Ariel Red Hunter
Ariel may no longer be a household name in the world of motorcycles, but there was a time when the Birmingham-based company’s Red Hunter was considered one of the finest British singles.
Veteran motorcycle writer Bob Currie went even further, calling the Red Hunter simply “the finest single of all time.” Big words maybe, but not unjustifiably so. What began as a prewar design eventually became a 1950s trials king with Sammy Miller winning almost 600 awards on a HT 500 Red Hunter. And Red Hunters continued to dominate sidecar trials events until the two-stroke invasion of the 1970s. These were bikes that punched well above their weight and long after they should have been dead and buried.
The Red Hunter owed its origins to two of the biggest names in British motorcycling: Edward Turner and Val Page. In 1925 Page had provided Ariel with a new overhead-valve singlecylinder engine, and for 1932 Turner proposed a higher specification single with a chrome-plated tank and red panels. Turner knew that lots of sparkle and glossy paint was the styling most sporting Englishmen hoped to own and the Red Hunter was born.
Initially the Red Hunter had a four-valve engine but, facing bankruptcy, the Ariel range was rationalised for 1933, the flagship Red Hunter now receiving a two-valve cylinder head. Most were 500 (86.4 x 85mm) or 350cc (72 x 85mm), the 350 (as shown here) ostensibly a smaller bore version of the 500. In other respects, Val Page’s single was standard British fare, the crankshaft supported by two roller bearings. The crankpin was a parallel fit to the high-tensile steel flywheels, with a double-row roller bearing between it and the con-rod.
On early versions the valves were exposed, enclosed rockers not appearing until 1938, and the cylinder head included twin exhaust header-pipes. The primary drive used a single-row chain, with a spring-type shock absorber built into the crankshaft sprocket to reduce abruptness and consequent chain stretch. A dry clutch passed power to a four-speed Burman gearbox. Electricity was supplied by a Lucas Magdyno – standard kit for British bikes with lights in the 1930s. A Magdyno was a magneto topped up by a generator and was one of Lucas’ more reliable products. Ironically, although Lucas earned the unenviable nickname “Prince of Darkness” in the 1960s, its products were standard fitment in the 1930s. Completing the Ariel’s specification was a single-downtube rigid frame and girder fork.
Ariel wanted performance to accompany the sporting looks so the 500 was provided with two pistons, a 7.0:1 compression ratio for road use (producing 28 horsepower), and a higher compression racing piston said to propel the Red Hunter to a top speed of around 150 km/h.
This was unsubstantiated because the Red Hunter didn’t really achieve any notable pre-war racing success. The closest the Red Hunter came to a TT victory was in the 1935 film No Limit, where star George Formby rode a Red Hunter, thinly disguised as a ‘Rainbow’, to a win in the Senior TT.
During the 1930s the Red Hunter was Ariel’s most popular model and this continued when it was resurrected after the war. By then the engine had a redesigned cylinder head and a telescopic fork replaced the girder type.
Before long the Red Hunter received a sprung frame, with plunger suspension, and a quickly detachable rear wheel. The engine was redesigned for 1951 with a single camshaft replacing the previous twin gears and camshaft with two integral cams, and a new duplex frame with swingarm rear suspension appeared in 1954.
Prior to this, in 1952, Ariel released a high-performance VHA 500 with an alloy barrel and head with deeper finning. Maintaining a good sporting reputation was important to Ariel and all Red Hunters were bench tested and tuned. The ports were polished, as were the forged steel flywheels, and the crankshaft balanced. Although still basically a pre-war design, even in the 1950s the Red Hunter was considered by many to be a viable alternative to a BSA Gold Star (also designed by Val Page) and Norton International.
Although exceptionally strong, well finished, and built to last, ultimately the Red Hunter was doomed. Through until the end it retained the pre-war magdyno with manual advance and retard, and even compared with other sporting British singles appeared ancient. The weight was a considerable 175kg, with handling and braking from the 7.0-inch drums only adequate. When Ariel asked its dealers what sort of motorcycles they would like in the future they said they wanted a two-stroke twin. Ariel dramatically changed direction, concentrating production on the two-stroke Leader and Arrow twin. So, the Hunter died, mortally wounded by an Arrow.
Many thanks to John Gee of Antique Motorcycles, Cheltenham, Victoria, for the use of the 1934 RH 350 Red Hunter featured.
ARIEL RED HUNTER: THE VALUE PROPOSITION
– New $150
– Average condition $8000
– Excellent (mint) $15,000
Ariel Red Hunter
• The Ariel name goes back to before the first motorcycle, with the trademark established in 1847.
• Although Ariel bicycles were made as early as 1871, the direct ancestor of the Ariel motorcycle appeared in the 1890s as a subsidiary of the Dunlop Tyre Company. Dunlop sold the Ariel bicycle factory to Charles Sangster who produced the first Ariel motorcycle in 1901.
• Val Page joined Ariel in 1925 and immediately produced two new single-cylinder models. New salesman Vic Mole ensured Ariel stayed in the public eye through various publicity stunts. One of these involved sailing across the English Channel on pontoons.
• The first Red Hunter appeared in 1932, in 350 and 500cc versions. In the same year Charles Sangster died and in the middle of the worldwide Depression the company almost went to the wall.
• Sangster sold Ariel to BSA in 1944 and after World War II the Red Hunter was resurrected. It lasted as a 350 until 1958 and a 500 until 1959.
Want to know more?
The Australian Ariel Register:
Great site for information on various Ariel models:
This is the site for the owners’ club: www.ArielOwnersmcc.co.uk
There is a good history of Ariel here: www.ArielNorthAmerica.org/mot_history.htm