Maybe it was the rarity value: this is the only current road going Ace on the planet, although the order book is filling up nicely. Maybe it was the visual impact – lone low rider saddle with space behind, atop a naked V4, circumscribed by a billet trellis. Maybe it was a combination of factors – just don’t buy one of these if you value lone wolf anonymity. Aces are always going to be scarce, and the looks will always attract – like a mountain of crystal meth dumped outside a warehouse party in Dalston, it reels ’em in….
By now most of you will be aware of the concept: Honda V4 1200 c/w running gear (single sided swinger and shaft), and allowed to breathe at both ends. Girder forks, billet again with an Ohlins TTX shock to the fore and remote reservoir job aft, valved to Ariel’s spec. Bespoke finish available from the factory, offering further modularity: USDs, tunable geometry, adjustable seat choice and height, bar and exhaust options – effectively meaning your Ace could be a hopped up cruiser with handling, or a sporty naked, or anything in between. (Bg can also exclusively reveal that various types of fairing are being developed, from a cockpit screen via a bikini to something more substantial: in other words a touring Ace will also appear.) All of which is facilitated by using Honda’s rider assist package as required: TC, ABS and DCT switchable auto are on the menu (full spec here ). And then there’s that peri frame….. .
The bike I rode – prototype no 1 – was the bobber / lowrider / mad max version with girders, but featured a pre-production fuel tank and straight manual gearbox. This was not the finished article, and the few shortcomings exposed were down to elements which are still being developed. Proper development is what this machine is all about: this isn’t some half arsed legacy marketing strategy. This is for real, and by comparison with the efforts of one or two other Brit revival marques which have popped up in recent times, development is evidenced where you most need it. On the road.
So how does it go?
Although the Honda lump isn’t tuned up, it is marginally de-restricted by a full system and revised intake. Nevertheless, Ariel only claim a couple of bhp over standard: all Honda V4s are notoriously difficult to liberate for big gains. But here’s the thing: this bike doesn’t really need more – in current guise it is a naked, and 170 odd bhp (crank) is more than enough, suggesting that hitherto the 76 degree unicam V4 may have been somewhat underestimated – it feels like the beast lurking within has been unleashed. The fact that the Ace seems faster than a VFR 1200 is not solely down to the current lack of a fairing: the former weighs in at 35 kilos less than its donor. There is torque aplenty on tap from low down, and outside a GP paddock you will not hear anything which approaches the sound this thing makes when asked to deliver – believe. To the point where anyone doing long distances may require a bit of noise suppression – loud zorsts exhaust after a while, and the Ace really rocks on the gas. Delivery is ride by wire – but without the kind of fuelling nonsense which has bedeviled a number of RbW incarnations. True, there is a slight non linear surge when the throttle is opened from very low revs, a little reminiscent of early K series GSXRs, but nothing to worry about; and like the Gixxer the Ace’s fuelling is otherwise faultless. TC will help reassure anyone getting on the power in poor conditions. In short, the motor gets a big thumbs up.
Which would count for precious little if the bike didn’t handle: there is no point in having a bunch of torque available for handy overtakes if the machine itself isn’t a nippy and precise accomplice. Handling was excellent: the Ace is as adept at low speed urban roundabouts as it is on fast sweepers. Fulled at the kerb, and depending on exact spec, we’re talking some 230 kilos, largely courtesy of the 1200 lump and accompanying shaft drive. Crucially, the Ace retains a C of G and engine position (relative to wheelbase and height) very close to the original VFR spec. Which helps to explain just why the bike is so manoeuverable: in this respect, it feels like the Honda it so little resembles. By today’s standards, sadly, 230 kgs at the kerb is unremarkable; and although precise, the Ace naturally lacks the sharpness of a contemporary sportsbike. What is remarkable is how clinically this cruiser incarnation performed: a more sporty set up being available to order. Which can be mated with Ohlins Road and Track USDs, although personally I’d be tempted to combine the sharper geometry with the girder front.
One Bg reader got in touch after reading our Ace preview, commenting that he doubted claims that the girder front end was actually lighter than the USD set up. In fact, there is precious little in it. Not only does the girder front compliment the frame, it works well in practice, feeling like a cross between duolever and conventional. It controls force distribution generated by the excellent stopping power of the Nissin six piston calipers – duolever type torsional rigidity keeps things stable – while retaining some of the feel of USDs under braking. The front Ohlins TTX does the job of internal fork springs, and the rider can feel the compression generated (and see the top of the girders responding to the road surface). It may not be an original idea, but it is a very useful addition to the front end armoury currently available to bikers. It really is about time more riders recognised that the benefits of adaptation to Hossack or hub – such as the ability to brake late and hard with incredible stability – may well outweigh the conventional alternative.
