Saturday, September 21, 2019

The history of my 1958 Ariel Leader

Some settings in Blogger changed recently which has required me to go back through the posts and adjust the photo settings. It has been something of a trip down memory lane. I started this blog way back in 2008 in order to document the restoration of my Heinkel Tourist scooter. Ironically, I never completed that project and the Heinkel was sold off many years ago, replaced by many other projects I could never have envisaged at the time.

The story of my 1958 Ariel Leader was scattered across a dozen or so posts but I've never consolidated the posts into a single story - until now. 

My journey started with the purchase of a vintage Vespa scooter in 2007. The Vespa led to an excursion into the world of German scooters with the Heinkel Tourist and IWL Troll. After the Troll was restored and while I waited for parts for the Heinkel, it was inevitable that I began looking at motorcycles. My interest had been drawn to unusual English vintage bikes. I found myself increasingly drawn to the unique styling of the Ariel Leader, but it was quite a rare bike in Australia.  Several came up for sale around the $6-$7K, most languishing for many months.

In the back of the Motorcycle Trader there was an advert for an Ariel Leader at $4000. It had come from a deceased estate. The advert had been running for almost twelve months before I decided to reach out to the seller. Barry sent me a letter with details about the bike and provenance and this photograph.Being the impulsive buyer I am, I sat on it for a couple of months. The bike was in Victoria.

After many months of considering whether I should or should not go ahead with this purchase, I ended up calling the seller and we talked for some time. He said the bike was running but would need some tidying up to get back on the road. He sent me a recording of the bike running and it sounded good. I still demurred. The money I would be spending on this was earmarked for the Heinkel restoration. A month or so later the seller called me again to tell me he'd just turned away a potential buyer for the bike because 'he knew' I was the right person for this machine. When I told him I didn't have the money spare at the moment, he was alright with that. Just pay me over a couple of months, he said. That decided me. We 'shook hands' on the deal.

So I paid him off over a couple of months. Barry organized transport and boxed up the bike. It arrived while I was on holiday overseas so my brother kindly collected it for me. I forgot to tell him that the packing frame was for transport and the bike could be removed from it. Instead he and his girlfriend manhandled the bike and frame onto the back of his ute!

After we got back from holidays it took several weeks of cajoling to convince my brother to bring the bike around. It wasn't until he arrived with the bike, still in its frame that I realized what he'd done. Sorry Craig! So we jumped up with a couple of spanners, removed the frame and wheeled the bike off the ute. He agreed that was a much easier way to move the bike.

Of course, when I saw the bike in the flesh it was its condition was worse than I had expected. However, a good wash and polish wiped away several decades of filth and dirt. Nevertheless, the upper surfaces of all the grey panels had surface rust. I did not want to lose the bike's patina but did have several of the badly rusted side panels and the mudguard resprayed. The rest I left 'as is.'

After cleaning her up I popped in a six volt battery, connected the terminals and switched on the ignition. The ammeter on the dash immediately sprung into life. I turned on the headlight and it worked perfectly. Great! Deep down I wanted to immediately pour in some petrol and give her a crank, but I restrained myself and saved that for another day.

After I had cleaned the bike down I checked under the seat to confirm the engine and chassis number. When I bought the bike I was informed that the chassis number was T286A and the bike had been built in 1961. When I sent these details to the Ariel Club in the UK they advised I was missing at least two digits. I sent them a photo to confirm and they replied with the surprising news that my bike is one of the very first batch of Leaders built in 1958. The first 100 bikes were prototypes and test and demos, with proper production starting in July 1958 with bike number 101. This means that my bike is the 185th production Leader ever made, making it one of the oldest surviving Leader's known. I know of two earlier numbers. Unfortunately, the Ariel dispatch records for the period 1958 to 1960 have been lost so I can't confirm who the original owner was and when it was purchased.

Over the next couple of weekends I went over the engine, cleaned and re-lubricated, checked the clutch and gearbox, check over the brakes, flushed the fuel tank, cleaned the carburetor and airfilter and rewired the stop light.

To get to the engine and 'guts' of the Leader, you need to remove the side panels. This is actually not that difficult on the left side. There are six large screws holding the panel in place. These can easily be removed with a 50c piece, in lieu of a screwdriver. Maneuvering the panel around the footrests is a little tricky. The right hand side requires removing the clutch pedal. The rear body can be lifted up easily after the braces attached to the rear of the exhaust is removed.

After a weekend of fettling produced no result I contacted Barry for more advice. Barry gave me a couple of tips to try and I tried again the following weekend. So on Saturday I started again.
Instructions for new owners said the Ariel should only require two priming kicks before starting on the first 'live' kick. I wasn't expecting anything like that but thought I would try it anyway, so before each 'live' kick I did two soft prime kicks. Initially it made no real difference. For the first 10 minutes I sweated over the kickstarter and the engine sounded as lifeless as ever. But then it began to cough. It spluttered out after one or two revolutions for probably the next 10 minutes so I replaced the spark plugs and then ... Bang! She started. I was surprised at how quiet and smooth the engine sounded after twenty years, but boy did she generate smoke!

The final step before taking her for inspection was replacement of the 1970s tyres with new whitewalls. The Leader came with whitewalls as standard. The guys at the Vespa Shop in O'Connor fitted the tyres and gave the bike a once over to make sure it was fit for the road.

Once they were done, I took the morning off work to take her over the pits. The bike started up easily and ran well, but I was very nervous riding her. Firstly, as the polarity of the Leader's electrics is reversed from almost every other bike, the 6 volt flasher unit I'd bought wouldn't work so we removed the indicators at the last minute. I'll try and find a replacement and install them later. When you ride without indicators you realize how 'out there' you are on the road. I also struggled with the right hand gear change and almost constantly knocked myself out of gear every time I tried to brake. I felt very unsafe.

That said, the bike was pleasant to ride. Despite her weighty appearance she is light and sprightly and can maneuver tightly. I can fully understand why the Leader was voted Best New Motorcycle in 1959. All of the contemporary reviews I've read have expressed surprise and delight at her handling. It was just a matter of time to acclimatize to the controls.

So I queued at the inspection centre where there was a lot of interest in the bike - almost everyone came over for look and chat. Several old guys recognized her and we all had a long conversation about Ariel Square Fours. Then the inspection got underway and I had to remove the side panels, which was time consuming. The bike had been sitting almost an hour when we tested the electrics and there was immediately a problem. The headlight, so bright earlier in the morning, faded out. I suggested we run her and get the charge back up, but she just wouldn't start. After two hours exhausting myself trying to get her started I called Ivo and he and Roberto drove around to the centre (I did get her running eventually and rode her around the yard for half an hour to warm up, but she died again as soon as I stopped). We fiddled around with it for another half an hour but the spark was gone. We thought it was a problem with a coil as one cylinder would spark but not the other, so then it was back to the shop. As soon as a new battery went in the Ariel jumped back to life so I rode it back to the inspection centre. Things then got very frustrating.

I'd bought the bike from a dealer, who picked it up from a deceased estate, where it had been sitting for decades in a shed. It had not been licensed since the 1970's. But I was now told that unless there is record in the national database, they could not register the bike. The national database goes back to 1990, so unless I could get the original registration papers, they would not inspect the bike. All of this later proved to be untrue; it was just the inspector being a bastard, as some of them are wont to be. But it sure did cause me a lot of problems and angst. I had spent the best part of an entire day at the inspection centre debating with people who only wanted to present problems, not solutions.

On the ride home things didn't get better. I took the backstreets as I didn't want to ride in peak hour traffic but as I reached the main roads near my house the engine started backfiring and smoking like a steam train again. People were pointing at me as I rode past, probably assuming the bike was on fire.  I began to suspect that my decision not to rebuild the engine was a little foolish, but in the end it proved to be okay. The engine was actually fine, I was just burning off decades of old oil residue. But I did decide that the electrical/ignition problems needed to be sorted out and I purchased a Pazon electronic ignition. Pazon in New Zealand manufacture electronic ignition sets for many popular vintage motorbikes. Their website is here:

After the licensing debacle I was forced to change tack. I was denied the ability to license the bike on full registration, leaving the only option as concessional licensing through a club. I joined the Vintage Motorcycle Club of WA and went through their inspection process. They accepted all the paperwork and passed the bike, although suggesting I get the front brakes improved. The front brakes on the Ariel Leader had been reported as weak since the bike was unveiled in 1958. Enthusiasts have tried and recommended numerous enhancements and improvements ever since, none being entirely reliable. The guys at the Vespa Shop machined the front brake shoes.

Once the bike was licensed and on the road I enjoyed riding it for several years. Once the electronic ignition was installed it regularly started on first or second kick, something it still does. I had the original replacement indicators, once reinstalled performed satisfactorily. These were 6 volt Lucas indicators as the original indicators that came with the Leader are impossible to obtain.

