What's in a Name?
In the late 19th century, British bicycle designers James Starley and William Hillman invented wire-spoke wheels, allowing them to build a bike that weighed much less than contemporary models. The pair decided to name their bicycle after Ariel, the mischievous airy spirit in Shakespeare's "The Tempest." One hundred years later, the name is still associated with innovative design and engineering excellence.
The mastermind of the Atom is Simon Saunders, a British auto designer who has conceived motorcycles for Van Veen and Norton and cars for General Motors, Aston Martin and Porsche. After becoming Director of Ariel Motor Company, Saunders set out to design a vehicle that afforded drivers both the thrill of a motorcycle and the safety of a car. The product of that mission is the Atom, a vehicle that many have described as part jet, part racecar and part high-performance motorcycle.
Ariel Motor Company is much better known for its motorcycles. Founded in 1898, Ariel is one of the oldest names in British motoring history. It started manufacturing motorcycles in 1902 and produced both 350cc and 500cc bikes until the late 1950s. A well-known Ariel model was the VH500 Red Hunter, a two-wheeler that could muster 26 horsepower and had a top speed of more than 80 mph.
Ariel's most famous motorcycle, however, was the Square Four, a model the company introduced in 1937. In the early days of its production, the Square Four engine had displacements ranging from 500cc to 600cc. Eventually the largest engine topped out at 997cc, put out 45 horsepower and rocketed the motorcycle to more than 100 mph. Edward Turner designed the Square Four's engine before moving on to Triumph Motorcycles, where he helped oversee the launch of the Triumph Tiger and the Speed Twin in 1937 and 1938 respectively.
The Square Four was popular, but it was heavy and expensive. After WWII, Ariel redesigned the motorcycle with a lighter aluminum engine and telescoping front forks and rear suspension. Despite the innovations, the Square Four eventually succumbed to competitive pressures, and the last model came out in 1958.
Although best known for its motorcycles, Ariel Motor Company also produced various cars, trikes, quads, delivery and military vehicles over the years. In the early 1900s, the company experimented with a then-remarkable four-cylinder car known as the Aero-Simplex. The water-cooled Aero-Simplex was inspired by four-cylinder designs from Mercedes and delivered up to 30 horsepower. Ariel also experimented with six-cylinder models that could produce up to 60 horsepower, but none became enormously popular. After 1918, the company made one last attempt to capitalize on the small-car market with the Ariel Nine. When the original Atom was launched in 2000, it was the first vehicle to bear the Ariel name in 27 years.