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The INDIAN Restoration Saga Continues

A Chief for My Son

Photos and text by John Arbeeny

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Click on the image to read the original story about this '39 Indian.
Click on the image to read the original story about this '39 Indian.

It was late August 2013, and I had nothing to do that Saturday, so I took a look on the internet for motorcycle events that day. I discovered a “Big Bad Motorcycle Show” at the NW Harley dealership in Lacey, Washington. I decided to ride my recently painted 1946 Chief (jade green and crème) just to see what was going on.

I arrived at 12:00 noon sharp, and as I pulled in to the parking lot a tattooed cutie came running up to me. She pleaded with me to enter the Chief in the show.

I asked if the show wasn’t just for Harleys and she said, “Oh no.” So, I paid my $20.00 fee (discounted $10.00 because I’m a military retiree) and entered the Chief in the “Vintage/Antique” class.

There were about 150 bikes in the show and I was the only Indian. As I pulled into my class area I was immediately approached by numerous curious participants who had never seen a real live Indian actually being ridden. There were several other bikes in my class (all old Harleys) but nothing like the Chief.

My neighbor in the class was a grizzled old guy named Manny Durham, my age but looking a lot more “weathered.” As he put it “It ain’t the year John, it’s the mileage!” What a great sense of humor! He was there with a young man who was like a son to him and his bike was a 1953 Panhead.

Immediately Manny and “son” started asking about the Chief and a lot of technical questions about the engine, clutch and other systems. They obviously knew something about Chiefs to ask those questions, and I knew the answers having worked on all of them. It turned out Manny had his grandmother’s originally purchased new, 1948 Indian Chief at his home in Hoquiam, WA. He even had a loose-leaf book with photos of the bike with his grandmother riding it.

He also had a great looking 1932 Indian 4-cylinder at home. He asked me what the Chief might be worth, and I estimated about $18,000 from the photos without firsthand knowledge. I hedged is bid against the estimated value of my pristine 1946 Chief at about $20,000, so his grandmother’s bike would have to be in very good condition, indeed.

I casually mentioned that I was looking for a Chief for my youngest son David and gave him my contact information. My 1946 Chief went on to win best in class ($100) and best in show ($250) and I bid Manny goodbye, until next time we should meet: it would be only weeks away. By the way I spent most of that $350.00 in prize money on a helmet, blazing orange vests, other gear and a bunch of Harley-Davidson socks for my boys.

Manny and me at Tenino Swap Meet, 2015.
Manny and me at Tenino Swap Meet, 2015.

Several weeks later I received a call from Manny, who asked me if I was really interested in his grandmother’s Chief. I said, “Yes, but not sight unseen.” He told me it had been in a barn for over 40 years (OMG! A definite restoration project) but it ran, and he had paid $5000 some years back to have the engine rebuilt (where have I heard that story before).

He hadn’t ridden it at all and there were still problems with the clutch (wouldn’t release) and a dent in the front fender (ran into the front of a trailer when he loaded it up from the barn). The front end was frozen, and left tank leaked. We talked briefly about price and it quickly came down from $18,000 to $14,000. I asked him why the sudden desire to sell and he told me he had his heart set on a 1932 Ford Model A and he needed $12,000 immediately to buy it before someone else did. He shouldn’t have told me that!

We set up an appointment for a couple of days later and I went to the bank and withdrew $14,000 in $100 bills just in case.

The big day came and I drove out to Hoquiam, WA with my son David and the trailer towed behind, just in case. We got to Manny’s home and looked at his “toys.” The 1932 Four was gorgeous and then we rolled out the 1948 Chief. It looked better in photos than in person close-up: that’s always the case.

Over the next 4 hours I did a detailed inspection of the Chief, noted all its deficiencies, talked about motorcycles in general, met several of his friends who regaled us with all the crazy things Manny had done over the years and for about 10 minutes here and there talked about the price.

We started the bike up and I rode around the block several times. Yes, there were the defects Manny mentioned about the bike, but it was incredibly quiet. When I returned Manny told me I had ridden it more that morning than he had in the last 40 years. I finally got Manny down to $11,500 and asked to take a lunch break since it was about 2:00 p.m. and we were starved. As David and I pulled out and waved to Manny he stood up and asked, “You are going to come back aren’t you?” David and I both laughed. We knew we had it. As we pulled into a McDonalds in Aberdeen, David said, “Dad if you don’t buy this Chief you’re never going to buy one!” I assured him we would.

After lunch we returned to Manny’s home and over a handshake did the deal for $11,500. Manny told us that he had a local young punk had offered him more for the bike but he was afraid the kid, who had more money than sense, would chop the Chief up.

He knew, from what I had done with the 1946 Chief that his grandmother’s bike would ride again in all its glory. We loaded up the bike and then rode to his wife’s jewelry shop in Aberdeen, to sign over the title and I counted out a stack of 115, $100 bills. We said our goodbyes, and I promised to visit him when the Chief was done.

All the way home David was rejoicing in his “new” Chief and the first thing we did upon unloading it in our driveway was to pull out the 1939 and 1946 Chiefs for some photos and side to side comparisons. The photo attached is of the three Chiefs, which are now all restored and ridden often by me and my sons.

It only took me about a year to the day to restore the 1948 Chief, which I entered into the 2014 Big Bad Motorcycle Show where it won best in class! Manny and I have remained in contact since meeting at the Tenino, WA swap meet and visiting his home in Hoquiam, WA in 2015. Good friends forever and across generations (my son David will always remember him) over a wonderful old piece of iron.

I suspect that these stories will continue to be told to future generations of Arbeeny’s, who if they’re lucky will be able to ride their grandfather’s Indian Chiefs.

--John Arbeeny

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