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Red Eliason

Photo by Pete Dopson

This is a short story of a motorcycle that is not exactly what it appears to be.

Indeed what is pictured is Red Eliason (more on that name later), an American bitsa (a custom). It is a collection of parts, gathered together with imagination and a sense of adventure, to create a modern street-legal, period-type dirt tracker.

The purists can take a deep breath and relax, knowing that no collectible was butchered to gain the end result. The bones of this custom form an amalgam of sorts: A rigid frame from a 1937 Indian Sport Scout married to 1942 (?) Indian Sport Scout mechanicals. An ideal candidate for a custom is a nonmatching frame and mechanicals.

But here’s the winter twist, an even better reason for building this custom red creation: A mismatch of mechanicals, as the engine was sourced from a snowmobile, specifically an Eliason Motor Toboggan/FWD (Four Wheel Drive Auto Company) of Clintonville, Wisconsin.

Indian powered

Carl Eliason was a mechanic, steam engineer, blacksmith, and general store owner, and in 1924 built his first snowmobile in Sayner, Wisconsin. So, to the discerning eye of a motorcyclist, this engine telegraphs the message that it looks like an Indian 45-cubic-inch V-twin, and indeed it is. But from 1940-1946 Indian sold a block of approximately 300 Sport Scout engines with 3-speed transmissions and kickstarters to Eliason/FWD, for installation in their motorized snow toboggan.

The 45-cubic-inch V-twin was built by Indian to power an Eliason Motor Toboggon. Photo by Pete Dopson

Red Eliason’s engine is stamped FWD32, and we believe it to be a 1942 model, as the Linkert carb is stamped M-642. Because of the low engine serial number (in a possible series of 300) it may be a 1940 or 1941. It’s a bit of a mystery, as the FWD series doesn’t appear in any published record of Indian Sport Scout serial numbers.

The Eliason Motor Toboggan that was powered by FWD32 was housed somewhere on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing, near my home in Northern Ontario. At some time the wooden toboggan got separated from the mechanicals after the drivetrain suffered a major failure.

Photo by Pete Dopson

But how had I acquired the bones of this bitsa? A good friend happens to be a mechanical whisperer and an Indian enthusiast. Many conversations centered around favorite engine configurations, and I often waxed on about someday finding a Harley 45 flathead, as a project, to keep as a family heirloom. My friend kept steering me towards an Indian Sport Scout.

Basket case

After years of influencing me to consider a Sport Scout, he offered me Red, a project that I would never put together without his mechanical skills. My skill set allowed for completing tin work and paint. The project would require finding many parts, as they were missing from the basket, yes, an actual basket!

This basket changed hands to me in 2010, and by 2015 some additional parts had been gathered, but by then I had become discouraged and intended to offer the basket and parts back, as the project appeared to be stalled for too long. I felt disappointed, and considered myself a failure. Certainly I didn’t deserve holding on to such a special project.

Back on track

Soon a group of enthusiastic friends entered the picture and kicked the project back to life. In the process, one of these dedicated friends suddenly passed away, and the project took on a whole new, and more important reason, to be completed.

What began as just a pile of parts is now a running machine. This is what we started with! Photo by Pete Dopson

We all dug in, and more bits were assembled, while some custom parts were made. By this time two very dedicated Indian builders were making progress with Red, and by June 2017 the bike was fired up for the first time after being converted to 12 volts, with distributor, battery and coil ignition to replace the magneto. The engine itself had very little wear inside. As proof, the cylinder hone marks were discovered when we tore down the engine. After re-assembling it, I broke-in the mechanicals as a new engine, due to the lack of prior wear.

Almost two and a half years after commencing the real start of the project, the bike was up and running, and I was nervously learning to manage the foot clutch and tank shift operation of this special bike. This rejiggering of foot and hand coordination took most of the 2017 season, but by mid-autumn I was quite confident with shifting. Serious concentration was required, but it proved so satisfying to reach to the jockey mounted shifter and engage one of his three long gears.

A joy to pilot

Photo by Pete Dopson

One might wonder about where the name Red Eliason came from. Doesn’t everyone name their stuff? I named the bike “Red” for two reasons. The first is while growing up, both my good friend Buck (the earlier-mentioned mechanical whisperer) and I were carrot-tops, and when searching for our names, others would defer to the “Red” moniker as a catch-all name. Secondly, Indian Motorcycles had many paint colors (think duPont), and one famous color was Indian Red, so this Indian Motorcycle would have a red tank, and a set of cast-off enduro handlebars in red also. The second part of the name, Eliason, is in honor of Carl Eliason, and his historical importance to snow country.

Ready to ride

So how does this motorcycle with a snowmobile engine perform? The motorcycle handles smoothly and settles into a comfortable groove at 50-55mph. The tall profile tires and sprung saddle provide a surprisingly soft ride, even whilst being a rigid. The girder is adequate, but attention must be given to potholes or the whole bike jumps sideways.

The engine pulls strongly in first gear from a stop to 25mph. Second gear is an “around town gem” providing speeds from 15-45mph. Third is for cruising at highway speed. The brakes are adequate and haul the bike down effectively. The aftermarket Ear Cannon Air Horn is comforting insurance, if needed.

A period advertisement for the Eliason Motor Toboggon from the owners’ collection. Photo by Pete Dopson

The seating is very much up and on top of the motorcycle. The bike swings like a balloon-tired fat bicycle, with weight slung low. I’ve grown to very much admire the 25-horsepower engine and 3-speed combination.

In these country parts, a motorcycle with a curious link to snow travel seals the interest of many. Snowmobiling and motorcycling are linked in recent years, particularly as Polaris Industries, the maker of snowmobiles, acquired the iconic Indian Motorcycle name, and commenced producing Indian Motorcycles.

It seems somehow correct that Red Eliason is an Indian motorcycle with a winter twist, powered by a snowmobile engine (albeit a Indian Sport Scout 45).

It is a motorcycle that is not exactly what it appears to be! MC

Published on Feb 4, 2021

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