Beep, beep, beep, whooooooooooooshhhhhh! A noise like a rise-of-the-machines coup at the Dyson factory fills Ariel’s tiny workshop, as two fans located beneath the Atom’s carbon undertray scavenge air from the underfloor area, firing it up and out sideways into my chest like I’ve just walked in front of car in the middle of a dyno run.
‘It’s on hard springs at the minute,’ yells Ariel boss Simon Saunders over the racket. ‘Before it had a softer set-up and it produces around 200kg of downforce so when you switched the fans on you could actually see the car suddenly being sucked to the floor.’
It's only an iPhone video, but it'll give you a hint at the power beneath those side skirts
Saunders is serious about this experimental Atom Aero-P concept, inspired by the Chaparral and Brabham racers of the 1970s, but clearly has some bugs to sort out. The advantage over a traditional set of big wings is that you don’t just get the suck at high speed, but in slower, tighter corners too, were traditional aero is useless. But even if the din did pass noise restrictions, the fixed floor is so low that just getting the thing off a trailer at a track day would be tricky. Ariel is investigating some way of raising the floor to get round this, and a filtration system to protect both the fan, and anyone standing near the exit vent.
Other innovations on this test bed include a chassis 40 percent lighter than standard because it’s made from titanium, which Saunders describes as a ‘horrible material to work with’ and a brilliantly clever wiring system that works like those broadband extenders in your house that use the existing electrical wiring rather than requiring a separate snake of the stuff. Obviously there’s not much in the way of convenience equipment in an Atom, but transpose the technology to a luxury saloon, replacing miles of wring with one single cable, and you could save kilos.
At a glance though, it looks pretty much like any of the other Atoms currently being assembled or serviced in Ariel’s unassuming industrial unit on the outskirts of Crewkerne in England’s leafy south west. Or in fact like any of the Atoms since the very first concept was produced a scarcely believable 20 years ago when Saunders was heading a Coventry University automotive design course.
That concept was powered by a puny 75bhp 1.25-litre engine from a Ford Fiesta. These days the top-spec supercharged Honda-powered Atom makes over 350 and is as quick as the limited-run V8 Atoms it built a few years ago. Both a V8 and that very first Atom are on display in Ariel’s waiting room, along with various two- and four-wheeled reminders of the original Ariel company, which pioneered the modern chain-driven bicycle and was big on the motorbike scene before disappearing into obscurity in the mid ‘50s.
There’s no danger of the current Ariel fading away. The 26-strong company ticks along nicely, producing around 120 vehicles: mostly cars (split between the Atom and its massively popular Nomad off-road alter-ego) and a handful of its striking motorbikes (‘a fascinating project, but we probably wouldn’t rush to do it again’), for which customers wait a year to take delivery.
Priority number one is getting the Atom type-approved. ‘Selling in Europe is becoming harder,’ says Saunders. ‘We can’t sell in France at the minute, for instance.’ Is the looming spectre of even more complicated legislation a worry?
‘If they brought in a mandatory airbag or ABS we’d all be finished,’ he confirms, the ‘we’ a reference to other low-volume car builders, companies like Morgan, Caterham, Ginetta ,Westfield and component suppliers with whom Ariel collaborates behind the scenes. It’s a ‘we’re bigger together’ kind of thing.
Big is not a word you’d use to describe the Ariel factory. ‘Factory’ is not a word you’d use to describe the Ariel factory. The main assembly area has six build spaces plus two or three for bikes. There’s no production line, or even a hydraulic lift like you’d find in any half-decent backstreet garage. One man works on each car from beginning to end, which might horrify a Toyota time and motion man, but it means there’s never any confusion about what has or hasn’t been done in the build process.
The car’s skeletal frames are such a core part of the aesthetic appeal that it’s no surprise to see them picked out in all manner of colours, from muted green-browns on a mud-bound Nomad, to stealthy black, and even searing orange. The day we drop in the bays are mostly full of Nomads, whose success has wildly exceeded Ariel’s expectations, but Saunders says that’s just coincidence – Atom and Nomad are equally popular.
And endlessly customisable. From road to mud tyres, naked cockpits to screens and windows (of sorts), you can build an Ariel exactly how you want it. There’s even a dual-drive option, where the frame is fitted with steering column brackets on both sides, allowing you to switch from left- to right-hand drive if you move countries.
Ariel is pondering a move too, to bigger premises capable of handling a planned production leap, after which Saunders reckons he’ll step down (sons Henry and Tom, the brains behind Ariel’s day to day operations, roll their eyes at this point). The dream is to double, and possibly even treble capacity, to around 250-300 cars, which Saunders plans to do by introducing at least one new still-secret four-wheeled model line within the next two years.
A new Ariel? Can the tube-frame concept stretch again beyond Atom and Nomad? Or are we talking something completely different? I could have administered a course of leaches or driven the fan car over him and switched on the suckers and I still wouldn’t have been able to draw out what that car will be, Saunders simply talking about how fun it would be to make a limo. Hmm, yeah. Probably best not to read too much into that.
But Ariel has a history of surprising us. When they announced it was making a bike everyone assumed it would be a hardcore racer, an Atom on two wheels. It turned out to be a ballsy naked. So what would your next Ariel be?
Photography by John Wycherley