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J and the Camelback

J Shia, of Madhouse Motors, Boston, MA, recently finished the sympathetic restoration of an iconic 1907 Indian Camelback, a model of bike worth over $100,000. We know J more for her custom work than restoration skills, so interviewed her about the process and the bike.

The Camelback is one of the most iconic bikes in US history, how did you come to get your hands on one?

It really is! For the past few years, I have been helping facilitate the sales of private motorcycles for collectors who are either buying or selling their machines. In this case, I had a client who I had been working with for a while, and he had just given me the green light on finding something special. I heard about a guy’s collection from another antique motorcycle specialist (Sayre Anthony of Nova Motorcycles), and jumped on the phone with him. Next thing I know, I’m in his garage in Western MA staring at a handful of Indians, including a 1907 Indian Camelback, which I had never seen in person before. I left with this and a Scout 440.

Custom bike builders don't often get into resto work, in my experience, why do you think that is?

I think this stems from the simple fact that customizing and restoring are actually polar opposite in my opinion. To customize is to unabashedly change, manipulate and alter the original machine and create it to be your own. To restore is to honor the initial design and attempt to recreate someone else’s vision and execute to the quality that they had intended. I know a handful of wildly talented custom bike builders who are also great at restorations.

What do you prefer, customs or restos and why?

Mmm, this is a hard one. They are so different to me. Custom work is fun because I can create without restrictions, and I have a lot of room to experiment. With custom designs, I am able to work much more openly and fluidly.

I love restorations because they are a very delicate process and deeply rich in history. I am a huge motorcycle and world history nerd, and I really gravitate towards learning how the craftsmen, designers and engineers before this time created these machines. I’m fascinated by the reasons these bikes were built, designed, manufactured and utilized, so working on these types of projects is really interesting to me.

What work did you carry out to the 1907 Indian?

The 1907 Indian project is what we here call a dry restoration (I’m not sure if other people call this it). A dry resto is where we do a full logistic and mechanical breakdown of the bike's history, from the paperwork, to previous owners, and the work they have done, and then we create a portfolio for it. Mechanically, we look at and inspect every single part of the machine, and we figure out how to preserve the historical accuracy of this machine, minus putting in fuel to the tank when we present the bike to the customer (hence the “dry” restoration) It’s like we’re trying to freeze it in it’s most prime condition, so that, in theory, you could put gas in the tank and go. Some restorations we do are much more complex than this Camelback. Often, we have to hunt down parts, or even re-make or machine what we can’t find, fabricatate, then re-paint, etc… With this indian, we were lucky that it didn’t need to do much of that.

We examined and addressed every aspect of the machine, and did a full examination including the motor’s compression, re-creating spark, checking the integrity of the alloy of the engine casings, identifying the trueness of the chassis and bearings, and all the way down to treating all the rubbers to lay properly and not crack. We then went through the minimal electrical, basically just a for spark, the carburetor and the fuel system (coolest gas tank i’ve ever seen) and also were able to identify what parts had been stock vs. what has been modified over the years. We present a custom package with all the necessary documents for the bike, as well as information on the machines and an assessment for the value of the item as is, and another if it were to be worked on further.

Did any of it make you nervous or have you done enough resto work not to be nervous?

Restorations always make me nervous to a certain extent. But, I think that is kind of healthy. In this case, having a good balance of caution and excitement is necessary. But, whether it's a mint Vincent or a ratty dirtbike, I try to make sure whatever my staff and I are working on, it is given full attention and proper care.

Please tell us about the '$1000 spark plug'?

Haha, the $1000.00 spark plug! When I went to buy this bike from the last owner, he told me a quick story. He once had the bike at an event, and someone approached him with a thousand dollars just to buy the spark plug..he turned down the offer.

And the '1' instead of 'I'.

From what I can tell and the type of paint used, this bike was obviously repainted at some point. I asked the owner, and it had been in fact, and it was probably from some time in the late 40’s-50’s. He then pointed out the 1. More than likely, someone ran out of the letter I and improvised by using a 1 instead, which resulted in one side of the bike saying “1nd1an”. I’m glad the seller decided to tell me this story, because my client found it hilarious.

What will the bike be used for now?

This bike is currently on a display stand along with a handful of other bikes owned by the same client. It is in a private location, it isn’t necessarily open to the public, but it is well admired. I go once every few months for general upkeep and to clean the bikes, but that’s about it.

Did you get a ride on it? If so, what was it like?

I did not, but I definitely wish I did! Maybe I will another time…

Did the bike teach you anything?

Oh man, so much! Storing and maintaining a sliver of history like that is a humbling experience.

Add anything else you'd like.

Thanks for being interested in this project!

1 Comment

Ted  Ellis
Ted Ellis
Mar 10, 2021

Wow! Not merely an iconic bike, but a very good job bringing it back! Thanks for bringing this to the front Gary.

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