The Extremely Minimalist Ariel Atom Came From Motorcycles

Sometimes, automotive technology—up to and including whole engines—ends up in motorcycles. And it’s not unheard-of for car companies to make bikes. Both Triumph and BMW are examples of that. But it’s rare for a motorcycle company to be resurrected as an automaker. And yet, that’s what happened to Ariel, the brand which makes the hyper-minimalist Atom.

Ariel: from motorcycles to the Atom

Originally, Ariel, like Triumph, got its start making bicycles in the late 19th century, Classic British Motorcycles reports. But by the early 1900s, the brand had transitioned to making motorized vehicles, starting with a trike.

Red-tanked 1951 Ariel Square Four in front of a garage door
1951 Ariel Square Four | Bring a Trailer

In motorcycling’s early days, single-cylinders were the norm; two-cylinders were usually put in high-performance machines like the Brough-Superior SS100. But in 1930, Ariel came out with perhaps its most famous bike, the Ariel Square Four, Silodrome. Like Henderson’s bikes in the US, the Square Four had a four-cylinder engine, but in a ‘square’ rather than ‘inline’ formation.

The Ariel Square Four was less about outright performance and more about comfortable touring. The engine, which grew from 498cc to 995cc over the years, was designed by Edward Turner, who also designed the JAP V-twins used by Brough-Superior. Turner would later go on to revolutionize Triumph’s motorcycles. Though not before using lessons learned by the Square Four to help design the single-cylinder Ariel Red Hunter, Silodrome reports.

After WWII, Ariel was sold to another British bike company, BSA, Carole Nash reports. The brand shifted focus from 4-stroke bikes to 2-strokes. And it was so confident in the new 2-stroke models, the Square Four and Red Hunter were discontinued. However, the new models couldn’t compete with Japan’s bikes. And as a result, the brand was shuttered in 1967.

Then, in the early 90s, a designer named Simon Saunders started a company to make light-weight track cars. Initially, Saunders’ company was called Solocrest. But in 1999, it changed its name to Ariel Motors. And just a year later, its first ‘car’ was released: the Ariel Atom.

The Ariel Atom

Caterham Seven 360
Caterham Seven 360 | Hillbank Motor Corporation

Compared to the Ariel Atom, the Caterham Seven is practically a luxury car. At least with the Caterham, you get a windshield, a removable roof, and body panels. It’s only in the US that the Atom gets even a windshield.

Red Ariel Atom 4 being driven by a helmeted driver down a country road
Ariel Atom 4 | Ariel

Instead, the Ariel Atom is basically the closest thing to a 4-wheeled motorcycle, Car and Driver explains. Instead of bodywork, it has a tubular steel spaceframe. Inside are 2 seats, a digital display, some switches, and the pedals. And right behind the passenger space, with its air intake sticking prominently into the air, is the engine.

Shot of the Ariel Atom 4's Honda Civic Type R engine's red cover
Ariel Atom 4 engine | Ariel

Initially, the Ariel Atom used a 118-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder. But the latest 4th-generation model uses the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder as the current Honda Civic Type R. Only in the Ariel Atom 4, it’s tuned to 320 hp and 310 lb-ft. The only transmission is a 6-speed manual. And because the Atom weighs about 1310 pounds, Top Gear reports, it can do 0-60 in 2.8 seconds.

Driving it

Although the Ariel Atom doesn’t offer many creature comforts, the rest of its features list is appreciable for track-goers. It comes standard with AP Racing brake calipers, slotted disc rotors, Bilstein adjustable dampers, and Eibach springs. Extra options include Ohlins suspension, 6-point racing harnesses, a limited-slip differential, adjustable traction control, and a fire-suppression system.

The lack of body panels means you can place the wheels exactly where you want them. The Honda shifter and clutch are excellent. And the suspension, though firm, keeps the Atom flat during braking, cornering, and acceleration. Plus, the steering is extremely precise, Top Gear reports. Then there’s the sensory-overload that comes with having no body panels or roof.

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Sunday mornings. ☀️ #911gt3 #arielatom3s

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However, the Ariel Atom is actually street-legal. It has lights and seat belts, and it can be fitted with a catalytic converter to pass emissions. US models, in addition to the windshield, even offer an optional back-up camera. Though it’s clearly not a great road car, it’s compliant enough to handle the odd bumpy public street.

Getting one of your own

Sierra RX3 kartcross kart
Sierra RX3 kartcross kart | Sierra Cars via Instagram

The Ariel Atom 4 starts at $74,750. Previous-generation models are occasionally listed on Bring a Trailer, typically for $40,000-$50,000. That is quite a lot of money for a car like the Atom. Admittedly, there are motorcycles that cost significantly more. Plus, there are kartcross racers that are even cheaper. They’re not street-legal, but they’re arguably just as fun.

However, Ariel also has you covered there, too. For $80k, you can get a Nomad Sport. If the Atom is a 4-wheeled motorcycle, the Nomad is a 4-wheeled dual-sport, Road & Track reports. For roughly $92k, you can upgrade to the Nomad Tactical, which comes with upgraded brakes and suspension, a winch, a lightbar, and more hardcore off-road tires.

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Joe’s stunning Ariel is no square.

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An Ariel Square Four, though, is cheaper than either of Ariel’s cars. One sold in 2019 on BaT for $23,000. However, Hagerty reports the bike’s values have actually dropped in recent years. It’s possible to find late-model ones in decent shape for closer to $17,000. And despite its age, Motorcycle Classics reports the Square Four’s smooth engine lets it keep up with modern traffic.

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