While the front indicators were pretty good, the rear indicators, which are located quite low, proved hard to see, especially in daylight. In the end I replaced the traditional festoon bulbs with LEDs supplied by Auto Lumination. To my great joy they had 4.4cm 6 volt festoon globes that slotted straight into my repro Lucas indicators. Their website is here:

On New Year's Eve 2012 after riding on very, very hot day on the freeway at about 70 mph, the engine spluttered and smelt of burning. I slowed down and the engine settled enough to get me home. The Leader continued to run without any ill effects for several months until February 2013 when the engine began stuttering and stalling.

I initially thought it was a petrol issue.T he original petrol tap was beginning to fail, progressively unwinding when the engine was running. I replaced the tap with a modern pull/push tap.

I also replaced the petrol pipe, which was beginning to perish. The carburetor and air filter were also cleaned, but this not solve the problem. In fact, this type of push/pull fuel tap proved to be a poor quality replacement. It snapped off completely after about six months and I had to get the damned thread professionally removed from the tank. Please be aware that these type of eBay parts are not particularly reliable.

I then worked through the electrics, replacing battery and spark plugs, but the problem persisted. Having gone through fuel, air and spark and still not resolving the problem, it was time to bite the bullet and look at the engine itself. A check of the compression confirmed expectations - there was virtually no compression. Ariel pistons are no longer available so Suzuki pistons are the standard substitute. Several years earlier I had purchased a set of Suzuki pistons so I dropped the bike over to the boys at The Vespa Shop for fitting.

They found that only one ring had actually blown and the barrels had not been damaged or scratched. Interestingly they discovered that one of the original pistons had been installed the wrong way around. No wonder occasionally the bike felt like it was running on one cylinder!

One thing to note when fitting Suzuki pistons - the Suzuki rings are much thinner than the original Ariel rings and two sets broke when being installed, requiring re-orders from Draganfly in the UK. Nevertheless, the new pistons proved to be good, giving the bike a little more power. The bike has continued to run almost flawlessly despite regular neglect. I only ride the bike once or twice a year.  Maybe this year I'll get it out more.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Classic Cars and Coffee 25th August 2019

After weeks of rain, storms and freezing weather, the sun came out over the weekend and with it came Classic Cars and Coffee. And come they did - by 11am the entire carpark was filled and the organisers were forced to turn cars away.

Due the City to Surf fun run in the morning, the start time was pushed back to 10.30am, which works much better for me. Who wants to be up early on a Sunday?

Lovely Mercedes-Benz SL300 coupe. I don't recall seeing this one at earlier shows.

A good turnout of Jaguar's

There were about half a dozen Jaguar E-Type's in attendance.

Lovely Porsche sportster draws a crowd.

WA Classic Scooter club members attended.

The excellent Patron coffee van.

Stunning Volkswagen Type 2 utility.

Shannons Insurance are now a sponsor of the event.

Volkswagen Karmann Ghia lowlight.

1959 Oldsmobil. This stunning car was rightly a crowd favourite.

Skoda Octavia. A real rarity in Perth.

US Ford Fairlane

EH Holden ute

1973 Renault Alpine A110

A strong turnout from the rear-engine Renault crew. They're regular attendees.

Renault 10. This is a newcomer to the show.

Terrific car show weather.

Bibendum from Richard's Tyrepower says "Hi!"

Two nice VW combi's.

Dodge Ambulance. My dad worked for years for St George and at one of the stations he worked in there was an old Dodge ambulance parked in the back shed, covered in decades of dust. I badgered him for years to buy it for me. He never did of course, and who knows what happened to it. Maybe it's this one. Great to see that someone has preserved it in its original livery. There is a sign on the back door stating this is a historic vehicle and not an active service ambulance - for the idiots.


Chevrolet Impala. A regular show attendee.

A newcomer to the show and a car I have been eagerly waiting to see. This is a 1965 Saab 96 GT Grand Sport, the real GT, not a replica. This car was painstakingly restored in Sweden. It's new owner purchased it from Australia, sight unseen, after a lengthy search. He then traveled to Sweden to pick up the car, attended a number of Saab rallys and then shipped it home.

The Saab 96GT is powered by a three cylinder 850cc two stroke engine, fed by a triple carburetor. Oil is injected into the crankcase via a separate oil chamber and pump - no petroil for this baby!

Cadillac Eldorado.

Ford Capri

An unmolested Holden Torana Mk 1.

Holden Gemini and a Lancia

Volvo row. The is always a good, regular Volvo crowd at the show.

Datsun 240Z

VW coffee van

Land Rover Mk 1


VW oval window Beetle.

Fargo van and Volkswagen

Dog on the tucker bag!

Another Fargo van


A vintage caravan! 

Organiser Paul Blank and myself chatting towards the end. Thanks Tony Wong for the shot!

The next show is on Sunday 22nd September 2019