Indian’s Glorious Failure – Laconia Scout – Part One
by Rick Giles
In the annals of American motorcycling, the name Indian has created a level of interest unsurpassed by any other domestic marque. So much so that in the almost sixty years since closing it’s doors, any number of individuals or groups have time and time again endeavored to revive the brand. It is a continuous undying loyalty to a virtually mythical name, still to this day reverberating in the motorcycle community, which helped to create the legacy left behind by the original Indian Motocycle Company. And what are the building blocks on which this legacy was constructed? The foundation lies with the founders themselves and their commitment to building a machine that would surpass all others. And based upon their original ideal, Indian created a standard of quality, durability, innovation, and style for others to follow. The Indian motorcycle had a history of reliability. Its innovations include the first use of a chain for the final drive, the first rear wheel suspension in a large production American motorcycle, and of course, the first and only use of streamlining. And as for style; well, can anything compare to the striking beauty of the Art Deco influenced design of the skirted fenders of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Perhaps though, the one thing that most unquestionably reinforces the steadfast unwavering loyalty to the brand itself is the measure and longevity of Indian’s successful racing heritage. This long running success story spans the better part of five decades. From the second decade of the twentieth century to the sixth decade in the 1950’s, Indian’s competition successes are the outgrowth of their remarkable racing machines and the men who rode them. And it makes sense that Indian would have a big hand in motorcycle competition for it was the founders themselves who were involved variously in the competition arena before starting the Indian company
Starting in 1911 was the victory at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy by the upstart American company that took all of Europe by surprise. Following that were the countless board track wins garnered by the men who rode the elegant 4 valve and 8 valve racing machines. In the decade of the twenties, the surprisingly powerful side valve engines based upon the powerplus created by the incomparable Charles Franklin were again winning on board tracks and the dirt tracks and hill climbs emerging all over the American countryside. The 1930’s were no different. Indian hit the ground running in the newly created Class C racing category with it’s practically designed for competition Sport Scout which, in the hands of many Indian riders, claimed victory after victory on the half miles, miles, speedways, TT’s, and road races that made up the bulk of Class C racing. These wins continued on into the 1940’s as Indian’s devoted group of engineers updated the already race proven Sport Scout engine in order to stave off the ever increasing competition from Harley-Davidson and their race specific WR. Indian’s last great glory was garnered in the early 1950’s by the famed Wrecking Crew and their respective tuners who remained loyal to the Indian name even while it was in the throes of it’s demise. Of course, almost every success story has a number of failures which precede it. It was no different with Indian. It is the motorcycle that is the outgrowth of Indian’s most infamous failure that is the basis of this story.
The development and ultimate failure of Indian’s post war single and vertical twin motorcycles has been thoroughly documented by many capable authors. Enough so that it doesn’t bear repeating here in any great detail except to summarize a few points. Ralph Rogers’ vision for the future of motorcycling in general and the Indian Motorcycle Company in particular was the “gentleman’s motorcycle”. The motorcycles borne of his idea were underdeveloped, under tested, and rushed into production with many of the critical well adopted features replaced with inferior items for the necessity of cutting costs in lieu of the rapid depletion of Indian’s and Rogers’ finances. And perhaps most importantly, the American riding public, largely made up of returning service men, was severely underestimated. These men sang the praises of the smaller, lighter, European motorcycles with their inherent ease of handling. However, these were for the most part, very pedestrian military motorcycles, and not very robust to say the least. In most cases the American servicemen did not have the opportunity to put them under severe usage although I am sure they tried. And serenely pottering down the country lanes of England does not translate to roaring down the myriad of farm roads and highways crisscrossing the vast American landscape at continuous high speeds. The Indian verticals were designed with Europe in mind and consequently were in way over their heads when it came to performing in the United States.
