bg paid a visit to the local Atom factory to interview Ariel MD Simon Saunders on the new Ariel motorcycle, due late in 2012. We talked Atom, vehicle design, and gained a unique insight into development of the forthcoming bike. The converstion took place a few metres from one of the most inspiring production machines ever, the art object that is the Ariel HT5.
The Ariel Atom proclaims motorcycle DNA like no other car in production: the look, the feel, the spirit. Which isn’t surprising: the marque itself is redolent of two wheeled history, and the Atom design brief was one close to a biker’s heart: fun. Broadly speaking, that meant ditching everything that adds weight without increasing performance, like doors and a roof. Nearly all the staff at the Somerset based firm hold full bike licenses, and Atom buyers include a disproportionate number of motorcyclists. If you’re into bikes, and you see the Atom in the flesh for the first time, the first associated word that will enter your head may well be Monster. The external frame looks like a Ducati trellis on steroids. The proof of this minimalist pudding was there for all to taste as it demolished cars costing (and weighing) four times as much on the track.
The Atom may have been influenced by motorcycles, but the wheel has turned: right now, as an object lesson in streamlined functionality, it should be influencing motorcycle design. Because motorcycles – sportsbikes excepted – seem to be larding up again, especially the Japanese variety.
So recent confirmation that the Ariel team intended to return to marque roots and produce a bike was especially interesting – with the Atom ethos as a guideline and a bunch of bike nuts at the helm, we couldn’t wait to see what might roll out of the Somerset mists at some stage next year. Ariel are local to bg, and the project is well advanced, so I nipped over to talk the MD (and rights holder to the historic nameplate) Simon Saunders.
You can always tell when you are talking to someone still in love with the game, because they want to communicate their passion, even if it has been tempered by the competitive nature of the business. Simon is like that. His background is both practical and academic: he taught vehicle design and has worked for both car and bike manufacturers. Having acquired the rights to the Ariel name in 1999, he set about resuscitating the brand in reality. In the claustrophobic world of classic enthusiasts, it seems that any rights holder brave or foolish enough to go into production, gets short shrift from the purists – as if any deviation from from the historical template was heresy. But so what if modern vehicles are sourced from parts the world over? Memories are short and selective: in the heyday of Brit iron, materials were already coming from across the globe, and parts often outsourced. The bottom line is that the Atom is indisputably worthy of the Ariel name, courtesy of on road performance, the only true determinant. Surely the bike will follow the Atom’s minimalist and focussed approach?
An enthusiast’s Atom influenced take on the HT5…..
WE LOOKED AT 450s….
We looked at 450s. The problem was reliability. Only competition specific machines can get away with the luxury of frequent re-builds. The days of the tinkerer are sadly gone. The thing has to work, and keep working. “
Supposing you could get around reliability – a slight drop in redline, fresh cam timing – surely the 450 crosser approach closely accords with the Atom flyweight ethos?
” Sure – go fast, have fun, and save a bit of fuel. But there’s another problem, even if we could make the 450 tough as old boots. If we make a bike, then irrespective of engine size, it is probably going to cost more than an R1. And a 450 costing that kind of money….”
Point taken. But couldn’t you utilise the frame and swinger from the 450 – in the same way as the Moto 450 racers do – and produce a little gem of a street-bike that came in for a lot less than an R1?
” We could, but so could you. It just wouldn’t be an Ariel. It would be a Honda wearing Ariel clothes.”
Ariel have a commercial relationship with Honda: all Atoms – excepting the 3.0 ltr V8 twin Busa version, see below – are powered by the 2.0 ltr type R Civic engine in one form or another. So it’s reasonable to assume that this relationship will extend to the proposed motorcycle?
Simon confirmed that the new bike will be powered by a Honda motor – recent internet rumours notwithstanding. It will be naturally aspirated. It will be bigger than a 450. It will have ABS. It will have adjustable parameters along the lines of the KTM RC8 – adjustable bars, fully adjustable ride position etc. – but to a greater degree. Moreover, it will be modular, so that the purchaser can specify individual requirements beyond on board adjustments. The fact that shaft drive has not been ruled out accords with Simon’s pronouncement that it will not be a dedicated sportsbike.
WE LOOKED AT SPORTSBIKES….