The last person to ride this bike prior to your correspondent was Tommy Hill, and the suspension felt as though it were set up for Monza rather than Mosterton. I had no trouble softening the front – three clicks less rebound and two less compression – but was never able to get the rear shock to match: on poor surfaces I could literally feel the gnashers banging together in al fresco dentistry style, and despite trying a variety of settings, including preload, the problem seemed intractable. It turned out that the spring rate was more suited to freight, and replacements are already on order.
The other thing which needs more work is only applicable to non DCT aces: I couldn’t work out whether on the test bike the gearbox itself, the lever and linkage or the minimalist gear change rubber was the problem, but things were distinctly notchy, uncomfortable and partially compliant: up or down, clutchless or conventional, shifting was never seamless. Since both the Crosstourer and VFR 1200 use the same box without issues, we’re looking at lever design and adjustment. Simon Saunders, Ariel’s MD, confirmed that minute iterations in this department had a seemingly disproportionate practical effect: in fact the whole project had reinforced the impact tiny degrees of adjustment can make (in practically every area of design) to the ride experience. No car – including Ariel’s Atom – comes anywhere near matching that degree of sensitivity, a lesson anyone involved in engineering or modding (from factory to shed) learns rapidly. Unlike a number of low volume British automotive manufacturers (bikes included), Ariel place a massive premium on thorough development. The cost in time is offset by the number of happy customers: it is again worth stressing that this bike was prototype no.1. The manual gear change problem will be sorted. And potential buyers shouldn’t dismiss the Ace’s DCT option, especially those likely to be doing a fair bit of (sub)urban riding.
There was also an ergonomic gremlin which will only bedevil certain riders, particularly those from a sports orientated background who use their own body weight to lever into bends and fancy a spot of hanging off. On the ace, your ‘outer’ knee wont find a snug recessed tank to facilitate cornering. It will find a section of angled billet….. think trellis and if you ride, the word Ducati comes to mind – but compare the position of tank / airbox and frame on a classic Monster to the Ariel and you’ll see exactly what the problem is. That kind of intimacy, the magical man machine interface so central to fast riding, was not quite as evident on this Ace as some might like: the sports set up may address this. But it turned out this specific problem was part way to being solved: a specially designed pad will soon be available to ensconce knees. Since it has to be attached to the keynote frame, it will doubtless look integral rather than lashed up….
In short, the Ace is a powerful naked based machine which handles with poise and stability, and hosts compelling aesthetics, more muscle bike than cruiser. Some will find the combination of the Honda running gear and motor with the exquisite billet work a visual contradiction. For others, that visual dynamic will be at the heart of the bike’s unique appeal. Everyone will have their own take: for me those unmissable rad shrouds were that bit too substantial, but perhaps that stems more from my own own belief that in an ideal world, naked bikes should be air cooled. They are lighter, for a start. But that pre-conception misses the point.
the judge calls it
The Ace was never going to be a two wheeled Atom. A two wheeled Atom would be a supercharged 400 weighing 140 kilos at the kerb. Economy of scale rules: if production numbers are limited, punters will always be asked to lay down a relatively large sum (in comparison with buying a new machine from the local multi franchise). Ariel need to recoup on all that development and high quality componentry – but how much could you sanely charge for any 400? Or 600, for that matter… Thus the Ace had a different design premise and start point to the Atom. It is stripped down, but far from minimal. Saunders astutely recognises that these days, his customers don’t have the time or inclination to do their own maintenance. They really don’t need to be down oiling chains, strange as that concept may seem to many traditional bikers. For twenty large they want unquestionable reliability, no iffs or buts. Hence the wholesale use of Honda componentry. And once you go shaftie, you aren’t going to get petit. Saunders knows that spiritually, a supercharged lightweight would be spot on. But it made no practical sense as the first motorcycle from Ariel since Noah did his own build. The Ace may be no true lightweight, but it lights the blue touch paper in style, while keeping owners’ hands clean – without their needing recovery on speed dial.
Compare the price of the Ace with the offerings from the resurrected Hesketh, Norton and Brough marques – and then look at the respective engineering and the performance parameters. You could spend the Ace’s asking price on a caff racer powered by a thirty year old airhead boxer, all dressed up in the latest fashions: seen in those terms, the Ariel suddenly seems pretty decent value.
Strangely enough, the thing that might ultimately sell me one would not be the Atom or Ace per se. The company ethos would seal the deal, and that stems from Saunders. Ariel won’t predicate a sale on the most expensive model. They find out what suits a customer, based on user experience and intended application. They want to keep punters entertained but free from hospital food, as do most manufacturers, but the way Ariel put this altruism into practice is unique. They will happily upgrade a vehicle based on costs at the time of purchase, rather than send someone off on (or in) something more expensive which might overwhelm them, with potentially lethal consequences. This may be very shrewd double think marketing, but the fact that the company actually operates on this basis marks them out as a bit special. We can argue about the looks, but the Ace is the real deal – the most accomplished and exciting Brit contender since the Street Triple. Which is no mean achievement.