Get to know the 1947 Indian Chief Sportsman – Winner 2017 Cartier

Get to know the 1947 Indian Chief Sportsman – Winner 2017 Cartier

Yankee motorcycles of the 1930s and 1940s were best epitomised by their big burly vee-twin layouts with outrageously designed tanks and mudguards plus a mighty big saddle that could take a rider and a half which in essence meant just one unless the rider turned lucky with a slim lassie holding on tight! Yes the American dream was for riding into the distance and beyond, most times in a straight line and therefore the easy rider laid back stance.

There were many such bikes that did this to fire the imagination of enthusiasts with their turnout and prowess, and many makes like Henderson, Crocker, Pierce and their likes contributed to what Harley-Davidson and Indian had started and this made the motorcycling scene in the US of A throbbing with life. The grand spectacle of arriving on a long low machine was all part of the American dream and Indian and Harley both knew how to milk it.

This brings us to this glorious Indian finished in golden yellow that has both, a royal lineage and has been restored to such stunning effect that it went on to clean up the Best of Show among the motorcycles at this year’s Cartier ‘Travel with Style’ Concours d’Elegance held in Hyderabad. This bike with its evocative PAT 1 registration plate is a 1947 model Indian Chief 1200 Sportsman ordered by none other than His Highness Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala hence now you understand the significance of the number plate. On its arrival in mid-1947 the Maharaja presented it to his brother Prince Karminder Singh who used it extensively and it stayed with him until 1988 when in typically royal style it was put up as a wager and lost in a game of billiards! The person who won the game and took the prized Indian was none other than Ramindar Singh of Patiala, the grandson of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh! Ah, all’s well that ends well and yet stays in the family and by that maxim the bike remained with Ramindar Singh for a handful of time – till 1995 to be precise when Ramindar got into more serious pursuits to shoulder different responsibilities and thus the Indian was found to be surplus to his requirements!

The good thing was that the bike wasn’t sold off to any willy nilly type and all potential buyers were also screened before the decision was taken to sell it off in late 1995. The buyer was Arjun Oberoi who kept it in his collection un-restored but well maintained till he heard about the Cartier Concours d’Elegance and also the fact that there was a class for motorcycles as well. Almost two decades after acquiring the bike, Arjun decided to restore it to its original glory and so in 2015 he entrusted it to noted restorer Gurmukh Singh Salh of Vintage Rebuilds in New Delhi. Now, Gurmukh is a well known name in motorcycle restoration in north India but his expertise with American vee twins is probably among the best alongside Huey Donnelly who has restored many other Indians based at Lonavala near Pune. However, Gurmukh has had a larger turnout of bikes from his end if for no reason other than the fact that for years in North India, American bikes were used as prime movers for the three-wheeled taxis and the amount of surplus motors from these when converted to diesel-engined runners meant that there exists to this day a huge collection of engine and transmission parts plus also front suspension bits and cosmetics for these aged but much loved motorcycles.

Gurmukh got to work and in a matter of two years had brought PAT 1 back to its near original turnout which when I set eyes on it the moment I entered the Faluknuma Palace I knew it was right up there for the top honours at the concours. The ground up rebuild meant stripping the entire machine, redoing the frame, engine and suspension plus getting the body parts and the accents just right as in period. What is also of prime importance is in knowing which model among the Indian Chief range of that time this bike conformed to because there was no mention of it in the registration papers and getting it to conform to one of the three trim levels specified by Indian for its Chief in the model year 1947 was imperative.

Thankfully working with just a handful of images of the original plus a careful look at the bike and also some interactions with those who had seen the bike over the years when in the royal garage, Gurmukh restored the bike as it was when acquired and even he didn’t know it till we informed him that the bike was in the Sportsman specification which was slam bang in the middle between the entry level Clubman trim and the top of the line Roadmaster touring trim. One thing I do know from having dabbled with historic American cars and bikes is that the level of additional equipment available on any model was far more than anything that was on offer from British or European makes. Heck even Henry Ford’s Model T came with over 250 – or more! – extra bits of equipment which owners could specify! In fact how does a carbon tetrachloride fire extinguisher as well as chromed spark plug cooling fins sound? Or how about a torpedo light on the handlebar? Don’t laugh but these were listed in the Indian catalogue for that period as were nearly a couple of hundred other bits and pieces which an owner could tart up his steed with!

The 1947 Indian Chief range began with a choice of colours, the standard ones being Jet Black, sparkling Seafoam Blue and brilliant Indian Red enamel. Of course there were other shades one could ask for and PAT 1 seems to fall in this slot. The Indian Chief had a lot of expansive bodywork to carry and therefore the appearance with choice of body colour was very important. As one can make out the skirted front and rear fenders with a standout chrome trim inlay plus the chain guard and the fuel tank all finished in the same shade gave an air of gravitas to this mighty machine.

