The author and his '39 Chief.
Ok, I know it’s ancient but my main ride today is a 1939
Indian Chief. I learned how to ride on one just like it in 1965 as a
19 year old boy from Brooklyn NY and a life long love affair
began. My Dad often told me stories about riding Indians in his
youth (1930s) and I was intrigued. I had already bought a 1939
Plymouth(red!)for transportation and belonged to an antique car
club. There I mentioned my Dad’s Indian experience and a
member said he knew of an old Indian Chief for sale near
Allentown PA. He was able to purchase the 1939 Chief for me,
sight unseen, for the princely sum of $75.00.
In truth, I had never seen an Indian before and I guess I half
expected it to look like a (then) modern motorcycle, only older.
Wow! Was I disappointed when I first saw it: faded blue paint,
rusty, engine frozen up, totally strange looking leaf spring front
end, foot clutch (left foot) and stick shift (right hand), backwards
controls (left hand throttle), something called “manual spark
advance” (right hand) which rotated the distributor, no return
spring for the throttle or spark and where was I going to get
parts! About the only thing that made sense was that the hand
and foot brake were on the right side. Well, through the antique
car club I was introduced to Chuck Myles, then in his mid 20’s
who was a local Indian “nut” and had experience and parts
beyond his years. I also located Colavito’s Motorcycles in
Amboy, NJ, a place my father had gotten parts for his Indians as
a boy. Turns out Colavito had a warehouse overflowing with
obsolete Indian parts: the mother lode. Need a ’39 engine:
$25.00! Linkert carb: $1.00! Those days are gone forever!
When my Dad found out that I had purchased a motorcycle,
even an Indian, he was furious with me: no scooter trash in his
family! Seems it was OK for him to ride but not so for his son.
Having no where else to store the Chief, I rode it down the coal
chute into my grandmother’s brownstone apartment building
basement in Brooklyn and there disassembled the Chief piece by
piece until it covered the floor. That’s when I discovered the 1st
Law of Motorcycle Restoration: “Everything is broken”. Each piece
was cleaned, restored or replaced and taken out of the
basement in the back of my Plymouth to my Uncle’s large
garage in Staten Island for reassembly. After about a year, it was
ready to go. What a sensation. This was my first bike and I had a
lot of learning to do but since I was learning for the first time on
a vintage bike it became second nature to me. I didn’t have to
unlearn anything and I felt at home with what to others would be
a confusing set up.
I was drafted into the Army in 1967 and sadly wound up selling
my beloved Chief in 1970 for $150.00. Ouch!
Fast forward to 2002.
I found a ’39 Indian on eBay and with my wife’s urging (“Go
ahead! You deserve it!”) purchased it for a lot more than I sold
my first Chief! It was in reasonably good condition but did need
a thorough going over before I rode it out. The 2nd Law of
Motorcycle Restoration states: “In the past someone has done
something to the bike that has the potential to kill you. Your job
is to find it and fix it before it does.” So a complete disassembly
and reassembly ensued where upon I rediscovered the 1st Law
of Motorcycle Restoration: “Everything is broken”. My sons had
purchased the book “Indian Motorcycle Restoration Guide 1932-
53” by Jerry Hatfield as a Christmas present and by sheer luck I
discovered Chuck Myles name in the back of the book. He was
still in the business and we re-connected after all those years. I
now ride my Chief about 3000 miles a summer and am currently
restoring a 1946 Chief.
So what’s to review? First off it takes a bit of doing to ride
an Indian, especially if you learned on a more modern bike.
There’s a lot you have to “un-learn”. It’s funny but it took me
only about 1 minute to get re-accustomed to my latest ’39
Chief: kind of like riding a bicycle, you never forget. Riding a
68-year-old motorcycle is a real “trip” and it has its own
personality. It’s almost a religion and you must follow the
dogma. Here’s the start up ritual:
Guardian of the code.
1. Disengage the clutch to make gear shifting easier.
2. Place gear shifter in neutral between 1st and 2nd or
alternatively false neutral between 2nd and 3rd (upon starting,
shift into third to free up clutch plates. This engages the slider
gear and 3rd gear dogs at a lot lower relative speed to the
engine instead of 1st gear’s teeth at a lot higher relative speed
which clashes the gears);
Make sure clutch is engaged or you won’t be able to kick the
3. Open petcock (turn the gas on dummy).
4. Full choke, wide open throttle (left hand), ignition off,
retard spark (right hand), kick engine over: actually more of a
shove down with your body weight than a kick with your leg. We
don’t need no stinking electric starters!
