Cobra Engineering and Time Machine Motorcycles go native on a 1996 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic.
As originally appeared in Rider
Lately, it seems, every couple of months someone announces that they are planning to bring back the Indian motorcycle. As I write this, yet another organization has plans for the Indian name in the next year or so. Whether or not they will be successful and not disappear into the sunset as so many others have done since production stopped at the original Indian factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1953 is anybody's guess.
If building a new machine from scratch is such a challenge, then one could argue that a replica of a past model based on a proven platform is the way to go. Quite a number of Indian restoration shops around the country have been doing this for years. Today more and more reproduction parts are being created, and now you can just about assemble a complete motorcycle from them. Who needs an official Indian company to compete with that?
With all of the press announcements and talk about Indian coming back to market, I have often wondered what a new Indian motorcycle should be like and have given a lot of thought to doing a makeover of a current machine with an Indian-style '40s look. Last fall, I was having a conversation with John Hoover, the director of product management at Kawasaki Motors Corporation USA, and I told him my thoughts. We discussed the new Vulcan 1500 Classic that Kawasaki had just announced and, as it turned out, he had been having much the same thoughts - that the bike had some real potential for a styling exercise like this. The result was Hoover saying, "Let's do it."
Not too much time passed before I told Ken Boyko of Cobra Engineering, well-known maker of Japanese custom exhaust systems and accessories, about my new project. He said that if I needed someone to do the actual mechanical work on the bike, he would be willing to sponsor me. He also offered the services of Denny Berg of Time Machine. If you aren't familiar with Berg, he is the customizing wizard responsible for many of the thrilling concept bikes that Cobra has produced in the past several years.
Wow, this was going to be easier than I thought. Now, with the commitment for both a motorcycle and the restoration work, I then sat down and sketched out my idea for a '40s-style machine.
>Rather than try to re-create any specific model year of the Indian, I used the styling rules of the time and adapted them to the technology of 1996. One of my goals was to design a machine that I felt Indian would be making if it were still in business today. This could be achieved, I thought, by doing a retro-style makeover with the look of the 1940s, factoring in the limitations of the prewar years, yet maintaining '90s technology.
I come from a family with deep roots from the period. My father, Floyd Emde, was a pro racer in the '30s and '40s and was the last rider to win the Daytona 200 on an Indian. He ever parlayed his winning purse of $2,000 into an Indian dealership in 1948 (later switching to Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki and other brands). Using a lot of books and manuals in my collection, I tried to pull out the meaningful aspects of my dream machine.
After the full Indian-style fenders, the most noticeable element was to eliminate much of the chrome from the current Vulcan. In the 1940s, especially in the pre-World War II days, chrome was a rather expensive process. On items such as the Vulcan's wheels and fork it was only a matter of stripping the chrome and painting them black. On the side and valve covers, however, Berg had to resort to hand grinding the chrome away, as the chrome process Kawasaki uses on the parts was not affected by the traditional dip-tank chrome stripping process.
Other details in my sketches included the location of the horn up by the headlight, the solo bucket seat, the freeway bars, spotlights mounted up by the headlight and the black rims, fork and handlebars. On items such as these I could be quite specific. For other items I could only vaguely describe the final look, but I wasn't really sure if Berg could actually build it.
During the five weeks of work Berg put in on the Super Chief, I stopped by his shop in Huntington Beach, California, occasionally to see how the project was progressing. Not only did I witness virtually all of my ideas coming to fruition, but Berg had added many touches that I didn't think of. To give the bike the look of an old rigid-frame model, he cut off the rear frame rails and remounted the fender to the swing arm. He also remounted the floorboards two inches farther back from the stock location and tipped them forward into a horizontal position.
