It’s the new Ariel ace. but Is it any good?
Witha new British bike waiting in the wings, we flew down to Somer set to see i fit was just the cider talking or whether the Ariel Ace was exactly a sits name suggests…
We’re always a teeny weenie bit sceptical when a new motorcycle manufacturer comes along proclaiming an old marque’s resurrection. True, a few of them have worked, but most of them end up sinking without a trace, becoming that name you can never quite remember in a pub quiz.
Designing a new bike is the easy bit, building one is an entirely different prospect. Sourcing supplies from a wide array of contractors and marrying them in one homogenous lump of beauty is one hell of a task, so we’re not surprised to see so many fall at the first hurdle.
But if you’ve been doing all this, but with a vehicle that has an extra pair of wheels, you know the game. You know what mammoth efforts are needed to transform clay models and CAD drawings into something life-sized and ultimately saleable – and Ariel is one such firm.
Now famed for its Atom roller-skate of a sportscar, Ariel started out life as first a Birmingham-based bicycle manufacturer nearly 150 years ago, before moving into motorcycle production (and the odd car) just before the turn of the last century – building the famous Square Four along the way. Of course, along with the rest of the British biking scene, Ariel was decimated by the Japanese and by 1967 motorcycle production had ceased. The name was resurrected by Simon Saunders around the turn of the millennium and pinned to the new Atom – which has been produced now for over a dozen years. So that means this is a company that knows how to build a vehicle, a pretty fruity one too.
“We’ve always wanted to develop a bike,” says Tom Siebert, Ariel’s General Manager, “and Dad, who designed the car, is a lifelong biker and he always wanted to design a bike. He actually designed bikes years ago, the Van Veen, which was a Dutch rotary bike. It was one of the reasons when we were looking for a name for the company that we went for Ariel.”
But the intent remained dormant while the Atom established itself as one of the best trackday cars you can buy. That wasn’t the only reason why the desire remained unfulfilled, as the Ariel team were unmoved by the motors on offer. “In 2007 we decided that we wanted to definitely do something, so we started buying a few bikes, test riding all sorts, and working out ideas,” says Tom. “We always wanted to use a Honda engine because of our association with them on the car side (the Atom’s use Civic Type R lumps), but there wasn’t really anything that grabbed us. Inline fours are awesome, but they’ve been done. Ducati has done the twin thing, so we didn’t want to go there, so we wanted something different. We scratched our heads for three years until the VFR1200F was launched in 2010. We knew that was the one. We got one and that’s when it really kicked off.”
And kick off it did. Ariel managed to get one of the first VFRs in the country and set to the bike’s 1,237cc v-four motor as they started the design process – an 18 month journey – which was then followed by the stress analysis and engineering. The design of the bike has obvious cues according to Tom. “We wanted to keep the bloodline of the Atom going, so the shape was key. We didn’t want a standard trellis frame as that’s been done. We looked at a carbon frame, for a long time, but we realised that no-one had done it for a reason. It’s fine in a race context, but ten years down the line you don’t know how it’s going to hold up. We decided it wasn’t the best idea to be trailblazers here. So the frame was one thing we wanted to carry on, the other thing was trying to link it back to the most famous Ariel, which was the Square Four. We weren’t going to develop a new engine, which would have been crazy, but we wanted to use the V4. Also, Ariel was known for its Girder fork systems, so we thought it would be cool to do a modern version, to keep that going. That has all been designed in house. Then the rest of it was playing around and seeing what we liked and what worked. We also wanted to do the customising thing. We have a modular platform with a common frame and common motor, common swingarm (we thought about converting it to a chain drive), and then make it tailorable to the customer. So the two bikes aren’t two bikes. They are two illustrations of two possible configurations.
We weren’t going to develop a new engine, that would have been crazy...
You can have the forks, but with different bars, or Öhlins forks with a cruiser type seat, there are so many different permutations for it. The geometry is different between the two bikes, via eccentric bearing cups on the headstock. You can have what you want.”
With focus just on the end goal, the sky was literally the limit. “The beauty is we can do what we want. We just crack on and have a batch of options, and we’ve tried stuff and rejected things straight away. So, for example, there’s nothing to stop you having a different seat unit in the garage. It’s a bolt on part to the main frame. People moan about the VFR’s range so we want to offer a bigger tank, one that you’ll never be able to drain! So we make sketches and do a rough CAD drawing then make it in clay first, then take the points off it, then we feed it into a 3D model that’s then created, then we take moulds off that. This is the first project that has been 100 per cent computer modelled. With the Atom it was a fag packet sketch that went to a fabricator but here we are sending drawings on the computer.”
While final decisions are being made on the last few elements of the bike (starting production after Christmas), there are certain key parts that have been set in stone – the frame for one. “The machining of the frame takes 70 hours. It’s two solid lumps and we get £800 back from the swarf alone. It’s done in the UK and he’s almost a one-man band the guy that does it. We like that, because we can get decisions made quickly. There’s been a lot of trial and error, and once it’s done it’s done. The cost of a mistake, just one bit, means you have to scrap it – the lot.”
As many parts as possible are sourced in the UK, for example, Talon Engineering based a few miles down the road picking up some machining business.
The Crewkerne factory is an assembly only unit, nothing is made on site. But when production starts the plan is to build two or three bikes a week, with a bike taking around two weeks to create. “One person builds the car up, it’s not the most economical way of doing it, but people love it,” says Tom. “They shake hands with the bloke who’s building it and he’ll take pictures of the whole build. It’s all part of the experience.”
But what of the sense of the project, following in the steps of other doomed ventures? Tom is vehement that Ariel and its Ace is different, “It’s not a vanity project at all. The bike and cars have been designed to sit alongside each other and to compliment each other. The cars make us money and we’ve reinvested that to make the motorcycle. No one is putting pressure on us, so we can do what we want, when we want. If it’s a flop then it’s out fault. There isn’t really a business plan and we don’t know how many we’re going to sell. We’ll just make it as good as we can then people will make their judgement on it. We’ve got 23 orders so far, which is brilliant. But we don’t
want this to be some rich boy’s toy. That is not who we are at all. People who buy the cars are enthusiasts, and they plough all their time and money into it. The cars are used, not parked up. We don’t want the bike to be completely unattainable. The only thing that narks me is people saying we’re just making these posh toys, but if they came down and met us they’d quickly see that we’re just enthusiasts.” And having had the pleasure of Ariel’s company for the day there’s no doubting that.
Some naysayers will think that this isn’t a British bike because it’s got a Honda engine in it, but they’d probably say that the Atom was a British car at the same time. The truth is making an engine is an industrial process, and at the end of the day Ariel is a small factory employing around 20 staff doing something that they’ve always wanted to do. This is a British bike, and as you’re about to find out, it’s a belter, too…
The frame machining takes 70 hours and we get £800 back from the swarf!
The first prototype... Full factory
Words: rootsy Pics: J o n n y G aw l e r
The boys consider life in a cage... Rootsy just wipes up some dribble after checking out the machining!