The suicide shift. This strange, alluring, and certainly dangerous feature of many Indian motorcycles contributed to the brand’s magnetic pull on the American imagination. Also known as the suicide clutch and the suicide shifter, this term refers to the decision of early 20th-century motorcycle designers to place a hand-shifter and foot clutch to change gears. This meant that, as a driver was cruising down the road, he had to remove a hand from the handlebars whenever he wanted to shift gears and, when stopped, had to lift his feet off the ground to engage the clutch.
It all sounds a little gruesome, but it also has mystique. Which explains why 33 bidders have ratcheted the asking price of this week’s featured item to over $42,000. There’s just something about a 1940 Indian Four:
It turns out the designers had a couple of relatively logical reasons for these interesting mechanical twists. Over at Motorcycle.com, a reporter interviewed Dan Smith, the resource development director for the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Ohio. Smith explained reasoning behind what the site calls an “unusual control layout.” It began with “…fierce competition between Indian and Harley-Davidson. This caused designers to purposefully make it difficult to switch from one brand to the other. ‘Harley was one way, Indian was another and never the twain shall meet,’” said Smith. The second reason is more practical. “Indians were widely used for police duty. Controlling the throttle with left hand, Smith explained, freed the right hand to fire a weapon.”
Even without knowing about this interesting mechanical feature, fans fall for Indian motorcycles. They are beauties, with a retro styling that smacks of 1930s long, low-slung cars. The swooping line of the fenders and even the styling around the gas tank make Indian motorcycles a world apart from the other big American brand, Harley-Davidson.
In other words, Indians are an American classic motorcycle, more obscure than Harleys, and dead cool. The seller describes this item thusly:
“For sale here we have a stunning example of pre-WWII American motorcycle history. Indian described their Four-Cylinder model as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Motorcycle.’ One look at this machine proves it.”
Eagle-eyed eBay shoppers always scan the listing for tidbits of information about the condition of classic vehicles. The seller elaborates on this theme. “This bike was painstakingly restored and lovingly ridden for many years by my grandfather in Northern Ohio. The frame and engine numbers match. Exact year of the sidecar is unknown; however, this model sidecar was first available from Indian in 1939. Bike has a clean and clear Ohio title and has been owned and registered to my grandfather for over 20 years. The engine was completely rebuilt approximately 10 years ago and has around 1,000 miles on it since the rebuild. Everything that could be kept original was kept original. There is a weld/repair on rear of the engine case as shown in the photos. This bike was last ridden in summer of 2012.”
Writing for the Illustrated Indian Motorcycle Buyer’s Guide, Jerry Hatfield had this to say: “The Four is the greatest motorcycle showpiece, the Duesenberg of motorcycling.”
Another point of interest is the fact that this item has a four-cylinder engine, offering far more power than many a motorcycle. We can thank the people at Detroit Motors for this feature. Hatfield explains, “…the Springfield company’s first four-cylinder motorcycle had resulted from its purchase of the Ace rights and tooling from Detroit Motors the previous year. The Ace Company, although bankrupted twice, had developed a fundamentally sound four-cylinder motorcycle based on William Henderson’s original design, and this provided Indian with an opportunity to offer an inline ‘four’ with minimal development costs.”
The designers’ venture is your gain. All you have to do is locate the cash and you can work the suicide shift with the best of them.