THE POST-WAR RACING SCENE
In the years following the Second World War, Indian’s change in direction left their storied racing program in a state of isolated limbo. After retooling from war production, Indian reintroduced only one model from its pre-war line-up of four different models. That was the Chief, which was basically an updated version of the pre-war design. And although Indian paid lip service to producing a nearly completely revised version of the Sport Scout, that endeavor was left to die on the vine. This left almost all of the many Indian competition riders without a means to replace their worn out pre-war racers. Indian’s immediate solution to this problem was the creation of the magnificent Model 648 racing Sport Scout with its newly designed bigbase engine. Most of the men who had spent many years with the company felt that Indian needed to be well represented in the competition field. Rogers wasn’t so sure and only reluctantly agreed to go ahead with the development of the 648 as long as there was not a great deal of time and money spent on the program. And while the 648 went on to some measure of success immediately and ultimately in Indian’s last moment of glory, it was a stopgap measure at best. So much so that the money applied to the 648 came from the budget of the advertising department since Indian only produced the motorcycle to keep their name in the motorcycling press via their appearances in competition events. Apparently from the beginning it was decided that if Indian were to continue in the arena of competition that its racing machines were going to be based upon the vertical twins and not the v-twin Sport Scout. This would prove to be a monumental undertaking because the newly christened Indian Scout was in an inherent position of disadvantage compared to other overhead valve machines of the day.
Remember, racing in America was still operating under Class C rules that allowed overhead valve machines an engine displacement of 500cc and side valve machines a displacement of 750cc. The Indian Scout was, by design, only 440cc.
THE LACONIA SCOUT
The Indian vertical twin motorcycle had at least one thing going for it. It was very light compared to the Harleys and even its own cousin, the Indian Sport Scout. The author had an opportunity to ride a Laconia Scout on a dirt track and found the bike to be quite nimble and easy to maneuver. Unfortunately that was about the only thing it had going for it. According to Class C rules Indian needed to produce a sufficient number of machines to qualify the Laconia Scout as a production motorcycle. They decided on 24. How they arrived at that number is anyone’s guess especially since the rules at the time stated that a minimum of at least 50 units needed to be manufactured with corresponding serial numbers. When Indian embarked on production of the Laconia Scout racers they decided to assign them their own series of serial numbers starting with the prefix BDJ and numbered 1001 to 1024 inclusive. Indian’s engineers set to work to try to make the docile, underpowered machine of questionable endurance into a full-fledged racer. First, they started with the simplest means available to them dictated by Class C rules in order to gain some measure of performance. They increased the displacement from 440cc to 500cc by increasing the cylinder bore from 2.375” to 2.540” keeping the stroke at its as designed 3.00”. This would eliminate the one large glaring inherent disadvantage when compared to other overhead valve motorcycles. Increasing displacement naturally increased horsepower in the vertical twin so now Indian was competing on a more level playing field. Because the Indian vertical twin engine was an entirely new design and relatively unfamiliar to the men in Indian’s experimental department, it was going to be difficult for them to implement any wide-ranging changes in a relatively short period of time. They were going to have to go pretty much with what they had to work with. And because these machines were, by rule, supposed to be production motorcycles, there could not be any visually noticeable external changes like dual carburetors or the like. Apparently, there was not much done to the crankshaft or connecting rods other than rebalancing them as necessitated by the increase in weight of the pistons, which came about as a result of the larger cylinder bore. Dennis Leggett, who vintage raced a pair of Laconia Scouts in the 1980’s and 1990’s that had originally belonged to Indian dealer Herb Reiber, substantiates this. In a conversation with the author, he related that upon removing the cylinders in order to do a ring job he observed no evidence of any kind of lightening or internal polishing of the connecting rods or crankshaft. Based upon this evidence it seems likely that there were no modifications made to the valve timing by creating new cam lobe profiles. It is possible that there may have been some port shaping done to the heads as this could have been done with a minimum of effort using hand grinding and polishing equipment. What this would have most likely entailed would be just a basic shaping and polishing of the intake and exhaust ports. What percentage of increase in power this produced is a mystery. Carburetion for the street versions of the vertical Scouts was provided by the L&L model S-3. Since the later 500cc Warriors used the Amal Model 276 it is possible that the Laconia racers got the first applications of those units. The exhaust system was the basic stock exhaust header pipe with no muffler attached. At this point, insufficient time had elapsed for the magneto shortcomings to have become apparent so the Edison model AJ-2 magnetos installed on the street versions of the Scouts were retained. Stock Indian Warriors were rated at 29HP so it is conceivable that the Laconia Scouts produced a range of 30 to 35HP.
