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Ariel plays its Ace
Bikes were always part of the plan for the Ariel Motor Company, which has returned to two wheels with the beautifully-crafted Ace
Based in the rolling hills of Somerset, the Ariel Motor Company is the sort of family-run business that we all wish we worked for. Small and friendly yet internationally-known, the modern iteration of the firm has been built up since 1999 by current managing director Simon Saunders, along with his sons Tom and Henry.
But the history of the Ariel name stretches back far further. The original company was set up in 1870 as a bicycle manufacturer and patented the first spoke tensioned wheel. It produced its first motorcycle in 1901 and soon became synonymous with interesting and unusual concepts, such as the Square Four engine with its twin contra-rotating crankshafts. For all its technical genius, however, the original Birmingham company had a pretty chequered financial history. It was sold to BSA in 1951 and finally dissolved in 1970.
The first product from the reborn brand was the Atom – a gloriously unhinged track day car that started off with modest Rover K-Series power and has since evolved into a 500bhp/tonne monster with a 2-litre turbocharged engine from the Honda Civic Type R. But bikes had always been part of the plan, Tom explains.
“A lot of us here are bikers,” he says. “My father’s a lifelong biker and he’s worked as a designer for several motorcycle manufacturers in the past. I got my first bike when I was five and I was racing by the time I was seven, so motorcycles have always been a big thing for us and that was one of the reasons we wanted to revive the Ariel name.”
The idea started moving towards a reality in 2007. By that point, Ariel had forged a close relationship with Honda on the car side, so it had a potential engine supplier, but the project was still very much in its infancy.
“We went through a period of buying and borrowing bikes to work out exactly what we wanted to do,” Tom recalls. “We wanted to use a Honda engine, but they didn’t really have anything that we felt was suitable. Inline fours had been done to death, vee twins are more closely associated with Italian brands like Ducati and we wanted to do something a bit different.
“In 2009 Honda contacted us to say they were going to produce a new 1200cc version of the VFR and it sounded like just the sort of thing we needed. We got hold of the bike and we were really impressed with the engine. It’s got all the best bits of a vee twin and the best bits of an inline four; there’s plenty of torque low down but you’ve also got a nice top end and a very distinctive soundtrack.”
The project came to fruition in 2014 with the Ariel Ace – a big brawny muscle bike that’s pitched against the likes of the Ducati Diavel. At its heart is the 173bhp V4 from the VFR 1200F, unmodified aside from the addition of Ariel’s own air intake and a particularly fruity custom exhaust. Likewise, the complete electronics package (including traction control and ABS) is taken from the Honda, as is the rear swing arm. But just about everything else that you see is unique to the Ace – much of it built locally by UK suppliers and stamped with Ariel’s own trademark design touches.
The sections that make up the frame, for instance, are machined from solid billet aluminium by a firm just down the road in Yeovil. This process takes around 40 hours to complete, after which the separate pieces are welded together by hand and hard anodised to create a trellis-like structure that’s a work of art in itself. The curves and angles in the design, the beautifully neat lines of weld and the intricate machining pattern on the inside of the frame all add to the aesthetic appeal.
Just about everything on the Ace can be tailored to the owner’s individual requirements from a vast toy box of parts. A lot of people lean towards the option of girder forks and a lowered seating position, which the company loosely terms its cruiser spec. On the other hand, if you opt for the telescopic forks, a raised seat, higher pegs and dropped bars you can turn it into a café racer. Ariel will even build you a frame with your own specific head angle to tailor the way it rides.
“Getting a bike right can be a very personal thing,” comments Tom. “A lot of people get a bike and then buy a load of accessories for it, so they end up with a big box of bits in the loft. We try and get something that’s right from the start.”
The Ace oozes handbuilt charm, but thanks to the tie up with Honda it also uses low-stressed, reliable parts. It was always intended to be comfortable and usable and that’s borne out by the lives that these bikes tend to lead, Tom explains: “There aren’t many garage queens out there. One of our customers flew his out to North America when he first got it and rode it right across the USA in one hit. Another commutes across London every day. It’s a bike that’s designed to be used.”
One thing that might make some people think twice about dicing with the London traffic is its price. Starting at £19,997, the Ace is a fair chunk more than the usual Japanese offerings. On the other hand, it offers a degree of individuality and customisation that’s more akin to a supercar or a luxury yacht. In that context it represents something of a bargain.
And that perhaps sums up the Ariel approach. The company produces the sort of bikes that the big mainstream brands couldn’t offer even if they wanted to: raw, handcrafted and highly bespoke. While the Ace may be a thoroughly modern design, it proves that the pioneering spirit of bikes like the Square Four still lives on.
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