The continued success of the Ariel Motor Company is a standout story in the recent history of low volume British carmaking. Merely surviving in the notoriously fickle lightweight sports car sector is a notable achievement; flourishing into a rival to the established brands - and exceeding them, in some departments - is a triumph no less impressive than McLaren's arrival as a genuine alternative to Ferrari.
The Atom is nearly 20 years old, a steady stream of bikes continues to depart Crewkerne and expansion continues in the shape of a much-discussed hypercar project - all within the red-brick walls of its Somerset-based factory. Perfect time, then, with business booming, to speak with Simon Saunders, Ariel's founder. The backdrop could hardly be rosier: the Nomad continues to find many happy customers, Atom 4 production has kicked off in earnest and, well, we were keen to know more about the idea of an electric Ariel hypercar.
On the cars already in production, Saunders is unsurprisingly upbeat - the Atom 4 was one of the best cars of 2018, waiting lists stretch into years and the service centre is full of Nomads. Perhaps his most interesting point, actually, is on reliability: "Since we've been making the Atom, people's expectations of cars continue to grow... If we said to our customers you need a new gearbox after 20 hours or an engine rebuild after 40 hours, they'd walk away from us to be honest." Honda powertrains will have presumably contributed to this, though any time with the Atom 4 proves what a high-quality little thing it is. There's not much to it, but what there is is beautifully assembled.
It needs to be, too, since Atom drivers do all sorts with their cars. "What we're trying to do is give elements of what you'd get from single seat driving but in a car you can just stick in a garage", Saunders says, but for some buyers that will mean solely road use, and for some their cars are never road registered - there for track only. He sees the dream day for most Atom customers as: "Get in the car, drive to the track, drive around the track all day and drive home - that's it." Essentially the cars must be capable of that if the buyer chooses to go with little more than a check of the oil and a tyre pressure gauge - "They go to drive the car, not work on the car."
As for the future of the Atom, don't expect much to change just yet. Saunders sees Ariel's task as getting back to driving, "and putting smiles on customers' faces" so sees little demand for any automatic soon, even though it may be worth some time on track. And it is a very good manual. It's also why there won't be any faster Atoms just yet; while there's apparently always a demand for extra power from customers - including a buyer who had to be talked out of a V8 for a regular Atom 3 to use for City commuting - Saunders says their task is "giving people what they need, not what they think they need", which can make them the "worst salesmen around" as customers are talked out of the more track focused options in the extensive catalogue once their needs are realised. There's even discussion of limiting the boost for the running in period to ensure customers are comfortable with more than 300hp and less than 600kg: "It sounds like the wagging finger we're trying to get away from, but we want you to get used to the car." Atom buyers are advised not to let their friends drive their car for that same reason...
So is an electric Atom possible? It has already happened, in fact, the Wrightspeed X1 built back in 2008 - the company created by Tesla co-founder Ian Wright. However, with the battery tech at the time, it was going to cost 50 per cent more than a supercharged Atom and be a little slower - not viable, especially once recession took hold. Even now, with battery tech far more advanced, Saunders says an electric Atom is "some way off", because it wouldn't be affordable enough. Any alternative powertrain Atom is likely to be some kind of hybrid first. While Ariel's simulated usage - up to an including "driving like a t**t on the road" - suggests an electric powertrain could work, the massively increased energy demands on circuit means charge just wouldn't hold for long enough. But if fast chargers were installed at circuits, that could change the situation. And sillier things have happened, haven't they?
Still, the discussion about powertrains - presumably the Nomad will swap its 2.4 for the Civic 2.0-litre in time, though we're only told it will "be renewed at some point" - inevitably means the EV hypercar is discussed. Understandably a huge project for a company like Ariel, Saunders is pretty clear on the motivation: "Part of the reason for doing it is so that we have an understanding of the technology that is emerging. If we don't understand it, if the low volume industry doesn't move, they're going to get left behind. Legislated out, won't be able to catch up or it'll be too little, too late."
Hence working with Alexander Dennis and JLR on the development of electric vehicles, being the "schoolboy" in the trio and demanding the "worst case scenario" - a lightweight and affordable EV powertrain, surely the holy grail for Ariel and many others. That's in addition to having a quarter of the workforce in R&D, a large chunk of that working towards electric. The problem at the moment now, Saunders explains, is nailing the technology down at a point and actually making progress with a car, such is the pace with which things change. "It's a bit like buying a phone or a laptop or a camera; as you walk out of the shop you know there's a better one coming. It's out of date." It's a problem for both the big and small manufacturers; look how quickly we've come to expect a reliable 200 miles (or more) from pretty much all electric vehicles.
As for the hypercar itself, we're told to expect something different from an Atom and with "some track capability, but you couldn't lap from 9 until 5" - because nothing with batteries is going to do that just yet." As lead partner in a five-company, grant-funded electric project, Ariel's focus is of course on applying the technology to the car; aware of its limited application - "Us doing 100 cars a year won't change emissions or make us employ thousands" - Saunders is aware of a bigger picture that Ariel can be part of. GKN is another partner, so if the EV work can be marketed by them, the potential is there for a more significant impact.
To gear up for production of that car, due in 2022, Ariel will have to move. Crewkerne is at capacity - it has been for a while, in fact - producing around 130 cars a year and about 20 bikes. Saunders sees Ariel's optimum volume as somewhere around 200 a year; while he appreciates the "accountant's dream" is to grow and grow, being a small car company gives the kind of flexibility and freedom not afforded to bigger firms. He says you need to be careful of the middle - "old TVR" is the phrase that's used - where production is hovering around four figures annually, meaning the agility of low volume car making has gone, but the benefits of being a large operation aren't being felt yet. Ariel is comfortable where it is.
Ariel is comfortable still doing bikes as well, even if Saunders described the Ace as a "b*****d" of a project: "You would think something with two wheels would be half as easy as something with four wheels, but it turns out to be about eight times as difficult!" Giving the bike an Ariel identity on what he calls a "small canvas", while also catering to buyer tastes in a small (and typically quite conservative) bit of the market, has proved somewhat of a challenge. Still, there are bikes being assembled alongside the Nomads, and bloody brilliant they look too. "We may do another one, but we're happy with the way the Ace is going. It's never going to be large numbers. But we're not in a vast hurry to start another..."
As for the more immediate future, next year marks 20 years of the Atom - with the Atom X created to celebrate the tenth anniversary, what's in store for 20? Well, nothing at the moment, says Saunders: "We really should do something", the impression that there are bigger projects and ambitions currently taking up the time at Ariel. Still, if there are any bright ideas to show off 20 years of the Atom in style, we know a man who'd like to hear them.