Indians Forever – A Visit with Bob Stark
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 machine.”
“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 run.”
“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 difference.
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 its era.
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 shows.
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