Simon Saunders is the man behind the bike-beating Ariel Atom, and is now trying to resurrect the Ariel motorcycle name...
So How did you become the owner of one of the oldest British brands in the motor industry?
I started the new Ariel in 1999. It was the archetypal British motoring company, and there was too much heritage to lose if the name disappeared forever. I just couldn’t let it happen. Their phrase used to be ‘Leaders by Design’, and being a designer myself I had to try and resurrect the brand.
Tell us something we don’t know about Ariel
The original founder of the company James Starling patented the spoked wheel in this country, and sold the first ever geared British vehicle. There was also an Ariel in the first ever race at Brooklands in Surrey on July 6th 1907. Which were pretty fundamental stages of progression in the technology used to transport people around!
Indeed. and When did Ariel start fiddling with the concept of the motorcycle?
During the First World War Ariel started producing their first bikes, and almost immediately stopped manufacturing the cars to focus on their bikes. The inventive reputation that Ariel had gained remained, and they produced the square-four bike engine in the 30’s, four cylinders with two crankshafts. They were very much part of a fantastic age in automotive history when people were experimenting all the time.
So why did the brand disappear? If Ariel were so great, where did it all go wrong?
During the 1950’s they were turning out bikes like there was no tomorrow and making huge profits. Unfortunately no one thought it might be prudent to reinvest, and then the 1960’s rolled around and all the doom and gloom that meant for the British bike industry. In 1967 the company merged and became part of BSA and eventually Norton Triumph, then finally the lights went out. I find it tragic that we gave away our motoring heritage without a fight in that period, and I’d like to think the new Ariel will produce a motorcycle at some point.
Oh really? What is it that’s holding you back from making the bike right now, then...
Well figuring out exactly what style that bike should be is the most difficult question. Once we can figure that out, we can work backwards towards production. As a low volume producer, we should be producing what the big boys don’t. If you compare the bike industry to the car industry, both Marcos and TVR have gone bust in the last 18 months because they tried to compete with mass manufacturers. Times have moved on and people’s expectations from a sports vehicle are much higher than they were only a decade ago. In terms of bikes, people want to jump on their bike, thumb the starter and go without any question of reliability. When I am 100% confident we can offer that, then you will see Ariel motorcycles on the road.
The plot thickens. and would this new bike of yours use all British parts, or foreign?
Using the Atom as an analogy it would be easy to use a Honda engine, a trellis frame, add a set of fancy forks and some Brembo brakes and Bob’s your uncle. A new motorcycle, job done. We could do that in around two weeks time, but that’s not very imaginative, is it? The question people would ask me would be “wow, a Fireblade engine in a bike that costs £16k, how is this bike twice a good as a Fireblade when it costs twice as much?” And I wouldn’t be able to answer that. So it would be a complete new bike from the ground-up.
And what is your image of the perfect new Ariel Motorcycle? When it comes out, of course...
My ideal bike would be something I could use for everything rather than having one bike for each thing I want to do. I want cruiser comfort, sportsbike speed, touring practicalities and passionate aesthetics. It’s got to be useful, riding around on a race-rep with a Sainsbury’s bag with a couple of pints of milk swinging on the bars isn’t exactly ideal. I can’t see a valid reason to stop me from going as fast as I want to go, and carry a briefcase at the same time, and do it stylishly. Someone the other day said that I should get a scooter. But the last thing I want is a fucking scooter!
And when is it coming out? We want one.
Oh, there’s no time schedule at the moment. We’ve been talking to a couple of people about engines, and while it would be brilliant to come out with a new Ariel square-four I don’t even know if that configuration would be any good these days.
Which manufacturer do you admire the most in the motorcycle industry?
KTM, definitely. They are being very inventive. I also like the push that BMW are making at the moment. Crossover bikes are doing very well at the minute, the only bad thing for BMW that I can see is their image is still slightly dated.
Your Ariel Atom has been a huge hit. Were you surprised at how well-received it’s been? Well we really listened to people and journalists, and tried to make what they wanted. When people buy an Atom, it’s a bespoke service. They come and see their car being built, and we build it for how they’re going to use it. Trackdays only, sir? You need big brakes, that kind of thing. It’s a principle we’d certainly apply when and if we build a bike. But you have to come into this business with a worse-case scenario in your head. No end of people try to produce a mid-engined, 200mph supercar like a Ferrari, but unless you’ve got Ferrari’s clout you’re always going to come off second-best.
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