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What's It All About - Part 1


Now that the dust has settled after our fantastic rally I thought I might put pen to paper to let you know how it all started.  Before I tell you the full story may I say that although most of you seemed to enjoy the rally, there were two of us among you who really appreciated it much more than you could imagine.

I don’t expect many would have noticed the two old gits in the photo (below) who are Sam Lee and myself standing in the middle of the line-up of bikes. We just stood there and soaked up the unbelievable sight of all those bikes.  I said to Sam “who could imagine that our original efforts in starting the Indian Motorcycle Club would end in such a wonderful line-up?” 

For me personally the love affair with Indians started in 1954 when I was serving an apprenticeship in the world-famous ship building company Harland and Wolff.  I’m afraid one of our ships didn’t do very well (the Titanic) but most of them were very successful.  Besides training their own staff, the company trained people from other companies, and one of these lads, who had come from Esso, had a tatty old chief, which I immediately fell in love with and had to have it. 

There was only one problem with my desire to have this monster bike, which I craved, and that was the fact that I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life.  There was also the question of tax and insurance, and my wages were £2.10s.0d. or £2.50 to you youngsters, a pound of which I had to give my mother.  I went to the local crooked dealer and convinced him to give this lad £20 for the bike and I would give him £25, keeping in mind, if my memory serves me correct, one had to put down at least 25% of the price before you could take the goods.  Owing to my lowly wages, all I could do was visit the dealer every week and pay him £1 to build up my deposit.  On my weekly trip I would drool over the bike and attempt to start it.  On one of these occasions I was stood on the kick-start with both feet, owing to the fact that I was very light in weight, when, as I had no knowledge of advance and retard, I was shot into the air and landed in a heap.  WHAT A WAY TO LEARN!!!

Eventually the day came to take the bike away, and the dealer said to me “take that round the corner to start it, if anyone knows I’ve sold you that I’ll get hung”.  I pushed it round the corner and somehow managed to start it and lurched away towards home (1 mile).  Can you imagine having a foot clutch on your first bike?  I lost control trying to get round a roundabout and stopped inches from a shop window.  It frightened the life out of me and I pushed it the last 100 yards, never to ride it again. 

On my weekly trips to pay my £1 there would be another lad doing the same as me, but he was purchasing a 741b.  He often used to offer me a swap, but I thought “no way!”  Now 6 or 7 weeks later I thought, “If only I could find him”.  After going around my town for several weeks on a pushbike, I eventually found him, and the swap was engineered.  I was on the road at last and could get about when I fancied instead of the wait for a bus.  It might seem amusing today, but one of the luxuries my family could now enjoy was fish and chips.  I lived too far from the shops to get them on the bus, but on the bike – no problem.

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Henderson 1958

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Henderson 1958

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Rod, 20 years old &  Henderson

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Rod & 741b

Rod 3.jpg (70613 bytes) Rod Williams (left), Sam Lee (right).  Horsham 2004

I suppose I was very fortunate as one of the tradesmen I worked with was a keen motorcyclist and had, in his younger days, in the 30’ and 40’s, ridden Henderson, Indian and Excelsior or American X if you prefer to call it.  It had been his life’ ambition to build a motorcycle and enter it in the Isle of Man races.  This of course is an achievement for the established firms, so for an individual, near impossible.  Undaunted, my colleague started on his first attempt which was to be a 500cc 4 cylinder.  There wasn’t a single English firm to my knowledge who would have a go at making a 4 to race, but he did it. 

When I say, “he did it” I mean that he made all his own patterns and had them cast at a local foundry.  I realise that we were in a massive engineering shop and that most jobs that would have been impossible to the average Joe could be achieved if you had the right contacts, but my colleague (Fred Marsh) did most of his own machining at home on his homemade lathe, which as it happens used an Indian gearbox for the headstock.  This bike used a pressed-up crank and was totally produced by Fred.  Unfortunately, it was only capable of about 120 miles per hour and therefore not fast enough to race.  This bike is still in existence and sometimes raced in classic races. 

Not daunted by such trivialities Fred then started to make a 500cc V8, and I think it took him about 2 years from start to finish.  This bike brought it’s own problems in the fact that being a racer it didn’t have a generator and with 8 plugs to supply it soon flattened the battery.  It was suggested to cure the problem it would be wise to transistorise the system and he did this and got the bike running OK.  Then, unfortunately, he died.  I often wonder where that bike is now?

I’ve told you all this to give you some idea of the climate that I worked in.  Although I could get all the advice in the world, I couldn’t, or at least I didn’t know where, to get spares, but in those days a 741b could be had for £10 or £15, and so I slowly gathered up many bikes in order to get every bit correct.  I must say that I never got let down by a 741 ever.  I think it is about the most bulletproof bike made.  I know it is not fast, I know it’s got no brakes, but it gets you there. 

After several years of 741’s I came across a Henderson rotting in a local garden, and purchased it for £15.  There was so much rust that had fallen from the cylinders that you could not see the cylinder base nuts, so you can tell how long it had been stood.  Undaunted, I gave it a clean up and after a couple of hours had it running.  Of course, today our bikes are acquired because of interest and enthusiasm, but in those days it had to be my everyday transport and therefore reliable.  I’m afraid that whoever had run it before me had attempted to overcome the clapped-out up-draft Zenith problem by making the hideous manifold with a car SU.  Even on a red-hot summers day the manifold would immediately freeze-up and be white with frost.  This had to go, and the answer was a 741b carb.  What a transformation!  It now ran smoothly and reliably and as all the jets are adjustable could, I assumed, be fitted to anything you like within reason.  I understand that they are a standard fitting for early Indian 4’s if the original is not available.  I cannot understand why other carb manufacturers fitted fixed jets at all in the first place, and like I say to many people “If you’ve made it and used something for 40 or 50 years, you must have it somewhere right”.

I feel the same about the early American saddles.  How could all the multitude of manufacturers the Yanks had in the early days all use the same system, i.e. leather pan, if it was no good?  Keep in mind that some even had the pogo-stick spring, and then you had the best ride ever. 

Well, I expect you have had enough of me for one issue, so I’ll save some more Indian Club story for a later issue.

See you later

Rod Williams  

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Indian Motocycles - you can't wear them out                                  Indian Motocycles - built to last  
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