Light in­dus­try

The Atom 4 is the re­sult of a very 21st-cen­tury ap­proach to in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion


“Now it’s Darth Vader on laugh­ing gas, this fran­tic gaseous suck­ing and blow­ing”

These dock cranes have stood guard over Prince’s Wharf since 1951. Bris­tol’s cob­bled wharves and ware­houses are full of such relics. Huge clank­ing pieces of in­dus­trial en­gi­neer­ing lit­ter the dock­sides: em­bed­ded rail­way tracks pound off into the dis­tance, there are boil­ers the size of barns, chains that could surely hold the Earth’s crust to­gether (even the bol­shier bits), swing bridges, en­gines, wheels and gears. And rust. You could hap­pily kick­start the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion if not for the rust.

How much iron and steel has been poured into this place? It’s a city built of box-sec­tion gird­ers and foot-wide riv­ets. A city that’s tran­si­tioned, still fully in touch with the past, and able to cel­e­brate it de­spite hav­ing left it far be­hind. Stand­ing here now, I can imag­ine the noise, the thick, chok­ing fug of coal, the hiss of steam, the ring of ham­mers, fire and brim­stone, the heave and strain. In ev­ery scene, a stovepipe hat.

There’s more to Bris­tol than Isam­bard King­dom Brunel. Stothert & Pitt made these dock cranes. They were pi­o­neers, iden­ti­fied that a me­chan­i­cal de­vice could lift goods from a ship’s hull far faster than a gang of steve­dores, and in 1851 pre­sented a hand crane at the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion. Not bad for a firm from Bath that un­til then had spe­cialised in do­mes­tic iron­mon­gery. A few short decades later it’s thought ev­ery dock­side in the world had a Stothert & Pitt crane over­see­ing op­er­a­tions. They were cut­tingedge tech­nol­ogy, con­stantly de­vel­oped to do their job faster and bet­ter (these 67-year old cranes are pow­ered by elec­tric­ity, not diesel or steam). How’s that any dif­fer­ent from what we see to­day? Be­cause that’s the thing we for­get about the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. It was a rev­o­lu­tion. And it never ended, it just… mor­phed.

The new Ariel Atom 4 is a rev­o­lu­tion. Smaller scale in ev­ery way, but for a lit­tle firm from Som­er­set, a rev­o­lu­tion none­the­less. Can you tell? Don’t worry if not – one hun­dred years of dock crane de­vel­op­ment, and the aes­thet­ics never shifted, as far as I can tell. But look again. En­gage the grey mat­ter. Ariel is a small firm, builds maybe 500 cars per year, doesn’t have the re­sources to throw tens, let alone hun­dreds or even thou­sands of engi­neers at a prob­lem. But what it did have was time and a clear vi­sion. And a hand­ful of very clever peo­ple.

I’ve heard them re­ferred to as the ‘brains trust’, but over the last four years they’ve taken the Atom apart, an­a­lysed ev­ery nut, con­sid­ered ev­ery joint, run the whole thing through CAD and then put it back to­gether, bet­ter. Thicker-gauge steel tubes (yep, steel, not alu­minium or ti­ta­nium – there’s life in the old metal yet) were used to en­hance chas­sis rigid­ity, the roll hoop was in­te­grated into the air­box, re­duc­ing tur­bu­lence and sig­nif­i­cantly im­prov­ing aero­dy­nam­ics. The air­box nos­tril shrunk to pre­vent air over­spill. In the end, only four parts (steer­ing wheel, top of the steer­ing col­umn, fuel cap and part of the pedal box) sur­vived the cull.

It’s the at­ten­tion to de­tail that strikes me first, ma­noeu­vring around Bris­tol at night. The head­lights are au­to­matic – there’s a light sen­sor on the trans­mis­sion tun­nel. LED beams mean they’re also ter­rif­i­cally bright. I’m for­ever hop­ping in and out of the car to chat with Mark about one thing or an­other, and yet there’s no longer a need to pat pock­ets and re­alise the im­mo­biliser is trapped four lay­ers down when I get back in. It’s got a prox­im­ity sen­sor, set to rearm when you’re a fuel sta­tion fore­court away from the car, then dis­arm without you even know­ing. In essence a key­less Atom. How sen­si­ble.

