Find of the Month: 1954 Ariel VH

Welcome to the Find of the Month, where we share some of the cool bikes we find for sale on autoTRADER.ca. This month, we’re checking out a 1954 Ariel VH for sale in Ladysmith, Quebec.


Earlier this week, we showed you the Ariel Ace Iron Horse, about to be unveiled at the Motorcycle Live show in the UK. It’s a handmade piece of art, with meticulously-welded aluminum tube frame (supposedly takes 70 hours to complete!), the engine of a Honda VFR1200, a girder-style front end, Ohlins suspension, carbon-fibre bodywork, ABS and traction control. It’s a gorgeous machine, and if it was sold in the Canadian market, would probably be priced around $50,000.

For that money, what are you getting? You’re getting a bike that’s designed to look good. Sure, it’s probably fun to ride on a twisty road … but so is a KTM 790 Adventure, at about one-third the price.

Here’s a made-in-England bike that really was made by hand.

But what about the soul? The authentic “made-in-England” badge? Well, considering the new Ariel is powered by a made-in-Japan engine, that badge is a bit lacking in authenticity anyway. And if you really do want a handmade British bike, there are cheaper ways to go about it — like, say, buying this 1954 Ariel VH, a.k.a. the “Red Hunter,” for sale in Ladysmith, Quebec with an $8,500 price tag.

First, a history lesson: Ariel’s roots go back to the 1870s, when it was a bicycle manufacturer. From there, it progressed to motorcycle manufacturing in the early 1900s, a common move for those times. For the next few decades, it was a recognized player in the British motorcycle industry, buying out the Triumph brand at one point, and then in turn selling out to BSA in 1951.

By 1967, the company had shut down, an early victim of the post-WWII British motorcycle meltdown. Finances had been iffy at times in the company’s earlier days, but the company had soldiered on. By the late ’60s, people saw the writing on the wall, and did not see the point in reviving Ariel. The company’s lifeless corpse remained dormant until 1999, when it was revived as the Ariel Motor Company, first dealing in three-wheeler cars (Ariel built cars as well as bikes in its earlier history). Eventually, the reborn zombie brand returned to bike manufacturing as well.

Does that engine look familiar? Take a look at a Suzuki Savage (or S40, or whatever they’re calling it these days), and compare. Obviously, the internals are nothing alike, but it’s hard to imagine the Suzuki designers weren’t consciously trying to emulate the Ariel’s classic lines.

On the surface, the new Ariel models look nothing like the company’s previous successes, which included the notable Square Four, and the Red Hunter series, as seen here.

The Red Hunter was in many ways the stereotypical Brit bike, a single-cylinder machine that debuted in the 1930s, with production halted during the unpleasantries of 1939-1945 (Ariel was making motorcycles for the war effort then). After the war ended, production started back up, with changes slowly made to upgrade the line throughout its history (some of them introduced by famed British motorcycle designer Edward Turner, before he went to work for Triumph).

Over the model’s run, one of the biggest changes was the move from a hardtail construction (no rear suspension, just a sprung seat) to a dual-shock rear end. This is a move that works for everyone (except chopper/bobber enthusiasts) because it improves comfort and handling at the same time. While plunger-style rear suspension was offered as an option earlier in the Red Hunter’s history, the dual shocks became standard for the ’54 model, as seen here.

Lucky you, you get a rear suspension, unlike earlier Red Hunter owners. Note the external oil tank; this is a dry sump engine.

As this is a VH model, it was intended for street use, not racing. If it’s in factory trim, it has a cast iron cylinder and head, with two valves, although it’s possible the owner has upgraded it. The engine would be a dry-sump design, with vertically-split aluminum crankcase (get ready for oil leaks!). It should make about 26 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, and top out around 140 km/h, although few owners would be silly enough to do that these days. An emergency stop on those drum brakes and weedy tires would be most unpleasant, even with a reasonable 168 kg curb weight.

Chances are most owners would be buying this bike to display, anyway, with no thoughts of aggressively riding it. And hey, guess what? That probably describes many of the buyers of the new Ariel Ace Iron Horse as well. Sure, the new bikes will see a bit of use, but they’re really just an expensive, “look-at-me” play toy.

So don’t feel bad if you can’t afford one; you can save your money and buy this Red Hunter instead. If it’s in good running order (the ad doesn’t say), it’s going to be fun to ride as well, just in a different way. And with the $8,500 asking price, you’ve got roughly $40,000 to go buy the latest superbike if you really do have a need, a need for speed.

Or you could spend some money working on this bike to make it better; there’s always room for improvement on a vintage Brit bike, and the people at the Ariel Owners Motorcycle Club will be happy to help you out.

One thought on “Find of the Month: 1954 Ariel VH”

  1. Very nice Ariel…now you guys stop reporting on this cornball fad of zombie brands attempting to cash in
    with the kiddies. Only when someone re-introduces the Waxahatchy Super Slug will I get interested.

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