Curbside Classic: 1946-48 Indian Chief

The big Indian Chief with skirted fenders is the iconic Indian motorcycle, it is safe to say, the first image that comes to mind when anyone thinks of Indian. The original company sold motorcycles for half a century from 1902 to 1953, and although it produced other models that became legends in their own rights — the Scout 101 of 1928-31, the Indian Four four cylinder of 1927-42, and of course the 1920 Scout that Burt Munro from New Zealand customized to set land speed records in the 1960s, immortalized in The World’s Fastest Indian — the skirted fender Chief has become the archetype for Indian worldwide. It may be difficult to believe that the skirted-fender Chief lasted for less than 10 model years, truncated by the Second World War. It is definitely difficult to believe that an original, unrestored skirted-fender Chief would appear parked curbside on a city street on an early weekday morning in 2019. It all happened, as will be explained below.


Indian introduced the Chief name in 1922 for its large-frame, large-displacement model, with engines of 61 cubic inches/1000cc or more. The design was simple, reflecting the engineering standards of the time, with a sidevalve engine, Indian’s characteristic leaf-sprung leading link fork, no rear suspension, and no front brake. Its slim bicycle-style fenders were also typical of the era, with no hint of the Chief’s later signature style.

Indian gradually added to the Chief over the course of two decades. A 74 cubic inch/1200cc engine became an option in 1923, then standard in 1928; a front brake was added in the same year. Indian’s signature style emerged gradually after a merger with the DuPont Motor Company in 1930. The resulting corporate connection to the DuPont family of companies and their paint business led to Indian featuring a wide palette of vivid paint colors, with 24 colors available by 1934. Indian also made the Chief’s front and rear fenders larger and more enveloping as the decade progressed, with those of the 1939 model reaching the size and sweeping lines shown here.

In 1940 Indian finally gave the Chief the deeply skirted fenders that have gone down in history. They are as unique and instantly recognizable as the tailfins of a 1959 Cadillac or the Parthenon grille of a Rolls-Royce. Like them, the skirted fenders are a purely styling feature that served no functional purpose, but they are a transcendent functionless styling feature. Overshadowed by the enveloping rear fender is an engineering advance also introduced in 1940, plunger rear suspension in place of the rigid rear end of previous years. Rear suspension was one area where Indian got ahead of Harley-Davidson, which did not introduce rear suspension in any of its models until 1953 and waited until the 1958 Duo Glide to add rear suspension to its large touring bikes that had competed with the Chief. The Chief shared the skirted fenders and plunger rear suspension with the Indian Four, its stablemate atop the Indian lineup.

Indian’s great styling flourish of 1940 soon became overtaken by events, however, as the world war that had already begun in Europe and Asia first diverted part of Indian’s production to military models that eliminated the skirted fenders, then completely halted civilian motorcycle production. Indian altered the 1940 Chief to make the military 340-B, with minimal fenders eliminating the mud-trapping skirts. France bought 7,000 of the 340-B, most of which were lost at sea when a U-boat sank the ship transporting them. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war forced Indian to stop producing motorcycles for sale for civilians in 1942. The Chief and other civilian models went on hiatus until Indian resumed producing them in 1946.

The Chief that went back into production after the war was the sole holdover from Indian’s prewar models. New ownership and management that took over the company from DuPont in 1945 took Indian in a new direction in the postwar world. They dropped the 45 cubic inch/750cc Scout and the Four luxury touring bike, reviving only the Chief from its prewar lineup. Indian’s main offerings became a completely new range of lightweight single cylinder and parallel twin bikes, based on concepts developed during the war. They were comparable to the British motorcycles that were starting to become popular in the U.S. motorcycle market, but Indian’s attempt to compete with them flopped badly. The new designs developed a reputation for unreliability that failed to win over customers interested in the sporty foreign Triumphs and BSAs, while surrendering buyers wanting a larger domestic bike to Harley-Davidson. The unsuccessful strategy drove Indian out of business by 1953.