Cobra's Tim McCool took a few Indian photos and my drawing and came up with an Indian-style two-into-one exhaust system. As the photos show, he did a great job visually and it gave the bike a nice mellow sound without a lot of excessive noise. Damon's Creations, a custom painter in Brea, California, did the paint work. The red paint is reminiscent of typical '40s-Indian solid colors with gold trim. As a tribute to the fender tips of the period, Damon's also worked a fender tip design into the paint front and rear.
Berg added a few interesting touches that only an experienced customizer like himself could dream up. For example, after the stock exhaust pipe came off, the area where the collector chamber used to be left a big visual hole in the underside of the bike. Berg triangulated a pair of tubular frame rails to fill this in and make it look like part of the frame. He also spent a lot of time rerouting the Kawasaki wiring around the cylinders and frame. He wanted to give the bike a simple look, and was able to tuck a lot of the wires out of the way. The result is a much cleaner appearance than the stock model.
One of the biggest challenges that faced Berg was relocating the hydraulic master cylinders from the handlebar to a spot under the gas tank. He used old style clutch and brake levers with cables leading to the hydraulic master cylinders under the tank. Later, in our initial test ride, we found that rising engine heat caused the master cylinders to overheat, resulting in brake caliper malfunction. The solution was to add a heat shield between the engine and master cylinders.
The seat was custom-made by a Cobra source. Except for the natural leather finish and rear flap, it is much like the model that comes on the Kawasaki Vulcan. The seat padding is plush and comfortable, and with the Cobra floorboards rear set from the stock position and a 1995 model Kawasaki Vulcan handlebar, we achieved a really comfortable riding position.
To get the look of a classic Indian you have to shape the full-valanced fenders just right. Too many accessory companies sell fenders that bolt right on, but don't look correct. Berg actually used aftermarket front fenders designed to go on current-model Harleys for both the front and back of our machine. He had to do some modifying, but got them shaped and trimmed to come close to the old Indian lines.
To make everything look right and in the proper proportions, we had to lower the Super Chief from the stock position quite a bit. Cobra's lowering kit for the Vulcans and 12-inch Progressive Suspension 4000 Series shocks made for cruisers and aftermarket top covers for Harley did the job. The lowering kit and shocks combined to finish the look. As a bonus, the bike's center of gravity is two inches lower and gives it great low-speed stability.
True Indian aficionados will probably notice that we left off a couple of finishing touches that would more clearly relate the bike to a '40s Indian. We discussed adding the well-known Indian front fender light, rear rack and fringe, but felt it would be overkill. As far as we were concerned, the mission was accomplished.
Cobra is taking a wait-and-see attitude about reproducing any of the custom-made parts for our Super Chief for retail sale. Yes, you could build this bike, but it would not be easy or cheap. The plan wasn't to sell a kit that would bolt together and create this look, but rather to inspire vintage cruiser enthusiasts and get their reactions. This Super Chief could just be a starting point - imagine a similarly styled machine with an olive-drab paint job, yellow star and leather rifle scabbards, or one finished in a replica of one of Indian's famous two-tone paint jobs!
Overall we wanted to see what sort of Indian like machine we could build without limitations. Certainly, a number of the styling modifications could be replicated fairly easily, and one could get pretty close. Some items would be harder to duplicate. The pipe, for example, is one-of-a-kind, though it could see its way into production if Cobra gets the appropriate response - exhaust systems are what it's known for, after all. And there are some things like the floorboards, freeway bars, light bars and other items that can be had from Cobra right now. The shocks, too, as they came from Progressive Suspension.
Perhaps someday someone will actually bring Indian back to the market. It will be a real challenge for whoever tries to do it, though. Not only will they need to get the styling right, they will also have to build an engine that is reliable right out of the box. It would no doubt be expensive, and buyers will not accept anything less reliable than what they can buy today. And why should they?
I'm sorry, Indian lovers, but I couldn't wait! With the Kawasaki Vulcan Super Chief, I got the best of both worlds...the look and feel of the '40s and the technology of the '90s. And the best part is, there's very little chrome to polish.