U.S. 101 by 1948 Indian Chief

Clement Salvadori rides the famed U.S. 101 aboard a 1948 Indian Chief.

| July/August 2013

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.

Getting moving

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.

Ride 'Em, Don't Hide 'Em Getaway

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