” You can put an Atom up against a Ferrari or a Lamborghini and it will slay them dead on everything bar outright top speed. An Ariel sportsbike would not be able to deal with a Fireblade or an R1 in the same way. To attempt that would be financial suicide, even in a healthy market. You can’t get away from the fact that the Sportsbike market is in a very serious decline right now, possibly because people have realised that their levels of performance are largely academic in the real world. “
THE ARIEL APPROACH
” What we do at low volume is what big manufactures can not. Take doors. Doors are a pain to engineer: the only time you will notice a door on a car is if in some way it doesn’t do its job properly. But no big manufacturer would ever consider making a car without doors. Because of our size, we can take that kind of risk – with the Atom, we are not attempting to make a vehicle for everyman. The lack of doors is part of the reason the car works. ”
Equally, courtesy of low volume production, no two Atoms are the same. It’s a modular approach around a template. And the bike will follow suit. It will be a bespoke experience. So – for example – the frame will be available in different finishes. I think it safe to say that it will be a proper fast road bike, but if the customer wants to go more in the direction of comfort, say, we can accommodate that. The series of options is the bike’s unique selling point. But it will be more broadly focussed than the Atom. The original concept was a bike I could commute on, adjust at the weekend, and have some serious fun on. We wanted to incorporate that flexibility to some extent into the new Ariel.”
All of which sounds great, but it does raise a Jack of all trades spectre, albeit a very elegant Jack. It is clear from our conversation that to some degree expectations based on the Atom philosophy will have to be managed, because this bike will not be a two wheel analogue of the car. A two wheeled Atom would probably be an ultra minimalist street bike with something very like that sorted CR450 engine in the middle, weighing in at 115 kgs kerb – a B road giant killer, an urban weapon. We badly need to see some proper lightweights in the market place, if only to remind ourselves what we’re missing in these bulked up days. But that particular fight may be left to Ariel’s second foray into two wheeled production – the first having other fish to fry.
Process of elimination suggests that it will be based around an IL4: neither of the production V4s fit the job description – the 800 is getting on now and is produced in a fairly sedate state of tune, and the 1200, although a possibility, is a relative newcomer. Just as the emphasis is on engine reliability, Simon insists that everything on the bike must be available, affordable in Ariel terms, and above all, tried and tested. He points out that there is a real lack of knowledge regarding long term performance of some of the newer materials out there, and his customers are not test pilots.
” One of the interesting things about convention is that in design terms, convention works. That is why it’s conventional in the first place. Because of the type of vehicle we produce, one customer may be an ex-racer, and the next have neither the intention nor the ability to go on the track. Both have to be satisfied. Arguably this disparity is even more foregrounded with bikes. Conventional design attempts to satisfy all comers, and often does a decent job of it. “
But Ariel’s legacy bequeaths more than convention…
If I came away musing that this was a somewhat sobering encounter, maybe that reflected the current reality of commercial bike design. No one wants to spend top dollar on a bike that doesn’t work, and Ariel’s rigourous focus on proven principles is admirable. This could so easily have been a dreamer’s bike, the type which equally easily turns into a nightmare…
Instead, the very fact that it’s a Honda power plant is a statement of pragmatism, the power of dreams notwithstanding… The word was that the ubiquitous CBR600RR unit had been chosen, but Simon’s comments about value for money perception made me wonder if the unit from the CB1000R naked might not be on the horizon. If the bike ends up retailing at a postulated £15k, the thou – or possibly the new V4 1200, a long shot – would make more marketing sense. Its a little hard to imagine the kind of person who would spend that sort of money on a 600 road bike, no matter how brilliant the modularity and adjustability, no matter how good the result. The Atom is way down the exotica price list, but the new bike will be competing against the best that the Europeans and Japanese have to offer, by reason of its cost alone. Whereas the closely considered 450 roadster would have no competition, this bike will also be up against a plethora of IL4 based road bikes. On the other hand Ariel have the power and lure of the marque, and the Atom track record: an identical bike from a hitherto unknown manufacturer would surely have a desperate struggle on its hands given a similar project.
We all hope that the Atom’s reputation doesn’t turn out to be something of an albatross – hovering over the new unit at Ariel HQ dedicated to bike production: this is clearly a broad based machine, less focussed and more flexible than many had imagined. Whether that is a weakness or a strength will be for the punters to determine. But Ariel have a reputation for quality as well as adrenalin, and if they can get the mixture right, the Somerset boys will have another winner on their hands. Ariel have a freedom and flexibility that Triumph, and even Norton, do not: the former being shackled to volume constraints, and the latter to a historical construct. It should matter to all bike lovers that Ariel make this one count.