The Long-Lost Indian V8

Perfecting the art of Native American archaeology

By David Edwards, Photography by David Edwards

Barn-find stories are all about resurrection. And since I’ve resurrected my share of collectible vehicles, writer Tom Cotter asked me to pen the foreword to his latest book, The Vincent in the Barn. No disrespect to the car collectors in Cotter’s previous two books, but compared to unearthing hidden motorcycles, they had it easy.

Something the size of a sequestered car needs a barn, or at least a garage to hide in. Not so the two-wheeler: Hardly bigger than a Schwinn, many end up moldering in basements while others ascend. A couple of guys can hump a non-runner up several flights of stairs for safekeeping. Some get bricked into walls for the ultimate in anti-theft. Break a bike down to its basic components—motor, frame, tinwork and wheels—and it can be stashed in a small closet.

My own favorite barn-find came about completely by accident. I was in the library one day researching a story when I spied an old 1954 Cycle magazine with “Indian V8!” as the cover blurb. Indian never made a V8, but Bill Drabek, a lanky Texas car mechanic, certainly did. He had a 1940 Indian Four with a duff motor and, by chance, a Ford V8-60: the smaller 2200cc version of Henry’s famous flathead. Combining the two, Drabek created an eight-cylinder Indian that spanned 9 feet fender tip to fender tip and weighed 965 lbs. Resplendent in Kelvinator white, it was allegedly good for 95 mph in second, with two more gears to go in the converted Harley gearbox.

Great story, I thought: I’ll contact the builder and see if he still has the bike. After six months of tracking down other stories about the bike in old copies of Mechanix Illustrated and the Ford Times, calls to old newspaper reporters and inquiries at local motorcycle shops, it became an obsession. Now I wanted the story and the bike!

Turns out Drabek had passed away in ’68; felled by a heart attack. After his death, there were several offers to buy the bike, but his grief-stricken widow Jean wouldn’t hear of it. The Indian V8 was pushed into a shed, where it suffered through the occasional flood, stick-toting juvenile delinquents and a family of rodents over the following three decades. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the mid-’90s, Jean was put into a home. All the Drabek’s property and possessions, including the big, white bike, went on the auction block.

Luckily, one of my previous Texas contacts gave the Indian’s new owner my phone number after Jay Leno declined interest. Soon I was flying to Corpus Christi with a U-Haul truck reservation, enough tie-downs to restrain Moby Dick and directions to a Quonset hut in the town of Kingsville. I wasn’t leaving the Lone Star State without that bike!

Before its restoration began and the bike was torn apart, I showed the V8 once in as-found condition. It caught the attention of one of the world’s preeminent Indian collectors, a moneyed man with at least 60 Wigwam products in his stash. “Why don’t you let me save you a lot of time, effort and money?” he said. “Sell me the bike.”

Of course I said no, but in retrospect, accepting his offer would have been the smart thing to do. Thirteen years and let’s-not-talk-about-the-money later, the V8 is finally going back together. Why the century-spanning restoration? There’s the aforementioned financial issue, for one. Related to that, my friend John Bivens, one of the USA’s best Indian restorers, has taken on the V8 as sort of a shop project. That means a good-guy discount on his labor, with the understanding that his full-pop-paying Indian Engineering customers come first. On top of all that, some things just take time.

To get power from the Ford’s north-south crank to the Harley gearbox, Drabek fitted a housing that contained 90-degree bevel gears; probably a $25 surplus part from some West Texas oil field. Unfortunately, water had infiltrated said housing during the bike’s stay in that shed, pitting the gear teeth beyond rehabilitation. With no manufacturer’s name or serial number on the housing, a replacement couldn’t be found. We were forced to have new gears cut: an 18-month, $2000 process.

Sadly, Jean Drabek passed away during the bike’s extended restoration. She’s now buried beside her beloved husband Bill in the Kingsville cemetery, but no headstone marks the couple’s final resting spot, nor is there a next of kin interested enough to provide one. Looks like I’ll have to add a granite marker to the V8’s restoration tab. Seems like the right thing to do. After all, I have the man’s motorcycle.

Author David Edwards has started a fund to raise the approximately $1500 needed for the Drabeks’ dual headstone. Those wishing to contribute, or to track the Indian V8’s restoration, should log onto http://indiangravestone.com.

By David Edwards
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