The Irish man who transformed the fortunes of Indian motorcycles | Season 2 – Episode 15
Wheels Apr 06, 2022
The Indian motorcycle has been one of the iconic symbols of hair in the wind, heading down the open road, spirit of freedom in the US since the start of the 1900s. What people may not know is that behind one of the companies most famous brands, the Scout, was an Irish engineer and motorbike racer.
Who we are talking about is Dubliner Charles B Franklin. After his education at St. Andrews College he trained as a Government electrical engineer later working at a Dublin power station. Parallel to this he began motorcycle racing including participating in the Isle of Man TT consistently finishing in the top ten over a number of years.
1910 was a pivotal year for Charles Franklin, it was the year he resigned from his job as and set up his own Indian Motorcycles dealership. Franklin had done a lot of experimenting, specific with Indian Motorcycles engines, during his competition career and had combined those with practical experience riding bikes. So he not only knew the theory, he knew how application of that theory felt once you were on the road or track.
The Indian Motorcycles later planned to employ him in their UK dealership but that closed due to prohibitive import duties and Charles was invited to work in their HQ in the US. There he set about race tuning their 1,000 cc Powerplus side-valve V-twin racing engine. The result catapulted Indian Motorcycles back into the forefront of the sport in the 1920s and ’30s. It is said Franklin race tuning resulted in Indian motorcycles becoming the fastest things on two wheels at the time.
During WW1, Indian provided the U.S. Military with nearly 50,000 motorcycles from 1917-1919, most of them based on the Indian Powerplus model. Although this helped keep the company afloat during tough economic times, it hurt its network of dealers. After WW1, Indian lost its #1 sales position in the U.S. market to Harley-Davidson.
In light of that Franklin’s next task was to create a new low cost smaller version of the Powerplus engine and to install in a lightweight road motorcycle. The new engine size, 606 cc, used twin cams and was bolted directly to the gearbox. This enabled it to be direct gear primary drive rather than the more high maintenance chain drive in common use at the time. Debuting in October 1919 this new model was designated the Indian Scout and it quickly became the bike that defined the company.
The Scout and later version Scout 101 became instant hits with road and track riders, and with stunt riders also. It was the ultimate fulfilment of Franklin’s knowledge and experience earned in the hard and dangerous school of early 20th Century motorcycle competition. The 101 first appeared in mid-1928 and would remain in production only until 1931.
Franklin’s other project was development of a larger motorcycle the 1,000cc Indian Chief which was the company’s largest bike. The bike was proved sturdy enough to be used by the U.S. Army in the Sahara Desert during World War 1. 1200cc model called the Big Chief was also designed and debuted in 1923. Indian Chief became a best-selling model, and rounded out Indian’s line up. The Indian Chief built from 1922 to the end of the company’s production in 1953.
Unfortunately Franklin became seriously ill in late 1931 and passed away in October 1932. And Franklin’s legacy – his Indian Scout designs helped establish the popularity of the heavyweight American v-twin motorcycle. Some say he also saved the company from an otherwise certain demise in the early 1920s. His motorcycles designs are still as popular as ever and a commemorative plaque was put on his Dublin family home in 2014.