Four-cylinder motorcycles were a top-end luxury in the 1920s and 30s, and the Indian Four was built as such from 1927 until production ended in 1942.
Gary Phelps' 1933 Indian Four.
1933 Indian Four
Claimed power: 30hp (est.)
Top speed: 75mph (est.)
Engine: 1,266cc (77.21ci) air-cooled inline four
Weight: 495lb (225kg)
Fuel capacity: 4.6gal (17.4ltr)
Price then: $395
Price now: $20,000 - $60,000
In the early days of cars, the Ford Model T was appreciated as an economical workhorse, a simple automobile with a basic four-cylinder engine. Certainly there were bigger and more powerful engines in far sexier cars, such as the impressive V-12 in the 1916 Packard Twin Six.
The situation was much the same with classic American motorcycle manufacturers. Stout and sturdy single- and twin-cylinder engines in numerous makes of two wheelers could be likened to Ford’s humble four-banger. However, while the four was at the bottom of the ladder in the land of automobiles, a four-cylinder engine in a motorcycle was the pinnacle of power in the late teens — and for the two decades that followed.
A four-cylinder motorcycle like Gary Phelps' 1933 Indian Four was a luxury item for a private owner, as they were usually much more expensive than their single- and twin-cylinder counterparts. Generally, only the wealthy or police forces — where the machines were lauded for their power and ease of handling — were readily able to afford and operate four-cylinder bikes.
Ace, Cleveland, Gerhart, Henderson, Indian, Militaire and Pierce all made four-cylinder motorcycles in North America, and each of these ran an inline four with the engine placed longitudinally in the frame, as opposed to the more common transverse placement of four-cylinder engines we’re used to today, starting with Honda’s revolutionary CB750 in 1969.
There were other builders of four-cylinder bikes around the world, although not all had their cylinders inline. Britain’s Ariel made a square four, while Brough Superior constructed an experimental “stacked” flat-four (it had pairs of opposed cylinders, one on top of the other) and Matchless a V-four. Other fours included the Vauxhall inline four, the Wilkinson inline four and the Wooler flat four. Of all the British concerns, only Ariel’s Square Four (built from 1931 to 1959) had any real success. On the Continent, FN and Nimbus sold inline fours, as well.
The Indian Four was built by the Springfield, Mass., company from 1927 to 1942. The example we’re featuring is a 1933 Indian Four, commonly known as a Model 403, and it currently resides with Gary Phelps in Ventura, Calif. Tracing the roots of the Indian Four reveals ties to two earlier American builders of four-cylinder motorcycles — Henderson and Ace.
In 1911, designer William G. Henderson built an inline four-cylinder motorcycle and marketed the machine together with his brother Tom. Will was the engineering guru, while Tom had a mind for the financial side of the operation. In 1917, the Hendersons sold the business to bicycle magnate Ignaz Schwinn. Four-cylinder Hendersons continued to be built under Schwinn until 1931, when Schwinn abruptly pulled the plug on all motorcycle production to focus solely on bicycles.
Meanwhile, the Henderson brothers worked with Schwinn for roughly two years before embarking on the design and production of another four-cylinder machine, which they marketed under the brand name Ace. As Jerry Hatfield explains in his Illustrated Indian Motorcycle Buyer’s Guide, Will and Tom managed the Ace company from 1919 until 1922, the year Will died in a crash while test-riding the new Sporting Solo Ace model.
Will’s death marked the beginning of the end for Ace. Although the brand was sold twice in the mid-1920s and attempts were made to turn a profit, in 1927 Indian purchased the rights to the Ace name and the tooling for the four-cylinder motorcycle.
Under Indian’s ownership, the four became simply the Indian Ace. According to noted motorcycle historian Harry Sucher in his book Inside American Motorcycling, “[In 1927] at Indian, the Indian Ace was being face lifted in consultation with Arthur Lemon, with improvements to the original 1919 Ace engine and an integration of its cycle parts with the current Scout as a rationalization of production.” Lemon was an engineer who worked with Will at Henderson, and who came to Ace in 1923, eventually moving over to Indian.
A 1927 Ace brochure clearly indicates the Indian Motorcycle Company was “The New Home of the Ace.” It also lists 18 improvements to the four-cylinder machine, such as a new force-fed oil system to ensure better engine lubrication, new alloy pistons, a three-bearing camshaft and new foot control pedals. The tank, fenders, engine and fork of the Ace were finished in “Rolls-Royce” blue, complete with a gold stripe.
For 1928, the Indian Ace was finished in the well-known Indian red paint, but no more significant changes were made until 1929, when the Ace name was dropped and the machine became simply the Model 401 Indian Four. Indian now used their leaf spring fork, but kept the Ace-designed single front downtube frame for most of the year before introducing a new double downtube chassis in the Model 402.
The 402 featured a new five-bearing engine, an improvement over the Ace’s three-bearing unit. With the exception of a new rear brake in 1931, all late 1929 to 1931 Fours are similar in specification, according to author Hatfield.
