The Red Hunters Ride Again: 1939 and 1947 Ariel Red Hunter

One man is the lucky owner of these two Ariel Red Hunters.

Pair of Ariel Twins

1939 and 1947 Ariel Red Hunters

Photo by Robert Smith

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Ariel VH Red Hunter
Claimed power:
26hp @ 5,600rpm (est.)
Top speed: 85mph (est.)
Engine:
497cc air-cooled OHV vertical single, 81.8mm x 95mm bore and stroke, 7.5:1 compression ratio (stock)
Weight (w/half tank fuel):
1939; 370lb (168kg)/1947; 350lb (159kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
3.25gal (12.3ltr)/45-65mpg
Price then (est.)/now:
$305 (1939); $625 (1947)/$7,000-$9,000

The decade before World War II was truly a golden age for the British motorcycle industry. British products outsold foreign brands many times over at home, and by a comfortable margin in most export markets, too.

And in every British motorcycle manufacturer’s range, one format dominated all others: the sporting overhead valve, 4-stroke single of 350cc or 500cc. BSA made the Empire Star, Velocette the 350cc MAC, and Norton’s Model 18 and ES2 500cc singles were solid sellers. Triumph had yet to launch the Speed Twin but had its 350 Tiger 80 and 500 Tiger 90, while AJS produced the Model 18 and sister company Matchless the G3. Rudge had the Ulster, Sunbeam the Model 9, New Imperial the model 60 Grand Prix and Royal Enfield the 350cc G2 Bullet.

But perhaps most easily recognized — and to many eyes the most handsome — was Ariel’s Red Hunter.

Starting gate

At the start of the 1930s, Ariel’s product range featured a bewildering array of single-cylinder motorcycles, including side and overhead valve engines of 250, 350, 500 and 557cc capacities with both vertical and forward sloping cylinders, single or twin exhaust ports, and 2- and 4-valve heads. Added to the range in 1931 was the 500cc overhead cam Square Four, penned by Ariel’s drawing-office newbie, Edward Turner. The first Red Hunter was actually the 1932 VH32 500cc single, a tuned version of the 4-valve VG32. Its specification included a racing magneto and carburetor.

The Ariel singles proliferated from a 1926 design by Valentine Page, who had arrived at Ariel from J.A. Prestwich, the “JAP” engine company. But the broad product range proved unwieldy in the early 1930s depression, and when Ariel ran into financial problems, Page left in 1932 for the then much smaller Triumph company. Turner replaced Page as design chief, and set to rationalizing the engine range: For 1933, the overhead valve range was cut to just three 2-port, 2-valve singles available in three trim levels. Top of the range was the 500cc VH Red Hunter.

The Red Hunter

Page’s basic layout for the 500cc overhead valve engine featured an iron cylinder and head atop an alloy crankcase containing a built-up crankshaft. Bore and stroke were 86.5mm x 85mm to 1935, then 81.8mm x 95mm from 1936-on. Lubrication was automatic with a plunger pump and separate oil tank. The two overhead valves were operated by pushrods inside external tubes, with fully enclosed valve gear (beginning circa 1934). An oil-bath primary chain and wet clutch drove the foot-shift, 4-speed gearbox, with final drive also by chain. The Red Hunter could be ordered with either one or two exhaust ports, and with high- or low-level exhaust.

The drivetrain was fitted into a tubular frame with rigid rear and a girder fork at the front, finished with the Red Hunter’s distinctive chrome-plated gas tank with red side panels and red center stripes on the chrome wheel rims, both set off with gold pinstriping. Brakes were 7-inch single-leading-shoe drums front and rear spoked to 19-inch rims with 3.25-inch rear and 3-inch front tires. Every Red Hunter engine was said to be bench-tested for as long as two hours to establish its reliability, and the company claimed a potential top speed of 100mph for the 500cc model with some light tuning. By 1937, Red Hunter editions of Ariel’s 250cc and 350cc overhead valve singles were also on sale.

After the war

When the Red Hunter reappeared after World War II, it looked much as it had before. A new plunger suspension frame had been introduced as an option in 1939, with a telescopic front fork arriving around 1948. Ariel’s plunger rear suspension featured an Anstey link, an articulated arm designed to keep the rear axle at a fixed distance to the final drive sprocket as the suspension moved to maintain constant chain tension. In practice, though, pretty much all the Anstey link did was limit suspension movement and introduce more wear points. The Red Hunter got a proper swingarm frame in 1954, although the Square Four continued with the Anstey plunger until that bike was discontinued in 1959.

Ariel became part of the BSA Group in 1944, and the postwar models slowly lost their distinctiveness. By 1954, the red paint and chrome had been replaced with Ariel’s mundane maroon house finish and an ugly headlight cowl and fully enclosed chain guard. It was like dressing a supermodel in coveralls.

But the times had moved on and twins were all the rage. A 500cc twin could produce more power more easily than a 500 single, and by the mid 1950s, the flagship sports models of most British manufacturers were based on their parallel twins, like Triumph’s Tiger 110, BSA’s Road Rocket, and Norton’s Dominator 88 and 99. With a few notable exceptions (BSA’s Gold Star and Velocette’s Venom) the days of sporting thumpers like the Red Hunter were over.

1947 single-port VH 500

I meet the Doan Brothers, Shawn and Brian, at the 2013 International Norton Owners Rally in Buffalo, Wyoming. Brian is outside my motel polishing his immaculate 1949 Norton Model 7, while Shawn is running a cloth over his 1947 Red Hunter. Both have ridden the 1,200-odd miles from Bellingham, Washington, to be at the rally. (Brian later won Best in Show at the rally concours.)

