In­side Ariel Mo­tor Co

From Atom and No­mad to an EV hy­per­car – no, re­ally

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words James Tay­lor | Pho­tog­ra­phy Stu­art Collins

TRY THESE NUMBERS on for size. 1180bhp. Oof. 7302lb ft at the wheels. Bloomin’ heck. 0-100mph in 3.8sec. 0-150mph in 7.8sec. Can you even imag­ine that? Can you think how strong a stom­ach you’d need to jump through time and space that quickly? Those top­pi­est of Top Trumps fig­ures be­long to a car cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment not in Maranello, Mol­sheim or Än­gel­holm, but Crewk­erne in Som­er­set. And an elec­tric one at that. This is the lat­est cre­ation from Ariel, cur­rently at the early pro­to­type stage and headed for pro­duc­tion in 2020. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s the fruit of Project Hiper­car – an apt name if ever there was one.

We’ve come to ex­pect the un­ex­pected from Ariel. The tiny, still-young com­pany with the very old name has changed gears from min­i­mal­ist sports car (Atom) through tai­lor-made mo­tor­cy­cle (Ace) to off-road weapon (No­mad) in the past 18 years. And now it’s cre­at­ing a tar­mac-melt­ingly quick EV.

‘We’re lucky in that we can an­nounce we’re build­ing a hy­per­car and no one seems sur­prised,’ says com­pany founder Si­mon Saun­ders. ‘But there are plenty of ob­sta­cles to over­come. A lot of the tech­nol­ogy in­volved with Hiper­car doesn’t ex­ist yet.’

It’s one hell of a leap from Atom to Hiper­car, yet it makes sense to Saun­ders: ‘When we started out we wanted to make low-vol­ume cars that were in­trin­si­cally un­suit­able for high vol­umes. This fits that ap­proach ab­so­lutely. We looked at an elec­tric Atom but it made lit­tle sense. This is dif­fer­ent, it’s vi­able, and it springs from the per­for­mance ad­van­tage the likes of Tesla have demon­strated. That’s of in­ter­est to us and our cus­tomers.’

We’re in a dis­play room in­side Ariel head­quar­ters. Around us sit var­i­ous ve­hi­cles from the brand’s pre­vi­ous life – an 1870 Ariel Or­di­nary penny-far­thing here, a vin­tage mo­tor­cy­cle there – and Saun­ders ges­tures to a 1901 Ariel Quadri­cy­cle to his right. It’s from a time when steam cars vied for sales with petrol and elec­tric cars, and tech­nol­ogy moved at such a pace that what was new in March was ob­so­lete by June. ‘We’re kind of there again now.’ There were no petrol sta­tions in 1901, just as to­day there are many unan­swered ques­tions about elec­tric ve­hi­cles. ‘At some point,’ says Saun­ders, ‘you have to draw a line in the sand.’

This new car scribes sev­eral deep lines in the sand for Ariel. It will be not only the com­pany’s first elec­tric car but also its first with a closed body, and it won’t be cheap. Hiper­car (a con­trac­tion of High-Per­for­mance Car­bon Re­duc­tion) is ac­tu­ally the fruition of sev­eral projects, with three main com­pa­nies in­volved: Ariel (over­all con­cept, chas­sis, sus­pen­sion); Delta Mo­tor­sport (bat­tery, range ex­ten­der, con­trol elec­tron­ics); and Equip­make4

(mo­tors, gear­boxes and the elec­tron­ics thereof).

Its progress has been aided by a £2m grant from gov­ern­ment-funded In­no­vate UK, along with no lit­tle in­vest­ment from Ariel it­self. The ex­ter­nal fund­ing stops in 2019, the year we’ll see the fin­ished car. Its name is still be­ing de­cided, but it will be a name, not let­ters and numbers.

We step into the de­sign stu­dio, where the next chap­ter in Ariel’s ‘What­ever will they do next?’ story is hov­er­ing on stands, a body-less blank can­vas. It’s big­ger than an Atom, but smaller than most su­per­cars. Two pro­to­types cur­rently ex­ist, both at the rolling chas­sis stage. This car, ‘the red one’, is all-wheel drive. The ab­sent yel­low one is rear-wheel drive. Both lay­outs will be avail­able, with the all-wheel-drive flag­ship reach­ing pro­duc­tion first. ‘And we might be able to ret­ro­spec­tively con­vert rear-wheeldrive cars to four-wheel drive, just as we cur­rently retro-fit su­per­charg­ers for Atom cus­tomers,’ says Saun­ders. ‘There’s a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to give cus­tomers a car with per­for­mance they’re com­fort­able with.’