In 1932, the Model 403 Indian debuted. The height of the frame at the neck had been changed. The chassis became taller, a longer front fork was added, and the gas tank was removed from between the upper frame rails and replaced with a saddle-tank design.
Where the pre-1932 Fours look lean, lithe and compact, these updated machines have a spindly, almost leggy appearance about them. Minor changes were made from 1932 to 1934, and Gary’s Model 403 falls right in the middle year. Indian made only 1,667 motorcycles in 1933, an all-time low production number for the company. Priced at $395 at the height of the Depression, the Four was a luxury very few could afford.
Indian’s 1933 sales brochure boasted: “For smoothness, extreme flexibility and all-around excellence of performance, there is no equal to the 1933 Indian Four. This Aristocrat of motorcycles emerges from the Indian plant with many improvements and new features.” Those modifications included a revised intake manifold, wider fins on the cylinders, new pistons, and altered first and second gear transmission ratios, allowing for quicker starts.
Interestingly, the factory literature contains some confusing technical references. In the Model 403 descriptive paragraph in the 1933 sales brochure, the 403 is noted as having magneto ignition with an Auto-Lite generator as standard equipment, or battery ignition with an Auto-Lite distributor “in a unit with the generator” as an option. On the very next page under model specifications, it states just the reverse. Authority Hatfield says battery ignition was standard and magneto was optional.
All the internal components of Indian’s four-cylinder engine, including the five main bearing crank, camshaft, clutch and transmission gears are tucked into the upper crankcase. The crank, cam, magneto and oil pump gears are located at the front of the unit and are covered by a pressed metal plate. The bottom half of the engine is a finned alloy casting that bolts to the upper case — similar to an automotive oil pan — but it does not provide any structural rigidity to the engine.
The four cylinders are separate, but the “F” cylinder head is a single unit with inlet over exhaust valve arrangement. Indian switched the valve arrangement to exhaust over inlet in the 1936 and 1937 Fours, which led to the term “Upside Down Four.” The upside down design was not popular with fans of the Four, but Indian kept the pattern for two years.
In 1938, Indian redesigned the engine, and one of the changes was casting the cylinders in pairs. “The result was a considerable improvement, and the entire motorcycle was a classic,” writes Hatfield, adding, “Yet hindsight tells us that in either 1936 or 1938 Indian would have been wiser to have canceled the Four and spent the engineering time and money on a new overhead-valve twin to go head-to-head with the Harley-Davidson 61 OHV.” Harley-Davidson was of course Indian’s major competition in the U.S., and Indian would ultimately lose the race to Harley, ceasing motorcycle production entirely in 1953.
Indian made its last significant changes to the 1940 model, when the company added fully skirted front and rear fenders. In 1941, Indian also made available a small wheel and fat tire combination. Indian halted Four production in 1942, and although the company experimented with four-cylinder designs during the war years and immediately afterwards, a production Four was never again offered.
Gary Phelps’ dad, Bud, bought our feature Model 403 in 1991 as part of a two-bike package deal that included the Four and a 1921 Indian Power Plus. Bud enjoyed riding the Four, but eventually he traded it to David Hansen, owner of The Shop in Ventura, Calif., for a 1936 Indian Dispatch Tow. The Indian Four, however, never left Gary’s garage. Gary and David have a unique ownership arrangement; David owns the motorcycle but doesn’t have to store it, and Gary is allowed to wrench, ride and essentially do with it as he pleases — except sell it, of course.
As purchased, the Indian Four had long ago been painted yellow over the original black with absolutely no preparation, and the paint covered everything, from the frame to the distributor to many of the nuts and bolts. The machine had matching numbers, with DCC 140 on the engine and 433 140 on the frame, making it an early 1933 model, as Indian started serial numbers at 101.
The Four ran very well when purchased, and over time Gary and Bud corrected various flaws in the bike. When the engine came out to get a new clutch, they restored the frame and other components, spraying them black.
The last vestiges of yellow paint finally yielded earlier this year, when Gary swapped the butchered original rear hub with a much better replacement item, and cadmium plated a few remaining fasteners and pieces, such as the rear brake rod, clutch rod and generator bracket.
Gary fires up the Four once or twice a month, taking two kicks to prime and one to fire, and then enjoys a 10 to 20-mile ride. At idle, the motorcycle rocks gently back and forth, and blipping the throttle produces a pronounced side-to-side motion. But once underway, Gary says the ride is one of the smoothest he’s ever experienced.
That’s an essential part of the charm of Indian’s inline four, in its day quite a luxury item. Unlike the humble Model T automobile, which provided only the bare essentials of transportation, the Indian Four supplied its owner smooth, luxurious power, the kind associated with the finest motorcars.
And that’s fitting, of course, because it was truly one of the finest luxury motorcycles of its — or any — time. MC