5. 1/2 choke, closed throttle, ignition off, kick engine over
6. Make sure you have already retarded the spark (right
hand)…if you didn’t and the engine fires it will kick back and
buck you off the kick starter with authority! I’ve heard stories of
broken legs resulting, but I don’t believe it unless your leg is
made of glass. In that case you have no business riding a
motorcycle in the first place.
7. Open the throttle about 1/8, ignition on, kick engine
again to start.
8. Advance spark to about 1⁄2 (best idle will be found
between fully retarded and fully advanced position…use your
ears to determine the best position) for a high idle and open
choke gradually as engine warms up. It will beat with a nice
regular thump when the mixture and timing are correct.
9. Push clutch pedal forward (disengaged) and “flick” the
gear into first gear if in neutral; or alternatively pull gearshift
into 3rd if in the false neutral position (this will free up the
clutch plates when oil is cold) and then push back through 2nd
into 1st. Don’t try to push it into first gear or all it will do is
10. Give it some throttle and let the clutch back in and
away you go.
By the way: there are no return springs on either
throttle or distributor. The twist grips stay where you leave
them, sort of a primitive cruise control and a great way to relieve
hand tension on long rides. Just set it and forget it.
The suspension is primitive to say the least. The front
suspension is an un-dampened half leaf spring (with 11 leafs, it
looks like it belongs on a pickup truck!) with only about 1-inch
of play in either direction. There is a rubber bumper mounted on
the front fender underneath the leaf spring just in case you hit a
really big pothole so the rockers won’t crash into the fork: they
will anyway! When people ask me about the rubber bumper, I
tell them it’s the ejection seat button: if the leaf spring hits that
bumper, you have left the bike!
The rear is a hard-tail and the seat is sprung via a coil
spring in the center post. So what you have essentially is the
front end, seat and rear end all moving in different directions by
different amounts while you are headed down the road. When
you hit a bump you hope that all three suspension parts wind up
back on the road with you on board in the same relative
position! Actually it works pretty well and especially at speed
where the ride rivals even modern bikes. On rough roads going
slow will bounce you something fierce: you’ll understand the
need for kidney belts and an athletic supporter after a few miles
There’s nothing quite like your bottom coming down hard
on a seat that’s coming up hard to get your attention. You’ll also
find that your legs make up an important part of the suspension
system. You wind up taking up a lot of shock in your legs while
pushing against the floorboards. The other oddity is the
handlebar which is often called a “Texas Longhorn” for its
resemblance to the horns of a cow with the same name. Not only
long but also canted downwards, these bars were probably
designed to deal with control on gravel and dirt road. They
certainly provide enough leverage to muscle the front wheel if
needed. However their width and cant will cause them to run
into your knees if you try a tight low speed turn. This coupled
with the long wheel base make a U-turn in the middle of a
street problematic at best.
There are however a several redeeming features. The
wheelbase is about 12 inches longer that most modern bikes
and it rides on high profile 18” tires and it has a trailing link
front suspension. This in effect spreads the bumps (between
front and back wheels), smoothes the bumps (larger diameter
wheel) and pulls the front wheel along rather than pushing it
along which makes for very stable steering. Hands off, the Chief
tracks like it’s on rails. These characteristics combine to give the
Chief surprisingly good road manners on good roads. Couple
this with a low seating position and very low center of gravity
and you have a very stable yet maneuverable bike. The only real
danger is on whoops or dips in a road. Given the right
length/depth or frequency of these, the front end reaction can
be so quick and, of course undamped, that it can literally jar
your wrists, elbows or shoulders out of joint if you’re strong-
arming the handlebars.
You have to learn to relax and hold the bars lightly or
they will literally pull you apart!
