The first time I saw Larry Van Horn’s immaculate 1946 Indian Chief Roadmaster named “Indian Summer,” it rolled up in front of Hard Scrabble Antiques in Hazel Green, Wis., without making a sound. “Did you shut it off up the street?” I asked him.
“Nope,” he said with a grin as he undid the gas cap and peered into the tank, “I’m out of gas!”
That unusual start led to an in-depth conversation about a unique classic motorcycle.
“I got it in 2006, and it was basically a wreck,” Van Horn explained. “As I got into fixing it up, I decided to make some improvements.”
“Improvements” is something of an understatement, yet Van Horn didn’t want the Indian to lose its classic character. So, he carefully calibrated his strategy to make the improvements almost unnoticeable.
For starters, let’s talk about the 1946 Indian Chief Roadmaster’s starter. There’s the traditional kick starter right where it belongs. But, look closely behind the gearbox, and there is an electric starter!
“I wasn’t able to use the kick starter very well anymore,” Van Horn said, “so I figured if I was going to be able to ride it, I was going to need an electric starter.”
Van Horn describes what it took to engineer this upgrade with help from, well, an engineer friend of his in Germany—it was an involved process. Considering the Indian wasn’t designed with an electric starter, it was a complicated and time-consuming update, but Van Horn says it was well worth it. The innovative idea didn’t stop there, though. The starter button is set-up on a dual switchable circuit, so it is also the horn button.
The original Indian didn’t have a tachometer, but Van Horn reasoned that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. “I really want to know how fast that old motor is turning,” he said. “So, I needed a tachometer, but I didn’t want it to be something that jumps out at you.”
To fill the bill unobtrusively, Van Horn fitted a petite Drag Specialties unit right behind the big vintage style windshield. To keep the spirit of the bike, he also overlaid the Drag Specialties moniker with the “Indian” name on the lens.
Another improvement to the original Indian is based on the notion of safety and self-preservation in traffic. “The idea of having to rely on hand signals really bothers me,” Van Horn said, shaking his head. “I really don’t like the notion of not having turn signals, but I wanted them to fit in with the bike’s design.”
Van Horn selected round vintage-look lens units that mount just outside the fog lights on the light bar on the front, giving them a location to be noticed in use, but not so much when not in use. Similar-style units were used for rear turn signals, which mount just aft of the restored original leather saddlebags.
Van Horn slipped in another, less-subtle feature up front and below the turn signals—lowers along the fork legs. While not obtrusive, they are noticeable and not period, but do help cut the wind, a feature Van Horn really appreciates when the Wisconsin weather turns chilly.
The Indian’s iconic 80 cubic inch, flathead 42-degree V-twin motor needed cleaning and tuning, but essentially remains original equipment. Major mechanical overhaul was not necessary. The ignition system rejuvenation included tuning, but not modern upgrading.
Of course, the most striking thing about Indian Summer is the paint. Van Horn is a skilled body and paint man who once owned a body shop, in addition to being a former Suzuki motorcycle dealer. At the start of the restoration, the paint was in very rough shape. Every bit of the bike’s painted surfaces needed attention. With the help of some friends and local artisans, he set out to not only restore the appearance but create something of unique beauty.
The paint scheme is reminiscent of the original optional pre-war two-tone paint schemes from the factory. With additional designs and pinstriping, the paint’s quality is far beyond anything available in its day.
For Indian Motorcycles, 1946 was a challenging year according to author Jerry Hatfield in his landmark book about the marque, Indian Motorcycles. Hatfield tells of the financial difficulties the company faced in the post-war era—the firm would close by 1953.
Times were so lean for Indian that the product line was reduced to just one model—the Chief—and fewer than 7000 units were built. Still, all was not grim. Max Bubeck and Frank Chase set a record at the Rosamond Dry Lake speed trials, taking their 80 cubic inch side-valve Indian to 128.57 mph.
You can’t help but feel that if the folks who were at Indian back then could see Larry Van Horn’s 1946 Indian Chief Roadmaster now, they’d feel pretty good about the staying power of one of their creations.
Photography by Gary Ilminen