Sammy Pierce and the P-61 American Rocket

Indian Hot Rod

| September/October 2007

Sammy Pierce was perhaps the greatest enthusiast of Indian motorcycles. After the Springfield, Mass., factory closed in 1953, “Mr. Indian” kept the flame alive. And thanks to his devotion to the brand during the Fifties and Sixties, he inspired well-known restorers like Bob Stark and Micah McCloskey to keep the flame burning. And along the way, he designed his own motorcycle – the P-61 American Rocket.

West Samuel Cecil Pierce was born March 23, 1913, and grew up in the Kansas City, Mo., area. A motorcycle nut and tinkerer from an early age, his lifelong love affair with Indians began in the late 1920s as a teenager, when he started riding cross-country on a 1926 Scout. This was no easy feat, as most roads, especially in the West, were unpaved and service stations were few.

When the Depression hit, Sammy turned to his motorcycle for a living, performing stunts and racing at county fairs. Along the way he acquired an expertise for sheet metal, designing and fabricating custom cars. But bikes were his passion, and in 1945, after a stint in the Navy during World War II, he swung a deal to become the California distributor for Norton.

Beginnings of the Rocket
At some point, perhaps when Sammy was still in the Navy, he started designing his own motorcycle — the American Rocket —  possibly as an exercise in improving what was then available. By the early 1950s, his efforts had garnered enough attention to rate a story in the May 1952 issue of Cycle magazine. As he explained to Cycle’s editors: “The 10 years I’ve spent on the construction of the Rocket were experimental, trial and error years, during which I built each bearing and joint over and over again. Maybe my solutions to all the problems aren’t perfect —  only time will tell —  but they’re the best I could do.”

As he explained at the time, Sammy considered several approaches for his bike. He rejected the idea of building a standard single-throw V-twin: “Why should anyone buy your machine if it’s just like all the others?” He also dismissed the idea of building everything from scratch: “Suddenly, you realize that you have spent many dollars more than the average guy can ever afford.” The approach he settled on was taking easily available parts and combining them in a novel way. Turning to his beloved Indian, he used an Army-surplus Indian 841 tank and frame along with a case and cylinders from an Indian Chief as the foundation for his bike.

The Chief cylinders were cut down from 80ci to give 61ci (hence the P-61 designation) by shaving both ends and using a sleeve for a Mercury car engine. His modified crank assembly was supported on two sets of bearings (one plain, one ball, the theory being if one gave out the other would carry the load), with connecting rods from a Ford shaved to fit and pistons from a Mercury. All of this was supposed to make the engine lighter, stronger and more powerful, although it’s unlikely it did.

Matt B
6/1/2009 5:40:32 PM

Great article on Mr. Indian. He was the original Indian Motocycle enthusiast. I worked for Sammy at Steve McQueens shop in Oxnard from two weeks after McQueens death until Sammy's death in March of 1982. He taught me most of what I needed to know about sheet metal work in the year that I worked for him. He was absolutely the busiest man I had/have ever met. He always had a half a dozen projects going at once. His reasoning; "If you get stumped on one go to the other." I owe my lively hood to Sammy Pierce. He inspired me to start my business the same year he died. What do I do? I make Indian Motocycle fenders, tanks, sidecar bodies,chain guards belt guards etc. For the last 27 years I've made a living from what I learned from Mr. Indian. His picture is still on the wall in my office to this day.

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