ARIEL 3 ........................................................
It was the Swinging Sixties. Time for something fab and groovy. Time for female emancipation. Time for… the Ariel 3? Frank Melling encountered the 50cc tricycle when BSA were building it, and tells a sorry tale…
It was the Swinging Sixties. Time for something fab and groovy. Time for… the Ariel 3? Frank Melling encountered the 50cc tricycle when BSA were building it, and tells a sorry tale
When I was six years old, my teacher organised an Easter play. Not being very confident, I missed out on the starring roles of the sun, wind, rabbits, badgers and a mole with rather attractive glasses. Instead me and Julie, a tubby girl with greasy hair and a stutter, were made to stand silently right at the back of the tiny stage where we could do no damage, wearing brown cardboard discs on our heads while playing the roles of forest mushrooms.
In some ways, this was to be a metaphor for the rest of my life.
I was reminded of my days as a thespian mushroom when I recently rode an Ariel 3 because I had a similarly minor fungoid part in the story of this ill-fated three-wheeled moped, which was arguably the final nail in the coffin of the once mighty BSA Group. In another, extremely minor, footnote to the history of the British motorcycle industry, an idea of my very own might well have saved the mighty BSA company from extinction.
So what is an Ariel 3? If you were to listen to BSA Group Managing Director Lionel Jofeh in 1970, it was going to be the magic bullet which saved the ailing engineering conglomerate. The big idea was mass transport for the people – and specifically the female end of the mobility market.
There were two problems with the idea and they were twin sisters. First, Jofeh actively and enthusiastically despised his customer base. He felt that motorcyclists were a sub-
species of humanity, or maybe not even this far up the ecological ladder, and so could be treated with contempt. He also held an equally strong view that the British working classes would accept things which Jofeh’s wife Constance would never tolerate. It is this utter, total and complete lack of empathy with his customers which convinced Jofeh to embark on this suicidal project.
This was the big idea. In post-war Britain, enormous suburbs had sprung up around the old town centres. I grew up on one of the vast new housing estates and they really were isolated from everything. With cars in short supply, and buses slow and laborious, there was a real need for personal transport. All this was fact.
At the bottom end of the social scale, getting around often meant two wheels. If you were not one of the millions of motorcyclists, then slow, cheap, fuel efficient mopeds were a common solution. Honda effectively reinvented the moped market with its C100 Super Cub. This 50cc wonder machine had big wheels, real brakes, excellent weather protection and would take you on a two-week touring holiday round Europe if you so wished. By 1970, when the Ariel 3 was launched, mopeds were already well out of date and very much yesterday’s news.
However, in Jofeh’s upper middle class eyes (and British social structure is key to this story), there was a vast untapped market of lower class women who needed to reach the shops or their places of work on cheap transport. Clearly, Mr Jofeh’s wife wouldn’t ever be seen in anything but a posh car but for Mrs Average, struggling to get to her early shift at the factory, different standards could be applied.
The core of the idea was that women were frightened of motorcycles and couldn’t ride them because they banked over into corners. This was a weak argument to begin with. It’s true that there were not many women riding bikes but plenty of girls did ride bicycles – and very well too. The real issues with motorcycles were two-fold. First, a British bike was often an utter nightmare to start. A nine-stone woman just didn’t have the weight or strength to spin a British single or twin into life unless she was extremely skilful. That’s not to say that no woman could do this but rather that those who could were in the vast minority.
The other problem is that bikes were not considered feminine. This sounds a very oldfashioned thing to say, but nevertheless it’s true. I was very actively involved with a lot of lively girls (in every sense of the word), and their universal opinion was that bikes were for men.
Before beginning the litany of its mechanical failings, let’s look at the Ariel 3 from a marketing point of view. The new product is pitched directly at women who have a very clear idea of what constitutes femininity, and in 1960s Britain there is no gender confusion or neutrality. Girls are girls and blokes are blokes – and that’s that. So BSA are now offering an overgrown child’s tricycle to young women who know exactly what it is to be female. Applying a molecule of logic, what sense did this make?
If the Ariel 3 had cost £25, managed 250mpg and carried a ten year, unconditional warranty, girls would have never even sat on it – never, never, ever! They were far too conscious of what it was to be a woman to ever risk having their status wrecked by riding what appeared to be a child’s toy in public.
This image issue was bad enough. But the Ariel 3 was, if this is possible, even worse in practice. The target customer is more than likely to be in a skirt, or dress, rather than trousers. If she is young, she will be wearing a tiny dress – seriously small. So, there is the rider in a tiny skirt sitting on the saddle of the Ariel 3 with the wind blowing…
Girls did wear jeans but not for work in either offices or factories. If Jofeh had taken the trouble to walk through his own factory, he would have seen most of the female staff wearing skirts or dresses. If the lady works in an office environment, it’s likely that she will also be wearing heeled shoes and will have her hair permed into some fancy style. If she rides helmetless, her coiffure is destroyed whereas if she wears a helmet it will just be wrecked.
