TALES FROM THE CRYPT
Most vintage motorcycles reside in garages or sheds, although Ariel’s Red Hunter might well feel at home in a stable. Stuart Urquhart catches up with an old bike enthusiast whose collection is safely stashed in… a crypt!
‘The Ariel 350 has quite a nippy and rev-happy engine,’ explains Ewan the owner, as he warms up his 1934 Red Hunter. ‘It’s more suited to back roads well away from the hustle and bustle of modern traffic. The Hunter is especially nice at around 45–55mph and will plod along happily all day long, in top gear, when required.’ At higher speeds, life with a rigid / girders single can be quite… well, exciting. ‘Handling is fine until you pass 50mph, when deep potholes and rippled roads will have the girders tied in knots. And of course the rigid rear end will delight in launching you from the saddle at every opportunity!’
Bike enthusiasts inspire me as much as their magnificent classics and I’m sure RC readers share a similar bond with their fellows. Club affiliations introduce us to like-minded souls and I have been fortunate to meet many friends through my classic connections. For several years I have also been forging new alliances on Facebook. I suspect this fascinating ‘hub’ has now become a familiar portal for the majority of motorcyclists today.
Facebook has introduced me to several new contacts – and here’s the first of them, an RC mission through the wilds of Stirlingshire to visit The Crypt and its colourful character called, of course, The Undertaker. Ewan (aka The Undertaker) is an engaging gent who has a steadfast passion for all things Ariel, especially pre-war Red Hunters. One of Ewan’s exceptionally rare Red Hunters is a Hartley racer that has yet to be restored to the road. The other is a twinport Red Hunter NH350 – pictures of which grabbed my attention on… you’ve guessed it – Facebook!
I’ve met up with Ewan at many classic events and I was looking forward to seeing inside The Crypt and viewing his private collection of classic motorcycles. After a 20-year career in the police, Ewan set up a house-clearing business that over time evolved into a successful classic motorcycle business. He operates from extremely unusual premises, The Crypt; featured on local TV news feature and a choice destination for discerning customers looking for rare and collectable classics.
‘Some customers imagine I’m some sort of wannabe Adams Family character who is into the macabre, but this misconception couldn’t be further from reality,’ said Ewan. ‘ The Crypt idea was proposed by friends to cover some enthusiastic and highly creative joinery. My friend was tasked with building me a large shed, which turned out to be a truly impressive structure. However somewhat adrift of my brief, it also featured a set of gothic stained windows.
‘I had to admit the structure looked amazing; but when my friend proposed ideas for adding a set of impregnable castle-styled doors complete with industrial chains and padlocks, I was expecting a drawbridge and a surrounding moat might follow! When the building was eventually finished it became light-heartedly christened as The Crypt, and the name just stuck. The Crypt has turned out to be a great asset and I’m pleased with all the positive feedback I’ve received about the classic bikes and memorabilia that are displayed within its hallowed walls.’
As this is a business, I light-heartedly asked Ewan if his precious Ariels might therefore be for sale.
‘I suppose you might call me a classic
motorcycle collector,’ he replied, ‘but all of my machines are for sale as long as the customer and I can agree on a mutually acceptable price. I have no hang-ups about moving bikes on and I am always on the look-out for fresh stock – as is the case with any thriving business. But the Ariels are my passion, and these will be staying with me for the foreseeable future.’
As we moved deeper into The Crypt, I felt as if I had just walked onto a Hammer Horror movie set. Suddenly I felt gripped by the desire for silver bullets, a wooden stake and a priest on tow with a Green Goddess filled to the brim with flesh-burning holy water. Fortunately for me the sun was still burning brightly and Ewan didn’t suddenly selfcombust into a hissing quagmire of bubbling flesh. Unsettling too were the gaping skulls that sat grinning upon rusting old cylinder heads, and menacing owls that seemed to watch my every move with soul-piercing LED eyes (hidden security cams I guessed). It was an intimidating sight that would deter any intruder. Justifiably so given the treasures that were about to be revealed.
As I regained my self-control, The Undertaker produced a set of clanking keys and laboriously removed the heavy padlocks and chains from The Crypt’s steel-studded doors. Security lights dimmed and the owls returned to their slumber as the creaking doors opened to reveal a menagerie of jaw-dropping classic motorcycles. The Red Hunters were immediately obvious of course, but then I spied an immaculate Ariel Arrow sitting next to a lovely Honda 350 twin, flanked by a gorgeous Morini 350 Vee behind which I assumed, were some Japanese 2-stroke lightweights, yet to make their appearance from the gloom.
