By the time the legendary motorcycle designer Val Page arrived in 1925, Ariel had already been around, in one form or another, for the best part of half a century.
Charles Sangster and his son Jack had flirted with most forms of motorised transport, including tricycles and quadricycles with de Dion engines, solos powered by Kerry and White & Poppe engines, as well as their own creation, a two stroke known as the Arielette which remained in production until 1925. Jack himself designed a series of Ariel cars, but Page scrapped all existing designs and produced a two-model range consisting of a 550cc side valve and a 496cc overhead valve. Another new employee, Victor Mole, came up with the famous horse logo and a new slogan “ Ariel. The Modern Motorcycle”. The new models sold well, especially after the frame was redesigned to a new cradle layout in 1927.
By 1928 the Ariel range had grown to six; two 550 sidevales, two 500 ohv and two 250cc – a side valve and a twin-port ohv. Victor Mole’s fecund mind was always searching for new ways to promote the brand, and in August 1929 fitted floats to a standard 499cc Model E, with an extra sprocket on the rear hub driving a small propeller. With two Ariel employees aboard the bike and pillion, the strange craft crossed the English Channel from Dover to Calais in just under four hours, and after refuelling, headed back home. The bizarre stunt certainly achieved its aim of creating publicity for Ariel.
The 557cc sidevalves – the Model A (Standard) and Model B (De Luxe), were more than cosmetically distinct. The model A used a 3-speed Sturmey Archer gearbox, lightweight mudguards and 3-inch tyres, while the Model B employed a 3-speed Burman box with a choice of Solo, Hilly Country or Sidecar ratios, larger section tyres, a more luxurious saddle, a steering damper, and valanced front mudguard. The gearbox was hand-operated from a quadrant on the offside of the petrol tank. The optional speedometer was driven from the gearbox and located in the tank top. Lighting was also optional, with provision for a Lucas 12W/4V dynamo in the front engine plates, driven by a chain from the engine sprocket. Every engine was tested before leaving the factory, with the big side valves required to produce 12 bhp.
By this stage, Ariel had established a comprehensive dealer network and in 1929, a customer parted with just over seventy quid at Ariel Distributors in Sydney’s Wentworth Avenue for the Model B you see here.
It passed through a series of owners before eventually arriving in Condobolin, in western NSW, where it was acquired by Noel Emmanuel, a local farmer. When its days as daily transportation were over, the Ariel suffered the fate of many of its ilk, as a paddock-basher on a farm. Even under this harsh existence, the old plugger gave its best, until a collision with a stump finally called a halt to play. Consigned to a dirt-floor shed, the Ariel lay in state, abandoned except for the occasional infidel who would remove a part that could be useful on some form of farm machinery. The svelte Ariel petrol tank had been ditched in favour of a larger BSA item to give longer range while traversing the considerable distances around the property.
Thus it was that in 1974, Noel contacted George Davidson and asked him if he wanted the remains of the bike, now a barely recognisable skeleton. George was indifferent, but his son Chris saw in the old bomb something that should be preserved. George had a business delivering fuel to rural properties, which was an ideal way to check for abandoned motorcycles, leaning against trees, shoved into gullies, or at best, in sheds. By the time the Ariel turned up, there were around 20 relics crammed into the Davidson outbuildings. The Ariel arrived on the back of a tabletop truck, whereupon it was leaned against a shed while a space was cleared inside.
This took rather longer than expected, and led Chris to undertake a major clearance. “We decided to basically get rid of all the bikes we’d collected – AJSs, Matchless, BSAs – and keep the Ariel, which was the oldest. Soon after this I moved to Griffith and took the Ariel with me, with plans to restore it. I was there 12 years and never got around to starting work on it, then I moved to Bathurst in 1996 so the Ariel came too.”
This time, the restoration made it onto the agenda. Major items missing included the petrol tank, seat, primary chaincases, headlight and taillight, electrics and gear lever, although the original mudguards, muffler (complete with its badge of certification), luggage rack and toolbox had survived. The prospect of locating the many missing parts was daunting, but Chris found a virtually identical and similarly dilapidated Model A in nearby Lithgow and purchased that, primarily to get the petrol tank. Then, low and behold, he came across an original tank at a swap meet in Goulburn, so the Model A, minus a few bits, was cleaned up and flogged off to finance the Model B project. Further swap meet visits produced a speedo, an original-style mirror and a headlight complete with amp meter. After purchasing John Bull tank rubbers from Pioneer Cycles in Queensland, he stumbled across an original Ariel set, along with footrest and gear lever rubbers.
Bathurst panel beater Peter Blatch painted the frame and cycle parts and a local lass, Jenny Gordon, recreated the pinstripes, Ariel ‘horse’ motif and the Ariel wording on the tank, using vinyl. The electroplating was a nightmare that Chris prefers not to think about, especially after an initial batch was entrusted to a Dubbo firm and ruined.
Chris did all his own assembly and polishing, and admits to adding a few touches of his own. The brass carburettor and float bowl were stripped of their nickel finish and the bare metal polished, as was the tyre pump.
In 2001, the restoration was deemed complete, and Chris took the Ariel back to Condobolin to show Noel Emmanuel. The old chap was clearly delighted but Chris’ timing was prophetic, because Noel died in a car accident just weeks later.
After a period sorting out piston skirt clearance to avoid nipping up, the Ariel settled in and now runs sweetly. Various local rallies were entered and enjoyed, with the bike garnering an impressive array of awards. Chris’ proudest moment, however came at the National Ariel Register rally in Queanbeyan in 2003, where the Model B was voted Best Vintage Ariel and the Most Desirable bike of the rally.
With that award under his belt, Chris decided to retire the old steed once and for all, and it now sits on a plinth in the house he has renovated in Bathurst. “Although it was hard work and cost a fortune (there are $1,400 worth of stainless nuts and bolts alone) I’m happy that the bike is once again as good as it came out of the factory. I like to think I’ve given it a new life.”