The first job for our lady rider is to take the bottle of oil she carries in her handbag and mix some two-stroke for the six pint fuel tank. Obviously automatic lubrication, as used by the Japanese, would be an unnecessary affectation. She then holds open the choke lever with her left-hand while twisting the throttle past the point of closure with her right hand. This operates a decompressor on the engine.
Next, she pedals like a maniac. Yes, in her skirt, bouffant hair and 4” heels. When she reaches galloping speed, she closes the throttle, the engine fires and off she goes towards a comfortable cruising speed of 20mph. If she is a spirited young filly, and tries for the full 30mph top speed, she will need a strong constitution when the speed wobble sets in.
When her friends enviously gather round her new acquisition they will see a cheaply-made creature with the poorest of paint finishes. They will note the lack of dipping lights, truly appalling brakes and the generally crude, toy-like appearance. There is a hint of front suspension via a rubber in torsion donut on the trailing link suspension but nothing at all to absorb the bumps on the rear. The only comfort comes from the Denfeld saddle which is actually quite good.
Best of all, the adoring masses will struggle to understand just what the Ariel 3 actually is. Their confusion is wholly excusable because BSA didn’t know either. Their sales slogans were: ‘It’s not a bike, it’s not a car, but it’s fun and Here it is, whatever it is’.
The sire of the whole project was a very clever and successful businessman / inventor called George Wallis. George was seriously smart and made a lot of money in ventures as diverse as radar, corner cafés and fertiliser spreaders. He was fascinated with the idea of a small three-wheeler which offered the potential for mass personal transport, being smaller, cheaper and more economical to run than a car.
The idea was that BSA would pay a licence fee to Wallis and he would be retained as a consultant, to ensure that the new threewheeled moped would work in practice. However, BSA reneged on the deal. This is Wallis’ recollection of what happened next. ‘ They (BSA) produced an abortion (the Ariel 3). I told Jofeh but it had all gone too far. Well, anyhow, they went bust. Luckily, I had a buy-back clause anyway and sold the idea to Daihatsu. It took two weeks for them to agree terms where BSA had taken eight months.’
In order to get the selling price anywhere near credible, the production target was set at 2000 units a week and 50,000 of the Anker engines were ordered. Again this shows Jofeh at an almost surreal distance from what BSA were achieving, or capable of achieving. No BSA model had ever sold 2000 units a week and it was pure fantasy to assume that the Ariel 3 was going to achieve this level.
However, in order to reach this imaginary figure, the little moped had to be made of steel pressings. The tooling costs for the pressings was immense and came at a time when the factory was desperate for funding.
As for the little Dutch engine, it wasn’t a bad power unit. With crankcase reed-valve induction it produced 1.7bhp and good torque for a 50cc motor, but was grossly underpowered for such a heavy construction as the Ariel 3 when it was actually designed for a vehicle weighing not much more than
a bicycle. Worse still, the Anker engine was fan-cooled and did not like being in the tight engine compartment of the Ariel 3.
With drive to only one of the two rear wheels, the Ariel didn’t even offer guaranteed traction in bad weather. Having three wheels, of course, the Ariel 3 couldn’t fall over and frighten the poor timorous lady riding it. Rather, the front end was controlled by two torsion bars which allowed it to bank into corners – and terrify not only those of the female persuasion but male test riders too!
Towards the top end of its 30mph maximum speed, wobbles set in and there was always the sense that the moped was falling into corners uncontrollably rather than with the smoothness of two-wheel banking.
Despite cutting corners on quality in an attempt to get a sensible price, BSA failed. The initial ticket price of the Ariel was more than a Honda Cub and it was easy to add a further 20% or 30% to the base cost of £105 when accessories, such as the shopping basket and screen, were added. Even if the Ariel had been brilliant, it was never going to sell with a price point of £130 plus.
BSA launched the Ariel 3 in a blizzard of highly sexist advertising, replete with girls in mini-skirts and tight blouses sitting ecstatically, helmetless of course, on machines they would not normally be seen dead on. Singer Cindy Kent, DJ David Jacobs and actress Olivia Newton-John were featured looking ultra cool on Ariels in central London – before grabbing BSA’s money and heading for their Bentleys.
