ST. PAUL, MINN., MAR. 29–30 — This year, the Donnie Smith Bike Show once again asked the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Viking Chapter to host a club display to spread the word about old bikes, along with the fun we have keeping them going on the road.
We used the opportunity to talk about our bikes in the display, and to promote the ownership and use of these great bikes that are 35 years or older. This year was no different in that we are always looking to show something special, and not just more of what’s out in the fully customized bike show area. In our display we had two-wheeled treats from manufacturers in the United States, Italy, England and Spain. This eclectic group of unique offerings included military bikes from World War II, a single-owner 25cc trials bike (a gift for the owner’s 5th birthday), a one-family-owned 1942 Harley WD, two Aermacchi-powered Harleys, a 2-stroke Harley, Indians, Cushmans and Tritons. Oh, my!
It was fun as people connected with different bikes, often recalling memories of good times and friends as they spoke. Many of the conversations started with, “I used to have one of those,” or better yet, “I have one of those and want to get it on the road again.” We had many comments about the early 70’s Harley Sprints and Aermacchi bikes. Lots of people remembered getting their start on one of those.
The mission of the club is to preserve and foster the use of motorcycles (yes, including scooters and motorbikes) that are 35 years or older. But, we love new bikes and customs and one of the bikes that drew attention was a custom build called a Triton, which is the melding of a Triumph engine paired with a world famous Norton Featherbed frame. The owner, Mike B., noted only one thing: “I should have put discs on it, ’cause it’s just too damn fast for drum brakes.”
One of the most interesting and under-the-radar bikes was an Indian 841 with a chrome tank. Indian built the 841 military model at the request of the U.S. Army during WWII in order to meet the demands of desert warfare. The design was heavily inspired by the German-built BMW R71, as was the Harley-Davidson XA. The Harley version was a direct copy of the BMW while Indian chose to create its own solution, which sported a 90-degree longitudinal-crankshaft V-twin engine, a heel-and-toe shift pedal, low compression, 18-inch wheels, two separate gas tanks for a five-gallon capacity of fuel, and newly designed girder forks for better shock absorption. In order to reduce costs, the 841 shared several internal components with the existing Indian Sport Scout, which resulted in the same bore and stroke, producing a whopping 25 hp.
If you’ve never seen one in person, you’re not alone. Lonnie Hannah, senior designer at Indian Motorcycle, was on hand and he loved this bike. He’d never seen one in the flesh, but had studied pictures as part of his research while designing the new 2014 Indian Chief line. He really spent time looking at all the details and features that were so innovative on this particular bike, now owned by an AMCA Viking member.
The current owner, Tim M., gives us even more details on just how special this bike is. He states that, “About seven years ago while doing repair and maintenance work to a plane, the plane’s owner saw the Indian logo on my hat and mentioned that one of his employees owned one of those old bikes.” Tim thought he knew where every Indian was within 20 miles of his home, but it turned out not to be the case and when he contacted the owner, he found the owner was willing to part ways with the Indian.
The owner, Ted, had even more good news to share. He knew the bike’s history and had documentation for it. This was bike number 2—as in serial number 2. It was one of the prototyped bikes created for the military brass to review. The bike was built and sent to Virginia for presentation to the U.S. Army. A well-known Indian dealer and hill climb racer named Brownie Betar of Albany, New York, was hired to put the bike through its paces during the testing and presentation events for the Army brass. Brownie and the bike passed the tests, but in the end, the 4-wheel-drive Jeep, not a two-wheeled motorcycle, got the armed forces contract. The Indian factory gave Brownie the bike as a thank you.
In all there were just over 1,050 of the 841’s built, plus a healthy supply of spare parts. Brownie took the bike home to Albany, breathed on the engine (his engines are well regarded by racers) and was seen riding about on the bike for several more decades.
In the 1970’s, he sold it to a friend named Al Boyer who was serving in the military and brought the bike with him to Hawaii, where he was known to travel around the islands on it. When Al left the service and Hawaii, he sold the bike to his friend Ted who was still on active duty. When Ted’s tour ended, he decided to bring the bike home to Minnesota and there it sat. While in his ownership, Ted had never started nor ridden the 841, but he did keep it and all the letters, press clippings, pictures and information that had come with it. There was even a note stating that actor Steve McQueen was interested in buying Brownie’s Indian dealership inventory in the 1970’s.
To get the bike up and running after all those years, current owner Tim spent about three hours cleaning the carburetor and setting the points, etc., and the bike fired right up after all those years of sitting silently.
Tim notes, “Yes, indeed, it has been stroked and she will go faster than the original top speed of 45 mph.” Tim also commented that, when he gives it gas, the torque is so strong that the drive shaft tweaks the bike to the right. He rides it often and has had no issues. Parts are still available, but since this really is a prototype, some things are different on the production run bikes.
We all had a great time at the Donnie Smith Bike Show and look forward to being there next year, with more old bikes and their fascinating histories.
(This article Proud Provenance was published in the June 2014 issue of Thunder Press, North edition.)