1938 Indian Arrow Streamliner
A near-miss attempt at Harley’s land-speed record
The legendary battles between Indian and Harley-Davidson during the first half of the 20th century weren’t confined to sales floors and racetracks.
They also played out on the salt.
The Bonneville Salt Flats, that is, where speed is king and a land-speed record was worth its weight in the chest-thumping ads that fueled sales for the reigning brand.
Problem was, before West Coast Indian distributor Hap Alzina built this Indian Arrow streamliner, now owned by Harold Parks and previously on display at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, the record belonged to Harley-Davidson. This was the machine that was designed to steal it away for Indian.
The year was 1938, and streamlining was just beginning to be applied to land-based vehicles. The previous year, Harley rider Joe Petrali had set a record with a partially streamlined machine. But the Arrow represented a first attempt to fully enclose a motorcycle. The body, which bolted together around the bike, used a frame of tubular steel and aircraft-grade spruce covered by plywood and linen.
Underneath that bodywork was a machine Alzina pulled together from a 61-cubic-inch (1,000cc) motor and parts from a 101 Scout board tracker. The pilot, who would peer out of a small porthole window, was racer Freddie Ludlow.
Testing on the dry lake at Muroc, California, showed the streamliner was stable up to 90 mph. But the ultimate goal was higher: faster than Petrali’s 136.183 mph.
Reckoning day came on September 25, 1938, at Bonneville. Ludlow came heartbreakingly close to the Harley record. But at about 135 mph, the bike began to wobble violently. Ludlow tried to fix the problem by accelerating, but to no avail. Adjustments in the field didn’t help. The Arrow reached an invisible wall of air just 1 mph shy of the mark.
There is a bright side to the story, however. The team had brought two other bikes, both unfaired, for assaults on other records. By the end of the next day, Ludlow had ridden a 45-cubic-inch (750cc) Sport Scout to a class record of 115.126 mph, and a 74-cubic-inch (1,200cc) Chief to a 120.747 mph record.
The streamliner, however, never went for the record again.