The 1947 Chief symbolises the styling and spirit of Indian Motorcycles as we now know it, but its evolution wasn’t without its struggles.
Though the original Indian company folded as far back as 1953, few makes of motorcycles command such a dedicated following today. While renowned for many models, the backbone of the Indian legend was the Chief, one of the most elegant American motorcycles ever built and unashamedly built for the open road and straight-ahead running.
The Chief offered neither technological supremacy nor outright performance and, despite the competition from Harley-Davidson’s continually developed big twin throughout its life, the Indian Chief remained a formidable open-road machine until its demise. The Chief was a triumph of design over development and the final 1953 model was remarkably similar to the original Chief of 1922.
Initially 998cc, the side-valve 42-degree V-twin Chief was an evolution of the 600cc Scout and shared many of its features. These included two camshafts operating the side-valves and a helical gear primary drive. The engine and gearbox were bolted together, creating a more rigid structure than the comparable Harley-Davidson.
Although the Chief didn’t produce much power (about 20 horsepower), the performance was typical for the 1920s and to counter the new Harley 74-cubic-inch big twin, Indian created the 1206cc Big Chief for 1923. During the 1920s the company initially neglected the Chief’s development, and by the end of the decade were more intent on developing the newly acquired four-cylinder.
The Chief struggled against the Harley-Davidson until 1931 when the new president of the company, E. Paul du Pont, initiated a policy of continual improvement. In response to claims of inadequate performance, the Chief’s engine was updated for smoother running and completely restyled for 1932. Dry-sump lubrication was introduced in 1933 and chain primary drive in 1934 but when Harley released its overhead-valve Knucklehead in 1936 it looked like the end for the side-valve Indian. Indian was used to holding US top speed and long-distance records but it lost these to Harley in 1937.
OPTIONS FOR SIR
After struggling through the end of the 1930s and war years, Indian had new owners in 1946, and with the company in financial crisis the Chief finally became the range leader. But new manager Ralph Rogers was determined to produce a range of lightweight motorcycles and development of the Chief stagnated again. But for a new double-spring girder front fork with a hydraulic shock absorber and 5.0 x 16-inch tyres, the Chief was little changed from earlier versions.
For 1947 the Chief received some styling revisions, most noticeable this marking the introduction of the ‘war bonnet’ head in the front mudguard running light. Even then, many traditional Indian features were retained, such as the foot clutch and hand-operated three-speed gearshift. Also new for 1947 were new chrome-plated ‘Indian’ fuel tank emblems, replacing the earlier Indian-head type. These would feature through until the end of production in 1953.
The same year also saw three accessory packages offered, all available in Jet-Black, sparkling Seafoam Blue or brilliant Indian Red enamel. The cheapest trim level was the Clubman, which still came with plenty of chrome. It had chrome fuel tank caps, front brake lever, ignition cable tube, exhaust system, horn face, rear spring shrouds and gearshift lever, a shiny alloy trim running either side of the front fender, a chrome air cleaner cover, and chromed rear bumper. Costs were kept down with painted handlebars, wheel rims and crash bars.
WARNING: Getting into classic Indians can cause a life-long addiction. Just ask Guy ‘Guido’ Allen
The next rung up the ladder was the Sportsman, which had all the chromed parts of the Clubman, but the handlebars, crash bars and headlamp were also chrome plated and the seat an Indian ‘Deluxe’. The full touring package was the Roadmaster with all the chrome and equipment of the Sportsman, but added a Sport windshield, chromed twin spotlights, saddlebags with chrome rivets, a chromed handlebar cross-tube and the new Indian ‘Chum-Me’ seat with adjustable springing so “you could take your best friend along, too.” The model shown here is a Sportsman, with later telescopic fork and buddy seat.
With all resources going into the development of a dubious range of modular lightweight singles and twins, the Chief was dropped for 1949 but the venerable side-valve twin refused to die. The spectacular failure of the 220cc Arrow single and its vertical twin
Scout stablemate saw the Chief re-emerge for 1950. Now with a larger 80ci (1300cc) engine and a telescopic front fork this was Indian’s final attempt to stay alive. Now the largest-capacity American twin, it demonstrated Indian’s capacity to somehow survive for more than 30 years by updating an obsolete design, succeeding despite the trend towards overhead-valves.
Only a handful of these final Chiefs were constructed and economic problems finally saw the demise of Indian motorcycle production at the end of 1953. Though often playing second fiddle to others in the line-up, it is the Chief that has become the archetypal Indian, and its appeal as a large-capacity mile-eating motorcycle is much the same now as it was nearly 70 years ago.
Many thanks to John Gee of Antique Motorcycles, Cheltenham, Vic, for the use of the 1947 Indian Chief pictured here.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Have a look at Jim Parker’s site: www.ParkerIndian.com.au
A site devoted to the Indian Chief: www.IndianChiefMotorcycles.com/oldinjun.htm
Another site for vintage Indians: www.JerryGreersEngineering.com
Indian began in 1901 when George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom launched Indian Motorcycles (without the “r”) in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The company was staggeringly successful and by 1911 had won the Isle of Man TT with a 1000cc V-twin.
By 1913 sales grew to 32,000 and Indian was the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer.
Unfortunately, World War I and the following economic downturn hurt Indian and, endeavouring to create a new market, 1920 saw the release of the 600cc V-twin Scout. A highly advanced design, it was immediately successful.
In the late 1940s Indian managed to sell the side-valve to potential buyers by comparing their engine to the side-valve high-end General Motors Cadillac and Harley’s overhead valve Knucklehead to the GM base model Chevrolet.
WHAT’S IT WORTH?
New (1947) $800
*Article by Ian Falloon