The eventual flood of complaints regarding the clutches and transmissions on the vertical twins that inundated Indian dealers and subsequently the Indian factory was at this time still only a trickle. In all likelihood, the men in Indian’s experimental department knew that the lightweight construction of the vertical twin’s transmission and clutches would not stand up to the rigors of racing. However, in light of the lack of time and severe lack of resources to make corrections, the decision was made to use the clutches and transmissions as they were constructed.
Having increased the power of the motorcycle as much as they could, Indian’s racing department now set out to remove as much of the Scout’s 315 lbs. as they could in order to increase the power to weight ratio. This was accomplished by trimming metal away from the front and rear fenders that came on the road going versions. Gas and oil tanks were standard issue vertical twin.
Due to a lack of any contemporary information, it is difficult to know whether or not there were any modifications made to the front forks to enhance the Scout’s handling capabilities. As mentioned previously, its already light weight went along way towards creating a nimble handling motorcycle. From the few photographs available it would appear that brakes were standard issue. The bikes were fitted with a solo saddle and pillion pad on the rear fender. Thus equipped, Indian Scout vertical twin motorcycle was as race ready as it was ever going to be for its competition debut.
The racing version of Indian’s vertical twin Scout was unveiled at the 100 Mile road race at Laconia, New Hampshire on the weekend of June 18, 1949.
The reason the Scouts made their debut at Laconia was just simply due to a matter of timing. In an interdepartmental document from a special committee to the General Policy committee dated July 11,1947, Indian was discussing how to solve the problem of inadequate competition representation for the coming year before the new models would be available. In paragraph (b) of Part II of the document outlining various alternative solutions to the problem of inadequate competition representation, it was stated that Indian was not going to be able to supply any new racing equipment based upon the new models for “at least eighteen months”. Eighteen months from July of 1947 would put the tentative date of availability of new equipment at the very end of 1948 or early 1949. Since the Daytona 200 mile road race is usually held in March and since Indian’s race department engineers and technicians were dealing with a brand new motorcycle design with which they were not familiar, and, since Indian was already behind schedule in its development of the new models it stands to reason that the new racers would not be available for the 1949 running of the Daytona 200. It is also possible that the Laconia 100 mile Road Race was chosen because Laconia is a four to five hour drive from Indian’s headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts as opposed to an overnight train trip to Daytona, Florida. This way Indian officials could make it back in to work on Monday morning following the race on Sunday. All things considered, the first reason has much more credibility.
When the dust settled on the afternoon of June 19th , at least eleven of the twenty-four verticals had been sidelined and only three placed in the top twenty finishers. The single most prevalent weakness of the Indian verticals had reared its ugly head. The magnetos that Indian management had chosen to install on the new Indians had failed under the stress of racing. Now, we don’t know the nature of the failure. It very well could have been bearing failure or it could have been the coils. Most probably the magnetos didn’t just suddenly fail as one is led to believe when reading currently written accounts of the race. The spark probably grew weaker and weaker as the raced progressed and at the end the engines were probably barely running much less making any kind of horsepower. Again Dennis Leggett related to the author that when he first started to vintage race the verticals, the magnetos were so woefully weak that the bike would hardly get out of its own way. His solution was to isolate the coil and use the timing mechanism hooked up to a total loss battery and coil. Based upon his solution a person could assume that the trouble with the magnetos was not the bearings. He said after he reworked the ignition system the difference in performance was quite noticeable.
Motorcycle historians have not been kind to the Indian verticals. Some of this is deserved. However when you put things in perspective and break down the actual number of vertical twins entered at Laconia and how many finished in the top twenty, it is comparable to the entries and results for Indian in the two previous years. In those races Indian riders were on Sport Scouts and the best result was Ted Edwards’ 2nd place finish in 1947.
When you consider what Indian’s technicians and engineers had to work with, and the complete lack of time for them to familiarize themselves with a model foreign to them, the results at Laconia in 1949 don’t seem too out of line for a racing machine’s first time on the track.
Stay tuned for part II