Readers and their Rides

A.J. Dusek and His 1947 Indian Chief

Written by  October 31, 2006

I met A. J. Dusek at Ralph Wayne’s Vintage Backyard Nationals where his immaculate 1947 Indian Chief was on display. We sat in lawn chairs and talked about his pride and joy.

CC: A.J., please tell us about your remarkable motorcycle.

AJ: My dad bought it when he came back from World War II. He wanted that sense of a little bit of freedom out on the road, so he bought this ’47 Chief. My uncle, at the same time, was buying different kinds of bikes. He’s still living, and he still has a ’57 Panhead that’s all original.

CC: That was the last year for the hardtail frame.

AJ: That’s right. The two of them used to ride side by side around the Kansas City area. An Indian and a Harley riding together was very unusual in those days.

CC: You mentioned earlier that the paint is not original.

AJ: Dad would have a few too many brews from time to time. He never did like the Indian red color. He wanted something a little more colorful, so he got out a paintbrush and changed the color overnight, so I wasn’t able to retain the original paint. We talked to him and tried to get him to restore it back to the way it was originally. He kind of thought we were nagging him, and he kept putting it off. When he passed on, the bike became mine. I decided to restore it for him as a memorial. After about four or five years of research on this and going from one A.M.C.A. (Antique Motorcycle Club of America) meet to another, I started locating the correct parts to do the job. Over the course of about a year and a half, I put it back together with the help of Elmer Lower from Pennsylvania. Elmer is a well-known person when you get into Indian restoration.

CC: What was involved in the restoration process?

AJ: We went through the motor and transmission. We did everything to make it correct. I went back to a 6-volt electrical system. I still have some original wheels, but I decided to go with the re-pops and new tires. I have an original Indian tire still inflated and mounted on an original wheel (spokes, rim, and hub), but when we looked into what it would cost to restore it to riding condition, it made more sense to keep it as a memento rather than using it on the bike.

CC: You did lots of research. How about a quick history lesson?

AJ: Indian has quite a storied past. It started in 1901 with single cylinder motorcycles. Indian was the first to win the Isle of Mann T.T. race. Indian motorcycles held several speed records. The year 1947 was the first year that Indian put the headdress on the fender light and also the Indian script across the tank. That continued until the end in 1953 when Indian motorcycles went out of production in the United States. There was no 1949 Indian Chief, so Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie Desert Heat was incorrect. The right side tank shift, left foot clutch, left hand throttle, and right hand distributor advance are all original. The exhaust on this bike is kind of a trip. It’s one piece running from the engine all the way to tail pipe. There are no clamps at the engine. It’s just snugged up in there. It’s held in place by three bolts along the frame. It’s not noisy, but of course, these old flatheads are known to clatter. This one has a little of that, but it’s not too bad.

CC: Have you entered it in competitive bike shows?

AJ: It took first place in the Antique Judged Class the first year of the Easyriders Show in Kansas City. I’ve had it in other local bike shows. I even showed it at the Harley factory and won the first place trophy for antiques three years in a row, but I’m not very popular up there. I’ve taken it to Antique Motorcycle Club of America events and had it judged. Everything is the way it should be. The only thing on the bike that’s not from ’47 is the ’46 brake that was actually installed at the factory because they used leftover parts from the previous year. I can’t document it, because Pop didn’t keep the paperwork, but I can live with that, because that’s the way it came. It’s a low model number from that year, so I know it’s original. With the A.M.C.A. as you show a bike you go up through the ranks from Junior Second to Junior First to two Senior awards and finally to Winners Circle class. When you reach Winners Circle you no longer have to maintain 95 points plus on it. You can actually ride it, which is the intent, and maintain just 85 points. I take it all over from Colorado to Minnesota to Davenport, Iowa.

CC: I’ve been to Davenport several times. That’s a great show with bikes and parts for sale and antique motorcycle field events and races. It’s always on Labor Day weekend.

AJ: Davenport is really a lot of fun! For those that haven’t gone, it’s something they need to do. The races are really good. You can even see board track racers and flexi-racers that have a side hack with a third wheel that tilts into the turns.
Another great event in 2001 was the Indian Motorcycle centennial celebration at Oley, Pennsylvania. There was a field of approximately 150 to 175 Indians. To get on the judging field, the motorcycles have to be in running condition. Someone even had a 1904 Indian that ran. Every decade was covered, and the military bikes produced for World War I and II were represented. There was one with a wicker basket in the front where a passenger could sit. There was one that some farmer must have had because it had a tiller mounted on the side. In total, there were probably 250 to 300 Indians in one place, and I don’t think that will ever happen again. It was a heck of a celebration. I’ll never forget it!

CC: How much do you ride your Chief, A.J.?

AJ: I probably put about 700 to 800 miles on it every year.

CC: Do you have a modern bike as well?
AJ: I have had modern bikes, but I don’t currently have any. Divorce has had an impact on that. I’ve had to start over a couple of times, but I’ve hung in there. I have a ’56 T-bird and some old pick-up trucks that I’ll eventually restore, but the Indian is my love. I have lots of special memories of growing up with it. To be able to get on there and ride with Pop was a thrill. All of the neighborhood kids would want their turn, but they had to wait until my sister and I were done. We had a lot of fun.

CC: How do you feel about the new Indians?
AJ: When they started the new company in California, they kind of excluded the old bikes. They didn’t want to bring us into the fold. They wanted to steal the thunder of the past and use the name to sell bikes with S&S motors.

CC: It didn’t end up very well for them.

AJ: No it didn’t. It’s kind of ironic. The way the original Indian company ended in 1953 was that it was taken over by Royal Enfield. It was supposed to be their introduction into the U.S. motorcycle market with their vertical twin motors. History repeated itself in a way, because a British firm bought all of the rights from the new Indian company when they went under. There’s talk that they may try to bring it back.

CC: Besides the family connection, what’s the lure of restoring antique bikes?
AJ: There is still a huge marketplace to buy re-pop or even original parts. You can go to swap meets or antique meets and find what you need. If you ever get interested in old bikes you fall in love with them because of the simplicity. They were made to be fixed, sometimes beside the road, by the people who rode them. Back in the day, you can imagine what the roads were like. Pop used to tell me that when he and my uncle used to ride around in Kansas City, once you got beyond about 50th Street you were out in the country. If you broke down, you had better have tools with you.

CC: A.J., you really have done a great job of restoring your dad’s bike. He would be proud! Thanks for telling us about it.

Interview and current photos by Stripe
Old photos provided by A.J. Dusek