The ex-Steve McQueen, restored by Von Dutch in 1969
1923 Indian Big Chief with Princess Sidecar
Frame no. 91V997
It would be interesting enough to offer at auction a fully restored first-year 1923 Indian Big Chief, but this machine has a double-barreled provenance, having been the property of legendary 'icon of cool' Steve McQueen, and was restored by the irascible and almost equally legendary Kenny Howard, aka 'Von Dutch.' Steve McQueen's relationship with old motorcycles is overshadowed in the public eye by his stardom, and the many compelling photographs with his sports cars and movie props, such as the Jaguar XKSS or Dodge Charger. But McQueen was also a passionate motorcycle collector and rider, whose discerning taste in older American motorcycles was top shelf, and who demonstrated his riding ability as a member of the 1964 US ISDT team in East Germany, with his good friend Bud Ekins. Collecting a first-year Big Chief was a natural choice for such a discerning collector, and so much the better that the Big Chief includes an original Indian Princess sidecar.
Who else should restore the Indian but McQueen's friend and fellow motorcycle fanatic Kenny Howard, the difficult and irrepressible genius whose aesthetic was a major contribution to the 1960s SoCal 'Kustom Kulture' scene. As 'Von Dutch', Howard's pinstriping, car and motorcycle restorations, hand-built knives and guns, as well as idiosyncratic artwork, established a design idiom celebrated via articles in the national press of the early 1960s. His landmark pinstriping style and related artwork were subsequently etched on the minds of a young generation eager for his outrageous brand of artistic rebellion. It is no exaggeration to claim the antics of 'Von Dutch' laid the foundation for the current groundswell of interest in customized vehicles, and his work has seen an incredible surge in popularity and collectability in recent years. Recent sales of motorcycles restored by Kenny Howard reveal exactly how much a vehicle touched by his pinstriping brush is valued over the standard article, and collectors have dispersed the contents of his various workshops and ephemera to all points of the globe.
The 74cu" Indian Big Chief was based on the 1922 Indian Chief, a wholly new machine with a 61cu" (1000cc) sidevalve engine designed by Charles Franklin, which was intended to maintain Indian's place as the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The Chief poached the best aspects of the very popular Scout model a full-cradle frame and two-cam engine to bring Indian completely up to date, with excellent handling and a powerful yet nearly unburstable motor. In 1923 Franklin trumped himself by boring and stroking the Chief engine for a full 74cu" (1200cc), primarily intended for sidecar use, although most riders preferred to revel in the power of the new engine by riding solo. Indian boasted their new twin-cam engine, with helical gear primary drive and an oil-bath clutch, was good for 90mph, which was certainly a flaming arrow lobbed towards Milwaukee. The Big Chief soon proved their most popular model, as with the American motorcycle market of the time, 'there's no replacement for displacement'.
This ex-Steve McQueen 1923 Indian Big Chief was sold at the Steve McQueen estate sale at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas on November 26th, 1984, as lot #635. As noted on a card lacquered onto the dashboard of the Princess sidecar, the outfit was restored by Kenny Howard in 1969, 'For Steve McQueen.' As a nearly 45-year-old restoration, the machine shows minor wear and a few paint bubbles on the tank, but is still in entirely presentable, lovely condition. Such minor defects should not be overlooked, for they are the record of the hands which restored and then used this Indian; legendary hands.
- Please note that the frame number listed for this motorcycle is actually its engine number and it is titled under this number.