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Lot 316: Indian 74ci Chief

Motorcycle and Motorcars, Bonhams & Butterfields (14 November 2009)

Chain drive had been one of Indian's advanced features right from the start, when Oscar Hedstrom and Oliver Hendee, both active in the cycle racing world, got together to build their first prototype in 1901. That first machine was powered by a single-cylinder 'F-head' engine that formed part of the frame - in the Indian's case it sloped rearwards to act as the seat tube - and featured an advanced spray-type carburetor of Hedstrom design. The reliable Indian single proved an instant hit and was produced substantially unchanged until 1905, providing the Springfield firm with the basis for the powerful, large-capacity v-twins that it is best remembered for.

Indian's first twin appeared in 1907, its rear cylinder continuing to form part of the frame until 1909 when Indian adopted a loop frame of the type favored by rivals Harley-Davidson. In 1911 Indian broke new ground yet again with their ohv four-valves-per-cylinder racers and then in 1916 a new 1,000cc sidevalve v-twin - the Powerplus - was introduced to replace the F-head type. A smaller model, the 600cc Scout, joined the Powerplus in 1920, and then two years later the range was extended to encompass a new, Scout-based 1,000cc model - the Chief - the first of an immensely successful line that would endure until 1953.

Constantly developed, the Chief had gained a new frame and forks, dry-sump lubrication and coil ignition by 1940. That year's models are notable as the first to have plunger rear suspension and the wide tires and deeply valanced fenders of the quintessential Chief. An enduring style icon, the 1940s Chief is highly prized by aficionados so it's hardly surprising that it should appeal to the ever-enthusiastic Steve McQueen.

Even though Steve McQueen is most often identified with the rumbling, green Mustang fastback he drove in the movie Bullitt, or with the iconic Gulf blue-and-orange liveried Porsche 917 that his character raced in the epic film Le Mans, it is a fact that the first motorized vehicle he owned was an Indian motorcycle. After a stint in the military, he moved to New York in the early 1950s, which is where he was introduced to the craft of acting. That old Indian had a sidecar attached, and with it he terrorized the streets of Greenwich Village. 'McQueen was a good sports car driver, but an even better motorcycle racer,' said legendary motorcycle and off-road racing pioneer, Bud Ekins. Indeed, let's not forget McQueen's participation in the International Six Days Trial as a member of the United States' team and his involvement in the classic Bruce Brown motorcycling documentary, On Any Sunday.

In the 1960s and '70s, McQueen preferred Triumphs, and later Husqvarnas, for racing but his street ride of choice was most often an Indian. Of the 150-or-so motorcycles he owned throughout his life, it is likely that several dozen of them were Indians. He showed particular loyalty to the brand, often seen at motorcycle and swap meets wearing an Indian T-shirt, and/or shopping for parts for his period examples of this historic American marque. McQueen continued to collect and ride vintage Indians until his passing in November 1980.

When author William F Nolan was gathering research for his book about the Hollywood icon, entitled Star On Wheels, he once met McQueen in the mountains near Palm Springs, so they could discuss the actor's passion for motorcycling. McQueen summarized it succinctly: 'Billy Graham once asked me what my religion was, and I told him, "It's the desert, the grass, the sun in the sky - and my wheels."'

Used by Steve McQueen as his 'Hollywood' bike, the 1940 Chief we offer was sold as part of the McQueen estate when the latter was auctioned at Las Vegas in 1984 as lot 651. The machine was restored by Starklite Motors in Southern California for Steve McQueen, the original rusted gas tank being replaced with the currently-fitted 'number 5' tank during the course of the rebuild. Offered at Bonhams & Brooks' Quail Lodge auction in August 2001 (Lot 213), it was purchased there by the current vendor, who is only the third owner since the '84 Las Vegas sale, and remains in great shape.

Lot Details
Auction Motorcycle and Motorcars
Bonhams & Butterfields, Los Angeles
TypeCar
Lot Number316
Estimate$55000-$65000
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price$85000
Hammer Price (inc premium)$99450
Year1940
Condition rating0
Registration number
Mileage-
Chassis number341248
Engine numberCDO2863B
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors