Buddy Holly and the Ariel Cyclone
In May 1958, Buddy Holly and the Crickets (Joe Mauldin and Jerry Allison) had just returned to Dallas, Texas from a world tour. That’ll Be The Day was tearing up the charts, and the trio decided to splash out on Harley-Davidsons to ride the 320 miles back home to Lubbock. The Harley dealer kicked them out of his store, thinking they were just teenage time-wasters.
The story might have ended there but the trio fetched up at Ray Miller’s Ariel-Triumph dealership on West Davis Street instead. Miller sold bass player Mauldin a Thunderbird and drummer Allison a Trophy TR6A. Holly chose a new 1958 Ariel Cyclone 650cc twin. It’s said the trio returned to the Harley dealership to do burnouts in their parking lot, then rode home to Lubbock in a thunderstorm.
The Cyclone was based on Ariel’s 650 model HF Huntmaster twin, which borrowed its engine from BSA’s A10 “Golden Flash,” though with restyled engine cases. Thus the engine was a 646cc parallel twin of 70mm bore and 84mm stroke with a one-piece forged crankshaft with the flywheel bolted to the centre web. Cylinder block and head were in cast iron. The crank ran on a drive-side roller bearing and timing side bush, with all four pushrods operated from a single camshaft behind the cylinders.
The disguised BSA motor drove a Burman four-speed gearbox by a primary chain running in oil, driving a dry clutch housed in a separate compartment in the primary case. An inspection cover held on by four screws allowed access to the five-spring clutch for adjustment. The drivetrain went into a new chassis with swingarm rear suspension and 19-inch wheels with full-width alloy hubs and seven inch drum brakes, front and rear.
By the time the Huntmaster appeared around 1954, BSA already had a sports version of the iron-engine 650 aimed at the US market, the 40-hp Super Flash with sports camshaft, higher compression and Amal TT carburetor, but the semi-unit engine and BSA transmission were still housed in the old-style plunger frame.
To update their sports model, BSA adopted an alloy cylinder head (but still with a siamesed intake) and dropped the new power unit into a duplex cradle frame with rear swingarm, not unlike the Huntmaster’s. This became the Road Rocket. The alloy cylinder head was revised for 1958 and the TT carb replaced with an Amal Monobloc to give the 43-hp Super Rocket.
The development history of the BSA models is important in the context of the Cyclone because, although BSA had adopted an alloy cylinder head as early as 1954 for their sports models, the Cyclone was fitted with an iron cylinder head to the end of its production. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that the engine specification for the Cyclone was essentially as the 40-hp Super Flash, but with the more modern Amal Monobloc carb instead of the Flash’s TT. That’s borne out by a 1959 road test in an American enthusiast magazine, for which Ariel’s western distributor, Johnson Motors provided a Certificate of Performance from Ariel showing that the engine had been bench-tested to 40 hp at 6,300 rpm.
What also distinguished the Cyclone was its paint finish in red and black with chrome fenders (the Huntmaster was finished in Ariel’s ubiquitous maroon), “western” handlebars, and Lucas type 529 tail light.
The magazine’s road test found the Cyclone’s maneuverability in traffic to be “really astonishing,” and its brakes “powerful;” and while the rear required “a harder pressure than normally expected,” it was “absolutely reliable and fade proof.” They also liked the “high efficiency” of the lighting equipment, which “enables the rider to maintain high cruising speed at night.”
The testers also liked the Cyclone’s “ton-plus” performance and its ability to chug along at 19 mph in fourth gear with no chain snatch. Shifting up or down was “most satisfactory” and the clutch lever was “sheer joy to operate.” Road holding gave “the sensation of safety…even during sharp cornering,” and they found it unnecessary to even touch the steering damper. Overall, the magazine concluded that the Cyclone “…represents a fine investment whose dividend will be thousands and thousands of miles of trouble-free and enjoyable motorcycling.”
It was early on the morning of February 3, 1959 that Holly, together with Jiles P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens climbed on board a Beechcraft Bonanza for a flight from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota. All three (and the pilot) died when the plane crashed in a snowstorm.
The Crickets had broken up late in 1958, and Holly’s new band featured bassist Waylon Jennings. Jennings opted to travel to Moorhead by road, avoiding the crash, and for many years suffered survivor guilt. Jenning’s friends purchased the Cyclone from Holly’s family as a 42nd birthday gift for him in 1979. In October 2014, 12 years after Jennings’ death, his family listed the Holly bike for auction. An unnamed buyer paid $475,000 for the Cyclone, which is now displayed in the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock.
Given the value of the Holly bike, Ariel Cyclone buyers should check provenance carefully! Garth’s Cyclone checks all the right boxes: HC8 engine from the correct number sequence; red/black paint scheme, and correct Lucas tail light. Garth has also had the engine number checked by Sandy Stewart of the Ariel Owners Motorcycle Club: out of 175 “definite” Cyclones produced and a further 76 “possibles,” Garth’s machine is #8 in number sequence of the “definites.” (The Holly bike was #3.)
Garth bought the Cyclone as a basket case from a fellow Westcoast British Motorcycle Owners Club member who had imported it—or at least, what there was—in 2010. It was missing the seat, fenders, centre and side stands; handlebars levers cables and switches; footpegs, headlight, horn, headers and mufflers—and the rear chaincase!
But the important matching number parts—the engine, transmission and frame—were all there, as well as the gas and oil tanks, toolbox and headlight nacelle. Now, completely rebuilt with the correct parts and meticulously refinished, the Cyclone rides again.
by Robert Smith Canadian Biker Issue #326