As I walked past The Crypt’s impressive and probably impregnable doors, I was immediately drawn to the lithe and minimalist Hartley Red Hunter Special – it looked utterly stunning. Then my attention focused on the black and cream Red Hunter NH that I had come to see. I was looking forward to hearing how Ewan had come by not one, but two rare and exciting Ariel classics. I soon learned that the Hartley Special was a non-runner and required a rolling road to fire her up – mainly due to the fact that she had no kickstarter. She was also endowed with ‘infant and pram sucking’ valves, 12:1 compression and ran on dope. That feature would need to wait for another day, and the Hartley’s conversion to petrol for road use. I mentioned the possible addition of a kickstarter too, but this suggestion was quashed by The Undertaker’s Cryptish stare.
I also learned that the 1934 Red Hunter NH350 seen here was originally supplied by a dealer in Belfast, as confirmed by the dinky little brass plate riveted to the rear mudguard. Ewan bought the machine after spotting an advert on eBay.
‘I contacted the seller to discover that his NH had been acquired along with a later Triumph twin that he had bought from a friend. The single was now being offered as a non-runner because the seller couldn’t start it due to a recent hip replacement. After he wired me some photographs we struck a deal over the phone. When the NH arrived I was pleased to discover that it was in fairly original condition – apart from a new Indian petrol tank that was missing its fuel taps. I also received a box of spares, including the NH’s original petrol tank which could prove useful later.
‘I decided to give the bike a go and fitted new fuel taps and lines to the Indian petrol tank. The magneto and points were duly cleaned and proved to be working fine. I inspected the engine and carburettor before cleaning out the sump and oil tank, to which I added new oil – similarly with the gearbox. Tappets and valves were fine and the points and ignition timing were checked. Tubes and new tyres replaced old. I also cleaned out the brakes and was surprised to discover that both linings had plenty of service life.
‘After adding fresh fuel I was thrilled when she started four or five kicks later. However as the engine warmed the tickover became a little erratic. So I took her for a short run and by the time I returned the bike was running well and the engine’s tick-over had been restored.
‘Unfortunately the previous owner’s Indian petrol tank left much to be desired,’ frowned Ewan. ‘ The problem was misaligned mounting brackets and poorly fixed tank badges. It also looked too bright and shiny compared to the rest of the bike, and the metallic red paintwork was much too modern for a Red Hunter. So I decided to remove it and fit the original tank. But then I discovered that the original petrol tank’s interior was badly rusting and old tank sealant was peeling away in lumps. Every time I flushed out the original tank more material flaked away. I knew I was facing a lengthy and serious restoration.’
Ewan decided to treat the old petrol tank with dichloromethane, which is toxic and
highly flammable. After several days of treatment the old sealant was removed and the inside was returned to bare metal. Next, Ewan carefully removed all the old exterior paint, and was thrilled to discover that the
emerging bare petrol tank was actually in excellent condition – an unexpected bonus. There was no evidence of plastic filler, solder repairs or dents, suggesting that the original petrol tank had led a very charmed life.
POR15 was then used to treat the petrol tank’s interior – a three-part treatment, which includes a rust stabiliser, detergent and a final lining coat. Once the petrol tank had been successfully sealed, Ewan decided he would paint it himself rather than have it chrome plated.
Before he could paint the petrol tank, he had to carefully drill out the Ariel metal badge mounting screws. Ewan had just assumed that the screw heads had broken off inside their threads over time – that was until an Ariel anorak informed Ewan that this was a common practice used by the Ariel factory to make the tank badges appear as if they had been riveted to the petrol tank. Once the screw heads had been ground off by a factory fitter, a bead of solder was then applied to the remaining stumps before being stamped with a special ‘rivet head’ tool. Ewan was now ready to prime and paint the Ariel’s petrol tank.
‘I have considerable experience with DIY paints, and before the tank was ready for its colour coat I used five coats of high-build body primer, rubbing down between each coat,’ said Ewan. ‘I masked up the petrol tank and then used Halfords rattle tins to end up with a red and graphite grey, two-tone finish. However I ruined the finish when I allowed the colour coat to dry before applying the sealing lacquer. After reading the instructions I realised that I should have applied the lacquer immediately over the wet colour coat, so unfortunately the paint and lacquer reacted when left to cure overnight. I was gutted the next morning when I realised that I would have to begin the whole process all over again!’