The Chief continued as the lone traditional Indian model in 1946-1953, embedding itself into the consciousness of the motorcycling world while the company died around it.  This period of rapid decline and fall was when the sweeping lines of the Chief’s fenders became the indelible image of Indian.  When Indian went out of business, the memory of the Chief’s skirted fenders were all that was left, like the smile of the disappeared Cheshire Cat.

The Chief featured here appeared parked curbside on a city street on a weekday morning. It surprised me during a morning commute when I happened to turn from a major avenue onto a side street to park and get a morning coffee, and it was as surprising a sight on that street as seeing a flying saucer with an alien walking out of it. It was the first Chief that I have seen actually in use on a public street, rather than as an immaculate restoration in a museum or a show. Making it even better, it was an apparently unrestored bike, with a distinct late 1940s period vibe. The use of a Second World War-era U.S. Army map case as a saddlebag and the condition of the bike gave it a time-machine feel.

The front end shows the main identifying feature of the 1946-48 Chief, the most significant update from the prewar model: a new girder fork with coil springs and hydraulic damping. Derived from the front ends of the prewar Sport Scout and the wartime 841, it was a significant step forward from the leaf sprung, undamped fork of prewar Chiefs. The new fork replaced the trademark curved front fork tubes that Indian had used since the 1900s with a parallelogram fork frame. Suspension at both the front and rear with hydraulic damping in front gave the Chief a brief advantage over the competing Harley-Davidson FL series. Telescopic forks then replaced the girder forks in the 1950 Chief that replaced the 1946-48 generation after a one year hiatus.

The motorcycle behind those forks showed the consequences of Indian’s diversion of resources to its smaller single and parallel twin cylinder postwar machines, however, with an engine and frame that dated back to the 1930s. The 74 cubic inch/1200cc engine retained a sidevalve layout, lagging behind the engine technology of comparable Harley-Davidsons, which had the overhead valve “Knucklehead” engine starting in 1936 and the next-generation “Panhead” OHV engine in 1948. Harley-Davidson’s introduction in 1949 of the telescopic fork Hydra Glide, an icon in its own right whose front end the Electra Glide and Heritage Softail emulate to this day, further leapfrogged the engineering of the aging Chief series. It was part of Indian’s fall into uncompetitiveness and failure.

None of that history mattered when viewing this over 70 year old motorcycle, however, for it would be churlish to critique a survivor like this one. It has honest wear in spades — look at that footboard with most of the rubber worn away by time and use, and the weathered finishes everywhere except the cylinder heads and barrels, probably reflecting engine work to keep it running well. The missing chainguard strikes me as an original bobber/chopper modification, cutting weight and making this big bike a bit sleeker. The battery tender connector cable lashed to the rear upper frame tube is a practical modern addition that enables easily keeping the battery fully charged when parked and plugging in electric vests and other devices when on the road, which tells me that this bike is for riding and not for show. The details are of a piece with the bike’s presence parked on a street on a weekday morning.

The other side showed a similar look. The major mechanical parts are clean and look recently refreshed, while the cycle parts look unrestored after many years of honest wear. It is exactly the way that I would want my classic bike to be.

The tires tell the same story. They are Indian-branded, and I presume that they are Coker reproductions of Indian motorcycle tires of the period. Period-looking, but renewed for everyday riding today. Whether they are originals or reproductions, the small cracks from dry rot on the sidewalls make them look like they have been on this bike for a long time.

I have to declare myself envious of the rider who gets this view whenever he wants it. I would re-cover and re-pad the seat for comfort, but to each his own.

Here ends this curbside look at one of the all-time great classic bikes of all time. The memory of the 1940-42 and 1946-53 Indian Chief is the image that every attempt to revive Indian as a motorcycle brand has had to embrace first, and a Chief with skirted fenders was the founding model of the successful revival of Indian that began in 1999 and continues today under Polaris ownership since 2011, with a skirted-fender Chief still the foundation of its lineup. Finding an original Chief on a public street is a rare event that I lucked into one summer morning. I hope that you have enjoyed this look at the history of the Chief and one of its infrequently encountered survivors.