Monday, 26 March 2018
Combo tales: Ariel Red Hunter in harness
I took possession of a 1959 Ariel Red Hunter 500 from a particularly dubious dealer in West London. It came with an enormous black double adult Canterbury sidecar, which could take my drum kit to the various gigs I played at. I picked up the Ariel on a Wednesday evening. The dealer started it for me and I set off on the three mile ride home. It scared me shitless. I thought I could ride a bike but this beast was a whole different ballgame.
I found later that it was poorly set up. Straight away, it pulled to the left the whole time unless you were unwise enough to touch the brakes when it slewed wildly to the right. I nearly turned it over on the first gentle left-hand bend and l scared a lot of peds by letting the sidecar run along the pavement at unpredictable moments when l relaxed a bit. By keeping the speed down to 15mph I somehow managed to get home in one piece without wrecking the bike.
When I got home my father, who was dead against bikes and had not been amused when l crashed my first, grudgingly acclaimed that the combo would be a lot safer. I kept my thoughts to myself. That evening my friends came around to see the new bike. It refused to start for the first 16 kicks, then backfired on the 17th, throwing me six feet into the air. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. No-one else could start it either.
After they had all gone I went to see an old duffer up the street who'd had a Norton. Between us we managed to work out the starting procedure - petrol on, tickle carb until it floods, fully retard the manual advance/retard lever, set the choke on half, depress the decompressor lever, turn the engine over to get the piston at the top of the stroke, kick it over as hard as possible and let out the decompressor half way through the kick.
If you did all this in the correct manner, it would burst into life, if not it would try to break your leg. This tricky and complicated ritual did have some advantages. In the two years that I owned the bike I never had to lock it up in the certain knowledge that if anyone tried to nick it they would probably spend an hour getting it started only to run out of road on the first left-hand bend.
I also won quite a few pints challenging people to start it, so long as I made sure it was cold. When warm you just had to give it a good kick and twist the throttle. After nearly three weeks of ownership l was actually using the bike for transport, but I was planning every journey to avoid I left turns as much as possible. If I really had to turn left I would come to a standstill first and then creep round the corner. A friend had a go and told me it was set up all wrong.
l learnt some new terms, such as lead, toe-in and lean-out plus the secret of taking left-handers.
Like most other things, the explanation was quite logical once you know it! All you need to do is make the bike go faster than the sidecar. Easy! Well, it is in theory. but putting it into practice takes guts because it feels dead wrong to accelerate into a bend. It works, though, as anyone who rides a combo will tell you. With all this arcane knowledge and a bit of practice, my hatred of the machine soon turned to love. The sidecar was handy, too. especially as the seats could be laid flat in it (and so could my girlfriend).
The bike had a massive five gallon tank but no reserve. l used to keep a stick in the sidecar to dip the tank before setting off. It averaged between 50 and 60mpg, but top speed was only 66mph, or 70mph down hill with a following wind. Like all good Brits, the vibes through the bars, at these speeds, left me devoid of all feeling after 3 or 4 miles. A much happier speed for both man and machine was 50mph.
Like so many other bikes of this type. it didn't so much consume oil as redistribute the stuff. My jeans and waterproofs received a liberal coating and everywhere I had parked was marked by an oily black patch. Tyres lasted forever, chains didn't. They stretched like elastic bands and broke on dark, wet nights miles from anywhere.
One night I left the bike parked with the sidecar sticking out into the road. There was a knock at the door and a fully decked out chauffeur who told me that he had run a Roller into the sidecar. I rushed out to find a badly battered sidecar and a Rolls Royce with an expensive looking crease.
There was also a fat cat in bowler and business whistle in the back who wanted to settle the matter in cash. Who was I to argue? The next day, I picked up a secondhand chair for next to nothing, a Watsonian which needed a new hood. Even better, the sidecar had a brake which meant I had the option of braking on left-handers.
The first real disaster occurred the following February on the way to the Dragon Rally. The vibes were always shaking things loose and on this occasion it was the magneto. The bike started backfiring badly on the overrun. Then I looked down to see the mag moving about all on its own. We made it at a reduced speed to a little Welsh garage where the nice man drilled out the two bolts that had sheared and replaced the missing one. Unfortunately, despite the Loctite, the new bolts kept undoing themselves and although we made it to the rally, my girlfriend insisted, probably wisely, that we put the combo on the train back to London.
The next disaster happened on the return journey from Stonehenge. l was too tired to drive back and let a mate loose on the beast, although he had never ridden anything bigger than a Vespa. I awoke in the sidecar just in time to see a van approaching at speed on the wrong side of the road. There was a solid line of traffic at a standstill on the opposite side of the road so there was no possibility that the van would pull over. He got the bike over to the left as far as it would go and then had the presence of mind to get off the bike and stand on the struts between it and the sidecar.
The van hit us and everything on the right-hand side of the bike either flew off or was flattened. Mercifully, neither of us were hurt. The bastard in the van didn't even slow down, he just sped away, but l had taken his number and several people stopped who volunteered to be witnesses. After the Old Bill had done their bit and buggered off, I even managed to ride it the rest of the five miles home. It was several months before I got the insurance money but I had the bike back on the road long before that. It had Norton bars and controls, and a complete BSA front end. The flattened exhaust was replaced with a wonderful sounding but incredibly noisy straight through Dunstall. Starting was even harder but I got a bit more power.
The poor old Ariel finally died when my new wife and l were returning from our honeymoon in North Wales. We were just outside Birmingham when the chain that drove the magneto broke, taking out a large lump of crankcase. Endgame.
I really miss the Ariel but it was slow, unreliable, dirty, leaky and had dreadful lights. It had the most comfortable seat I have ever come across on a bike and it was cheap to run, easy to repair and sounded great. A typical Brit really, wonderful for a sunny afternoon when you are going nowhere special and it doesn't matter if you don't get there, but a pain in the arse as daily transport.