The “suicide” clutch (often mistakenly referred to a “suicide
shift”) is another part of the Indian mythology. There are many
explanations for why it is called “suicide”. For most it might
appear to be the apparent awkwardness of a foot clutch, hand
shift, left throttle and right spark advance when you’ve learned
on a modern bike. It almost seems that you run out of hands
and feet to operate the bike! But that’s not the reason. Actually
the Indian clutch pedal has no return spring: it stays where you
leave it, or at least it’s supposed to. Often you will not take the
Chief out of gear, for instance when stopped on a hill, but rather
downshift into 1st, leave it in gear and the clutch disengaged
until ready to proceed. This way you don’t have to go through
the machinations of disengaging the clutch while putting it in
gear, engaging the clutch while holding it up while braking so
you don’t roll backwards down the hill! While there is no clutch
return spring there is a tension spring and friction disk that are
supposed to keep the clutch pedal in position. Here is where the
problem occurs. The friction disk can get worn (or the nut
loosen up) and as a result will not hold the pedal in place. The
engine’s vibration can cause the pedal to pop back into
engagement and the bike lurch forward unexpectedly. I’ve never
had this happen to me and I think periodic checking of the
spring’s tension takes care of that problem.
The transmission is a relic and requires special care in
shifting. All the gears are straight cut, no sychronization here,
and share the same oil as the primary case. Of course you’d like
a light oil for the clutch and heavy oil for the gears but that is
not possible (unless you seal up the transmission) so any oil you
use is at best a compromise. As a result the clutch, with its 14
plates (8 fiber and 6 steel) does not like to fully disengage: ever!
The result can also be a lot of gear grinding unless you know
how to shift.
Starting out from neutral, with the throttle closed I retard
the spark to further reduce the idle and flick the gear-shifter in
to 1st: usually just a little click is heard. You can’t slowly push it
into 1st gear or it will grind. I’ve heard people talk about double
clutching when shifting but it’s not needed. The secret is to
match engine speed with transmission gear speed when shifting
up and down. Shifting up requires you to cut the throttle in 1st
gear and then deliberately shift up into 2nd gear, allowing time
for the gears to mesh: no speed shifting here. It’s less
troublesome shifting into 3rd since the sliding gear dogs
directly engage with those of 3rd gear. Down shifting into 2nd
and then into 1st requires that you “blip” the throttle open
momentarily to speed up the engine just as you disengage the
clutch and shift out of the higher gear.
Using careful shifting technique makes for silent shifts,
reduces gear wear and a much more pleasant ride. A huge
improvement are the Kevlar clutch plates (King clutch) which
have far less surface area yet better friction coefficient than the
originals and thus release much easier. Indian specified 30
weight oil for original clutches and transmission and people for
years have tried all sorts of concoctions to overcome the stock
clutch/transmission problem…with mixed results. However with
the new Kevlar clutches I routinely use 80/90 weight gear oil
and the clutch releases quite well, especially when warmed up.
Importantly the transmission gears are also far better lubricated
than with the lighter oils.
The flathead engine is an antique design (similar to your
Briggs and Stratton lawn mower!) that puts out only 40
horsepower at about 3600 rpm, but it’s all very useful power.
What you soon appreciate is the huge torque output at
somewhere around 1500 rpm. These engines are real stump
pullers and with their huge flywheels and long stroke can be
idled down to near nothing. This gives the bike a very smooth
low idle and the feel of a big hand smoothly pushing you from
behind when you open the throttle.
With all this torque you don’t need more than a 3-speed
transmission or to shift gears when you come to a hill: flatheads
love hills and all you have to do is crank the throttle open. How
fast will it go? My stock engine will hit 95 mph with a 24-tooth
(23 is standard) drive sprocket but is happiest at 60-65 mph. I
suspect 100 mph would be possible with a higher sprocket and
some performance tweaking.
While cruising I get about 45 miles to the gallon with 3 1⁄2
gallon tanks. The left tank has about 2 gallons and right tank 1
1⁄2 gallons with a 1⁄2 gallon oil tank that feeds the dry sump
lubrication system. Oil consumption is about a quart every 500-
750 miles depending upon how hard I thrash it. Oil from the oil
tank can migrate to the bottom of your crankcase: “wet
sumping” it’s called. This can create starting and overheating
problems. When extreme you get to drain the crankcase first
before you can start the bike when this occurs. Wet sumping can
occur after the engine warms up and is stopped or just over time
parked in your garage. Doing a proper rebuild on the oil pump
and circulation system usually eliminates this problem.
