Nestled in the Pine River Valley north of Bayfield, Jeff Grigsby bends metal and sculpts frames, restoring historic Indian motorcycles to their original condition.
From the outside, this 9,500-square-foot red barn is an unassuming place to find a full-fledged machine shop dedicated exclusively to the restoration and refurbishment of Indian motorcycles. No signs advertise the business, and Grigsby does little to draw attention to his unique craft – relying instead on word of mouth.
The few tourists who stumble upon it have called it the highlight of their trip, Grigsby said. Only a handful of area residents know about its existence, he said.
“This is such a great area, though,” he said. “There are a number of entrepreneurs – people who are not moving here for the money or getting transferred. They do just amazing stuff.”
Inside, rows of classic Indian motorcycles, many that look brand new, line the floor. It’s a sight that could make any motorcycle enthusiast go slack-jawed and wide-eyed. A large neon sign hangs inside that reads: “Indian Motorcycles, Indian Motor Works.”
It is part workshop, part museum.
Grigsby maintains a fleet of tools and machinery from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s used to buff, bend or smooth metal parts. The shop has hundreds of drawers that hold every pedal, valve, light, spring, screw, cylinder or other part that might be needed to build a bike. Upstairs, a glass case showcases Indian memorabilia, including patches and trophies.
“We’ve been told by people who travel the world and go to all the different dealerships that nobody is involved with it on this much of a comprehensive level,” Grigsby said. “We’ve got the literature, memorabilia, jigs, and dies and fixtures and toolings, and all kinds of things that enables us to build a better product.”
All the restoration is done in the shop, with the exception of paint, chrome and leather work, which are contracted out.
Time to downsize
Grigsby, 57, a machinist by trade, has been rebuilding motorcycles for about 37 years. Born in Los Angeles, he dropped out of high school during his sophomore year to work for Harley-Davidson.
He moved to Colorado in 1972 at the age of 18. His high school buddy, Miles Reece, joined him in the move and has worked for Grigsby almost ever since.
Grigsby attended machine school and was hired to work in a machine shop building engines in Boulder.
He decided to focus exclusively on Indian motorcycles in 1976 after a childhood friend bought 35 Indian motorcycles and sold them to Grigsby. The going rate for Indian motorcycles or parts back then was about $1 per pound, regardless of condition.
“That kind of started things going,” he said. “It’s been pretty much full time since 1977.”
Grigsby ran his own shop in Boulder until 1993, when he moved to a ranch in the Pine River Valley. He sold the property 2½ years ago on the condition that he be allowed to stay in the barn and a guesthouse until October 2013.
“We’re going to downsize,” he said. “We’re going to exit this building. We’ll put up another shop and see where it goes from there.”
Last week, Grigsby and Reece, his only employee, worked on a “crusty and rusty” 1936 Indian with an incorrect motor for its time period. They will replace the engine and install the correct lights, levers, speedometers and horn. By the time it’s done, the bike will be functional and “ready to rock,” Grigsby said.
The customer will pay $22,000 to $26,000 for the restoration.
Grigsby said only about 25 people in the world restore Indian motorcycles to their original condition.
“We’re real particular right down to the grain of the color and the correct pinstriping and all the lights and levers and switches and brackets,” he said. “That’s what people want.”
First American motorcycle
Indian Motorcycles was founded in 1901 in Springfield, Mass., as the first American motorcycle manufacturer. Harley started two years later in Milwaukee, Wis., and the two soon became bitter rivals.
“In the ’30s and ’40s, the rivalry was so strong, a guy that rode an Indian wouldn’t even have a cup of coffee with a guy who rode a Harley,” Grigsby said. “It was almost religious.”
Indian had its peak production year in 1913. But in 1918, the company committed 100 percent of its production to the military, leaving little inventory for dealerships across the country. Harley, on the other hand, committed only 15 percent of its production to the military, which made the brand more readily available, Grigsby said.
Indian recovered from the war, but in 1941, the company again committed 100 percent of its production to the military. At the same time, the British introduced touring bikes that competed with the popular Chief model – and Indian discontinued the model in 1949.
“It was one of the steps that really put them under,” Grigsby said. “Plus, a lot of the Indian dealerships changed allegiances to other brands because of the second world war, and they couldn’t get bikes, and they finally said, ‘That’s it.’”
The company went bankrupt in 1953. The Indian brand eventually entered the public domain, which allowed Grigsby to be grandathered in to use the name. About 1998, several companies merged to become the Indian Motorcycle Co. Today, Indian is owned by Polaris Industries.
“They’re trying to ride off the shirttails of history and the magical mark of Indian,” Grigsby said. “But they have no way of making any continuity between the old and the new.”
Because Indian was the first American motorcycle and it went out of business for so long, it gave a certain respect and mystique to the brand among motorcycle enthusiasts, he said.
Grigsby estimates he has restored 125 Indian motorcycles and refurbished many more.
He has bought six to seven semitrailer loads of Indian motorcycles and parts over the years, he said.
The restored bikes have been sent to customers around the world, including Italy, Poland, Israel, Germany, France and Japan.
“When an Indian motorcycle lands here,” Grigsby said, “it can’t land in a better place.”