1923 Indian Big Chief
Bigger is better
Say “Indian Chief,” and you probably think of the voluptuous, skirted-fender models of the 1940s.
But the legendary Chief actually began life a full two decades earlier, when Indian, once the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, was facing a challenge from the upstart Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
The problem in the early 1920s was that Indian’s dated Powerplus engine was losing ground to more technologically advanced bikes from Harley. To take back the performance edge, Indian needed a fresh design.
Enter championship racer and engineer Charles B. Franklin, who was charged with creating a new machine. But it wouldn’t be easy. Aside from Harley, Indian was also battling the onslaught of cheap, mass-produced cars.
Looking to put practical operation at the forefront, in 1922 Franklin launched a bike designed from the start to be Indian’s flagship. What better name than Chief?
Based on a side-valve, 61-cubic-inch (1,000cc), 42-degree V-twin motor, the Chief sported a lower seat and more graceful lines than its predecessor. In addition, there were mechanical advances: Dual cams operated the valves; helical gears replaced the chain primary drive; and the clutch ran in an enclosed oil bath.
The package weighed about 425 pounds, and Indian claimed it was good for a top speed of 90 mph—an impressive number for the day.
But as great as the 1922 Chief was, one thing would make it better: more cubes. For 1923, Indian added 13 of them to create the 74-cubic-inch (1,200cc) Big Chief.
With the big motor and a stout frame, the bike was intended to handle a sidecar, like the one fitted to this example, owned by Ernie Hartman and now on display in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio.
However, it wasn’t long before riders of solo machines started coveting the extra power of the 74. In fact, within a few years, the Big Chief became Indian’s best-selling motorcycle.
The message wasn’t lost on Indian’s managers. They kept the 74-cubic-inch Chief into the 1950s, when it was replaced by the even-bigger 80-cubic-inch Chief. Over those years, Indian’s flagship was made over into the Chief we all recognize. But long before that, the Big Chief proved that bigger can be better.