Shawn’s bike is nominally a 1947 model VH 500cc single-port Red Hunter, but it has been tastefully modified for serious long-distance riding, with alloy wheel rims and modern tires. I arrange to meet Shawn back in Bellingham so I can photograph his bike, but when he pushes the Ariel out of the garage, I can’t help but notice there’s another Red Hunter parked behind it — a late-1930s twin-port VH, perhaps the most purposeful-looking Ariel of them all. Of course, I have to photograph both.

Shawn knows a lot about the history of his 1947 single-port. “It was built in July of ’47, originally as a 350, and shipped to Nicholson Brothers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada,” Shawn says. “I found it in Osoyoos, British Columbia. A guy named Harold Land had it, and he had painted it all flat drab green. I think he was trying to make a [military-specification] W-NG out of it, but it doesn’t have the high ground clearance frame or fork.”

The ’47 would have been shipped with a telescopic fork, but Land had replaced it with a girder front end. “I got it as a girder-rigid,” Shawn says, “which is what I was looking for. But it was a 350 and I really wanted a 500 … ” An eBay search eventually turned up a VH basket case, which allowed Shawn to complete his project. “It was listed as a ’38, but it turned out it was a ’50 frame and at least one half of the engine case was a ’48 — the other half didn’t match.

“Ariel was really good about making parts match year to year, so subsequent modifications of the parts would fit the older bikes — you could put the 500 crank in the 350 cases. I did that, put the 500 head and barrel on it, and built it as a 500,” he says.

That was in 2003. Shawn estimates he now has about 20,000 miles on the ’47, including some 400-mile days getting to motorcycle rallies. “I think it handles wonderfully,” Shawn says. “It handles great on a smooth road, the country lane stuff, 40-60mph stuff — it just seems like a lot of fun. I’m pretty comfortable on it because I’ve ridden it so much.”

Shawn’s only problem with the ’47 — apart from intermittent issues with an aftermarket ignition system, now replaced with a stock magneto — has been a seizure and a burnt exhaust valve, both of which Shawn attributes to a piston problem. “It turned out I had a high compression piston in it,” he says. “I had it running on standard carburetion, so the first time I held it wide open, I seized it. I also burned a valve. I had trouble getting the mixture right. I realize now that it was probably running too low a fuel level in the float chamber.” To bring compression down, Shawn filed the high compression piston’s crown down a bit and put a thicker spacer under the barrel. “I think I’ve got it to about 8:1 now — the stock is 7.5:1. It definitely makes more of a snap than my stock compression ’39. I’m pretty happy with the way it runs,” he says.

Shawn also attributes smoother running to a new Amal carb. “It runs nice. It seems quieter. It just doesn’t seem as ragged, and it just seems like it’s running cooler.” Shawn has yet more plans for the ’47. “I’d like to get an alloy tank made like the one on an Ariel racer I have a picture of. I think that would be really cool. I’ll probably just keep working on it to make it more reliable. But I’ve been pretty pleased. It’s been a pretty reliable bike.”

The 1939 VH twin-port

“I ended up with the two bikes: the ’47 from Osoyoos and I’d bought this 500 from California. So I basically had the pieces for two bikes,” Shawn says. He really liked the twin-port high-pipe look he’d seen on a BSA Empire Star. “What I really wanted when I went out to look for this Ariel was a ’30s bike. I liked the dual pipes, because it just looked cool. It was a 1930s styling cue. I liked the gauges in the tank. And then I found this bike, and it had the bigger tank, the bigger engine and it had the big prewar headlight.” So after building the ’47, Shawn had lots of pieces left over.

“When I bought the California bike, I could basically build the bike I wanted,” Shawn says. “The ’47 was a two-port 350. But when I started to build the ’39, I decided to find a single-port head for the ’47. So then I was just able to build the bike I wanted — the ’39 dual high pipe, the big headlight and all that stuff. And the ’47 became my rider, because I like riding it. I have all the 350 parts stashed away.”

Shawn originally had been looking for a BSA Empire Star before he found his first Red Hunter. And he had a chance to compare his ’39 VH with a BSA in the Deeley Collection in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I was surprised,” he says. “The Ariel looked like it had better brakes and a better front fork. And I thought, ‘boy, I’m glad I got the Ariel.’”

Shawn especially noted the more elaborate front fork castings on the Ariel and its superior front brake with its sliding block “servo” operation and cast-in cooling ribs. However, Shawn still considers the ’39 to be a work in progress, noting that the gas tank and headlight are incorrect. The correct items remain on the shopping list.

Riding the Red Hunter

Though I’m a little apprehensive, Shawn encourages me to take his ’47 Red Hunter for a quick spin. I’m expecting quirky handling and no brakes, and a jarring, uncomfortable ride from the rigid rear and clunky-looking front fork. What I hadn’t expected is how well everything works.

The engine starts easily with a good swing on the kick pedal and thuds steadily with relatively little vibration. Clutch take-up is smooth and shifting is relatively light. And while the roads around Shawn’s Bellingham home are mostly free of potholes, the ride is remarkably smooth, with the girder fork and well-sprung seat soaking up the bumps. I’m sure the modern tire rubber helps, too. Steering is steady and predictable — turning the bike at slow speeds is a breeze — and the brakes are remarkably effective for a vintage machine.

Overall, the Red Hunter feels like a much more modern bike, and must have seemed quite sophisticated in its day. I think I understand why Shawn likes riding it so much! MC

Click here to see a video of Shawn Doan riding the 1939 Ariel Red Hunter down Scott Mountain Pass in the Klamath mountains.