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Ariel 500 : Remember the Red Hunter

The Ariel Red Hunter 500 was the top of an impressive range.

In the early 1930s, Ariel’s range of single-cylinder motorcycles had got a little out of hand. Nigel Motor-Biker could choose from side- and overhead-valve engines of 250, 350, 500 and 557cc with either vertical or sloping cylinders, single or twin exhaust ports, and two- and four-valve heads. Added to the range in 1932 as their flagship model was the first Red Hunter, the VH32 500cc single, a tuned version of the four-valve VG32 with a specification that included a racing magneto and carburetor 

The Ariel singles range had grown from a basic 1926 design by the doyen of British motorcycle designers, Valentine Page, who had then just arrived from J.A. Prestwich, the “JAP” engine company. Ariel ran into financial problems during 1932, and Page left the company, with Edward Turner replacing him as design chief. Turner set to rationalizing the engine range, and to increasing commonality in cycle parts. So for 1933, the OHV range was cut to just three twin-port, two-valve singles available in three trim levels. Top of the range was the 500cc VH Red Hunter.

The 500cc engine featured an iron cylinder and head atop an alloy crankcase containing a built-up crankshaft. Bore and stroke were 86.5 by 85mm (until 1935, then 81.8 by 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 (from c.1934). An oil-bath primary chain and wet clutch drove the foot-shift, four-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 fitted into a tubular frame with rigid rear and a girder fork at the front, finished with the Ariel Red Hunter model’s distinctive paintwork featuring red side panels on the chrome-plated gas tank and red centre stripes on the chrome wheel rims, both set off with gold pinstriping. Brakes were seven-inch SLS drums front and rear spoked to 19-inch rims with 3.25-inch rear and three-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 100 mph for the 500cc model with some light tuning. By 1937, Red Hunter editions of Ariel’s 350cc and 250cc OHV singles were also on sale.

When the Ariel Red Hunter reappeared after WWII, it looked much as it had before, though a new plunger suspension frame was introduced as an option in 1939, with a telescopic front fork arriving around 1948. Ariel’s plunger rear suspension featured an Anstey link, designed to keep the wheel axle at a fixed distance to the final drive sprocket as the suspension moved, thereby maintaining constant chain tension. In practice though, pretty much all the Anstey link did was limit suspension movement and introduce more wear points in the linkage. The Red Hunter got a proper swinging arm frame in 1954.

And as Ariel had become part of the BSA Group in 1944, the post-war models inexorably lost their distinctiveness. By 1954, the red paint and chrome had been replaced by Ariel’s mundane house finish of maroon paint, with an awkward headlight cowl and fully enclosed chainguard. It was like dressing a supermodel in coveralls.

The bike featured here is a restored 1939 twin port, high-pipe 500cc “VH” Ariel Red Hunter belonging to Shawn Doan. It’s lacking the painted gas tank side panels, but in some ways looks more elegant for that. Doan also owns a 1947 single-port 500 Red Hunter that he regularly rides over long distances, including to and from the 2013 International Norton Owners rally in Buffalo, Wyoming—a round trip of more than 5,000 kilometres!

Understanding the Ariel model lettering system:

Those letters you find on the timing cover of Ariel motorcycles identify both the engine capacity, and in most cases, the trim level—though they’re also sometimes inconsistent. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

L (or O) = 250cc    N = 350cc    V = 500cc 

For 1933-on, most Ariel OHV singles
were available in three trim levels:

F = Ariel Standard    Ariel G = Deluxe    H = Ariel Red Hunter sports

F-models were available with three- or four-speed transmission for 1933-35. The F suffix was dropped for 1936, with all OHV singles using a four-speed transmission in G or H trim. LG and OG 250cc models were named Colt.

To confuse matters, the side-valve 557cc model also used the prefix V. For 1933-5, the 557 was available in two trim levels, A and B. For 1936-on, the side valve single became 596cc, available only in B trim (VB). 

Square Fours were designated “4F” for the 1931 500cc and “4F/6” to distinguish the 600cc version. From 1937 all Square Fours were 1000cc and designated “4G.” Post-WW2 designations included the KH 500cc twin, FH 650cc twin Huntmaster, LH 200cc Colt, plus HS (scrambles) and HT (trials) competition OHV singles in 350 and 500cc. 

Alloy-cylinder street models in 1952-3 carried the additional suffix “A”


VG = 500cc OHV deluxe    LF = 250cc OHV base model to 1935

VB = 557cc side-valve deluxe to 1935, 596cc
side-valve standard 1936-on.

NH = 350cc Red Hunter •  HT = Trials (350cc HT3 or 500cc HT5)

VHA = 500cc Red Hunter all-alloy engine 1952-3

by Robert Smith Canadian Biker Issue #315


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