A Seventy Year Journey – The ‘38 Indian Chief
by Gene M. Berghoff and Sev Pearman
In July 2007, I finally purchased an Indian Chief. While I own and love other vintage motorcycles, I have always had a soft spot for the machines from Springfield, Massachusetts. After an involved search, I located a complete 1938 Indian Chief. After I struck a deal to purchase the restored beauty from Dan Olberg, I became interested in the bike’s provenance, or history. I set out to learn all I could about my Chief. This is that story.
My initial research revealed that a Gordy Drexler originally purchased the bike in 1938. I researched numerous Gordy Drexlers on the internet and closed in on two names. After further digging, I narrowed my focus down to Gordy F. Drexler. The available data fit well with the pictures I have of Gordy.
In September of 2007, I discovered additional information on Gordy F. Drexler through the Minnesota Historical Society. I ordered a death certificate and a copy of the obituary in hopes to find out more about his family members. These queries provided his date of birth, that he was born in Minnesota, and that he died 1972 in Ramsey County.
The address on the original sales receipt led me to a home in South St. Paul. I went to the address, hoping to learn the whereabouts of the Drexler family. To my surprise, Eric Christensen, Gordy Drexler’s grandson, answered the door. Eric was kind and very helpful. He gave me a brief history of the family, including Gordy and his wife, Agnes.
Eric’s house had been handed down through several generations. It was owned by two of Eric’s uncles before Eric moved in. Gordy had grown up in that house, but once he and Agnes Marmur married, they moved a few blocks away. Eric was about 3_ years old when his grandfather passed away at the age of 61. Eric noted that Gordy spent his last few years in a wheelchair due to effects from ALS, and that Agnes had remarried and lives on the west side of St. Paul. I also learned that Gordy and Agnes had three daughters, Patricia, Susan, and Cindy.
I then sought out Patricia Drexler, Gordy and Agnes’s oldest daughter. She mentioned that the family had gone down to Farmington several years ago to look at the Indian. Dan and Erling Olberg (5th owners) were showing it at the National Antique Motorcycle Meet in Farmington, MN at that time. She said they also saw it in a window display at a store in the Mall of America.
Patricia also mentioned that Mike Crnobrna, (3rd owner) who was a friend of Gordy’s, would also be someone to talk to about the bike. Mike had owned the bike for many years and had become a very close friend of Gordy’s. Patty told me that Mike was the son that Gordy never had.
Patricia mentioned that her Dad was a mechanic. He worked at Grandview Motors located near their home. It is interesting to note that Gordy never owned a car. The ’38 Chief was the family’s only means of transportation throughout most of Gordy’s life. When the family needed a ride, their Uncle Bob would drive them.
Gordy Sells His Bike In 1956, Gordy sold his Chief to Rich Lencowski. Rich owned the Chief from 1956 to 1970. Rich said he purchased the bike from Gordy in 1956, when he was 15 years old. The price was about $35.00. Rich wasn’t old enough to own it, so Gordy kept it in his name for a few years. Rich had met Gordy through Aggie (Agnes). Aggie was a waitress at the bowling alley where Rich worked. The bike was all-original when Rich purchased it. At the time, the bike wore a full fairing with canvas lowers to protect your legs. Rich drove it year-round, weather permitting. He restored the engine, with Gordy’s assistance, in about 1958.
The Chief Moves Again In 1970, Rich sold the Chief to Mike Crnobrna and Maryilyn Baeker. They owned it from 1970-1986. Mike Crnobrna called me after Patricia Drexler (Gordy’s daughter) had given him my name and number. Mike and Gordy were very close friends. As Patricia said, Gordy considered Mike the son that he never had.
Mike Crnobrna relates the next chapter of the story. Mike had befriended Gordy and the two had become quite close. Remember that Gordy had sold the bike to Rich Lencowski back in 1956. Fifteen years later, in 1970, Mike purchased the bike from Rich and talked Gordy into restoring it with him. Mike purchased the Chief for the same price that Rich had paid in 1956, $35.00.