And now for my fungus walk-on part in the saga…
At the time, I was in an incredibly favoured position at BSA – rather like a very spoiled Labrador puppy who is indulged by everyone. I had a record of riding any motorcycle of any kind under any conditions. I was a petrol engine junkie – and I remain so to this day. At the end of the Rocket 3 line was an Ariel 3, built up and running. BSA’s head of PR, Reg Dancer, encouraged me to have a ride round inside the factory on the little trike. Had this been a 140mph race bike I would have been tucking my trousers into my socks and tearing down the line – regardless of the danger to me or anyone else! The same would have applied if I had been offered a go on a motocrosser but, with the Ariel 3, I was just too embarrassed to even try it.
Bill Weatherhead (either the line foreman or superintendent, I can’t remember) knew me well through my B50 motocross machine. He was falling about laughing at the thought of BSA’s ‘last factory rider’ being seen on an Ariel 3. Much as I respected and liked Reg, I just refused. If I had been seen on that thing I would never have been able to show my face at Armoury Road ever again.
However, the tour of the house of horrors was not over yet. Reg showed me the huge bay which used to contain all the BSA spares dating back to the start of the factory. These were now being unceremoniously piled up in heaps, and in their place were tens of thousands of boxes containing the Anker engines.
I don’t know if anyone ever knew precisely how many engines had been bought for this stupid project but Reg told me that there were 50,000 in the spares’ bay alone. There could have been even more than this, so grandiose were Jofeh’s fantasies.
As politely as I could, I pleadingly explained that the project was doomed and that it was going to destroy the factory. As I am writing this, I can remember the long sigh which came from Reg and his next words. ‘Frank, this is what is happening. It’s been decided. Can you help?’
I explained that the best thing I could do was nothing – not to mention the Ariel 3 nor even acknowledge its existence. Much as I wanted to assist BSA, I could not, and would not, tell my readers gargantuan lies by saying that the thing was anything other than an utter disaster. So, I didn’t – but I knew that this had to be pretty well the last straw in the history of this iconic factory.
Ironically, there would have been a way out of the mess, if only Jofeh had been a motorcyclist. It is difficult to overstate just how clever were the BSA craftsmen. Some years later, I saw an incredibly talented fabricator/frame designer called Rob Homer produce a complete chassis for a bike called the NVT Rambler in one working day. That’s not an exaggeration. Working with an engineer’s eye, and a craftsman’s skills, Rob bent the tubes round the Yamaha donor engine, welded them up and the bike was done – and a lovely little thing it was too.
At this point, I could have maybe saved BSA single-handedly. My works BSA motocrosser was looked after by Cyril Halliburn in the quality control department. Cyril was a fine, traditional, Birmingham engineer and I suggested to him that the Anker engines could be turned into an income stream in the form of a cheap little moped.
Cyril looked at me over his glasses and started sketching. ‘Something like this?’ And there was a neat, basic, little moped on the paper. I made a few suggestions and Cyril tweaked the sketch. It was a simple, honest thing and could have been built in under a week, using existing BSA parts and some simple pressings which the factory could have done almost in a lunch-time. Cyril and I had produced the idea for a viable little moped which could have been on sale in a less than a month. This would have used the engines profitably and brought in some much needed revenue. But, with Jofeh at the helm, this was never going to happen – and it didn’t.
These days, the Ariel 3s are making something of a comeback as quirky little things to ride around classic bike shows. Our test bike came from the ever-smiling Maureen Foster, who actually used one for real in the 1970s and now has a huge collection of the quirky three-wheelers. Maureen was kind enough to let me have a play on one of her collection which was immense fun, but a reminder of what a dreadful thing the Ariel 3 was back then – and it hasn’t really improved with age!
Left: The tricycle looks cute and quirky now. It was very different at launch in 1970
The Ariel 3 had some good ideas. The huge rear carrier held an accessory shopping basket to allow the woman of the house to execute her duties as a homemaker. Well … it was 1970…
Above: The large sprung Denfeld saddle is one of the highlights of the Ariel 3
Above & Left: The Ariel 3’s Anker engine would have been fine for a moped but proved to be grossly underpowered for the much heavier trike. BSA bought 50,000 of these Dutch two-stroke engines! Note the plug-in plastic fuel cap intended to save a few...
This picture was stunted up inside the BSA factory. The idea was that millionaire bankers would give up their Bentleys and ride Ariels round the City of London. It seems as likely today as it must have been back then
Speedometer? No. Dipping lights? No. Brake lights? No. Crude beyond words? Yes
Above: The Ariel 3. The only BSA Group product Melling refused to ride in his BSA days
Right: Trailing link front suspension was by a rubber in torsion bush with no damping. Not entirely high-tech
Above: Fully accessorised Ariel! BSA’s directors had a curious view of the world around them
Above & Left: Thanks to Maureen and Steve Foster – the world’s biggest Ariel 3 fans – for the loan of a bike. Frank M loved it really!
Right: Maureen Foster, lifelong owner and huge fan of the little triped, shows how the front end banks