The Founder's Indian

I know that some of you are coming to my blog for the first time, having received my book for Christmas. If you’re looking for Asperger posts, just scroll down; there are plenty. There are also more Asperger essays on my blog at Psychology Today.

However, I like to think there is more to me than Asperger’s, and my blog reflects that.

Those of you who’ve followed the blog a while know that I was hired to appraise a collection of Indian motorcycles that was given to the Springfield Museum here in my city. One of the oldest bikes in the collection is described as “1903 Indian.”

Any 1903 Indian is a historic machine. The first Indians were designed by Oscar Hedstrom, who is considered by many to be the father of today’s motorcycle. Indian was the original American motorcycle company, being founded some years before Harley Davidson. Indian stopped building motorcycles in 1953, but their legacy lives on.

They made that particular model for a few years, so I figured I’d have a fairly easy time finding comparable transactions. As it turned out, though, I could only find three:
A 1908 sold for $60,000 in September 2008.
A 1906 sold for $47,000 in May 2008
And finally, a 1901 sold for $165,000 in 2006.

Why was the 1901 worth so much more? The production figures tell the story. In 1901, Indian built 3 bikes. They built 143 the year after that, and 350 the next year. Production kept doubling. By 1913 they were up to 32,000 motorcycles per year.

Judging by the production numbers, the museum’s example should be worth something between the 1901’s value and the value of the later examples. But for that to be true, I had to make sure it was really a 1903. Armed with a table of serial numbers I went back to examine the old bike.

There were no serial numbers to be found.

I pondered several possible explanations. Maybe the engine crankcase was replaced. Maybe it’s stamped somewhere I can’t see. Maybe. Whatever the reason, I did not have numbers to support the age. What to do?

I decided to visit Esta, the collection’s 94-year-old founder. She in an assisted living facility about ten miles from me. I started out with a direct question. “Can you tell me where you got the 1903 Indian?”

That didn’t get me anywhere. She didn’t remember. I tried distraction, asking about her childhood. That got her going with memories of long ago. Like a detective, though, I kept sight of my goal. After half an hour, I tried again.

“Where did you get the collection’s first Indian?”

“Oscar gave it to me!” This time, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. I about fell off my chair. She kept going. “Did I tell you my father was a Johnson outboard motor dealer? He loved to hunt and fish and Oscar did too. After he retired from Indian, Oscar and my dad went hunting and fishing all over New England. When I told Oscar I wanted to have an Indian museum he gave me one of his prototypes.”

I was shocked. That was the motorcycle equivalent of visiting an old lady and having her say, “I have this prototype car Henry Ford gave me when he was designing the Model T”

And she wasn’t done. She had a picture of herself, 50 years ago, with Oscar’s Indian. And letters. And cards. It’s actually quite remarkable, what she remembers.

In a moment, everything had changed. The museum didn’t just have an old Indian. They had The Chief Engineer’s (as he was known) Indian. A bike that was never sold, and never had an owner other than its maker and the museum.

So what’s it worth? We may never know, because it’s not for sale. But it will be on display, with 50 other bikes, starting this Columbus day.


jess said…
such an amazing story, john .. miss esta is solucky to have you pulling these memories out, ensuring they live on .. there's obviously far more to these beautiful bikes than the parts that make them up.
Wow - was is how you asked the question that spurred her memory, John? Isn't that fascinating in and of itself? ANd yes, you are FAR more than just an Aspergian. You are now a sex symbol. ;)

Stacey said…
Wow, what a story!
pogosplace said…

Your next book needs to be photos of these marvelous bikes and their stories.

Please {End of Whine}

Happy New Year,

TheresaC said…
I agree with pogosplace, that would be a great idea for a book!!

Very cool of you to share that story with us, and very nice photos, too!
Happy New Year!

TheresaC said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
These bikes are a part of history, and that makes them priceless. The stories that go along with them are equally priceless.
Osh said…
What a wonderful story! I am so happy you were able to "jog" her memory!
Crazy Momma said…
That is such an amazing story! I am so glad you were able to get it out of her!
FASCINATING, John! I especially appreciate the patient way you guided Miss Esta back to her childhood stories. Amazing.

Happy New Year from Denver! K.
pogosplace said…

Been trying to get back for a week to ask if you think your ability to hang in making small talk for half an hour with Miss Esta was enhanced by the TMS experience? Or, was this a "business/professional" task with a lesser amount of social stress attached?

Cheers and Woof!

Andi said…
I have been enjoying your blog for some months now.
Recently I came across a blog picturing a mural of an Indian Motorcycle and thought you might like to see it.

"This mural features a Megaw Motor Company ad for Indian Motorcycles."

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