Mike didn’t tell Gordy about the purchase. He put the Chief in his truck and drove over to Gordy’s house. Gordy looked up at it and, with his typical dry sense of humor, said to Mike, “Dealing in junk now, are you?” Gordy razzed Mike, predicting the Chief would end up as a “basket case.” Mike countered that Gordy was the guy who predicted that television would be “just a fad.” During the restoration process, someone broke into Gordy’s garage and stole the engine. Luckily, the rest of the machine was being stored at another location. During this time, Mike moved to Europe. While he was overseas, Gordy passed away. Once Mike returned, he turned his attention back to restoring the Indian.
Mike had sent notices about the engine theft, including the engine serial number, to various organizations within the motorcycle community. Eventually, Willie Jensen, a member of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, Viking Chapter, called Mike and said he had located the original engine at a swap meet. Willie purchased the long-lost engine and returned it to Mike.
Mike then had well-known Indian restorer Kenny Trimbo rebuild the engine. Kenny and Gordy were cousins. Kenny rebuilt the motor and Mike and the Indian were back on the road. Mike enjoyed the Chief for over ten more years before selling the bike in 1986 to Ron Banks.
Mike shared many stories about Gordy and his Chief. Gordy told Mike that when he went in to purchase the Indian, he fell in love with a blue one. But his friend Porky had one like it and he didn’t want to duplicate his bike. Gordy decided if he couldn’t have the color he wanted he would buy the ugliest one on the floor; orange, green and maroon. Others have a much different opinion of that combination – they love it.
The Saga Continues In 1986, Mike Crnobrna traded the Indian to Ron Banks for a Harley plus cash. The ’38 Chief had found another new home.
I then tracked down Ron Banks. Ron said the Chief was together and running when he got it. While Ron enjoyed the Indian, he had other bikes to ride. He rode the Chief until 1993, when he traded it to Dan Olberg and his father for a later, skirted Indian.
Ron said the most interesting story he remembered about the bike involved the air-cleaner. Ron said the bike had an incorrect air-cleaner when he got it and that he spent an enormous amount of time and money looking for the correct one. He finally met a fellow in St. Paul who introduced him to a man that was a close friend of Gordy Drexlers. This man had driven Gordy to Egeberg Cycle (formerly located on Franklin & 25th, Minneapolis. Ed.) the day Gordy bought the bike. Ron said this fellow spent three hours talking to him before he acknowledged that he was a friend of Gordy’s and happened to have the original air-cleaner from Gordy’s Indian. Way back in 1938, Gordy rode over to this fellow’s house and the two of them replaced the original air-cleaner with another one.
Breathing New Life into the Old Girl In 1993, Ron Banks made a deal on the Chief to Dan Olberg and his father, Erling. They quickly started a complete restoration. The Olbergs did a fantastic job at keeping the originality of the bike with a few minor modifications to enhance performance and drivability.
During their restoration, the Olbergs moved the throttle from the left to the right handlebar and also changed the foot clutch so that it would engage in the forward rather than rearward position. These were done so that the Chief would be similar to a Harley and they wouldn’t get confused switching between bikes. They also converted the bike from a magneto system to a generator for reliability and ease of starting and painted the engine cylinders black. Black doesn’t corrode like the original and correct nickel plating.
Despite these modifications, the ’38 remains a very original bike, as evidenced in the high scores earned in several national shows. The saddlebags are the original bags that were on the bike when it was new!
Their handiwork was featured on the cover of a 1994 issue of The Antique Motor Cycle and is featured in Indian Motorcycles by Jerry Hatfield and Hans Halberstandt (1996). The Olberg’s also displayed the ’38 at the Mall of America. It was the centerpiece in a clothing store that sold western and motorcycle apparel. As a result, the bike has some notoriety within the Indian motorcycle community. After restoring, riding and showing the Indian for fifteen years, it was time for the Chief to move on.
