Inside Ariel Motor Co
From Atom and Nomad to an EV hypercar – no, really
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
THE ARIEL PROMISES NEGLIGIBLE RANGE ANXIETY THANKS TO A TURBINE RANGE EXTENDER
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
‘IT WILL BE A DRIVER’S CAR IT NEEDS TO HANDLE AND FEEL LIKE AN ARIEL’
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.
‘OWNERS CAN COME AND WATCH THEIR CARS BEING BUILT. WE DON’T WANT TO LOSE THAT ESSENCE’
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 shoploor meeting