Indians Forever - A Visit with Bob Stark
Here's "Bullet Bob" Stark urging the test Indian "80" past the Chrondeks at a terminal velocity of 81.08mph, 1609 ET.
While the figures might not be impressive alongside times turned in by more modern "Superbikes," comparing the FFLH times (obtained at the same racetrack last November) with the Chief's tends to bear out the "Indians Forever" view.
by George Hays
"Hey, I want to get into the rare bike bag," my
buddy announced. "Think I'll buy an Indian Chief."
"Oh God, no!" I said, my mind darting back to the
early '50's when you either rode a Harley, an Indian, or an English bike.
Riders were fiercely loyal to their favorite brand of horsepower and harbored
an ill-concealed hatred for the other brands. At that time, I rode English
bikes, and had no love for American iron, particularly Indians. In those days
Indian was becoming an underdog. Show up at a meeting riding an Indian and you
were almost laughed out of the club. There was tremendous rivalry between
Harley and Indian. Guys may have been the best of friends, until one tried to
stay out in front of the pack on an Indian. Then the competition got vicious.
Any Harley rider who was beaten by an Indian was really humiliated.
"Well, what's wrong with a Chief," my buddy said,
interrupting my reverie.
"Like a guy who owned one said," I replied, "of
all the dogs that are and ever were, an Indian Chief takes the cake."
"But that's just a secondhand opinion," my buddy
countered. "Tell me exactly what's wrong with a Chief."
"Well, for one thing, they are overpriced. Why, I can
remember back in the early '50's you could pick up a used Chief in average
running condition for $50. And they were hard to unload at that price. Now they
want a grand for the damn things. I just can't see paying $1,000 for a $50
"Law of supply and demand. Any rare old bike in good
shape will bring a grand these days. You still haven't told me what's wrong
with a Chief. They can't be all that bad if so many guys like them enough to
keep them rolling. You see two or three beautiful old Chiefs at every big road
"Well, I guess I can't tell you exactly what's wrong with
a Chief," I admitted, "and I guess it's about time I found out."
In my part of the country the man to see if you want to know
anything about Chiefs is Bob Stark. He owns 21 of 'em. What he doesn't know
about the Chief hasn't been discovered yet. Bob's dad was an Indian dealer in
Akron, Ohio from 1918 to 1952, when he retired. Bob took over and ran the shop
until 1961, when he moved to Anaheim, California to work as an engineer for
Hughes Aircraft. When he moved west, he didn't leave his Indians behind. He has
a four‑car garage plus a patio and backyard full of Indians and parts at his
house, plus more goodies stashed in friends' garages. He's bought out the parts
supply of several other Indian dealers, accumulated more parts by swapping, and
his idea of a good vacation is to go hunting for old Indians and bring them
home by the truckload.
Five or ten years ago anyone owning that many old motorcycles
would have been considered some kind of nut, but these days rare‑bike
collectors are in. He saves a few favored models for his own personal
collection, but most of them are for resale. He has a profitable hobby
restoring old Chiefs to like‑new condition and selling them at $ 1,000 a copy.
He will also sell a few parts if he has a surplus of some particular item, but
keeps most of his inventory for his own use. If he can't fix you up, he can
tell you where you can get the parts you need.
When asked what's so great about a Chief Bob replies,
"It's about the most dependable road bike ever made. For example, in 1955
1 bought a Chief that had over 100,000 miles on it. It was an old New York
Police bike. I restored it and put 82,000 miles on it between '56 and '68 when
I sold it. After the restoration job, the total cash that I had to put out to
keep that bike rolling was only $62. This included a ring and valve job at
40,000 miles, a few chains, generator belts, tires, and a paint job and second
ring and valve job just before I sold it. When you get that kind of service out
of a bike, you can't help but love it."
Why are there so many more old Indians running around than old
Harleys? At big road runs or a classic bike rally you see lots of old Indians ‑Scouts,
Chiefs, and Fours, but you rarely see an old Harley.