Ewan waited several days before rubbing back the tank to its base coat and then reapplying the layers of paint. This time he decided to try a new colour scheme and used the attractive black and cream finish as seen here – and successfully completed the job on his second attempt.
‘I think I must have spent over three weeks getting the paint finish to a standard I was happy with. I also touched-up the frame and mudguards to match the bike’s overall patina. In the interests of maintaining its aged look, I removed the new aftermarket saddle and replaced it with a worn original from my box of Ariel spares.
‘I ripped out all the corroded wires and remove unnecessary electrical parts that were not needed for daylight running. But as receipts prove that both the magneto and dynamo have been restored, I intend to rewire the NH and get the lights working over
the coming winter. The only other job I was contemplating is whether to line the wheel centres and respoke the rims – but this is not a necessary job, and I’ll worry about it later.’
To underline how well it performs, Ewan then walked over to the bike and in customary fashion he tickled the carb, set the ignition lever to full advance, no choke was required, and gave the Ariel a gentle kick. The engine immediately rumbled into life before settling into a perfect tickover.
‘As you can hear the engine is very smooth and responds instantly to the throttle,’ shouted The Undertaker over the din, inviting me to have a go; I did, and concurred with a nod. ‘I go easy with the engine because I respect the fact that she is over 80 years old. She’s really a retired motorcycle that enjoys a rumble down the road in the pursuit of a little good old-fashioned fun,’ Ewan emphasised. ‘ The Burman gearbox is a good ’un, as long as the rider times his gearshifts and is patient. Otherwise if rushed, the Burman box will grind in protest, which is normal behaviour with these pre-war motorcycles.
‘ The clutch is particularly light in my experience and never drags or slips up steep inclines, or at any speed. This model also pulls well and cleanly in all four gears and is comfortable enough on long rides.
The controls and riding position suit me rather well, and I’m over six foot – weren’t 1930s gentlemen a lot shorter?’ Ewan queried with a raised eyebrow. I declined to comment, as I look up to the big man.
‘In truth, the brakes are pathetic, so you need to plan well ahead on a sprinting Red Hunter – if there is such a thing!’ he laughed. ‘But all said and done, she’s is a fine motorcycle and one that I intend to enjoy into my dotage.’
I think Ewan has done a splendid job with his DIY black and cream paintwork. It certainly withstands close scrutiny and is positively amazing for a rattle tin job. The Red Hunter wears its patina as well as any old fossil and the addition of authentic parts, such as the old saddle and original petrol tank, have only enhanced its timeless appeal.
This machine is very similar to my own 1938 Red Hunter, despite a four year gap. The earlier twin-port engine is visually very different, but all other cycle parts are near identical and shared between both models (and the VH500). The partly-enclosed valves, rounded petrol tank and slim profile mudguards mark Ewan’s NH350 as the first model to benefit from Edward Turner’s upgrades. This Red Hunter was a lucky find; it even has its original front engine plate covers intact – truly remarkable, as these have become extremely scarce. Similarly, the PA speedometer and the little brass inspection lamp that reside on top of the petrol tank’s instrument panel are worth a fair few pennies – possibly even more than The Crypt itself!
To modern eyes, at first glance this appears to be a twin. But it’s not. Twinport heads were popular for several years
Right at the top if the engine live the overhead valves, only two of them, despite the twin exhaust pipes. Ariel almost enclosed the valve springs, too. Almost
Two views of a slightly idiosyncratic carburettor
Ariel’s single engine was certainly long-lived: with endless development it served until the end of 4-stroke production in 1959. The Burman gearbox also drove the speedo via that armoured cable
Handsome set of girder forks controls the front wheel. One central spring and no sign of check springs. Bounce control is provided by a friction damper fitted to the lower link
There’s a tremendous simplicity to bikes of this generation; very little in the way of unnecessary fittings
Right: Much wonderment here. Observe the creative mounting for the rear brake pedal, the brass float chamber, the decorative dynamo…
Below: As was common back then, the Ariel’s speedo lives in the top of the fuel tank, along with the inspection lamp (!), an oil pressure gauge, the fuel filler and a blanking plate for a clock. The ammeter, meanwhile, lives in the headlamp shell
Bottom: Ewan and his Ariel. Outside The Crypt…
Left: As ever when a Lucas Magdyno is used, slim fingers are handy when it’s points adjustment time
Below: No leverage problems with this rear brake! As ever, the back end is simplicity itself