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1st October 2003

Rebuilding The Indian by Fred HaefeleRebuilding The Indian by Fred Haefele

Ever since I got into motorcycles, there have been certain machines that have set my pulse racing. Among these is the Indian. In the middle of Daytona Bike Week I found myself ignoring the hundreds of Harleys lining the streets to see an Indian sitting quietly by itself, bypassed by the throng.

The last Indians rolled off the production line in 1953 (and by then had become little more than cheap replicas of British vertical twins in a desperate attempt to salvage the company). The classic Indian machines date from the 1940s. These are the ones to have.

When Fred Haefele came into $5000 he decided to do something foolish. In this case, rebuild an Indian. Like any restoration project, there are rules:

1). If you buy an Indian, buy a Chief. The Chief was the flagship of the line. They made more of them than any other model, so parts are (relatively) easy to come by.

2). Learn to accept the 5/10 law; if you buy a Chief basketcase for $5000 you will end up putting another $10,000 into it.

3). Whatever you do, don't buy a basketcase. They are pigs in pokes. They will break your heart, they will drive you mad.

To this I would add another rule - if you are rebuilding a 50 year old bike from a box of bits then do not set yourself time limits. So obviously Haefele bought a $5000 1944 (well the frame was 1941, the engine was 1947, so 1944 seems a fair average) Chief basketcase and set himself a target of taking part in the Sturgis Run (whilst Sturgis is mainly given over to Harleys, there is a smaller but more 'real' area devoted to the Indian).

'Rebuilding The Indian' chronicles Haefele's race against the clock to restore the bike in time. But this is more than a simple catalogue of parts needed and action taken.

His passion for the project is obvious. From why he bought the bike (not giving much away by saying because it spoke to him) and the thrill of seeing restored parts coming back, meaning the day he can work on the bike gets much closer. There is also a lot of humour regarding his decision making -- his continual change of mind about something as simple as the colour is gently but warmly amusing -- stick at the original capacity or bore out the engine for more performance? White walled tyres or not? Working from a bucket of bolts, there is a lot of scope for making changes, and Haefele agonises over all of them!

There are frustrations - after what seems an eternity, he still hasn't undertaken any work himself! You find yourself wanting to scream; 'Do something yourself man!' (and this is from a self-confessed mechanical ignoramus). But then things start coming together - and of course, the inevitable problems appear. From here on the story picks up apace and I found myself not wanting to put the book down - I wanted to rush through to the end to see the outcome, but at the same time wanted to take my time and really get a feel for how the project developed.

Intermingled with the story of the Indian's rebuild are tales of Haefele's life and what drove him to become the man he is and just what made him decide to take on the project. These give the book a vital balance and without them, it would be hard to grasp just what made him choose to spend his good fortune on such an onerous task.

Perhaps the real delight of this book is the development of friendships over something as supposedly simple as putting together a bundle of parts. Likewise, his coming into contact with diverse characters -- some introverts, some extroverts, some decidedly dubious, if not dangerous - but all connected by their love of old motorcycles is a joy to read.

If there is an annoyance about Rebuilding The Indian, it is the lack of photographs - it would have been good to see how it developed, stage by stage - but perhaps it is better to rely on mental imagery and give it your own 'feel' for how things moved along.

Does Haefele make it to Sturgis? Well that would be telling. But anyone that has ever rebuilt and run a classic motorcycle will find themselves identifying with this book. And for those that have not, this book will give something of an insight into what drives people to do so.

Bob Pickett

Rebuilding The Indian by Fred Haefele
Weidenfeld & Nicholson; ISBN: 0575065648
Buy a copy from Amazon for 3.99


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