"That's because you can get parts for an old Indian a
heck of a lot easier than you can for an old Harley," Bob says. "Sam
Pierce, an Indian dealer in San Gabriel, can still sell you just about any part
you want. A friend of mine owns a '57 Harley. Parts for a '46 Chief are far
easier to get than parts for his '57 Harley. Being American, all nuts, bolts
and fittings are standard hardware. And things like oil seals, bearings and
electrical parts have standard industry part‑numbers. The spark plugs,
generator, points, condenser, distributor, coil and lightbulbs are standard car
parts made by Auto Lite. You can buy them over the counter at just about any
auto parts store. And prices are about one‑fourth what they would, cost in a
bike shop. That's a big advantage of owning an Indian. If you own a Harley, you
have to buy factory parts from a Harley dealer, and pay through the nose.
Nothing else fits. And if you own a foreign bike, you have to get a lot of
parts on special order.
"There are a few parts that are getting a little hard to
find, so I'm manufacturing them myself. Like battery hold‑down clamps, front
and rear fender tips, speedometer cables, and the large aluminum casting that
covers the distributor on the '52 and '53 Chiefs. And I'm making new front
fenders out of fiberglass. Other than these parts, you don't have any trouble
getting parts for a Chief."
Even though the Chief hasn't been made for over fifteen years,
the parts situation is better for owners of old Indians than old Harleys. When
you look around at rallies for old bikes, Harley is conspicuous by its absence.
The reason is the Harley factory isn't interested in supplying parts and
information to keep the old bikes running. If a Harley is more than 10 years
old, the dealers have dumped the parts and it's hard to get the Harley
establishment to even admit they made the bike.
As one rider said, "I wrote the Harley factory for
information on my '38 74. All I wanted was an owner's manual or something with
a little tune‑up information. The factory wrote that there's nothing available
on old bikes, to forget it and buy a new one. So I wrote back and told them
that when they start building a motorcycle, I would."
In 1948 a new Chief sold for $875. A '53 model, the last ones
made, sold, new for $1,275. The market value of a Chief today is $700 for one
in good running condition. Basket cases go from $200 to $325. A completely
restored Chief is worth between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the model,
condition, and accessories. The 80 cubic‑inch jobs built from 1950 through 1953
are the most sought‑after. Up until 1950, all Chiefs had 74 cubic‑inch engines.
The first Chief rolled off the line at the Indian plant in
Springfield, Mass. in 1920. The Chief progressed through various stages of
evolution until 1949, when the Indian Company discontinued the Chief in favor
of the English‑style Arrow and Scout. These models didn't sell well, so the
Chief was produced again in 1950. The last Chiefs were made in 1953, with the
exception of a few made in 1955 on special order for a police department.
The most popular model today is the Bonneville, the high‑performance
version built from 1950 to 1953. The Bonneville featured high‑compression
pistons giving a compression ratio of 6 to 1, magneto ignition, ported valve
seats, polished intake manifold, hot cams, and extra balancing and polishing in
the lower end. When new, the Bonneville cost $40 more than the standard model, but few buyers would go the
Bob Stark keeps several Chiefs in his collection in top
running condition and is always willing to take a friend for a demonstration
ride. Climbing on the dual seat behind Bob, you are impressed by the brute low‑speed
torque of the old bike as it takes off. You are thankful for the rail around
the back of the seat that keeps you from sliding off as he opens the throttle
and the old beast lunges forward. The huge 61‑inch wheelbase positions both
rider and passenger well forward of the rear axle, providing a feeling of
stability and good handling unknown in most modern bikes. When the old machine
hits 2nd and 3rd gear your head tends to snap back as the huge engine comes on
strong. Approaching a red signal Bob hits the brakes, and you are impressed by
how quickly the bike comes to a halt. The brakes are quite adequate, equal to
the brakes on most modern machines. Plodding through traffic the Chief lugs
along smoothly at 20mph in high gear. Due to the wide torque range, shifting is
almost unnecessary, and the three‑speed transmission is all that's needed.