Of special note is the mysterious thing called the manual
spark advance which is operated by the right twist grip. This is
in turn connected to a distributor: Yep, just like in an older car
complete with distributor cap. Twisting the grip clockwise
rotates the distributor clockwise and retards the spark timing
while twisting the grip counter clockwise rotates the distributor
in the same direction and advances the spark timing.
Manual spark advance was common “back in the day”: crank
started cars had it or you would have risked breaking your arm!
In more modern vehicles (through the 1980s), timing is
automatically retarded and advanced by a mechanical governor
or vacuum line or combination of both. There is precious little to
tell you how to operate the spark advance but it’s easy to
remember if you consider only three positions: fully retarded;
fully advanced; middle position. Fully retarded is used only for
starting the bike. This allows the piston to go past top dead
center before it fires thus eliminating the possibility of a kick
back through the kick-starter. Fully advanced is used for riding
the bike at speed: just leave it there and forget about it as long
as you are moving. You might retard timing a little upon
climbing a hill to prevent detonation but with today’s high-
octane gas that’s not really necessary. The middle position is
used primarily while stopped and at idle. If the mixture is right
you’ll get a nice even thump at idle that says you’ve hit the
sweet spot ignition wise.
While there is no problem going fast or slow, stopping can
be a challenge. On today’s bikes you expect the front brake to
provide about 75% of the stopping power. In the Chief it’s the
exact opposite: indeed the rear brake probably supplies 90% of
the stopping power. In the 1930’s front brakes were only
recently added. Prior to the late 1920s motorcycles typically did
not have front brakes. Part of the rationale comes from the kinds
of roads available back then. Most were not paved so high speed
was not an issue. Additionally, these roads were at best gravel or
worst rutted dirt and it was thought that a too effective front
brake would lock up on such surfaces and pitch the rider. Believe
me there is no threat of lock up with the Chief’s front brake! It is
barely able to stop the bike by itself and is better suited for
holding the bike in place when stopped than anything else.
Needless to say, with all that stopping power in the rear brake,
your rear tire wears out about twice as fast as the front one
does! When used in conjunction with the rear brake however you
can slow the bike down effectively, but it takes a lot of
anticipation to stay out of trouble.
think about tailgating the car in front of you or you will wind up
in the trunk!
The electric system also deserves mention. Power is
supplied by a 6-volt, 29-amp battery of heroic proportions: it’s
big and heavy and expensive ($80.00+). Remember that at 6
volts it takes twice as many amps to do the same work as a 12-
volt system. It also leaks acid regardless of what you do to
prevent it. The reason is that the tar used to seal the individual
cells inevitably cracks and allows acid to leak from around the
terminals, corroding the contacts and anything else it touches:
like the rear fender! I can’t understand why internal
improvements haven’t been made on the original design to
prevent this. In desperation I wound up hollowing out the old
battery case and inserting a new sealed gel 6-volt 14-amp no-
maintenance battery on the inside. It worked like a charm and
no more leaks but it brought its own problems with it. Such
sealed gel batteries can become a very expensive fuss, if there is
ever a problem with the electrical system.
The only time I’ve ever been stranded is when the generator
field wire brushed up against the armature and shorted out. Not
only did it cut the ignition, but it fried the gel battery instantly!
Now I’m back to using modern lead acid batteries in the old
cases. They are much more durable and able to take some abuse
and still provide enough current to get home in an emergency.
The charging system uses a 6-volt generator with a movable 3rd
brush to control current output and a cutout to control voltage.
It’s simple and must be adjusted to get just the right balance of
voltage and amps so you don’t discharge the battery or boil it
off. Originally these generators were placed right up against the
rear cylinder, the heat from which greatly lowered output. In
later models the generator was placed behind the seat post away
from the engine but output was still puny: about 19 amps cold
and 10 amps hot which is barely enough to run the lights and
Maintaining the Chief takes some dedication. At last count I
noted 17 grease fittings and oil caps: I’m sure I missed at least a
couple. Do you know where all that grease and oil wind up
eventually? Right! On you clothes…that’s another reason for
wearing leathers. Additionally you have to periodically set
primary chain tension, drive chain tension, valve lash, point gap,
ignition timing, idle and high speed needles as well as the
obligatory oil changes for engine, transmission and primary case
which come every 1000 miles if you want the Chief to last. You’ll
also periodically check and tighten up all the bolts and nuts if
you want to prevent stuff from falling off the bike. If you haven’t
figured it out yet, this means you have to become a mechanic
and do the work yourself. You can’t take this to your local Indian
dealer for the 1000 mile check up!
