1938 Indian Model 438
With an experienced team and a lot of data.
Every so often, a spectacular mechanical vision can wind up being a complete flop financially. The Indian Four is a prime example that sometimes, if you build it they won’t come. History has been kind to the Indian Four, but when it was new it almost completely failed to find favor.
The Four was introduced as a prestige motorcycle that cost as much as a new Pontiac. It was named for its inline four-cylinder engine, as descendant of the 1911 Henderson. Henderson sold out to Schwinn in 1917, then started the Ace company in 1919, planning to build a lighter four-cylinder bike. He was killed testing a new Ace Four in 1922, but Arthur Lemon ran the company until 1927, when Indian bought the concern and installed the 1,265 cc F-head engine in its Scout frame. Indian would build about 5,000 over the next 15 years.
After the DuPont family bought Indian in 1929, the paint color options for the Four predictably expanded in a big way and over 50 colors were offered in the company’s 1934 catalog. With the Great Depression in full swing, however, such an expensive motorcycle was hard to sell. While Harley-Davidson developed its overhead valve “Knucklehead” engine, Indian elected to redesign the Four.
The valve arrangement of the Four was reversed, with the exhaust valves now over the inlet valves. The “upside-down” Four debuted in 1936, the same year as the Knucklehead, but within two years Indian had reverted to the original arrangement. The Four didn’t get the swooping art deco fenders that became a trademark feature of Indians until 1940, and at the same time a plunger rear suspension was introduced to absorb what wasn’t soaked up by the big sprung seat.
Fans of the Indian Chief complained that the company was wasting resources on the Four that should have gone to the Chief, and in the end the Four was not reintroduced after the Second World War. Indian then tried to compete with smaller European bikes, but failed at that, too, and ceased production in 1953.
Chances of finding an original Indian Four are quite low these days, but beware of over-chromed restorations. Indians favored enamel finishes over brightwork thanks to the DuPont paint connections.
Mechanical weaknesses include slipping clutches and transmission wear because engine oil was also used to lubricate the gearbox. Cooling the rear cylinder was always a problem, and if the drive chain breaks, it can bunch up and crack the crankcase. Fortunately, though, there are remanufactured ones available. The Four is a smooth rider compared to the thumpy V-twin, but otherwise owning one is a labor of love or for someone with serious interest in the bike’s history because owning a Chief is both cheaper and easier.