Out on the freeway, Bob runs it up to 70mph. The big engine
chuffs away slowly, giving the feeling that it will run forever without stress
or wear. There's some vibration, but the Chief runs smoother than most bikes of
Gas mileage for a Chief is about 35mpg. Depending on tune and
condition, a Chief will get from 32mpg to 48.
Top speed for the Bonneville is 112mph. A standard model will
do 100. A hot Chief has turned 118 in a quarter‑mile. A standard Chief will do
the quarter in the 80's. Most owners of rare bikes are content to sit around
and brag about the performance of their old machines. They have too much time
and money invested in the restoration of their engines to risk blowing them up
to prove they will go.
But not Bob Stark. He's quite willing to show you what a Chief
will do, so we headed for the local drag strip. As soon as arrived we knew we
had a winner, at least as far as attracting a lot of attention is concerned. As
Bob started removing his windshield, a small crowd of interested spectators
gathered around the old bike. Bob rolled the old Chief up to the line, the
light turned green, and he blasted off. The crowd in the stands waited eagerly
for his time to be announced, more interested in what the old Chief could do in
a quarter‑mile than in the times turned by the half‑dozen run of the mill
superbikes on hand.
The best Bob could coax out
of the old bike was 81.08mph, with an elapsed time of 16.09. Nothing
exciting when compared with today's superbikes, but not bad for a stock, fully
equipped road bike ridden by a rider weighing close to 200 pounds.
So what's wrong with a Chief? Well, no bike is perfect, and if
you check a a Chief carefully, you can find a few things that could be
improved. Like the transmission. Modern transmissions have gears that are in
constant mesh. Shifting is done by sliding dogs. But the Chief has sliding gears
and shifting tends to wear the gears out. Particularly since the Indian clutch
always seems to drag a bit, and it's difficult to shift without clashing. Gear
shifting was improved in '53, the last year Chiefs were made, by adding a brake
mechanism to the clutch that brought the gears to a halt so they could be
shifted without clashing. But the transmission is crude by today's standards.
A hot Chief could tear the ears off a stock Harley, but in the
Indian era some didn't like the Chief because it wasn't quite as fast as a
stock Harley 74. And it looked a lot heavier. With massive fenders, chainguard
and distributor cowling, it looked heavier than it was. Actually, it weighed
590 pounds, about 40 pounds lighter, year for year, than the Harley. The Harley
74's made today are several hundred pounds heavier than the Chief.
By today's standards the side‑valve engine with compression
ratio of only 6 to I is antiquated. The control arrangement is weird‑hand
shift, and foot‑operated clutch.
But in other ways the Chief was ahead of its time. The bike
still doesn't look antiquated today, and people who don't know their
motorcycles mistake a restored Chief for a new machine. When Bob enters a Chief
in a bike‑judging contest, he puts it in with the modified stock 74's rather
than in the antique class, and he usually wins. He took the trophy three years
in a row at the Indio Tour. Altogether, his Chiefs have won 30 trophies in bike
When you come right down to facts, there's really not much
wrong with a Chief. You either like them or you don't. Like Bob Stark says,
"I enjoy riding something different. I get a lot of fun out of taking an
old Chief out and running right along with the new bikes and putting down those
who badmouth Indians."
It's no superbike, but if you want an old bike that attracts a lot of attention, a bike that will cruise at 80, that is dependable and reasonably easy to get parts for, then maybe an Indian Chief is your bag.
While an engineer at Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, Bob Stark was an avid hobbyist in Indian Motorcycles. This article shows his passion for the Indian Motorcycle before he decided to start his hobby as a full time business. Reprinted with permission from Cycle Illustrated November 1970