Searching for Lost Indians: An Archival Journey

5 Oct

During the late 1920s there were 5,000 of them in Newark, NY and Baltimore, MD alone, but who has ever heard of an Indian taxi?  Photos of these vehicles must exist in old family albums or are stacked in dusty drawers of historical societies, but the only ones I’ve discovered were in the archives of the Indian Motocycle Company in Springfield, MA. One reprinted photo appeared in the in-house promotional magazine, but all other references seem to have disappeared like an Apache covering his tracks. These, and others, are the lost Indians.

Indian Taxi_Kenzo


Looking like a piece of rattan (wicker) patio furniture mounted on springs and a tubular frame, the first sidecar was built by Alex Levedahl in 1902 and fitted to an Indian motorcycle. Ironically it was offered to the public in 1903 under the Thor brand that was manufactured by the Aurora Machine Tool Company. Aurora manufactured the Indian engine until 1907—and used it under license to power the Thor and other brands—but the Hendee Manufacturing Company ignored the side-mounted structure in favor of an attachment that replaced the front wheel of their Indian motorcycles.

tri-car 2_Kenzo     tri-car 1_Kenzo

Introduced for the 1906 model year, the Tri-Car had an upholstered Victorian-styled passenger chair positioned between the two parallel front wheels. The Indian Van, designed for shopkeepers who made deliveries, had a trunk-like box in place of the chair. (Harley-Davidson would follow in 1914 with their Forecar.)  The Tri-Car and Van, along with a tandem seat for the 2 1/4-hp Indian Roadster, were presented as being part of a modular concept –“six vehicles embraced in one.” The Tri-Car and Van soon disappeared from the company’s sales brochures, but the introduction of the more powerful V-twin motorcycle in 1907 made these attachments even more popular. Sadly I know of no surviving examples, but extant personal photos from the pre-war era suggest that a large number were produced.

1914_sidecar_Kenzo   WWI 1_Kenzo

Hendee Manufacturing went into the sidecar business in 1913 and began marketing them with the 1914 line up of motorcycles. Then came WWI. It was the use of motorcycle sidecars as ambulances, machine gun mounts, courier vehicles, and ammunition transport that proved how versatile three-wheeled vehicles could be. The Indian Parcel Car became one of the first post-war production models offered for 1920.

Special Delivery Van_Kenzo

The 1920s saw side cars designed as taxis and all manner of specialty delivery vehicles. The Indian Motocycle Company—the Hendee Mfg. Co. was renamed in November 1923—actively promoted the use of sidecar-equipped motorcycles for retail businesses during this decade. Their 1928 brochure advertises the Indian Service Car with “six novel body designs to choose from” and the chassis sold for $65, compared to $100 for a Princess Sidecar. Two of the more interesting of the lost Indians are the “Indian Bandit Chaser” and Indian Chief Fire Patrol, both introduced during the last two months of 1927.

armored Indian 1_Kenzo

The Bandit Chaser was an armored police vehicle with protective shields made of 1/16-inch “crucible” steel with windows of 7/8-inch safety glass and a gun port. The Princess sidecar was lined with armor plate and there were leg shields of the same material for the driver. It was claimed to be completely bullet proof and the armor to add only 40 lbs to the Indian Chief and sidecar with “no sacrifice to speed, power, and ease of handling. ”  Photos prove that at least five Bandit Chasers were built for the NYPD and the initial Indian PR release features two of New York’s Finest:  National Rapid Fire Revolver Champion A. P. Schuler and Officer J. Heney.

Indian fire truck_Kenzo

The Indian fire vehicle was equipped with a 25-gallon chemical tank and pump, two 2 1/2-gallon extinguishers (one foam and one soda-acid type), 100 feet of chemical hose, four 1.5-quart carbon-Tetrachloride extinguishers, a fireman’s axe, two steel brooms for grass fires, a pike pole, and a crowbar. Powered by a Chief 74, it carried two firemen and the company claimed the half-ton Indian Chief Fire Patrol could reach speeds of 65 mph. Built in conjunction with American La France they were designed for rapid response and small fires.

It’s hard to determine what happened to these Indian models as the turbulent years from 1928 to 1930 were filled with a succession of four different presidents and boards of directors. It was a time of stock manipulation and secret projects even in the aftermath of Black Friday. The Indian Shock Absorber and Indian Ventilator were being manufactured; the experimental car project was axed; and a natural gas powered refrigerator was developed then terminated by another incoming president. The Indian Arrow outboard motor was acquired and improved under one president, promoted by another, and terminated by a third. Two completely different and separate airplane projects took place during that short era–the development of the Tridar amphibious plane and the building of the Continental A-40 prototype engine for the Piper Club “Taylorcraft.” The Indian company acquired controlling interest in Du Pont Motors in April 1930 and within a month the du Ponts purchased control of Indian. The assembly of the last Du Pont cars took place in the motorcycle factory until January 1932. Somehow, out of the tumultuous dust cloud of those years a new Indian motorcycle emerged.

Indian Motor Vehicle_Kenzo   Dispatch-Tow chassis_Kenzo

The anecdotal story about the development of the modern trike is that Indian’s chief engineer, Charles Franklin, was in a conversation with the management of the local Packard car dealership about the difficulty and cost in having to use two men to make repair and delivery calls to their customers. Franklin went back to his office, designed a 101 Scout with two rear wheels and a differential axle, and within a few weeks the service vehicle prototype was ready for testing. In reality, there was a special session of the board of directors on April 21, 1930 where a motion was approved to seek the acquisition of the Stern three-wheeled delivery vehicle patents. The Stern brothers –Albert, Joseph, Julius, and Ernest—had invented a three-wheeled vehicle and at least one of their patents–filed on July 2, 1930; patent #1,877,609 granted on September 13, 1932—was subsequently assigned to the Indian Motocycle Company. What really happened is anyone’s guess. The Indian Dispatch-Tow (101 DT) was introduced as a 1931 model, but the design drawing for Sterns’ patent leaves no doubt as to who invented the modern chassis-type trike.

bucket seats_KJA

There were at least three interesting passenger versions built on the Dispatch-Tow chassis. One had a basic rear buggy-like seat, another a couch-like bench, and a third design had two comfortable bucket seats. The history of the Dispatch-Tow has always seemed to be well documented even for the very rare 1939 Traffic Car (VC-13), but the discovery of this series of photographs has shaken my faith. I now suspect that more Indians were lost during another chaotic decade filled with corporate incompetence, changing markets, and World War II.

Indian Chiefs_Kenzo     Art Deco trike_Kenzo

The Indian Side Car and the Delivery Van survived as long as the company did, but design drawings and photos show that Indian’s designers were developing new styles as late as 1948. The Dispatch-Tow survived longer than the Springfield factory, being built under the same name, but as a British motorcycle. Still, I often wonder if, in some foreign warehouse or rural barn, there might still be a lost Indian waiting to be found.

2 Responses to “Searching for Lost Indians: An Archival Journey”

  1. twotiretirade October 6, 2013 at 3:11 am #

    Loved Reading the History! Thanks

  2. John Wilder December 1, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    I love looking at all these pictures and reading about them. please keep posting them

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