The dash panel is new and works log­i­cally, the switchgear – what switchgear there is – is beau­ti­fully or­gan­ised and good qual­ity. The in­for­ma­tion you need is well pre­sented and leg­i­ble in a split sec­ond. The two seats are no longer a sin­gle mould­ing,

mean­ing ill-matched pairs of peo­ple can both get comfy. It’s just thought­ful. There’s even a sec­ond shoe­box-sized load area un­der the nose cover.

What in­sti­gated the rev­o­lu­tion at Ariel? Not the move away from an agron­omy-based so­ci­ety, but the ar­rival of a tur­bocharged en­gine. Ariel’s re­la­tion­ship with Honda dates back to 2003, but now it’s been granted ac­cess to Honda’s holy-of-holies, the fizzily named K20C1. This is the mo­tor that pro­pels the lat­est Civic Type R along with as­ton­ish­ing vigour. In the Atom it’s tasked with mov­ing sub­stan­tially less than half the weight.

But a turbo comes with caveats. Lag. Noise. The Atom doesn’t quite man­age to give both a full swerve. Lag is there at low revs, and although neg­li­gi­ble above 4,000rpm it never has the raw ur­gency, the in­stant sav­age kick that the old su­per­charged mo­tor had. Nor does it have the same buz­z­saw wail that made the Atom 3 sound like a manic mo­torised mos­quito. Now it’s Darth Vader on laugh­ing gas, this fran­tic gaseous suck­ing and blow­ing. It’s good, and you can play tunes, get Darth all riled up and then back him off into a ‘Moon River’ mo­ment, but it’s not stel­lar.

A switch­able power dial helps with this, cy­cling the Atom be­tween 220, 290 and 320bhp. Dialled down and driven gen­tly, the turbo is a barely au­di­ble whis­tle. Turned up to three, it is bal­lis­ti­cally, dras­ti­cally, un­com­fort­ably fast. But so are all lightweights, and there comes a point where the ac­cel­er­a­tion is sim­ply too much. The Atom 4 is way, way past that point. 538bhp per tonne, 0–100mph-in-6.5secs past that point. So what im­presses me most is how docile and tractable it is at low revs, how easy to pot­ter around Bris­tol. No stut­ter­ing on the throt­tle, no petrol smells, awk­ward clutch or weird throt­tle cal­i­bra­tion. It’s as well en­gi­neered as a VW Golf, without the cast of thou­sands in­volved in its cre­ation.

And then there’s the way it goes down a road. The ge­om­e­try has changed, sus­pen­sion mount­ing points have been ad­justed, but you’d never be­lieve what a colos­sal dif­fer­ence this makes. The Atom used to be a hair-rais­ing de­vice, the de­fin­i­tive wild ride. You’d give it a dose of third gear and pro­ceed to cling on to the bar-room bronco for dear life. Not any­more. Now you use third, and then fourth. Fifth if you wish (and don’t care about your driv­ing li­cence). It’s calm and set­tled, so you’re calmer and more set­tled in­side it (good seats too – you sit deeper in it, and those aero screens do a crack­ing job of re­duc­ing cabin tur­bu­lence). There’s more trust. It flows where the old one scam­pered and darted.

Has it lost some­thing as a re­sult? Maybe. We con­stantly bang on about sports cars get­ting ever faster and more ca­pa­ble, but not nec­es­sar­ily more fun, and you could level the same crit­i­cism at the Atom. But the more I drove it, the more I re­alised I was still get­ting the same glo­ri­ous feed­back and sig­nals from the steer­ing and chas­sis; what was be­ing fil­tered out was the ir­ri­tat­ing, un­set­tling back­ground static.

It just doesn’t get caught out, not on a B-road, not on the slick cob­bled wharves of Bris­tol docks. It feels com­plete. Pro­duc­tion starts first thing in 2019, and be­fore then Ariel has promised to sort the slightly loose gearchange (the sin­gle facet of the Atom 4’s driv­ing that doesn’t quite chime with the rest), but oth­er­wise what more do you want? A roof? Doors? You’re miss­ing the point.

British lightweights are of­ten crit­i­cised for their dated ap­pear­ance, their lack of tech­nol­ogy and ad­vance­ment. Well, here’s one that’s dif­fer­ent, that is dis­tin­guished enough to al­ter the way we look at the whole light­weight class. It’s the same as be­fore, but fresh and mod­ern. It’s the big­gest ad­vance in Ariel’s 20-year his­tory, so yeah, a rev­o­lu­tion. A Very British Rev­o­lu­tion. This one made in Som­er­set.

“They’ve taken the Atom apart, run it through CAD and then put it back to­gether, bet­ter”

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