew the bike was a masterpiece of American postwar motorcycles and a reliable store of value. If he didn’t overpay it would pay dividends one way or the other, if finances went pear-shaped.

A deal was struck. The date was October 8th, 2009. Henry had a comfortable job in IT at Time Warner in downtown Chicago but soon the Great Recession was in full swing. 2010 would change everything in the media world. Some good, but mostly really bad. A job was lost, and things got tight. But Henry hung onto the Indian.

Bad things begin

A peak is a peak because it’s surrounded by downhill. Some say Indian peaked in 1948 when they built a second run of legendary “Big Base” Scouts as 648cc homologation specials to qualify the bike for Class C AMA competition.

But 1948 also produced a swansong. CEO Ralph B. Rogers put the final touches on Indian’s death spiral by discontinuing the Chief (following the Scout after World War II) while focusing on smaller singles and twins produced with Torque Engineering.

World War II was a double blow to Indian. Indian’s war contracts paled in comparison to Harley’s. Their forward-thinking, transverse-mounted V-twin 841 model came to only 1,000 units before the order was canceled in favor of the Jeep. Tough competition, indeed.

Soldiers came home to a shortage of motorcycle inventory and continuing wartime controls on raw materials and prices. World War II created tens of thousands of new customers planning to get a bike when (or if) they returned stateside, but demand far outstripped supply. Some dealers repainted older models, selling them as “new.”

When bikes finally arrived in Indian showrooms, there was no Scout. The competitive heart of Indian was gone. Ralph B. Rogers was betting on lightweight singles and vertical twin motorcycles. It wasn’t a bad bet. Soldiers knew the joy of smaller, lighter British twins and even purloined BMWs. Large American V-twins were of limited use on the front lines and in uneven wartime terrain. New GI customers might enjoy reliable, new engineering.

engine close up

The 841 previewed future engineering strides but didn’t help the bottom line. Moto Guzzi would later adopt the 841’s transverse V-twin layout. The newly developed hydraulic girder spring fork migrated to the 1946 Chief and the 841’s plunger suspension was improved as well, for later service on the Chief. But little of this translated to showroom sales.

1948 was both peak and nadir for Indian. The trademark valanced fenders had only existed for 8 years, while the iconic “war bonnet” fender light was only in its second year of production. Two-tone paint also made a comeback after war rationing of materials. A 1948 Chief was an instant classic. But Indian was betting elsewhere.

Second life, Second City

Henry now owned a 1948 Indian Chief. Getting it home involved a nephew and a trailer. And “cash on the barrelhead” with a visit to a Currency Exchange for a title transfer. It was a long day and the work was just starting.

“When I got home, I literally just sat on it for a few months.”

He’d visit it in the garage, take pictures and dream of what to do next. His computer expertise translated somewhat to older bikes, but he needed help. As he gathered opinions, he cleaned up paint and chrome, exposing as much shine as possible to a new century.

For all the motorcycling tribes in Chicago, Henry was on his own with the Indian. But a now-shuttered shop called Ace took on Henry’s passion project, with the caveat that they weren’t exactly Indian experts.

Ace did a fantastic job, helped by the buzz the Chief generated in the shop — and in town. A healthy number of test rides were taken on Chicago’s west side. Some were surprised to learn Henry was the owner of the bike.

top view of gauges on gas tank and handlebars

“People would be like, ‘oh yeah, I saw your bike but some other guy was riding it.'”

Jerry Greer Engineering in Deadwood, South Dakota, was a huge help too. They provided spokes for rebuilt wheels, tires, clutch rebuild parts and help with fixing a few leaks from the gas tank. Or tanks, period. The right tank holds both oil and reserve fuel. In a nod to early Indian mods, a passageway was drilled between the transmission case and bottom end, allowing oil to be shared.

Surprisingly, the wiring loom was fine. The “war bonnet” light worked as did the headlight. The only issue was a specialized resistor that blew, preventing starting. But Greer came to the rescue again. Soon, the 6-volt battery was busy with its limited workload.

Next up was learning how to start it. The timing had to be retarded, via the left handlebar grip. And he had to watch out for kickback from the kickstarter. Don’t forget the choke. Wear steel-toe boots. And if it floods? Wait for the gas to dissipate or blow it out with air.

