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

  • Larry Kahns Indian Chief

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.

10/2/2019 1:20:12 PM

I owned a 1948 Indian Chief 74 ci model, from 1960 to 1966. Mine was stock, and weight was 725Lb wet. The 550 lb. might be the 1939 I think, 45 ci I also owned.

Keith Robinson
7/18/2013 5:04:58 AM

harleys had springers. not girders. "....considering Harley’s rigid frame and more basic girder fork..."

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