In times of war, almost everything becomes a potential weapon, and the motorcycle is no exception. Though the purposes differ, some motorcycle attributes prized by civilian riders, such as compact size, maneuverability, and light weight, have long been attractive to soldiers as well. Of course, in the early days, motorcycles weren’t entirely satisfactory.
Though some could deal with the primitive conditions of everyday use, military life was more abusive. Soldiers might ride them into places no regular rider would contemplate. Still, as the machines themselves were refined and improved, far-sighted military planners saw an increasing role for them to play.
Indian Motocycles Model 741 reports for duty in World War II.
Europeans were somewhat more advanced in their thinking. As militarism took hold in Germany during the early 1930s, that country’s major motorcycle manufacturers developed machines that could do more than carry two soldiers to the battlefront in a hurry. The bikes became weapons in and of themselves, some carrying machine guns and other armaments; others were configured with sidecars, often fitted with gun mounts.
In contrast to its German counterparts, the Indian Motocycle Company (the "r" in motorcycle was dropped in 1923) of Springfield, Massachusetts, did not have the lights burning all night at its factory. Founded in 1900, Indian was weathering the Depression; while moderately profitable, the company had never fully regained its health after years of poor management. Mere survival was something of an achievement; by the mid-1930s an industry once made up of dozens of competitors had been ruthlessly pruned down by attrition or takeovers to just two main players, Indian and Harley-Davidson.
As the decade came to a close, most people—especially those in Europe—were convinced that war was inevitable. The U.S. government was a little slow to react, but the French Army placed an order for some 2,200 Indian Chiefs, many with factory sidecars. This brought a welcome infusion of cash into the company, though none of the machines actually reached France. Among the more than 2.6 million tons of merchant vessels sunk by German U-Boats in 1940, was the S.S. Hanseatic Star and its cargo of crated Indians. (Click image to enlarge)
By then, the U.S. government had issued contracts to Indian and Harley-Davidson for prototype military bikes. Indian responded with the Model 640, a clever amalgamation of components from civilian production. A 30.5 cu in engine from the Junior Scout was modified. Compression was lowered for easier starting, reliability, and in anticipation of poor-quality fuel in combat zones. Various military-specification components, including a dust- and water-resistant air filter, were installed in a Sport Scout frame.
A few modifications were made to make the 640 more suitable for war. Front forks and seat stays were lengthened, effectively giving the bike nearly five inches of ground clearance. A luggage rack with attached saddle bags was mounted behind the rider; carriers were provided for extra gas cans; the civilian fenders were replaced with simple mudguards, raised high enough to prevent the build-up of mud between wheels and fenders. Blackout military running lights were specified, and parts were renumbered to satisfy military nomenclature. And, naturally, the whole unit was covered with a coat of solid olive-drab paint.
Anyone unfamiliar with motorcycles would be unable to identify the 641′s maker as, in standard military practice, no badges or decals bearing a trade name were attached. Each bike did carry a special warning and information plate as demanded by the government, admonishing users that "no equipment is to be added to motorcycle", the not-to-exceed speed for the Model 741 seen here was 80 mph, giving specifics of oil grade, spark plug, maintenance manual and parts list numbers. At the bottom of the plate, the machine was correctly identified as an Indian Motocycle.
The Army considered the 640 satisfactory after extensive testing; it was durable enough and did what it was supposed to do, but had one drawback—it was slow. To address the power deficit, a second model, the 741, was created. Outwardly identical to the 641, it used the civilian low-compression version of the 45 cu in Sport Scout powerplant.
As the war in Europe intensified, the U.S. military began to see the true potential of motorcycles on the battlefield. Strategists saw, as did horrified civilians, newsreels displaying the rapid progress of Germany’s Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") through Belgium and France, with various BMW, DKW, Zundapp and NSU motorcycles leading the charge. The British, too, were making good use of motorcycles in the North African desert war. (Click image to enlarge)
Increased demand was a mixed blessing for Indian. The factory was not in ideal condition for war work, as many machine tools had been sold off during the Depression. Of those remaining, many were in poor condition. Given material restrictions and war priorities already in place, replacing them was certainly a difficult proposition.
Even so, the company persevered. Its employees made up for the shortages as best they could, with sheer hard work and perseverance. Their best was very good. Some 44,000 military Indian Motocycles and an unknown, but substantial, number of sidecars were built between 1939 and 1945. The effort won the factory an "E" pennant from the Army-Navy Production Board for the excellence of its work.
Apart from these orders, Indian also filled its share of a 5,000-unit contract given to both Indian and Harley-Davidson by the British War Department. After the bombing of Coventry destroyed a major portion of the Triumph works, the UK was determined not to run short of motorcycles. A majority of the bikes sent were 640s. In addition, limited civilian production continued—mainly 74 cu in Chiefs for law-enforcement use and various models for those in "essential" occupations.
Indian also developed a prototype for yet another military bike. The 841 followed BMW practice with a shaft drive, and its Scout-based engine turned the cylinders 90 degrees from normal orientation and widened the angle between them. Other improvements, including a new fork design, were incorporated. The end result bore remarkable similarities to later Moto Guzzi products. Some 1,000 841s were produced. (Click image to enlarge)
But events beyond the control of Indian management conspired against the company. In 1944, the military decided it had enough motorcycles to serve the Allies in Europe, and saw no use for them in the Pacific Theater. Contracts were abruptly cancelled, even as 640, 741s and 841s were rolling out of the Springfield works. Worse, the government was unwilling to pay for the last $412,000 of materiel produced.
The leftover bikes, including the majority of the 841s not used for testing purposes, were sold to the public at knockdown prices. It is said that 841s fetched $500 apiece. Many, if not all, of the surplus machines were repainted; shorn of their military fittings, they became "civilian" Indians. Some of the spares from this period continue to turn up today and, as they are suitable for both military and civilian machines, are much prized.
Despite its downward business spiral, despite the glory deservedly attained by the Jeep as the four-wheeled servant of soldiers in all theaters of war, Indian played an important role in national defense during the 1939-45 period. The bikes, and the men who built them, answered the call, and the 640s, 741s and 841s that survive today are proud reminders of Indian Motocycles’ finest hour.