“It was like going through a preflight checklist.”

But having mastered starting, all that was left to do was to enjoy the Chief. Henry started his victory lap in earnest.

From bad to worse

A victory lap aboard an Indian in 1948 was a common thing, provided you were racing one of those “Big Base” Scouts. Otherwise, you were S.O.L. The Chief was basically the same machine Charles B. Franklin designed in the mid-20s. Tariffs and protectionist policies along with AMA’s exclusionary competition rules meant American iron hadn’t innovated much in 20 years.

Postwar, Indian was in trouble, but CEO Ralph B. Rogers had a plan. He embarked on a barnstorming tour of the country to assuage Indian dealers’ panic.

Panic was well-founded. The Scout had been discontinued and the Chief was next. Indian dealers knew small and medium-sized motorcycles were being planned, but were largely in the dark. Indian’s push to build smaller machines wasn’t a bad idea. But the execution couldn’t have been worse. Precarious finances and unexpected R&D costs for the new Torque singles and twins meant higher sticker prices.

Oddly, Indian dealers were able to import British middleweights like Matchless, AJS, Norton, Royal Enfield and Vincent through the Indian Sales Company, a separate entity from the Springfield factory. These were the same machines Harley and the AMA were concerned about. It seemed like Indian was hedging its bets.

The 1949 Arrow and vertical twin Scout flopped in terms of performance, quality and price. Warranty claims piled up. Dealers noticed the 220cc single Arrow was missing a chain tensioner. The Edison magneto burned out easily. The clutch and shifter didn’t hold up to light abuse, either. The 440cc parallel twin Scout bore no resemblance to its previous namesake. Neither machine was suitable for competition.

two images of right side of motorcycle

Well-built and at the right price, both might have sold reasonably well. The Scout and Chief might have too, had they been offered at all. The Interstate Highway System was less than 10 years away. America was big, but people’s lives were smaller in scope and geography. Though the American market favored large displacement bikes, reliable small twins and singles could have been a hit.

Harry V. Sucher’s exhaustively researched book, Inside American Motorcycling and the American Motorcycling Association, 1900-1990 paints a picture of bold ideas set in motion by marketing and leadership that excelled at neither. Ralph B. Rogers, CEO since 1945, didn’t even ride.

The “smartest guys in the room” weren’t interested in “bumpkin” dealer insights about sales success. Rogers experienced their wrath firsthand. A group of dealers led by Mr. Indian himself, Sam Pierce, angrily stormed a board meeting in Springfield, Massachusetts, to protest the post-war cancellation of the Sport Scout. Security guards soon manned the factory entrance.

Adding to Indian’s precarious finances was a $400,000 loss incurred on a wartime contract for airplane hydraulic valves and pumps. The IBM bookkeeping system either malfunctioned, or employees didn’t use it correctly. Nobody likes bean counters, but everybody needs them.

The Chief returned in 1950 with telescopic forks and an engine stroked to 1,300cc, thanks to Rogers’ course correction, but it was too late. The same year, British-born John Brockhouse took over from Rogers. But he took little interest in the thankless task of saving a dying marque. His token contribution came in rebadging British singles, like the Indian Brave, which was universally disliked. The last classic Indian motorcycle rolled off the assembly line in 1953.

Life after death

black motorcycle with red guitar on the foot rest

Some 68 years later, the debate over what killed Indian is a moot point. Every Springfield survivor is a raucous celebration of life. The fact that Henry’s Chief is 98% original (give or take) is beside the point. When it starts, it might as well be a preamble to Eisenhower’s America. In fits and stumbles, it comes to life — when done right.

Being a teacher, Henry became a student of not only the starting procedure, but the running protocol. The foot clutch must be mastered. “If you’re not smooth, you’ll stall the bike. You gotta put the stand down and kick it. It can be a bit nerve-racking if you’re at a stoplight.”

Braking also involves a bit forethought. Group rides mean other riders need a heads up about the Indian’s tendencies. “You have to really predict a bit. You use more back brake than front.”

