1955 Ariel HS
Ariel HS 1955
If you were a Hollywood movie star in the 1950’s and ‘60’s then you just had to ride a motorbike and the coolest place to get one was at Bud Ekins shop in the San Fernando Valley. From humble beginnings in the fifties it flourished to become the biggest Triumph agency in the world - a staggering 27,000 new bikes sold in 1967 alone - and with his numerous wins in desert races and international six days trials Ekins became an icon of American motorcycle sport.
From the day he won the Moose run on a 500cc Matchless in 1950 he also had a soft spot for British singles and over the years a considerable amount of Ariel’s and big bore AMC desert racers passed through his ever open doors.
Brando, Dean, lee Marvin and Steve McQueen might have been some of his more famous customers but in 1955 a young actor by the name of William E Kimbley went along to Bud’s shop and bought himself a brand new Ariel HS Red Hunter. What he intended doing with it we shall never know as ‘Billy’ died in 1980 but it certainly wasn’t raced and during the next twelve years it stood virtually unused in his garage? In 1967 it was sold back to Ekins - who at that time was building up a huge collection of rare and unusual bikes - but whether the Ariel joined them or was sold on is now unclear.
What is clear however is that twenty years later – along with an ex McQueen Scott Squirrel - it turned up in Comber in Northern Ireland although since 1988 it has resided in Cornwall where it’s owned by father and son enthusiasts Glyn and Gary Gwillam. The pair have some interesting machines in their collection and if you’re a regular reader then you might recall my previous visit to the Gwillam household to see their equally rare Cotton/Cross Cougar scrambler (TCM Nov 2008). As you can imagine when Glyn informed me the Ariel was up and running again – closely followed by the offer to take it for a spin - I needed little encouragement to make a return trip to the far south west to see and ride this rare beast.
As I quickly discovered a love of motorcycles runs deep within the veins of the Gwillam males and Glyn has fond memories of the days when his father’s 500cc sloper Ariel sidecar was the family’s transport: frequently - in the pre motorway days - making the long haul from Cornwall to Bristol and back in a day. It was the start of a lifetime passion for two – and three – wheels and dotted around the walls of the well equipped workshops are numerous photographs showing various aspects of a long and very active motorcycling career. These include a yellowing shot of a callow youth with his first bike – a 197cc James Deluxe springer – and some action from the mid sixties showing a slightly older Glyn at speed on his Cheney Victor scrambler.
Not surprisingly son Gary also soon caught the bug and the pair of them have probably lost count of the number of bikes and ‘projects’ they’ve got between them. As previously mentioned Glyn has owned the Ariel since 1988 so I started by asking him how he came by it and what he knew of its background history.
“I understand from the previous owner Hugh Simpson that it was delivered along with the Scott in the back of a meat lorry to his home in Northern Ireland in 1986 or ’87. I’d met Hugh a couple of times at the British bike Bonanza and was aware that he’d bought this HS Ariel although at that time I knew little or nothing about its former history. We kept in touch by phone and one day in early 1988 he asked me if I was interested in buying it: better still he would deliver it to Gloucestershire for the Bonanza. This was all with the understanding that if I didn’t like it he would take it home again so there was no sort of pressure to buy an unseen machine. We duly met and with just a quick glance I could see it was just as how he’d described it: a ‘new’ – but thirty plus year old – bike. Needless to say I immediately fell in love with it, wrote him a cheque, loaded it in the van and took it back home to Cornwall with me.
Mr Simpson had bought the Ariel along with some other bikes at a sale in London and on purchase it was covered in a black coating indicating that it had been moth balled and been in dry storage for quite a number of years. The last registered owner in the USA was shown as Bud Ekins so I can only assume it came from his collection when he decided to downsize in the nineteen eighties. Unconfirmed reports suggested it was also ridden by Steve McQueen or possibly used as an ‘extra’ in a film but whether this is true or not I guess we shall never know. Whoever had put it into storage had certainly done a good job and it took us hours of work to wash off the black coating which had got everywhere including the inside of the carburetor. After we’d got it cleaned up it needed nothing more than some petrol, a new spark plug and a good swing of the kick-starter to get it fired. The engine – which was still lubricated by the original Castrol XL oil - gave that lovely whining noise that you only get with a new and tight motor and the noise from the open pipe exhaust was like music to my ears. We had a bit of a problem with a sticking carburetor float but other than that it ran absolutely perfectly.”
Knowing what best to do with such a machine was not an easy decision but with other restoration projects on the go the HS got pushed to the back of the Gwillam workshop and other than the occasional polish there it remained for the next twenty years. However in 2008 – and spurred on by the restoration of the Cotton/Cross Cougar – Glyn once more turned his attentions to the Ariel single. It was a bit grimy but it took little more than a few hours of some spirited elbow grease to get the HS looking like new again and soon the Cornish hillsides were reverberating to the healthy crackle of the big four stroke single.
Although HS’ are now quite a rare sight in pre ’65 scrambles their lineage is a long one and can be traced back to the Val Page designed Red Hunter from 1932: a machine intended as a ‘Jack of all trades’ and described by Ariel’s as ‘to answer the demands of the sporting rider who wishes to combine fast road work or trials with occasional racing’. The was no denying that the pokey 500cc engine developed a beautifully wide power band – making it an ideal choice for post war scrambling – but although it had a superb motor the handling shortcomings of a 318lb single with a rigid rear end were there for all to see.
