Back in the Fifties, I celebrated my graduation from high school by selling my functional 250cc NSU and buying something big and flashy — a well-used Sunshine Yellow 1951 Indian Chief. It was fun, and it certainly attracted the girls at the A&W drive-in, but it wasn’t too handy in the curves in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, nor were the brakes anything to be proud of. I sold it within a year.
That was a long time ago. In more recent times, I have had the opportunity to ride a few restored Indian Chief motorcycles, including Larry Kahn’s 1948 Indian Chief, a bike he’s owned since 1992 and renovated some 15 years ago with the help of well-known Indian specialists Starklite Cycle. Since then, he’s put around 3,000 miles on his “Harley humbler.” A while back, Larry found a website with a 1948 road map of our California county, San Luis Obispo, where U.S. Highway 101 is the main north/south route.
Two hundred years ago, U.S. 101 was a dirt track called El Camino Real, The Royal Road, running from Los Angeles to Monterey. It received its 101 status when the feds began numbering roads in 1926. In the Fifties and Sixties, 101 was widened and most of it made limited-access, but looking at the map, we realized that a good deal of the older two-lane road still exists. We decided that a “48-48” ride (1948 route, 1948 Indian) was in order. Larry would ride the Indian one way while I took pictures, and then I would ride the return to re-acquaint myself with the pleasures of a 65-year-old Indian.
Like many an old bike, there’s a certain protocol to starting an Indian Chief motorcycle. Fortunately, the starting drill for Larry’s Chief is pretty easy, at least for sizable riders; this is no lightweight operation. Begin with the Chief on the sidestand and in neutral; make sure the clutch is engaged and kick the engine through a time or two. Next, turn the petcock on. If the engine is cold, pull up the choke lever. Retard the spark by twisting the grip on the non-throttle side of the handlebar (it could be either side, depending on the particular bike). Open the throttle grip just a tiny bit. Raise yourself up, then come down hard on the kickstarter and you should be rewarded with a healthy roar! Advance the spark by twisting the non-throttle grip back and the engine should settle into a happy idle. Conscientious riders will take off the oil cap and look inside the tank to ensure oil is being pumped back in.
You are now running, but you still have to get moving. Lift the sidestand then lean the bike a bit to the right, as you will soon have to lift your left foot to disengage the clutch. That slight lean is a knack any hand-shifter soon learns. Pull the gear lever back to engage first gear, doing so authoritatively as there will be the inevitable grounch as a spinning gear meshes with a stopped gear; don’t worry, this is just the way things were back then. Rotate the clutch back slowly, give the engine a little gas, and you’re away. It’s very simple, really.
Moving down the road a ways, make the long shift through neutral to second, then go for third. The Indian Chief is perfectly happy rolling along at 60mph, with plenty of throttle left. Above that, the engine feels a bit stressed, but 60mph was pretty fast back in the day. The feel of the engine is mildly tractorish. It’s low-revving with lots of torque, and the narrow-angle V-twin has a comfortable vibration starting at perhaps 2,500rpm. There’s no tachometer here, but I imagine the claimed 40 horses come on before an estimated 4,400rpm — few riders would want to spin the engine any faster. The 1948 Indian Chief does benefit from smooth roads, as the suspension — girder springer front and plunger shocks rear — is a little lacking by 21st century standards.
The road calls: Traveling on U.S. 101
Santa Margarita, where our little journey begins, had its start as a railroad town back in the 1880s when the Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific, was digging tunnels and laying track to get over a mountain ridge, the last hurdle between LA and San Francisco. Heading north on old 101, now officially sign-posted as El Camino Real, the road is straight, paralleling the railroad until a slight divergence as we approach Atascadero, the railroad sticking close to the Salinas River, the road drifting slightly to the west. That name — Atascadero — comes from the Spanish atascar, to get stuck; the Spanish/Mexican ranchers of 160 or more years ago, carrying their goods to market in the town of San Luis Obispo, would have to cross the Salinas River here and sometimes got stuck. Back in 1916, a developer named Edward Gardner Lewis bought up much of the land and asked a local what the place was called. “Atascadero,” he was told, but he never bothered to investigate its meaning. He built a planned community, along with an impressive city hall in the Palladian style, and advertised the place as a retirement haven.
Crossing over the Paso Robles Creek a few miles north of Atascadero, we come to Templeton, an unincorporated town with an old-fashioned Main Street that was once U.S. 101. It still has a huge granary and part of the old covered sidewalk. Back in the days of dirt roads and lots of horses, shopkeepers built sidewalks of boards so the ladies could keep their skirts clean; now the road is paved and the sidewalk is concrete, but some stores still have the covers over the sidewalk. Less than 5 miles up the road is Paso Robles, which used to be part of a Spanish ranch called Pass of the Oaks. With the economy changing from cattle-ranching to grape-growing and tourism, the area has become a worthy competitor to Napa Valley as a wine-lover’s destination. Upward of 150 vineyards are clustered here, as well as scores of tasting rooms. The Paso Robles Inn has been offering hospitality on old 101, now Spring Street, in the center of town for more than 100 years; a half-dozen newer motels are on the new 101 exits.
North of Paso Robles the old U.S. 101 has been renamed Monterey Road, which stays close to the Union Pacific railroad tracks until it rejoins the new 101 a mile or so south of San Miguel, a Spanish mission town. As we exit U.S. 101 into San Miguel a sign points right to the Rios-Caledonia Adobe, which is on the old, old 101. The two-story adobe building served as a stage-stop inn in the 19th century, the road getting paved in 1915, with a garage and gas pump opening to service the Indian Powerplus motorcycles and Ford Model T cars that happened to be passing by. Stagecoach Road became U.S. 101 in 1924, until the highway was moved a little to the west in 1938.
The Mission San Miguel was founded in 1797, but a fire destroyed much of the mission 10 years later, and work on the present structure began in 1816. The main street through town, old U.S. 101, is now called Mission Street, with the railroad tracks on one side and buildings on the other. The Shady Rest Motel, which may actually date from 1948 — nobody seems to know — still stands on Mission Street, but it probably hasn’t seen many travelers since the new 101 bypassed the town in the 1960s. Today, the free-standing units have become mini-apartments.
North of town, Mission Street merges with U.S. 101, and we decide we’ve had our fun. We cross over the Salinas River here and head back to Santa Margarita on the old River Road, enjoying the thrill of riding Larry’s 1948 Indian Chief for a little while longer. The Indian feels good on these roads, happy, even. Maybe Larry’s Chief spent its youth in these parts, and enjoys a whiff of nostalgia for life past, as many of us still do. MC
Read more about the history and structure of this classic bike in The 1948 Indian Chief.