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An 1939 Indian Restoration Story

From The Guy Who Did The Deed

By John Arbeeny with his photos and shots from the Bob T. Collection
6/14/2010 2:29:23 PM

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John on indian
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 engine over.
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 again
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 grind.
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 of this.

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.

Don’t even 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 ignition.

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 substitute.


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.

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Reader Comments

I read that you mentioned colovito's motorcycle shop in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. I have 8 mm movies of that motorcycle shop from my Uncle who also hung out there. His name was Julius

Rich Polak
Jackson, NJ
Tuesday, December 19, 2023
Editor Response Terrific, don't lose it.
In response to Jerry's entry: You are correct about it being Perth Amboy and Colavito Brothers dealership. It was originally owned by their Dad and they took it over. You may recall a large pole building behind the showroom which is where they had piles of old Indians and parts. They were all sold off by the time I returned to New York from Vietnam in 1970.

Besides my 1939 Chief, I finished the "naked" bare metal 1946 Chief in the article photo in two tone jade green and crème. Then three years ago I purchased a 1948 Chief from the original owner's grandson to whom it was left from her estate. She bought it in 1948 new, had only 9800 miles on it, but sat in a barn for almost 40 years.

It needed a complete restoration but is a gorgeous bike done two tone black and white. Watch for the story on Bikernet.

John Arbeeny
Lakewood, WA
Saturday, April 23, 2016
GReat ARTICLE!!!!!!!!! Doing research on Indian dealers in area and this article came up, please correct as the Indian dealer in PERTH AMBOY was Colavito Brothers located on Washington Street in PERTH AMBOY, NJ from 1927 to 1988 or so. As kids in mid '60s we would drool over the new and antique bikes set on stands and hung overhead in the showroom there. The smell of grease, gas and leather was cool too....But can you imagine whole NOS stock being sold back in the day for pennies when today they demand high prices???? Where's my DeLorean!!!!!!!!!!!

Perth Amboy,, NJ
Friday, March 4, 2016
Editor Response Thanks, and you're right. The times are changing.
John is the kind of person who we all would feel blessed to know & proud to call a friend. The "un-schooled education" acquired from my Dad, Uncles & other adults when growing up in the mid '50's to mid '70's (then 25-26yrs. old) ingrained to one's soul; Actions speak louder than words; don't be a braggart or touter be; a Man's Man.

Doug Brown aka: Double D
Orlando, FL
Friday, March 4, 2016
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