The History of the Indian Motorcycle

The History of the Indian Chief


Overview of the Indian Chief 1922 to 1953
First  Chief Models - 1922
The first 1922 model Chief had a 1000 cc (61ci) engine based on that of the Powerplus.
A year later, in 1923,  the engine was enlarged to 1200 cc (74ci). Both the 61ci and 74ci Chiefs were produced along side each other until 1928 when the 61ci model was dropped.
Numerous improvements were made over the years, including the adoption of removable cylinder heads in 1927 and the provision of a front brake in 1928.
In 1935 the Chief was offered with three tank panel styles and also optional 4 speed transmission.
In 1936 ‘T’ lines were fitted to improve oil lubrication to the engine upper end., however 1937 saw the end of the ‘T’
In 1938 the Chief was adorned with an integrated tank mounted instrument panel for the speedometer, ammeter and ignition switch.
In 1940, along with the Scout, the Chief was fitted with the large skirted fenders that became an Indian trademark, and the Chief gained a new sprung frame that was superior to rival Harley's unsprung rear end.
The Chiefs of the 1940's were handsome and comfortable machines, capable of 85 mph (136 km/h) in standard form and over 100 mph (160 km/h) when tuned, although their increased weight hampered acceleration.
Production of the chiefs for civilian use was ceased during the WWII war years from 1939 to 1945.
In 1950, the V-twin engine was enlarged to 1300 cc (80 cu. in.) and telescopic forks were adopted. But Indian's financial problems meant that few bikes were built. Production of the Chief ended in 1953.

Chiefs from 1946 to 1953
The most common Indian Chief is the postwar 1946-48 type, due to the post WW II sales boom.
The factory considered it obsolete by 1949 and consequently there were virtually no Chiefs produced in 1949. This caused considerable upset with the loyal owners and Indian supports and dealers alike, and as a result of the popular demand the chief was brought back in improved form in 1950.
Of course the demand from the public was not the sole reason that the chief was re-introduced. The company was experiencing poor sales from its lightweight motorcycle lines, and due to lack of investment and development during the war and early post war years, the company did not have a large capacity successor to the chief that it could market.
During the war years the Indian Factory invested heavily in the development of the 841 Indian. Engineering-wise, however, the very rare model 841 (made for the Army in 1944) must take the biscuit. It had foot shift, shaft drive, equal cooling to both cylinders, longer rear plungers, an under-seat oil tank, etc.
Whilst this was not a success the Chief did inherit the Girder front forks from the 841, first seen  on the Chief in 1946.
The 1950-53 Chiefs are the most desired Indians by collectors, although some prefer the Indian 441 four cylinder or the flathead V-twin Scout (750 c.c.) production of which ended when the war ended.  
Real connoisseurs prefer the 1950 and '51 Chiefs over the 1952-53 as they had the front-wheel drive speedometer  and the earlier upswept exhaust , American carburettor and more swooping front fenders compared to 1952-53. (The front wheel speedometer drive was introduced in 1948 and dropped in late 1951 to save money, resulting in an ugly plug for the old drive hole in the front brake cover)
Compared to the 1946-48 Chief (which had the girder front forks) the 1950-53 "Blackhawk 80" or "Roadmaster" had 1300 cc instead of 1200cc motors (achieved by altering the stroke as the 74ci bore was already at its limit) and had a modern telescopic-hydraulic fork which were aesthetically pleasing and worked well.
There was also a spring fitted on the left of the crank to absorb engine shock, and this bulge in the primary chain cover is another way to identify the later models. Unfortunately the factory lacked the finances and foresight to convert the engine to OHV, and to replace the archaic 3 speed, non-synchromesh gearbox.
Indian had briefly offered a 4 speed gearbox in the late 1930's but it was simply a 3 speed with another gear spliced between low and what used to be second (now third). This bridged the big gap between the original 1st and 2nd, needed for acceleration in the city, but still left a big gap between top gear and the one below it. It did not reappear after WWII.
Instead, in 1949 and early 1950 Indian tried to invent a foot shift for its 3 speeder but it was troublesome and was not progressed. Less than a handful of prototype 1950 models had this option.
An attempt to improve shifting and eliminate the crunching into gear was made in the early fifties with a "clutch brake" that stopped the clutch from spinning when disengaged, but this proved unreliable and most owners have eliminated this "feature" from their machines.
As of the 21st century, Bob Stark (California) sells a foot shift/ hand clutch kit that is very expensive but works (for old 3 speed gearboxes only), and an Ontario, Canada man sells the King Clutch which has improved friction and slider plates to eliminate the crunching, and the Chief Overdrive company in the US sells a four speed synchro-mesh gearbox (designed by an Englishman who designed gearboxes for British motorcycle factories in the 1950's) that works perfectly. In this respect the Overdrive transmission is authentically 1950's.
After the factory closed in 1953 it briefly re-opened a few months later to assemble 50 Chiefs ordered by the New York City police department, which favoured Indians over Harleys. (You can see some in the Frank Sinatra movie "New York, New York").
According to one source a small crew, under the instructions from the Bankruptcy Receiver's, assembled 50 Chiefs for the police and an extra five for dealers.
Jerry Hatfield (an eminent authority on the Indian Motorcycle History and author of multiple Indian books) reports that the factory ran completely out of parts early in 1953.
Despite demand from hundreds of dealers across the USA , Indian simply did not have enough parts to make any more than 500 Chiefs in 1953. They couldn't get the Linkert Company to build 500 more of the old carburettors so had to use (more modern) English Amal carburettors.
Indian were forced to purchase some small parts at high prices, (like a chuck that holds the helper spring on the spring-post mounted dual saddles) because of the small batch quantities required.
Walter Brown, a manager during the 1950's, confirmed that the last Chiefs were assembled in early 1953. Among the last were those made for the NYPD, although he puts the number at 75.
While Indian was "biting the dust" in the early 1950's, its main competitor Harley had been successfully selling its OHV "knucklehead" since 1936 and had a 4 speed gearbox on its big twins since the late 1930's. (hand shift and foot clutch.)
About the only engineering advantage Indian had by the early 1950's was its plunger rear suspension (a mere 1.5 inches of travel) and fender styling.
1953 was the last year of the all-American Indians were produced.

This page maps the history of the Indian Chief Motorcycle.

We begin with an overview of the Chief and take you through its development, the rise and fall of its popularity, its variants, the war years and finally the the end of its production in 1953

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