Owning a Chief is no different than owing a horse or other
live (large) pet. The “face time” you spend maintaining the Chief
will bring you closer together and you’ll gain an appreciation for
your trusty steed. It also may get your butt out of trouble should
you break down on the road. By the way, there is only one-way
to work on an Indian: that is the Indian way. You will quickly find
out that there is often only one way to do things, the “Indian
way” if you will, and any “short cut” or “unauthorized detour” will
lead to frustration and the necessity of starting all over again
from scratch. That’s the way they built them and that’s the way
you have to work on them.
To date, with about 9000 miles on the clock, I’ve had only a
few problems and most were not directly related to the Chief
itself but rather peripherals that failed. For instance, the spark
advance internal control wire broke (worn out) but I was able to
get home by reaching down with my right hand and rotating the
distributor to advance the spark. I now have a spare internal
control wire in my saddlebag. The ignition coil shorted out but I
was able to pick one up from a local NAPA dealer: I think it’s a
VW coil but works fine. I had a short in the ignition switch and
was able to bypass the electrical system going directly from the
battery to the coil. I now carry a wire with alligator clips on both
ends to do this.
The vent on a gas cap became plugged and prevented the
flow of gas from one of the tanks. I simply swapped it out with
the other tank and got home. A brass carburetor float developed
a crack and filled with gas causing the carburetor to overflow
gas down my left leg. Fortunately that occurred near home and I
was able to open and shut the petcock while riding (quite a feat)
to keep the engine running. The generator developed a short: a
zip tie internally separated the offending wire from the
armature. Point is you are going to have to know how to work
with what you have and pack tools and spare parts. I had one
suspicious character ask what I’d do if someone took the rotor
out of the distributor to immobilize the Chief with the intent of
coming back later to steal it. I told him “No problem! I have two
spare rotors in the saddle bags, a cell phone and a Washington
State concealed weapons permit” and then promptly rode away.
The big draw for Indians, besides the name, is the styling.
My 1939 Chief was the last year for the smaller fender skirts but
I like the long, low, lean look of the bike. In some ways it more
resembles a “Sportster” version of the Chief than later full-
valence models. I think it also handles better, is lighter, less
affected by cross winds, and faster than later models. My Chief
never fails to draw a crowd, even when only Harley buffs
abound. I recently pulled into a gas station in Packwood,
Washington during “Packwood Days," kind of a mini Sturgis flea
market, and was approached by a biker gal who asked to take a
photo of my Chief. Her grandfather rode Indians she said and
she wanted to send him a photo. I did her one better: I put her
on the bike and took a photo of her! That made her day! The
previous year, while returning home from “Packwood Days”, I
gassed up in Morton, Washington and was approached by a
group of Harley riders. One asked me almost reverently “Is that
a real Indian?”
I told him “You bet!”
He replied “I’ve been
riding these back roads for 25 years and that’s the first one I’ve
ever seen out on the road!”
We went inside the mini-mart
and shared a cup of coffee recounting my love affair with Indians
and our love affair with motorcycles.
My Indians aren’t the only bikes I’ve ridden: I’ve also owned
vintage Honda, Suzuki, BMW, Yamaha and Kawasaki’s. However I
can honestly say that the Chiefs are a world and era apart from
the rest of them. While I can appreciate anyone who rides,
regardless of what they ride, nothing can replace an original and
that goes for the “new Indians”. They may be modern, fast,
capable, bikes but they aren’t truly Indians (1901-1953) and
never will be and that’s OK with me.
It’s tough to say what
Indians would have been like had they survived beyond 1953 so
modern Indians can only reprise some of their original physical
appearance. For most riders, an original is out of the question
due to performance, cost and maintenance issues. But for those
who move at a more leisurely pace and have the mechanical
inclination (or failing that, have a ton of money!), there is no
Despite all their peculiarities (or maybe
because of them) and obsolescence I still enjoy riding most
these wonderful relics.
John is Chairman of the board of the company
that developed the W8Less Rotors.