Pric­ing is yet to be set. But it’ll be of a dif­fer­ent or­der of mag­ni­tude to any­thing Ariel’s of­fered to date. ‘We wanted to get the two-wheel-drive car to start with a ‘1’ [as in more than £99k and less than £200k] but this is look­ing in­creas­ing un­likely as the tech­nol­ogy is just so ex­pen­sive,’ Saun­ders says. The four-wheel drive will cost even more, while dra­mat­i­cally un­der­cut­ting the likes of Bu­gatti’s Ch­i­ron and the Koenigsegg Regera.

Per­for­mance comes from tiny but mighty in­board elec­tric mo­tors, one per wheel. Each packs more power than a stan­dard Atom. Vec­tor­ing elec­tron­ics to mete out the twist at each wheel will en­sure the Hiper­car is a guided mis­sile rather than a loose can­non. A gi­ant bat­tery pack fills the alu­minium mono­coque’s base, and ex­tends into the cen­tral tun­nel-like sec­tion, but this prom­ises to be an EV sports car with neg­li­gi­ble range anx­i­ety, thanks to a range ex­ten­der – in this case a tiny tur­bine en­gine driv­ing a gen­er­a­tor.

It’s not fit­ted to the pro­to­type when we visit, but project man­ager Neil Yates says it’s in­cred­i­bly com­pact. ‘A com­bus-tio­nengine range ex­ten­der would have been long, clunky – it would go against ev­ery­thing we’re about.’ He adds: ‘We’re tun­ing the tur­bine’s sound. It makes a great noise when it starts up and in par­tic­u­lar when it winds down, but at steady revs [it runs at 122,000rpm steady-state] it can sound strange at the mo­ment.’

Yates says one of the project’s tar­gets is to all but elim­i­nate range anx­i­ety, and Ariel main­tains that no mat­ter how ag­gres­sively the Hiper­car’s driven on the road, its bat­tery won’t be fully de­pleted – the range ex­ten­der’s al­ways got your back. Track 4


driv­ing is dif­fer­ent. The team es­ti­mate the all-wheel-drive Hiper­car will need plug­ging in af­ter 15-20 min­utes of hard lap­ping, and the two-wheel-drive car af­ter around 30 min­utes, as the range ex­ten­der won’t be able to keep up with de­mand.

‘One prob­lem we chewed over for a bit was whether or not the car should be track-ca­pa­ble. To an ex­tent it’s the fault of the me­dia,’ says Saun­ders, ex­plain­ing that mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ists love a track test as much as R. Kelly loves an af­ter party. ‘Track use is the night­mare sce­nario,’ says Yates. ‘It in­creases bat­tery use by a mag­ni­tude of 10.’ So quick will the Hiper­car be, you sus­pect the driver might run out of en­ergy be­fore the bat­tery. ‘We’re trac­tion-lim­ited un­til just over 100mph,’ Yates says. ‘60-100mph takes 1.3sec, and it takes an­other 3.0sec to be at 150mph.’ Yeesh. So how do you put all that power down? The XL tyres (325/30 R21 Miche­lin Cup 2s) are one thing, but Ariel is also talk­ing about some in­trigu­ing aero so­lu­tions, per­haps even fans as per the short-lived Brab­ham BT46 F1 car (raced once, won once, banned af­ter protests from ri­vals). ‘The ul­ti­mate goal is down­force at a stand­still, to help the car launch,’ Saun­ders says. ‘We’ve pre­vi­ously built an ex­per­i­men­tal ti­ta­nium-chas­sis Atom with two elec­tric fans. F1 cars have the lux­ury of be­ing low, how­ever – Hiper­car has to go over road humps and so on.’

It won’t just be about drag­ster ac­cel­er­a­tion, though. ‘It will ab­so­lutely be a driver’s car,’ says Yates. ‘It needs to han­dle and feel like an Ariel. Part of the Atom and No­mad DNA is that they’re fun at 40mph. One of the crit­i­cisms petrol­heads have of EVs is that they aren’t emo­tive – we want this car to change that.’

‘We’re not in­ter­ested in top speed,’ says Saun­ders. ‘It’s great that a Ch­i­ron can do that. But speed­ing is be­com­ing like drink-driv­ing [so­cially un­ac­cept­able].’

The en­gi­neer­ing team be­hind the Hiper­car are strik­ingly young, sev­eral of them grad­u­ates fresh from For­mula Stu­dent, along­side ex­pe­ri­enced hands. ‘The best thing about work­ing with these guys is that they can change things quickly,’ says sus­pen­sion con­sul­tant Richard Hur­d­well, whose fin­ger­prints can be found on all sorts, from Senna’s ac­tive Lo­tus 99T F1 car to the Metro 6R4 rally car. You get the im­pres­sion Hiper­car will be quite well set-up. Ac­tive sus­pen­sion is be­ing con­sid­ered. Heat man­age­ment has been a mas­sive chal­lenge. The pro­to­type runs eight cool­ers, and Delta Mo­tor­sport has even had to rein­vent some of its sim­u­la­tion soft­ware to deal with the car’s unique pow­er­train, but is en­cour­aged by the re­sults. ‘De­sign­ing a car with a petrol en­gine seems pretty sim­ple in com­par­i­son,’ Saun­ders smiles.