As early as 1947 the Ariel works rider – and possibly the world’s first professional scrambler – Harold Lines had converted his factory bike to a McCandless rear swinging arm and this immediately proved to be a vast improvement. However Selly Oak themselves were slow to embrace this radical ‘new technology’ and it would be 1952 before the first cobby looking swinging arm factory prototype appeared.
They had announced the export only Competition Huntmaster VCH 500 in 1950: a bike which as a ‘stop gap’ featured the Anstey plunger rear end first used on a road bike eleven years earlier: sadly in the rigours of scrambling it twisted at will and proved to be a total disaster. For the works riders on the McCandless swinging arm machines 1950 was a good year with Lines finishing fourth in the Motocross Des Nations in Sweden while at home in the UK Eric Cheney dominated the Sunbeam point–to–point.
There’s little or no doubt that with a decent rear suspension Ariel had a potential world beater on their hands but things moved agonisingly slowly at Selly Oak and it would be four more years before a production version of the HS was announced. By them most of the factory supported riders had defected and despite having a beautiful and very competitive machine Ariel had undoubtedly missed a golden opportunity.
Not that it was all doom and gloom as there were some memorable rides by the Ariel men during 1955: Stan Holmes won the support race at the Newcastle Grand National, Frank Bentham scooped the Lancs Grand National and factory new boy Ron Langston finished third in the Isle of Man GN.
All of the 34bhp singles were bench tested before they left Selly Oak and each one came complete with a certificate of performance and a tuning leaflet listing alternative cam, sprocket and gear combinations. An alloy petrol tank and mudguard kit was an optional extra and with a ready to race price tag of £222 the HS was without doubt a bit of a bargain. Despite its attributes of stunning looks, light weight and tractable engine sales of the big single in the UK were modest and although Ron Langston kept the Ariel flag flying throughout the mid and late fifties with successes in both scrambles and the International six days trial the beautiful HS proved to be a commercial failure. It was eventually withdrawn from the Selly Oak line up in 1959 but although sales in the UK were disappointing quite a few found their way stateside where they were ideally suited to the long distance desert races and burgeoning sport of enduros.
This now brings our story full circle to the 8th of June 1955 when the young man from Beverly Hills William E Kimbley handed over a fistful of dollars to Bud Ekins for the gleaming new Ariel.
Why it wasn’t used we shall never know but we now fast forward fifty three years and it’s my time to fire up the same bike which is now standing in a beautiful setting in rural Cornwall. Some decent priming of the TT carburetor – this was changed to a smaller Monobloc in ’56 – retard of the manual ignition followed by a hefty swing of the kick starter soon had the big Ariel booming into life through the unsilenced high level pipe. It certainly brought a smile to my face but I couldn’t imagine the cacophony of noise a pack of several hundred such bikes would have made as they lined up for the start of the Moose or Big bear run across the California desert. My ‘test track’ however was not in sunny California but on private estate kindly loaned by Glyn’s neighbour John Crinks and on a damp day we had no worries about sand or dust finding its way into the carburetor which as standard was fitted with a very efficient pancake type air filter. Getting the opportunity to ride a ‘new’ fifty year old bike is a rare and possibly unique experience so a degree of caution was paramount in my head as I selected first gear in the Burman four speed box and headed off down John’s long drive. Period tests suggested that the engine was at its happiest between 3,500 to a safe limit of 6,250rpm and in their advertising brochure Ariel said – somewhat uncharacteristically of the normally reserved British manufacturers - that the engine was only in its element at ‘full noise’. Out of reverence I decided not to explore the upper rev limit although it only took the slightest twist of the throttle to feel the fairly hot cam waiting to come on song and the open pipe exhaust took on a far more menacing growl. When it was originally tested with lights and a speedo in 1955 it went through the timing lights at 88mph so there was obviously no lack of ‘Go’ in the 499cc single.
The front forks on the HS are Ariel’s own although these were changed for BSA ones for ’56: that year - when the model was catalogued as the HS Mk1 - the same company also supplying the full width 7inch hubs which replaced the single sided – and rather puny - Ariel items as fitted to Glyn’s bike. Throughout the bikes four year production run there were few changes to the frame or suspension although later engines had their cam chests modified. This meant that the cams could run in the precious lubricant which alleviated the problem of high cam wear created by Ariel’s rather archaic double plunger oil pump. From my all too brief ride I can vouch that the all alloy motor is an absolute gem and while it may not be quite such a free revver as one of AMC’s short stroke singles it is incredibly tractable. At a shade over 300lbs it also feels incredibly light and it’s easy to see how with an expert scrambler like Ron Langston in the saddle the HS took on and often beat the heavier and more ponderous BSA Gold Stars during the late fifties.
Little could Billy Kimbley have thought in 1955 that over fifty years later his bike would still be running with its original tires intact or that the engine was not yet run-in: although I think that it’s a little late to book it in for its first free service?
It was fantastic to get the opportunity to ride such a rare machine and I’m indebted to Glyn, Gary and Mrs Gwillam for their time and hospitality and also to John Crinks for allowing us to use his land. Also many thanks to Sean Kelly at Johnson Motors for supplying some interesting background history.
Engine - OHV Single cylinder four stroke Bore - 81.8mm Stroke - 95mm Capacity - 499cc (497cc in advertising brochures) Comp ratio - 9:1 Output - 34bhp @ 6,000rpm Top speed - 88mph Lubrication - Dry sump Gearbox - Four speed Ignition - Lucas magneto Frame - Duplex double cradle Suspension - Telescopic fork Twin shocks at rear Fuel tank - 2 ½ gallons Tyres - 3.000x21” front trials, 4.00x19” Dunlop sports rear Price new - £200 + £48 purchase tax