Article And Photos By: Chris Callen
Originally Published In The March2012 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
There are people you will meet in this life that you just know are doing exactly what they should be. Kiwi Mike Tomas is just such a person. A happy go lucky man with a quick wit and a keen fondness for cracking jokes about Harleys, he sits at the top of the pile when it comes to those accomplished in the Indian motorcycle ways. It’s been a long hard road for Mike, although he would never let on, since what he does doesn’t actually fit into any of the categories out there. On one hand, he is an Indian guru, with more available knowledge about Indian motorcycles and their design than probably anyone alive today. This puts him outside the circle of custom builders since he is more of an antique guy. In that arena he isn’t exactly a good fit either since he has taken every part, nearly, of that original Indian design and reengineered it to be better and stronger for people who really want to ride. This ruffles some feathers around the antique crowd but in spite of what anyone thinks about the work he’s dedicated his life to, he has gone about it and arrived at a level of achievement beyond compare. His bikes are strong, reliable T and he rides them hard. Being from New Zealand, the inevitable question comes around from people wondering if he had ever met old Burt Munro, pilot of the “World’s Fastest Indian.” While Mike was a technical advisor on that film and stood by Rollie Free, 1948 land speed record breaker, and watched the real story of Munro play out with his own eyes, his real life parallels Burt’s down to the nut and bolt.
Kiwi’s father was a farmer back in NZ and an inventor himself, building the only portable lime rock crushing plant. Following in his father’s footsteps, Mike learned to make things work with very little to go on. Like Burt, being broke was never an excuse, something they call the Kiwi “Can-Do-Attitude.” Twenty-fivehundred different part numbers for Indian motorcycles later, his own proprietary motor and complete motorcycles, Mike has learned that there is nothing more important than believing in yourself. This has gotta be one hell of a country these cats come from. Now I’ve seen a bunch of his work before this, killer bikes to be sure, but to lay your eyes on this 1900s period inspired board track racer is another thing entirely. As I reached for the focus ring the day of this shoot, I could almost hear the crowds’ roaring as it came off the high bank turn. The truth is, Mike and his lead fabricator Travis had wanted to build a tracker for some time but never had the opportunity until a customer from Australia got in touch with them and commissioned it. He had been a fan of Kiwi’s work for years, watched the Website and wondered why there had never been a bike of this design. A short phone call later and they were on the way to developing the perfect example of an Indian racer. The customer was confident enough in their ability that he gave full reign to Mike and Travis; he didn’t even want to pick the color. This wasn’t anything either man took lightly; to them it was the chance of a lifetime.
I talked to Travis for a while to get an insight on what lengths he went to for inspiration. It all started with a movie from the early 1900s that was discovered under the bed of the departed chief importer of Indian Motorcycles in the Czech Republic. The ten minute film showed an entire day of racing at the Daytona race track, and of course Indian was the day’s victor. From that film, Travis scoured each and every frame to find the hidden details to build an exact replica. There are the very unique and identifiable four piece bars that adorned the racers of the day; a feature that Kiwi says lends itself to street riding very nicely. It gives the rider the ability to adjust to the perfect rider position. But there was so much more to study: the foot position of the riders, the tank pads’ shape and placement; all of it had to be as correct as they could manage. Travis went on to tell me that the reason this was such a challenge was that anything before 1918 in motorcycle history, especially Indian, was a guessing game. No one is really sure about much of the details from that time period, even many of the parts believed to be stock might not be. A lot of times people back then started customizing bikes right off the showroom floor, especially if they were taking them racing.
In addition to the only known movie from this period, Travis would exhaust all sources to get this right. He went to everyone he knew from the old bike world, the motorcycle museum, even dug out his own collection of old books and photos. It gave him a real sense of what things must have been like back then, a detail that carried over in this design. You see, back then motorcycle racing was the sport of gentlemen. All around the track were well dressed men who were after the bragging rights and motorcycle sales that a good day at the races would bring. Looking over the entire length of this little red beauty you get a glimpse of that spirit. Of course, as much as it reminds you of the past, there are very modern Kiwi features that real riders can rely on. The Kiwi forks, alternator, oil tank/fender, Kiwi powerplant, and modern braking, all go towards making this dream bike a reality for the present world. In talking with Mike, I asked him who some of his inspirations have been through the years. One of the greatest things a b o u t writing a n article on Kiwi is that you learn something new every time. This time I’d hear stories of a man called “Mr. Indian,” Sammy Peirce. Sam was the go-to guy in the sixties and seventies here in the States when it came to Indian motorcycles. Even though his bikes were cobbled together, as described by Mike, he believed in Indian.
He made parts and kept the whole thing going in a time when there was nothing available for them. For that, Mike has mad respect for him. This was a man that put his heart and soul into his work and got very little in monetary return for it; Indians just weren’t valuable then. He was also very prejudice of Harley riders, keeping a roll of bailing wire and other derogatory tchotchkes in an old box with a sign that read: “Harley Repair Kit.” He’d chase Harley guys out of his shop and Kiwi tells me that most of the offhanded Harley jokes were probably his inventions. I asked Mike if he saw himself as that “keeping it going” kind of guy today. Of course he is much too modest to ever see himself in that light in spite of being a Hall of Fame member and a man considered by fans and customers all over the world as the Indian motorcycle authority. He’s just too focused on the work to ever take that kind of stock in himself, another reason we love him. I traveled to Mike’s house in Southern California for this shoot. At first, watching him lace up his old timey boots and throw on his leather helmet was kinda weird but as we rolled down the street towards this location, I couldn’t have imagined a better fit for the bike. There in the dirt lot hidden from view of the restless world around us, we both went back in time to a place where gentlemen raced motorcycles and Indian was king.
Kiwi Mike’s Board Tracker Tech Sheet
Owner: Matt Gordge
Fabrication By: Kiwi Indian MC Co
Model: Board Track Racer
Time: Patience Grasshopper
Model: Kiwi Flathead
Builder: Kiwi Indian MC Co
Ignition: Trusty Reliable Points
Displacement: 84 ci
Pistons: Kiwi Performance
Heads: Kiwi Flathead
Cam(s): Kiwi Bonneville Performance
Exhaust: Kiwi Straights
Primary: 4 Row Chain
Make: Chief Overdrive
Shifting: Hand Shift, 1 Down-3 Up
Make: Kiwi Single Loop
Rake: 27 Degrees
Type: Leaf Spring
Builder: Kiwi Indian MC Co
Triple Trees: Kiwi
Brakes: Kiwi 10” Rotor
Brakes: Kiwi 10” Rotor
Painter: Crown Town Customs
Color: Kiwi Board Track Racer Red
Type: Kind That Dries, Is Hard And Has Pigment
Chroming: Pacific Polishing Nickel
Bars: Kiwi Indian
Hand Controls: Kiwi Internal Control
Gas Tank(s): Kiwi Indian
Rear Fender: Chica
Foot Controls: Kiwi
Oil Tank: Kiwi Built Into Rear Fender
Photos.By: Chris Callen