- Denny Berg
The (Re)Birth of a Legend.
"Well, here's how the Super Chief and Drifter were born... "
- Denny Berg
I had done a project for Cobra in ’94, taking a 1500 Vulcan and building an “American Classic” copy with 16” wire wheels, fat fenders and a decidedly ‘50’s two-tone look. I removed the “ham-can” dual air-filters, lowered the suspension and adapted a wide set of steering crowns for the fat look. Cobra built a set of right side dual fishtails, a step seat, floorboard kit, spotlight kit, and a single right side air-cleaner kit. Cobra took it to several shows. When it was featured in a couple of magazines, Cobra was hooked on producing “Metric” custom parts. Next thing you know, Kawasaki released the Vulcan 1500 Classic in ’95.
Later in ’95, Don Emde was talking to John Hoover from Kawasaki about the new Classic. Don’s father, Floyd, was a racer in the 30’s and 40’s. Floyd took his winnings from the Daytona 200 and opened an Indian dealership in 1948, and the rest is history. Don, himself, won the Daytona 200 and is legendary in the motorcycle industry. John Hoover was the Director of Product Management at Kawasaki Motors USA, and was the driving force behind getting the Drifter produced. Don had an idea to build an “Indian Chief Styled” project bike to be featured in Rider Magazine. Ken Boyko from Cobra USA was added to the mix and he told the guys he’d sponsor the project and get me involved. I had done several bikes for Ken and Cobra from my Time Machine Shops in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, California. I had done several Indians and was very eager to get involved.
So, an early ’95 Classic was dropped at the Shop and we were off! Ken faxed me a copy of the sketch that Don had done in November of ’95 of his “Super Chief”. I stripped the Classic, formed one pile of parts to be discarded and another of parts to be used. I scored a couple of fiberglass skirted fenders made for the Harley Softail and mocked them up. The rear fender just didn’t look right floating above the rear tire like a modern bike. I wanted the rigid look but with real suspension. I took the front fender off and laid it on the rear tire. That was it! The rear fender had to be mounted to the swing-arm and the rear fender mounts cut off the frame. Ken said “Go for it!” and the look was set.
I thought of how a Chief would look if Indian was still producing it today. The skirted fenders, sleek upswept muffler and flowing lines were an Indian tradition. I would use some of the Indian features building the Super Chief, but didn’t want to make it a total rip-off. I also had a budget and 5 week time-frame, so I did the best I could. It came together fast. Don and Ken would come by for brainstorming sessions and the project continued to evolve. We knew the blacked-out trim look was critical, but didn’t want to over-do it. Black hubs, rims, forks, handlebars, and accessories were powder-coated. The engine side covers and rocker boxes were stripped of their chrome, glass beaded and cleared. Cables and hoses were rerouted, and wiring cleaned up. Cobra’s seat maker, Kevin Lehan, made the perfect buckskin solo seat with silver conchos on a stock base. Progressive Suspension donated a set of 12” rear shocks and covers. A Cobra fork lowering kit was installed. I rotated the rear brake caliper below the swing-arm so the fender could be formed right over the disc. I made the rear fender mounts and a chrome bumper for the fender support. Bullet signals and a tail light/license plate mount completed the look. The Chief speedo dash was cast aluminum, so I rattle-canned the stock dash with Hammer-Tone silver for the effect. I made new floorboards for more of a vintage 40’s look, black of course. A black Cobra Freeway Bar and Light Bar was added. I couldn’t make the bullet turn signals look right so I installed 1157 yellow bulbs into the spotlights, instant turn signals!
Some fiberglass and Bondo on the fenders and they were ready to go. I covered the seam on the gas tank with Bondo. I got an original Chief tank emblem from Jerry Greer, the Indian guru, and everything was sent to the painter. We choose a brick red with gold pin-stripping. They airbrushed a pair of 3-D emblems on the tank sides. I removed the round air-cleaner/plenum chamber from the left side and adapted a foam Harley filter inside the right air-cleaner. The carb was rejetted with a Cobra Jet Kit.
Now to finish the handlebars and headlight area while the paint and powder-coating was out. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around two hydraulic master-cylinders on the vintage black ‘bars! I used an early HD throttle, so I grabbed two mid-60’s HD lever assemblies from the parts bin and it looked right. I ordered two Kawasaki dirt bike rear master cylinder assemblies with the same bore and made cables to operate the new units under the gas tank. One reservoir served both master-cylinders. Sounds simple, but it took lotsa time just getting the leverage ratios right with my farm-boy knowledge of those things. I added an early HD chrome horn above the head-light, like a Chief. Early 40’s HD hi-low and horn switches with wires run through the black Flanders ‘bars were installed. An early Kawasaki Z1 black mirror finished off the controls. Tim McCool at Cobra made the perfect pipe for the bike and even did a small production run of that exhaust system.
I laced the wheels, added vintage lookin’ tires, and waited for the paint. I thought the left side engine cover looked too modern, so I left it off and detailed what was under it. It gave the engine a real vintage/industrial look. More details were obsessed over ‘til I got the paint. It went together fast and I was satisfied with the bike. After a couple of shake-down rides, I called Ken and Don. They were happy with the finished product, so I kissed it goodbye.
The article came out in the September 1996 Rider Magazine, the history by Don Emde and a riding impression by Mark Tuttle. The photos were great and the bike was well received. Later that year, the Super Chief was taken to the Kawasaki Dealer Show in Reno, Nevada. We went along and were surprised by the excitement of the dealers. Many told John Hoover, “If you make that bike, we can sell it!” The ‘Chief was in the Kawasaki booth at Daytona in early ’97. More press releases in Parts Unlimited Cruiser, Cruising Rider, Cycle World, and another article in MC Tour & Cruiser Magazine and a couple of Euro magazines excited the readers. Before you knew it, the Super Chief was crated and shipped to Japan. Cobra painted another set of body parts with the Vulcan logo and different pin-stripping.
The ball was rolling, thanks to John Hoover’s commitment to the project. At first, it was going to be a very limited production model with only 1 or 2 to each dealer. That later changed to a full production run all over the world. The 800 was added to complete the Drifter lineup.
Changes to the production 1500 included chrome rims, handle-bars, DOT controls and signals/lighting. I can’t take the credit for the dual seat, it was a factory compromise at best. I did design some of the accessories for the factory, but my vintage saddlebags were vetoed because they couldn’t hold a helmet.
John Hoover and Kawasaki presented me with one of the first Drifters, serial # 0000048. That year, 1948, was the classic year for the Indian Chief. I have dressed it up and ride it often around the desert where I live. It was a great honor to have a “project” go into production, and a greater joy to work with friends like Ken, Don and John.
The original Super Chief resides at Cobra’s Yorba Linda, California facilities. I check on it from time to time, along with about 30 other bikes I’ve built for Cobra. They also have an early prototype of the Drifter painted up like a 40’s California Highway Patrol bike in the collection. It has been featured in a few magazines here and overseas.
I’d like to thank you guys and the Drifter owner’s groups for keeping my dream alive. I’m always glad to help, whenever I can. I can’t tell you how good it feels to see a Drifter drive by and know I had something to do with it…
Denny Berg, June’08
This is a copy of the sketch that Don Emde drew up when we were brainstorming on the Super Chief way back in '96...
Click on the image for full size