This will be Ariel’s first closed-cock­pit car, which means de­sign­ing doors for the first time, and all the ex­tra cost and com­pli­ca­tion that comes with test­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing them. But it won’t look like a closed coupe with a solid form – this will be a car with lay­ered sur­faces, shaped par­tially by aero­dy­namic and cool­ing de­mands. De­signer Ralph Tay­lor-Webb’s sketches show a dis­tinc­tive cab-rear­ward form. As Saun­ders points out: ‘It doesn’t have to con­form to es­tab­lished su­per­car shapes be­cause it doesn’t have an en­gine.’

Tay­lor-Webb’s de­sign started with the bat­tery as the first hard point to work around, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a driv­ing po­si­tion higher than a con­ven­tional su­per­car; the roofline will be about the same height as an As­ton Vantage. A tra­di­tional foam and wood seat­ing buck mock-up stands in the de­sign stu­dio. This is proper, hands-on, first-prin­ci­ples de­sign work, hand in glove with bleed­ing-edge tech­nol­ogy. ‘It’s re­mark­ably easy to get in and out,’ Neil Yates says. ‘The doors will open up­wards and out­wards, and we’ve po­si­tioned the A-pil­lar far for­ward in re­la­tion to the seat. It’s a two-stage process – sit down on the sill and swivel in.’

I do just that to take a seat in the pro­to­type. At the mo­ment it’s a high driv­ing po­si­tion by sports car stan­dards, but that will change. Don’t ex­pect a lux­u­ri­ous in­te­rior. ‘Plush Le Mans’ is the neat phrase the team uses.

You could eas­ily worry that the Hiper­car will be ev­ery­thing Ariel has suc­cess­fully steered clear of thus far (body­work, doors and win­dows, me­chan­i­cal com­plex­ity); with its power steer­ing, weight and huge tyres, it is in some ways a world apart from the Atom. But lis­ten to the Hiper­car team and you start to be­lieve it re­ally can share the fam­ily DNA.

‘The in­te­rior, while en­closed, will feel like an Ariel – we’re not go­ing to try to com­plete with Porsche; leather and ve­neers,’ says Si­mon Saun­ders. ‘Yes the doors have given us sleep­less nights but the car needed them, and we have a spe­cial­ist door de­signer work­ing on the project. And while it’ll have power steer­ing, it won’t be dumbed down – it won’t iso­late the driver. It’ll be in­volv­ing to drive, as an Ariel should be.’

Some of that dis­tinc­tive Ariel flavour must, you sus­pect, come from the com­pany’s re­mote ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion. It stays small and oc­cu­pies its own, care­fully cu­rated niche. ‘We’re here by cir­cum­stance, re­ally – we’re happy here,’ says Si­mon’s son Tom Saun­ders as he shows me round. Tom and his brother Henry4


han­dle the day-to-day run­ning of the com­pany, and man­age the build­ing of the cars. Seven cars are cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion in a neat, tidy hive of calm, me­thod­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, trel­lis Atom and cage No­mad chas­sis sit­ting cheek by tubu­lar jowl op­po­site three Ace mo­tor­cy­cles, beau­ti­fully de­tailed ma­chines Ariel builds at a rate of 30 a year. The cars’ chas­sis are built by spe­cial­ists Arch in Hunt­ing­don – the rest of the build hap­pens at Ariel.

‘One tech­ni­cian builds the whole car,’ Tom ex­plains. ‘It isn’t fin­ished un­til they’re happy.’ The plaque each Ariel bears with its builder’s name is any­thing but mar­ket­ing flim-flam. ‘Our tech­ni­cians are fas­tid­i­ous,’ says Si­mon. Each car is built to or­der, and one Atom can take any­thing from 100 to 200-plus hours, de­pend­ing on the com­plex­ity of the build. A 14-month lead time on Atoms and No­mads gives Ariel and its sup­pli­ers con­sis­tency.

The mod­ern-day Ariel story re­ally starts with the Atom, which be­gan as a light­weight sports car project Si­mon Saun­ders ini­ti­ated while lec­tur­ing on Coven­try Univer­sity’s trans­port de­sign course. Saun­ders had been play­ing around with ideas for a ‘new Lo­tus Seven’ while work­ing as a de­signer for the likes of GM, As­ton, Porsche and Nor­ton. Stu­dent Niki Smart (now a de­sign man­ager at GM) worked on the de­tail de­sign to­gether with Saun­ders, and by 1999 the Atom was born.

