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…

Real Classic - - What Lies Within -

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

Pho­tos by Carol Melling

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

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