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Retrospective: Indian / Royal Enfield Chief 700cc: 1959-1961

1959 Indian Chief

1959 Indian Chief; owned by Mike Ewing, Salinas, California.

Photo Credit: Clement Salvadori

Clement Salvadori
April 4, 2013
Filed under Other Motorycle Reviews, Retro + Vintage Motorcycle Reviews

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The history of the Indian motorcycle name gets a bit convoluted after the demise of the old company in 1953. Its last genuine model was the 80-inch (1,300cc) Chief.

An English outfit called Brockhouse Engineering bought the name, and proceeded to sell English motorcycles through the Indian dealership network, including AJS, Matchless, Norton and Vincent. In ’55, Brockhouse decided to rebadge Royal Enfields with the Indian name on the gas tank and the engine cases.

1959 Indian Chief

1959 Indian Chief

Naturally, the models were given Indian-ish names, like Apache and Tomahawk, or American-ish names like Trailblazer and Westerner. The Apache and Trailblazer both had Royal Enfield’s 700cc (692cc, to be specific) vertical-twin engine. This motor had first appeared in 1953, powering Enfield’s sidecar-hauling Meteor, later upgraded into the Super Meteor and the sportier Constellation models. The Apache was the sporty version, with light fenders and a 2.4-gallon gas tank, the Trailblazer more touring oriented, with valanced fenders, a 4.8-gallon tank and optional saddlebags and windscreen.

The OHV engine was not conventionally pre-unit 1950s English as it had a semi-unit construction, allowing the primary to be adjusted without having to move the 4-speed transmission. Although the duplex chain didn’t need attention often, when it did the alloy primary cover had to be removed (with just one bolt) to get at the slipper adjustor. On the right side of the engine was the lengthy chain that spun both camshafts; this chain wasn’t very stressed, but should tightening become necessary it had a movable jockey sprocket.

1959 Indian Chief

1959 Indian Chief

In British fashion, this was a dry-sump engine, but instead of having the oil in a remote reservoir like on the BSAs and Triumphs, the oil supply was in a separate container built into the crankcase, with two pumps keeping the lubricant circulating properly. A dipstick told the rider how much oil he had, and a large, easily cleaned oil filter was at the base of the reservoir.

The cylinder barrels were separate, as were the heads, which the factory claimed allowed for better cooling. With a bore of 2.7 inches, stroke of 3.5 (70 x 90mm), this was definitely an undersquare motor. Horsepower depended slightly on the model. The Apache had a 9:1 compression ratio and a 13⁄16 Amal TT carburetor, and was rated by the factory at 45 horses at 6,250 rpm, while the Trailblazer had 8.5:1 compression and a 11⁄8 Amal Monobloc, revved to 5,500 rpm and had several fewer ponies in the herd.

Regular maintenance was simple, with the valves accessible through four separate covers without having to take off the gas tank. Ignition was by coil and points.

1959 Indian Chief

1959 Indian Chief

The Apache and Trailblazer were selling in small quantities, nothing like the Beezas and Trumpets. Although they had the American names, they looked very British with 19-inch wheels. Then somebody at Indian came up with the notion that the Trailblazer could be made to look more American with a few modifications to the sheet metal and smaller wheels with fatter tires, like the old Chief and the Harleys. Adding a couple of inches to the swingarm, extending the wheelbase from 58 to 60 inches, could make this machine appeal to many American police departments, which thought long wheelbases were better than short ones.

Then the wraps came off! Late in 1958, Indian VP Larry Paul proudly announced the advent of the new Chief. He added that a police version, with appropriate lights and a siren, would also be available, and that the new alternator could easily handle the increased electrical load. Also, a solo saddle with a sprung seat-post was optional, as were footboards instead of pegs…just like a Harley and the old Chief.

1959 Indian Chief

1959 Indian Chief

The most noticeable change was in mounting 16-inch wheels, with 40 spokes and fat 4.75 tires. Very American. The bigger front tire necessitated a new steering head with a wider fork and, to top it off, an American-made Stewart-Warner speedometer was used, bracketed by an ammeter and the headlight switch. An American-preferred pullback one-inch handlebar replaced the 3/4-inch bars on the other bikes. A larger front fender was designed, sporting an illuminated Indian head.

At the back, the swingarm had been extended two inches and the detachable sprocket could be changed relatively quickly. A cushion drive in the rear hub softened glitchy gear changes. The original Armstrong shock absorbers were still used, with preload adjustability. New fishtail-style mufflers were built. Curb weight was close to 460 pounds.

The company claimed that the gearbox had been beefed up, although the power output had not been changed. The gas tank volume was increased to five gallons.

One styling change was the placement of the battery. On the Trailblazer, the six-volt battery was in a box on the left side of the bike, tools in a box on the right. On the Chief, the boxes had been done away with, leaving the battery in the middle out in the open. On the bike in the photos, somebody has made an aesthetically approvable cover for the battery.

1959 Indian Chief

1959 Indian Chief

However, late in 1959, Royal Enfield’s U.S. distributorship got more than a little complicated. Associated Motor Cycles had bought the Indian Sales Corporation from Brockhouse, and the company decided that its Matchless line of bikes could do better without the Royal Enfield connection. Paul announced that for 1960, Indian dealers would have Matchless-badged bikes on the floor, with the old names on the brochures. The previous 700cc Royal Enfield Apache and Trailblazer were gone, replaced by the 650cc Matchless G12 models, with a big M on the gas tank, but with the Indian names in the advertising. Nobody is quite sure what Matchless intended to do long-term with the Indian connection, but AMC ran into serious financial problems in 1962 and the Indian name fell into disuse.

And the Chief? Indian had made a lot of Chiefs, which had not sold too well, and a lot were still in the warehouses. A deal was drawn up allowing Indian dealers to sell this Indian-badged Royal Enfield model until they were all gone, advertising them as “The heavyweight from Matchless/Indian.” The last of them went out the door sometime in late 1961.

As a post-mortem on the whole Indian/Royal Enfield arrangement would have to say, it was never a great success, as only about 7,000 units were sold over the seven years.

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