Lock, Stock and Four Smoking Barrels

      

Story: Shahwar Hussain

Photo: Ramesh Pathania

 
 

Distance, they say, lends enchantment to a view, and this holds true for almost all aspects of life, including automobiles. No car or motorcycle is so devoid of character that time and distance cannot make it desirable.

History is filled with examples of exotic looking and revolutionary machines that had miserably failed to take off for a variety of reasons. But now, these very machines are highly collectable. Very few of these machines survive today, for the simple reason that precious little was made before production ceased.

The other day, I sampled one such motorcycle, a 1000cc 1947 Ariel Square Four Mark I. Ariel had a history of coming up with some outlandish models of motorcycles and scooters, many of which are collector’s items now. In 1930, the legendary designer Edward Turner worked on a

new four-cylinder motorcycle and a year later, the all-new Square Four made its appearance. Over the years, the Square Four set many records like covering 700 miles in 700 minutes, blasting 100 mph consistently during competitions and many more.

 

The Square Four was initially manufactured with a 500cc engine, which was later upgraded to 600cc and eventually 1000cc, and it is the 1000cc model that is the most sought after.

This particular 1000cc Square Four that I rode was in an absolute mint condition, although this 1947 model was the one that failed so miserably when it was launched.

Old motorcycles invariably seem to come in a dilapidated condition, and then roar out of the restorer’s garage in a flash of shiny chrome and gleaming bright paint. But dilapidated is an understatement here.

Other than the frame, the bike arrived in a sack...literally, minus a whole lot of parts, of course. The Square Four had one inherent problem that could never be rectified satisfactorily - overheating.

 

The collectors today live with that problem. The rear cylinders would invariably overheat and seize because of inadequate cooling. All the four cylinders are housed in one single block and have one common head.

The cylinder block is, like the name suggests, square and this means that the front two cylinders get all the air and precious little is left for the rear cylinders. To overcome this persistent overheating problem, Ariel carried out some modifications in the later models. The front part of the cylinder block had smaller cooling fins, while the rear had slightly extended fins and this helped cooling to a large extent.

The bike underwent a ground-up restoration and it took an unusually long time for it to hit the road. When a bike arrives in card boxes, parts are invariably misplaced, and the case was no different here.

 

Ariel Square Fours were never as common in India as, say, certain BSA and Norton models and this made getting hold of certain spares next to impossible. The engine was practically shot and needed everything new. There are precious little spares available in India and importing them from England and the US is frightfully expensive and sometimes it takes ages to reach you. But then, there is no other choice.

The four-speed gearbox, with the classic one-up-rest-down shift pattern, was in a much healthier condition and needed just the regulation bush change ritual. And it still works like new...well almost. Electricals for these classic and vintage bikes are sometimes a major cause of grey hair. Without reliable electricals, all the good work of the restorer would go kaput. When the magneto and the dynamo plays truant, one is left wishing for an alternator.

The 6 volts Lucas magneto and dynamo had to be imported from Germany and now, the magneto fires the engine halfway through the kick.

 

Almost all the British bikes of that period were fitted with Amal carburetors with the exception of the Square Four.

This was one bike which was fitted with an SU carb. The original carb had disintegrated and out of desperation, a Mikuni carb, from a Royal Enfield Bullet 500, fitted with the biggest jets around, was assigned to do duty initially. It failed miserably. The idling was ok, but open the throttle even by just that much, and the bike would miss badly due to severe fuel starvation.

So a Mikuni was a no-go and since an SU was nowhere to be seen, the Square Four had to make do with the next best thing instead, and that was a Solex carb. As of now, the Solex is doing sterling duty. There are some highly talented craftsmen who can machine you quite a few important parts, although some parts take a few tries to get perfect. One such craftsman made the valves, with the exhaust ones being made from anti-magnetic metal.

 

The craftsman also made the timing chain tensioner, the engine sprockets, the engine shock absorber on the drive shaft and part of the clutch cover. The petrol tank and the twin fishtail exhaust pipes have such a high degree of finish that it was practically impossible to say that these had been locally fabricated. And the shiny chrome plating job adds to the effect. Also fabricated were the gear lever, kick lever and the foot rests.

Ariel adopted the telescopic front suspension some four years after Matchless did so in its 1942 G3L. This Mark I had a telescopic front suspension and was the first Ariel Square Four motorcycle to do so.

The rear suspension had plungers that had pivoted links incorporated in them so that the wheel spindle moved through an arc. The particular model was discontinued pretty fast and was replaced by the one that had bigger fins and alloy heads.

 

These were much more reliable and helped push the Square Four towards its pinnacle. The Mark II which appeared in 1954 was the ultimate Square Four. It had two separate exhaust pipes on either side, which emerged from polished and finned manifolds, generated 45 bhp and weighed much less than its predecessor. And I am sure it went like a bullet, but I could never get my hands on one. But I did get my hands on the Mark I.

Auto journalists are not paid the earth you see, but I am not complaining. I get paid to ride and drive somebody else’s pride and joy.

The Mk I has no starting rituals as such, and a simple and moderately strong kick brings it to life. The note from the twin fish tail exhaust pipes would warm the heart of anyone who has even the slightest inclination towards motorcycles.

Like I said before, the gear box is in mint condition and I could shift through the gears quite comfortably. The first gear does engage with a little bit of a jerk, but after that it’s smooth going all the way to the fourth gear.

The idling was perfect and whenever I opened up, there was no hint of fuel starvation, only an overwhelming feeling of adrenaline rush.

The engine develops 34.5 bhp and it makes its presence known in rather dramatic fashion.

Starting from a standstill, I accelerated a little more than one normally should and the rear wheel spun in full earnest. Controlling the slide with the body weight was great fun and as soon as it had enough bite, the bike just shot away. The saddle seat puts you pretty much where it wants you to, but it is comfortable too and the handlebar is very much within reach.

I rode over some pretty rough stretches and the front suspension, with their new springs and bushes, worked admirably.

 

But the same can’t be said about the plungers, although I guess that was to be expected. There is a very pronounced backslap... an inseparable part of vintage biking.

I cut down gradually on the speed and when I looked down on the speedo, which is mounted on a shiny patch of chrome panel, along with the oil pressure meter on the tank, I was very surprised to see the needle hover around the 15 mph mark. I was on top gear and when I yanked open the throttle after that, it took off without any pinging. “Ten to a hundred in top gear”, was their slogan and it has held true even after all these years (of course I didn’t try to get anywhere near hundred).

For a bike that goes so fast, it definitely needs better brakes. They had very little feel and the rear brake lever offered little feedback. Delhi roads are filled with maniacs and when one of them came tearing down towards me, I was left wishing for a disc brake.

 

I don’t think I would have been tired of riding the Mk I, but the bike would definitely not have liked it. The engine had not been run-in properly and I had no intention of finding myself stranded with a seized engine.

This model was a failure due to overheating even in cold and murky England. Just imagine what would happen in the sizzler of a weather in Delhi. Too many kilometers at a stretch and it’s a blown engine. It is such a beautiful bike, but it can’t be ridden too long at a stretch. Pity.

If you find one, grab it with both your hands and legs. It definitely will take a while and quite a lot of money to get it up and running, but at the end of it, you will have a gem.

And if you want to let a friend own it, you will end up smiling (not laughing, it would not sell for that much) all the way to the bank. “Ten to a hundred...” yes, you just might buy it for ten and

sell it (if you have the heart for that) for many hundreds. The slogan holds good that way too. The Ariel Square Four Mk I is owned by car and bike collector Ranjit Malik and has been restored by Gurmukh Singh.