Regular readers of our monthly feature on classic cars have likely turned to this page and wondered what’s up with this old bicycle with some kind of motor attached.
What you are looking at is the oldest known original, unrestored, running American motorcycle in existence. What’s more, we know its first owner, or, at least, his fascinating tale.
W. B. Twiss’ transportation while in college at Dartmouth and graduate school at Harvard was this 1902 Indian Motorcycle – the 14th assembled by the company that preceded Harley Davidson by more than a year.
When Mr. Twiss took a position as an English Instructor at Rutgers University, believing he would be frowned upon riding the motorcycle around campus by the conservative faculty there, he transported the Indian to his new home in New Jersey inside a crude crate made from scrap lumber.
He stored it in his basement for 61 years until he sold it to a plumber who left it untouched and still in its crate until removed last year, some 111 years after Twiss had put it aside.
That removal and uncrating was meticulously accomplished by its current owner Shawn Coady, a second-generation classic car collector and motorcycle enthusiast, who realized he had come into possession of an extremely rare artifact of American history.
In 1902, Indian sold a modest 143 motorcycles during the early years when automobiles were few and expensive. The $200 Indian was a more attainable mode of personal transportation. By 1913, the company was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, producing more than 32,000 annually.
Coady explains that the first Indian represents the forefront of motorized transportation in America, predating the first U.S. gas station by four years and Ford’s Model T by seven.
His mission has been to preserve the vehicle, not to restore it. The purpose being to present it as a work of museum-quality conservation true to when it came out of the Indian factory in 1902.
So, he put the team of Brian, Collin and Braeden Howard together with that assignment. Documented on these pages is how that work progressed over a period of eight months. Yes, those are Q-tips, small brushes, experimental solvents, and tiny tools in the hands of those whose mission was to remove some of the rust and decades-old debris to reveal, not damage, the original finishes.
In the process they also discovered some remaining 100-year-old oil in the crankcase still in pretty good condition.
Now, here’s something they achieved that is amazing. They didn’t want to risk damage to the motor by disassembling it so they could make an internal inspection. All the mechanicals appeared to function, so they decided, after lots of back-and-forth discussions, that attempting to start the motor was a risk worth taking. With the spark from a 100-year-old spark plug, it ran for the first time in 111 years.
Next stop for Coady was to enter it in the prestigious annual assembly of the world’s most spectacular motor vehicles known as The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering. The event has been staged over the past 20 years in Monterey, Calif.
Surrounded by automobiles valued well into seven and eight figures, the Indian was recognized with the coveted Spirit of The Quail award – second only to the best of show prize reserved for the best of the 200 automobiles that annually enter the competition.
To provide a little more perspective for an event most folks aren’t familiar with, tickets, limited to a maximum number of 5,000 spectators to allow for the best fan experience, start at $550 and then sell on the aftermarket for twice that sum.
What’s next for the 1901 Indian is a feature-length documentary film being produced by my son Brian. Now you know how I discovered this rarity and was able to make it something different in this month’s feature.