But why brand it Ariel? ‘I wanted to make sure an­other name didn’t dis­ap­pear into his­tory. Ariel is like a pot­ted his­tory of the Bri­tish au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try; it made cars, bikes, trikes – every form of trans­port. It em­bod­ied what we wanted to do. It’s im­por­tant that Hiper­car doesn’t di­lute our pre­vi­ous work; it must have the Ariel ethos.’

Those same tech­ni­cians care­fully con­struct­ing the Atom and No­mad will build the Hiper­car, although its ex­tra com­plex­ity means it may re­quire two peo­ple per car. Ariel cur­rently em­ploys around 30 peo­ple, and the work­force will ex­pand to maybe 5060 peo­ple to han­dle Hiper­car pro­duc­tion. Ariel will move to a larger, pur­pose-built site by 2020 – but will stay in Som­er­set. ‘We only want to move once, and never again,’ says Si­mon Saun­ders.

Ariel’s cus­tomers are a loyal bunch. Tom tells me they’re ex­pect­ing one soon who fre­quently trav­els down from Cum­bria to visit; an­other owns an Atom, an Ace and a No­mad. Ariel is the point of con­tact for all its cus­tomers – there isn’t a dealer net­work. It doesn’t even have an au­to­mated tele­phone sys­tem. Call Ariel and a hu­man will an­swer.

‘We know all our cus­tomers on first-name terms. They can come down and watch their cars be­ing built. We don’t want to lose that essence. We’re not chas­ing mas­sive prof­its or turnover – that brings its own dif­fi­cul­ties. A lot of peo­ple think we’re much big­ger than we are’, Saun­ders con­tin­ues. ‘But we want to stay small. We did a study a few years ago about how big we should be – it’s big­ger than we are, but not that much big­ger. The prob­lem with au­to­mo­tive is you need to be big or small. At the size of what I call “old TVR” – 900 cars a year – you’re not big enough for economies of scale but nei­ther are you small enough to be ag­ile.

‘We’ve made the de­ci­sion to sell 300 cars a year. If you want to try to take on the Porsche 911, you’d need bil­lions. We’re do­ing at Ariel what the big boys won’t, can’t, daren’t. The bronze-welded chas­sis on the Atom and No­mad, for ex­am­ple. You could never do that in mass pro­duc­tion. It’s a case of a process that takes two weeks ver­sus 45 sec­onds.’

Ariel’s small, nim­ble size also en­ables it to be an early adopter of new tech­nol­ogy, as in the Hiper­car project. ‘A lot of the tech­nol­ogy in­volved doesn’t ex­ist yet; there’s an op­por­tu­nity for the UK, and us, to be­come ex­perts in it. If peo­ple won­der why a sports car is get­ting fund­ing, we’re the step­ping stone to valu­able in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and a sup­plier net­work in the UK. These things are not taken lightly; it has been a colos­sal un­der­tak­ing to get the grant; hun­dreds and hun­dreds of hours’ work.

‘Why do it? Be­cause this is the way things are go­ing. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and keep mak­ing things with V8s. I think the elec­tric car started in the wrong place. A lot of tech­nol­ogy that’s now main­stream be­gan on high-end lux­ury cars first, such as the Mercedes S-Class. EVs started with cheap cars first, and had to com­pro­mise on in­te­rior qual­ity, for in­stance, to get the price down.

‘Part of the idea of the Hiper­car is to help make the elec­tric car as­pi­ra­tional: we want it to be a poster boy for EVs. If I can Top-Trump a Vey­ron with an EV, peo­ple will think they’re cool. Hy­brids, EVs, diesel, petrol, hy­dro­gen… The next few years are go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing time for new cars.’ And with the am­bi­tious, in­no­va­tive Hiper­car among them, it’ll be any­thing but dull.


Fin­ished prod­uct won’t be much heav­ier than card­board dummy

Hiper­car: High­Per­for­mance Car­bon Re­duc­tion, ob­vi­ously


One 220kW (291bhp) mo­tor per wheel, driv­ing through an epicyclic gear­box at 5.5:1. To­tal torque on the four-wheel drive is equiv­a­lent to 15 BMW twin-turbo diesel


Ac­tual body­work a brave new world for Ariel, and a risky one – with it come hinges, seals and the ter­ri­fy­ing world of it and in­ish…

Ariel’s spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with Honda en­sures an en­vi­able sup­ply of ut­terly re­li­able, high-per­for­mance


(Top) Hiper­car styling set to be

aero-led and ‘lay­ered’ in style (Above) Keep­ing it real with a shoploor meet­ing

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