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Wednesday 9th January 2008


PH HEROES: ARIEL ATOM

It may be young but that doesn't mean it can't be a hero. Ollie Stallwood finds out how Ariel got the Atom so right...

The Atom 1 had a Rover K Series engine
The Atom 1 had a Rover K Series engine
Small independent British car manufacturers come and go. Many promise so much, perhaps give us a shiny prototype here, leak some spec there, but in the end they fizzle out in a haze of bankruptcy and failed orders. But Ariel has refused to go out like that. Instead, in just eight years the Somerset-based company has gone from just another oddball manufacturer to one that is respected the world over and their product, the Atom, continues to break records and win hearts.

But can a car that has only been around eight years be a PH hero? Of course it can and when you consider the supercharged 300bhp model has 554 bhp/ton, compared to a Lamborghini Murcielago LP640’s 385, you realise this is a car no-one can afford to ignore. Zero to 60mph in 2.74 (3.2 seconds for the normally aspirated), 0-100mph in 6.8 seconds (8.3 secs) means you need a Bugatti Veyron to see off an Atom from standstill.

It all started in the mid-nineties when Simon Saunders, designer and director of the Ariel Motor Company, realised he wanted to create his own car. His company had been working as a consultancy for various manufacturers since the early eighties, including making composite parts and body panels. Saunders looked at a number of different options, before deciding on a two-seater sports car. He had noticed at motorsport events people were often most interested in seeing the racing cars with panels removed and so to create something light, as well as visually different, he decided his car would be a bare skeleton.

Atom 2 arrived in 2003 with VTEC power
Atom 2 arrived in 2003 with VTEC power
In 1999 the Atom 1 was launched and looking like a scaffolder’s dream ride it certainly didn’t go unnoticed. To drive, even Saunders admits the first car was extreme and very track focused. It was quick, there was no doubt about it, but it could be twitchy on the limit and unforgiving. But Saunders is a man who does not brush away criticism, thinking he knows best, and instead listened to journalists and buyers before making revisions.

The Atom 2 of 2003 was a far more user-friendly car, and whereas the original sold less than 100, the second incarnation sold around three times that. Instead of the Rover KSeries of the original this car had a 2.0 litre Honda VTEC from the Civic Type-R, making it even more fun to drive. At the end of last year the Atom 3 arrived with the latest Civic Type-R motor, weighing just 500 kilos in standard form and 525 kilos supercharged. The car has been described as ‘the most fun you can have with your clothes on’ and when you get behind the wheel you understand why.

Atom 3 is a clear evolution of the theme
Atom 3 is a clear evolution of the theme
Motoring journo and Autocar editor-at-large Steve Sutcliffe has driven plenty of Atoms, including for the magazine’s 0-100-0 challenge, which it has won twice. He explains to PistonHeads what makes these cars so special: ‘Everything about the Ariel Atom is, as a politician might say, transparent. The way you can see right into its guts if you follow it from behind, the fact that there is no bodywork to prevent onlookers from seeing exactly how hard (or otherwise) the driver is trying.

'And most of all the way it drives. The Atom is that rarest of ultra fast cars because it wears its heart on its sleeve and has no secrets. Every input you make at whatever control it may be incites a perfectly balanced yet instant response from the car. You steer it more with your mind than your hands and arms, and when you pres the accelerator it


starts to go before you even have time to think about it.

'You want acceleration, it delivers, never more so than with the 300bhp supercharged Honda VTEC engine installed, which can hurl you from zero to 100mph in a whisker over six seconds. Yes, the fastest Atom really is as fast as a McLaren F1 for pure acceleration, and when there’s little but fresh air to separate you from the elements it feels even faster than the numbers say it is.

'And then there’s the way it goes round corners. To get the very most out of an Atom you need to throw it around, lean on its phenomenal levels of grip and, ideally, slide it around a bit like a go-kart. You need to go to a track day, in other words. But the moment you click with an Atom is the moment you’ll realise that driving any other car is, as Paul Newman might put it, just waiting. It’s quite good fun, the Ariel Atom. And that’s quite with a capital F.’

Ariel has now produced 465 Atoms in Britain and 110 have been made under licence in the United States. Talk show host Jay Leno owns one and took it to the unveiling of the new Bugatti Veyron in Beverly Hills. He said he did so because he wanted to show that an Atom could do practically everything the Veyron does but in its own way.


Saunders says the company is in good financial health and has over a year’s orders. Ariel is now looking at a second car for the line-up and a motorbike could also be on the cards. Saunders puts the success of the Atom down to the company’s slow growth, allowing them to listen to their customers and develop the car progressively. ‘The Atom is very good at a couple of things – going fast and having fun,’ he says. ‘We outperform Lambos and Ferraris and it is nice to be the David in David and Goliath.’

PH Hero Rating: 8.5/10

Author: Oli S