One Man’s Search for an Indian Chief When I started my search for a Chief, I called Dan Olberg for assistance. Dan is well-known in our area as one who knows Indian motorcycles. One day Dan mentioned he was selling his bikes and thought I should take a look at his ‘38 Chief. Although he had sold most of his collection, he still had three bikes that were close to his heart. The ‘38 Chief was something very special to Dan. It was not only a unique bike; it was a bike that he and his father, Erling, had restored together before Erling passed away. In selling the ‘38 Chief, Dan’s main objectives were keeping it in Minnesota (where it had spent its entire life), and finding a good home. Dan had declined previous offers on the Chief, feeling that it wouldn’t go to a good home. Dan knew if I purchased it, I would take very good care of it, and it would remain in Minnesota.
At the time Dan mentioned that the ‘38 Chief was for sale, Jana and I were focused on later, skirted Chiefs. In fact, we had looked at Willie Jensen’s skirted Indian just a few days prior. If you recall, Willie was the individual that found the original engine after it was stolen from Mike. Dan pointed out that the ‘38 Chief was the rarest of all Chiefs, it was very original, and it was very unique. In the end, the ‘38 Indian cried out to us and we decided it was the one.
On Saturday, July 14th, we went over to purchase the Chief. I also wanted to take it for a short test drive. Once we got the bike started, I asked Dan if I could take it for a short ride down the block and back. Dan was very nervous, as I had never driven a bike with a hand shifter. He insisted that I wait until I had an empty parking lot so I didn’t hit anything. He volunteered to run it up and down the road for me to witness its performance. After his test drive, I persisted in my request for a ride. Dan agreed to let me take it for a short drive but reminded me that if I dropped it, I owned it. My three-block ride was a success and we shook hands on the deal.
Dan and his wife Jackie were very pleasant and fair throughout the entire purchasing process. Dan included several parts including the original air horns (seen in early pictures of the bike), a new battery, two cans of paint, Indian manuals and literature collected by his father, a set of keys, and a copy of a magazine containing a detailed story about the Chief.
A Homecoming Three months later, Jana and I invited everyone that had ever owned the ‘38 Chief and their families to our home to brunch and to share pictures and stories of the ‘38 Indian. It was a great time; some of these people hadn’t seen each other for 40 years. Many stories were shared about the bike and Gordy Drexler. Although several of them had seen the Indian a couple times over the past 15 years, they were all very excited to see it again. It produced many tears of joy as their memories of the ‘38 Indian surfaced. Aggie shared many great stories about the Indian and their family’s love affair with the bike.
One that stood out was the day Gordy taught her to drive the Indian. She said she lost control of the bike and crashed it with her and Gordy on the bike. When she got up she said she began to cry and told Gordy that she thought she broke her leg. Gordy just responded, “if your leg is broken don’t you think you shouldn’t be walking on it?” Patty, Gordy’s daughter reminisced about the times her and her father would go to the farmers market to buy fresh vegetables. She would sit in front of her father, holding the items they purchased. On one return trip, Gordy hit a bump; a tomato flew out of the bag and splattered on the ground. Gordy just chuckled and told her not to worry, they had plenty of tomatoes.
I had encouraged everyone to bring as many pictures as they could find of the ‘38 Indian to share with the group. They also loaned the pictures to me. Copies of all of the photos, along with the history of the bike, will be put into a book that I am putting together. This book will include all documentation and photos in regard to the ‘38 Indian and will include photos throughout the bikes life, DVDs, the original sales receipts, restoration documentation from Dan Olberg, and judging scores and awards. We also took many pictures of the previous owners with the ‘38 Indian.
Where Do We Go From Here? I believe there are two themes to the story of this ‘38 Indian Chief. One is the many chapters in the life of a beautiful, rare motorcycle. The other is the way this motorcycle has touched the lives of everyone who has cared for her. Many riders of vintage machines will tell you that they do not “own” their machines; rather they merely spend time with them. I’m greatly enjoying my time with this ’38 Indian Chief. I know she will bring joy to whoever cares for her next.