The base Chief Clubman came with acres of chrome – gas tank caps, front brake lever, ignition cable tube, exhaust system, horn face, gear shifter, chrome air filter cover and a chromed Indian ‘War Mascot’ on the front mudguard. In the interests of a smaller list price making the bike appealing to the punters, the handlebar, wheel rims, spokes and crash guards were painted black! Talk about austerity measures! Moving up to the Sportsman trim this had all the stuff on the Clubman and also the painted parts were now chromed including the headlamp while there was a ‘DeLuxe’ single occupant saddle. From here on, the full bells and whistles package came in the form of the Roadmaster where you got everything the Sportsman had along with a windshield, chromed twin spotlights bar-mounted on either side of the headlamp, a chromed handlebar cross tube, leather saddle bags with chrome rivet heads and also the larger ‘Chum-Me’ seat where you could take your girl for a ride. Even mud flaps with blue glass gems inlaid in the chromed studs could be specified.

In fact, it is the stuff of legend that when Polaris acquired the rights to the Indian brand name, its designers sat with an example of the Roadmaster while designing the modern day Chief and the inspiration plus the list of accessorisation from the 1940s original is strikingly evident in the modern day reincarnation.

The 1947 Chief had a 1,212cc (or what the Yanks termed as 74 cubic inches) side-valve vee-twin engine that first saw light of the day in the 1920s and was steadily updated till the Chief motor appeared in 1940 and this was carried on until the firm folded in the 1950s. This 42-degree flat-head long stroke twin breathed via a Linkert carburettor and with just about 50 horses and a lot of low and mid-range torque the bike could haul to what was a claimed 100 miles per hour by its maker! There was a foot-operated clutch that was pretty tricky to operate and this helped send the drive from the engine via a 3-speed sliding-gear transmission to the rear wheel. There was also the choice of an optional 3-speed plus reverse gearbox when specifying a sidecar attachment. Shifting was by a hand gear lever which was placed either on the right or the left hand side of the tank.

The bike’s distinctive tank was made up of three compartments, had three filler caps and also the heart shaped nacelle housing the instruments. A Stewart Warner speedometer – calibrated to a most optimistic 120mph! – dominated this nacelle which also incorporated a combination ignition cum light switch. The filler cap on the left was for the main petrol tank (could hold about 10 litres in that compartment) while the one up front on the right hand side of the tank was for oil while the one directly behind it was  for anohter petrol tank which could hold about 5 litres of fuel. In the days of prohibition in the USA, many bootleggers used to smuggle moonshine in the left hand side petrol tank but if chased the smaller fuel tank didn’t give them much range to run away from the law!

Speaking of the law there is an interesting tale which concerns the controls on the handlebar of the Indians. A lot of American bikes had the ignition advance and retard via a twist grip unlike the levers for the same purpose on European and British machines. To further compound matters both Harley and Indian used to have the advance/retard operated by the right side twist grip with the throttle being actuated by the twist grip on the left! Indian realised that it had to get towards mainstream motorcycling all over the world and decided to offer the throttle on the right as an option with the advance retard on the left but US motorcycle patrol police preferred the throttle on the left for the simple expedient that they could whip out their pistol from its holster and fire with the right hand!

Probably the most antiquated stuff on the Indian Chief apart from the obvious flat head engine was the use of the hydraulically damped girder and coil fork up front while at the rear it featured what it termed as “Double Action” Spring Frame, notably plunger type shock absorbers made up of two springs, the top ironing out the bumps while the bottom one damped the rebound. Considering that equivalent Harleys of that period had a rigid frame and an even crude front fork, the Indian seemed to have the edge in the handling department over its famous rival. In this regard it was also the solid large tube frame that helped give it the stiffness and helped the basic suspension set up outshine the Harleys. Most of the Indian Chiefs ran on 16-inch wheels while larger 18-inch wheels were an option. The brakes were single sided drums and hardly had the bite or the gumption to help scrub off speed so forward planning while braking was a given.

PAT 1 was one from around 12,000 units that rolled off the assembly lines at Indian’s plant at Springfield, Massachusetts in 1947 but sadly this figure dropped to under a quarter of this the next year. This was the time Indian had adopted a whole new strategy to make a new range of motorcycles that aped European designs and also modularity. Sadly this was against the Yankee ethos and from there on the self-induced harakiri led Indian to a painful and ignonimous death allowing Harley to remain the upholder of the vee-twin heritage in the US. Till of course Polaris brought the rights in 2010 and Indian was back in its own right as a motorcycle brand in 2013.

Arjun Oberoi’s right royal Indian Chief Roadmaser is probably the most stunning example of the American motorcycle in the country and is a tribute to not just its restorer Gurmukh Singh Salh but also to the fact this piece of rolling sculpture on two-wheels never fails to dazzle and draw an admiring crowd whenever it rides past or is resting at standstill.

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