Fortunately, Henry keeps good company on rides. The Indian always draws a crowd, and fellow riders make sure impatient Chicago drivers know their place. No one rushes the Chief. And in time, Henry has mastered making the Chief reliably hum along Second City’s boulevards. He’s become an ambassador of sorts for the classic marque, surprisingly one of the few in Chicago.

engine close up

“It gets seen a lot at Cobra Lounge, 5-Star and other bike nights. I’ve done the Gentleman’s Ride a bunch of times, too. It’s really fun on Lake Shore Drive. Riding it is beyond description. I’ve taken it on the expressway, too. Felt like I was flying a B-17 bomber.”

In a good way or a bad way?

“A little scary,” he laughs. “But it’ll do 70 miles an hour, no problem.”

Ready for the closeup

Shooting the Chief in Henry’s alley drew a number of curious passersby. Good company included Henry’s childhood friend, Dan, a former homicide detective. Over PBRs, Dan told stories of growing up in the neighborhood. He prefers newer streetfighters and motards, while Henry loves cruisers. Henry’s Yamaha Bolt bookends the Chief, along with a Yamaha R1. But the king of the garage is Springfield’s finest export.

man standing next to motorcycle

The Chief wears its age proudly. The paint might be a respray, but the dings and nicks are 100% original. Whatever the case, Indian red primer peeks through a few spots. Gas stains from the petcock mingle with oil weeps here and there. It all paints a picture of a true survivor.

The Chief hasn’t needed much work. The mounting bar is extant, waiting for period lamps or windshield, should Henry decide so. Even the “aftermarket” exhaust is from a ’52 or ’53 Indian. Tires are another trick item ordered from Jerry Greer — they even say “Indian” on the side of their generous black-walls.

Unlike museum pieces put out to pasture, Henry’s Chief sees regular action. Henry regularly slings a guitar over his back and rides it to gigs for his band, Los Gallos.

Is the ’48 Chief the greatest Indian made? In 2011, Polaris parked a 1948 Chief in their design studio for two years as they hammered out Indian’s rebirth. Who’s to say. Might as well argue about colors in the rainbow. We love the debate, not the conclusion.

Henry provides the coda to this story. He just sold his trick Yamaha R1 to make room for a new bike. It’s a 2022 Indian FTR 1200. Natch. MC

Greer Engineering

parts on shop wall

Funny thing about motorcycle shops. They’re both graveyards and nurseries. Jerry Greer’s Engineering’s shop in Deadwood, South Dakota, is a resting place and holy sepulchre for pre-1953 Indians.

Originally a manufacturing company called Custom Fabricators, Inc., Todd and Lore Ksenych began making parts for the legendary Jerry Greer’s Indian Engineering, in Stanton, California. Todd’s first Indian build some 30 years ago began it all. Over time, they bought out Greer’s name, catalog and inventory and hung their own shingle in the iconic town of Deadwood, South Dakota, around 2014. The 1936 warehouse is a Valhalla, of sorts.

Todd kindly offers a tour of both workshop and parts warehouse. The parts storeroom is immaculately clean and organized. Thousands of bins of original and reproduction parts quietly wait to feel the wind again aboard a customer’s restoration. Upstairs, a garage door welcomes the passersby to step in and see works of art in progress in the cavernous workshop. Rollers hold court with the rebuilt, with restored tanks and handlebars watching from on high.

parts hanging on the wall

Specializing in 1936-1953 Indians, Jerry Greer’s Engineering is dedicated to keeping as many of America’s most loved motorcycles on the road. They may be resurrected in Deadwood, but Todd and Lore’s hard work ensures old Indians will continue roaming America’s roads.

Jerry Greer’s Engineering 1-800-307-9027
136 Sherman St. Deadwood, South Dakota 57732

Franklin’s Indians

Franklin's Indian's book cover

These American V-twins were meant to be remembered. The Indian has been the iconic image for American big V-twins down the years, due in no small measure to the motorcycles designed by Charles B. Franklin. His designs catapulted Indian back into the forefront of motorcycle design in the 1920s and ’30s and his racing engines and motorcycles won much glory for Indian against stiff opposition. Franklin introduced remarkable improvements in side valve combustion chamber design that predated the work of Ricardo. He championed a holistic approach that popularized new features such as the semi unit-construction power plant, helical-gear primary drive, double-loop full-cradle frames and a host of other improvements to the early motorcycles. This title is available at the Motorcycle Classics store or by calling 800-880-7567. Item #10940.

  • Published on Oct 3, 2021
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