Monday, May 23, 2011

Ariel Warfare

When I interviewed Homer Knapp last winter, he mentioned a friend of his, Chuck Walton. Chuck, who is 81, is still the go-to guy when it comes to Ariel Square Fours here in the 'States. Homer casually told me that back when Chuck flew cargo planes for the U.S. Air Force, he frequently brought Square Fours back from the U.K. on military flights.

At that point in our chat, what I was thinking was, "Are you serious?!? If he'd been caught he'd've been court-martialed!" But I didn't blurt that out because I didn't want Homer to clam up, or call his friend and warn him that he'd been outed.

So instead I casually asked, "How many did he bring over?"

"Oh, hundreds." said Homer. Again, I played it cool, because I wanted to call and catch his friend unawares. I loved the idea of an avid motorcyclist bootlegging motorcycles in military aircraft; it was right out of Catch-22. I made a point of looking Chuck up; he was easy to reach through the Ariel Motorcycle Club of North America, where they've known him since the 1960s.

He grew up on a farm in Illinois, so being handy with equipment came with the territory. He was too young to serve in WWII, but his older brother was selected for pilot training. After the war, his brother (stationed at March Field in Riverside) invited Chuck out to California.

"That was it," he told me. "Mom and Dad lost the boys off the farm."
How ya' gonna' keep 'em on the farm when they've moved to California and taken up motorsickles?
Chuck got a job working for an oil company, and joined the Air National Guard because they promised to train him as an aircraft mechanic. So on weekends, he trained and worked on P-51s, which is pretty much starting at the top of the heap as far as being a mechanic goes. When the Korean War broke out, they needed him full-time; from then until he retired, he worked as a technician, then flight engineer on Boeing C97 Stratofreighters and Lockheed C-130s.

"The first time I ever heard a Square Four was in 1949. I was on the bus in L.A.," he told me, "and a guy rode past on a motorcycle that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. It sounded like an Offenhauser-engined sprint car. I saw the bike turn a corner a couple of blocks ahead, and I jumped off the bus. That was when I found Johnson Motors; they were the Ariel distributor on the west coast."

He finally bought a new Mk II - a four-piper - in '57. Before he'd put 3,000 miles on it, he realized it was going to take a bit of work to make it reliable. The alloy castings were crap; studs pulled out, valve seats and guides came loose, they had oiling problems, and cooling was marginal at best in that warm climate. Incidentally, he still owns his Mk II, along with one of each Ariel model.
Yes, that is an Ariel Square-4 with a sidecar carrying... an Ariel Square-4. Or should I say, 'Spare-4'?
Not long afterwards Ariel ceased production of the fours. The bikes had never been too common in the U.S., and parts got scarce - especially for guys like Chuck, who looked at every traffic light as an opportunity for a drag race. In the early '60s, a couple of Southern California guys started the Ariel club, and Chuck showed up for the second meeting.

"At first, they told me I would have to start out as an 'associate member'," he recalled. "But as soon as they realized I was flying to England every few weeks, they made me a full member."

As we talked, he got around to telling me that from 1960 to 1990, he made hundreds of flights back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K.

"Oh," I asked coyly, "did you bring any of your bikes back from England?"

"Some of 'em, yeah."

When I pressed him for details, he got a little cagey, claiming "I only brought parts. The customs guys gave you a lot of grief if they saw an entire motorcycle; you had to have the log book and there was a ton of paperwork."

Chuck claims it was all above board; everything was scrupulously listed on the manifest as 'motorcycle parts.' Of course, if you can rebuild a P-51, you can break down an Ariel Square Four and reassemble it in your sleep. Not that he was sleeping much. "I'd be awake for three days straight, running around buying stuff," he recalled. "In the '60s, in England, nobody wanted Ariel stuff. I'd see an ad, and go to find bikes rusting under the eaves."

By the 1980s, it was getting harder to bring disassembled motorcycles back in military cargo planes. This would be a better story if Homer's guess that his friend brought 'hundreds' of bikes back was true, but I'm sure that he didn't bring nearly that many. Still, by Chuck's own count he's rebuilt nearly a hundred Square Fours for club members, and it's safe to say that many of them are running thanks to parts airlifted in, courtesy of the unwitting United States Air Force.

Then, Chuck dropped an intriguing bombshell of his own. You see, while customs officials inspected returning cargo flights, they lacked the security clearance needed to inspect the bomb bays of the Strategic Air Command's B-52 nuclear bombers.

"It got to be more trouble than it was worth for me to bring stuff in," Chuck told me. "But the SAC guys used to tie stuff up in their bomb bays."

At the thought, I imagined war breaking out and a routine SAC flight being diverted to bomb Moscow. I pictured the Russkies being pelted with motorcycles.

"Vott iss ziss?" Ivan would wonder. "Iss itt aerial vorrfare, or Ariel vorrfare?"

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