Showing posts with label Ariel Leader. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ariel Leader. Show all posts

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 and I found myself increasingly enamored of 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 bike was in rural Victoria. The advert had been running for almost twelve months before I decided to reach out to the seller. The seller, Barry, from the Vintage Motorcycle Swap Shop, sent me a letter with details about the bike and provenance and this photograph, because that was the way things were done in the days before everything became internet based. Being the impulsive buyer I am, I sat on the information for a couple of months while I considered my options.

After many months of considering whether I should or should not go ahead with this purchase, I ended up calling Barry 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 Barry 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 only to protect the bike while in transport and the bike could be removed from it. Instead he and his girlfriend manhandled the bike in its frame onto the back of his ute! It was not a pleasant experience.

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 transport 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 and then she began to look a little better. Nevertheless, the upper surfaces of all the grey panels had surface rust. I did not want to lose the bike's patina, especially the custom pin striping, but I eventually had several of the badly rusted side panels and the front 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 the number 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. As two other very early Leaders have also turned up in Australia, I suspect that that a dealer in Melbourne had placed a pre-order with the factory and these were dispatched before the bikes formally went on sale in the UK. Of course, without the records, it's impossible to know for sure, but it makes sense as a working theory.

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 20c 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 smooth the engine sounded after twenty years, but boy did she generate smoke!

Once the engine was running I took her for a few short test runs. The gearbox was glugged up with oil but degreaser and then fresh oil got it moving again. A few more things were necessary to get the bike on the road. The bikes 1970s tyres were replaced with new whitewalls. the Leader came with whitewalls as standard. The guys at the Vespa Shop in O'Connor fitted the tyres. I also wanted indicators fitted so purchased a set of Lucas replacement indicators. These were not original type but the Leader indicators are impossible to find these days and they looked good enough. Unfortunately, the Leader's electrical system is reverse polarity to modern motorcycles, so the flasher unit I had bought would not work. 

The Vespa Shop gave her the once over and everything seemed good. The indicators were removed as they would not have passed inspection. I planned to reinstall them once I'm found a new flasher unit. 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. I struggled with the right hand gear change and almost constantly knocked myself out of gear every time I tried to brake. Without indicators I felt very unsafe.

Despite this, 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. Several old guys came over 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 (Update - I now know that the proble was failing to turn off the petrol tap, resulting in the engine flooding. There was also a voltage leak somewhere in the system). 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 took a problematic turn.

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 replacement indicators reinstalled after I obtained the reverse polarity flasher unit.

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 while 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. The 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 have never been able to find an entirely suitable petrol tap.

After working through the obvious issues, I checked the compression and confirmed there was virtually none. 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, May 11, 2014

Arthur Grady Ride, Fremantle 2014

The Arthur Grady Day, part of the Fremantle Heritage Festival, just keeps getting better and more impressive each year. In 2012, when I first attended, it was very much a motorcycle event, featuring a ride through the streets of Fremantle and a display of veteran, vintage and modern motorcycles in the heart of the city. Last year the ride was limited to the veteran motorcycles due to safety concerns, however the display was enlarged to include some vintage cars. This year their was no ride but the display was expanded to cover vintage cars, trucks, machinery and even a steam traction engine. Although there were a couple of downpours during the morning it was a great event and well attended.

The veteran motorcycles held pride of place in front of the town hall.

This magnificent four cylinder Henderson gets around.

The Early American Motorcycle Club pit on a display of vintage Indians.

The replica of Arthur Grady's 1925 Douglas motorcycle.

HRD Vincent



It rained as I rode to Fremantle and I was never more grateful for the Ariel's weather protection.

Photo courtesy of the VMCCWA

BSA Bantams

An Ariel Red Hunter scrambler

A Ural outfit - the Russian version of the wartime German BMW scout bike.

Two representatives from the Paradise Lost Scooter Club -

How fantastic to see this old steam traction engine out on the street. I thought it would be a static display but it trundled up and down beside Kings Square, tooting its steam whistle from time to time. Behind the steam engine is a Mercedes-Benz Diesel.

Fargo truck

1950s Mercedes-Benz Diesel

1950 Bedford

The Bus Preservation Society bought down two old locals. We still ride on the 106 route.

The old buses took passengers for a run around the city.

Don't look behind you!

The Veteran Car Club put on a little display

A real rarity - 1926 Theophile Schneider 25SP. A famous racing marque.

Model T Ford in BOANs livery in front of what was once the Boans store.

Despite the periodic downpours a great display was put on. Next year I think we'll organise with the SIVA members to put on a microcar display.