top of page

Bike of the Month
May 2023
1920 Indian Scout
By Robert Conn

Once upon a time at the turn of the last century, the American populace was in transition from horse and buggy to a more simple and less costly means; enter the bicycle craze of the 1890’s that still seems to rage on into our current century.

Not long after the bicycle craze began around the early 1900’s, engineering and brainstorming of small engine designs resulted in installing these engines in a bicycle frame. Most were rear wheel drive but some were experimentally driven with little success from the front wheel. As far back as 1896, Roy C. Marks of San Francisco formed the California Motorcycle Company and produced the first motorcycle made in the USA. The California Motor Company motorcycle had a 1/2 hp motor with patent & also a carb patent, weighing in at 90 lbs.

In 1903, George Wyman left San Francisco on one of these moto bicycles and completed a trans continental road trip in 50 days! Primitive though it was, it is my personal opinion that this was the beginning of the era for motorcycles, morphing from bicycle frames to the sturdy motorcycle frames used in the 1920’s. This is supported by the fact that the California Motor Company frame rights were later sold to Yale, who made quality motorcycles in the early part of the 1900’s.

We all need to be reminded that the early “Pioneer Moto Cycles” had to make their own way down mostly wagon ruts and paths as “improved” roads only existed in larger towns and cities They had to be made to be rugged and durable, as simple as possible, as well as easy to repair. After all, who wants to pedal if you don’t need to and still go fast. This was the dawning of the motorcycle enthusiast! Free to roam, free from horse and buggy.

Along with these new modes of personal transport came WW1 and soon the two major American motorcycle companies were allotted war contracts which started the serious rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian. The theme seemed set after the war ended for a race for speed, durability, style, looks and popularity! Other companies like Henderson, Excelsior, and Brough all joined in.

In 1919, a design by Charles B. Franklin was introduced as the 1920 Indian Scout. The first year Scout had a 37 cubic inch displacement (596 cc), 42 degree v-twin side valve engine that produced approximately 10 hp. It had a 3-speed hand actuated gearbox affectionately called a “crash box” bolted directly to the engine. It came with a front leaf spring and rigid rear for “suspension”. Estimated top speed was 55 mph. It weighed a rugged and hefty 340 lbs wet, which is almost identical with the selling price!! Hmm, a dollar a pound!

The new solo Indian was quickly accepted by the motorcycle segment of the U.S. as well as others around the world. But with any  first year production vehicle, there would be a few bugs and gremlins to work out. The factory Indian engineers were quick to correct the issues.

The base Scout model ran from 1920-27 then continued on as a 45 cubic inch Scout  and then to the more famous Scout 101 that was used in the “Globe of Death '' that we saw at all the circuses as impressionable kids. Each year from 1920 on, the Scout received upgrades and performance improvements. Some of these factory upgrades included changing from barrel pogo and spring seat to a twin spring floating seat. Different front spring brackets, bearing upgrades in gearbox, overheating problems were cured by orienting fins on cylinder head from side to side to fore and aft for better cooling. Rocket science! The magneto was upgraded to a  Splitdorff 5, and the charging dynamo was upgraded for lighting.

The Scouts have some idiosyncrasies. First off, you have to give them time to train you properly on how they like to be handled and manipulated. Kind of like my first girlfriend, there is a cadence of sequences that they adhere to!  To start with, you have to readjust your mindset. Why? Well, let’s start with the right hand jockey shift, not so bad, right?  Ok, what about the throttle you let go of to shift? Oh, that’s right, the throttle is on the left. No problem, but I can’t get my right hand to stop throttling – force of habit, I guess. The throttle I’m used to is now a spark advance. Slapping the back of my right hand has not stopped my involuntary right hand crank! About that left hand throttle – don’t turn left too sharply or the end of the either bar hits the point or forward part of the seat and suddenly changes your voice to a much higher octave. It’s a real gonad getter, steering stop. Yes, but only once!!

On to less significant issues – braking, don’t grab for that hydraulic front brake lever - no use, it doesn’t have one - much less a big disc up front – none. So back to the brake – yes it’s a gnarly 1” wide asbestos band brake – like the old emergency brake on a 1948 Dodge that is around the drive shaft. Rear brake has a minimal contact area on the brake hub. I’m afraid it’s very minimal and I’m not sure I can even lock it up.

Brake pedal is on the right floorboard adjacent to the exhaust header pipe. How convenient. Heat up your soles in case the brake doesn’t stop you, maybe the hot sticky boot bottom will. Never give up hope! Meanwhile back at the controls – clutch, yep right again, no lever on bars, so down to left floorboard clutch pedal – forward to disengage clutch (out of gear) – backward to engage clutch. Toe to go – heel to peel! Exactly the opposite of Harley-Davidson (coincidence, I think not). Fortunately, the starting sequence is not that difficult to figure out once you realize the planets have to line up, hold your mouth just right, engage that ratchet gear and kick it over. In reality, my little Indian starts 1st or 2nd kick if I do the right sequence which I will not disclose here (sacred knowledge). Anyway, all bikes start differently.

So why bother, you might ponder? So did I. But after a little over two years of restoration, parts hunting, many wampum, and encouragement from others, I can now ride a 103 year old motorcycle that will outlast me and live for another 100 years as a rider, not a museum exhibit. And also, when I ride to the bar, it keeps me within my half beer limit so I can still concentrate on safe operation and lower my risk factor! It’s a very busy bike to operate.

I purchased the Indian at an auction in Las Vegas. As auctioned, it was a “pig with lipstick”. I took it down to bare metal, checked all welds, and bead blasted. Reassembling, I used modern rims not clinch rims for my rider. Elsewhere, I used NOS parts when available. I had the motor, gearbox, original carb, magneto, and generator rebuilt. The project was completed with all metal finished with nickel and chrome as appropriate.

Parts were sourced from Springfield, Mass, Pacific northwest, Sweden, Poland, El Mira, California and Iowa, among other sources. Paint consisted of two-part poly paint, hand painted logo script and double pinstriping. The Scout was rebuilt with most factory upgrades from ’20 –’27 for better performance and reliability.

Oh, by the way, don’t forget where the steering stops are located!

bottom of page