Simon Saunders and his creation
Driving through Crewkerne in Somerset, I’m struck by how normal the town looks. There’s a high street, old houses, middle class people. It’s just like any other West Country town I’ve seen. There seems to be absolutely no acknowledgement of what lies just a mile down the road. That is the Ariel Motor Company – one of the most successful British sports car start-ups of recent times. And yet, just by looking at the town, the Ariel factory could be a hundred miles away.
What was I expecting? A huge factory belching black smoke out of a towering chimney, a thick cloud lingering over rows of terraced houses to accommodate soot-darkened workers, perhaps.
Unique success story
Of course, the reality is quite different. Despite the massive reputation that the company has already won, despite the huge respect that the Atom has earned as a road and track car, the Ariel facility is tiny. Indeed, I drove past it twice trying to find it; the thing that eventually gave it away was an Atom exiting the gates. It’s a wonderful contradiction, and one that really does encourage you to believe that there is life yet in the British sports car industry. I’ve come here to meet the man at the very top of Ariel, Simon Saunders, the man who is responsible for this unique success story.
Sometimes it can seem as though this once thriving sports car industry is in danger of becoming little more than a memory. At a time when many other British sports car companies are either under foreign ownership, such as TVR, or carry out much of their production overseas, like Noble, it’s refreshing to know that the owner, chief designer and director of Ariel is British, the company continues to produce its cars within these shores, and it utilises home grown skills.
‘There are a lot of skills in this country that don’t exist in other countries’, says Saunders. ‘As Ariel build in small numbers, the benefits of manufacturing cars in Britain far outweigh the consequences. When you get to TVR levels, however, and you’re trying make 1000 cars every year, and it’s going to cost thousands of pounds less to make them in South Africa or China, it quickly becomes an easy decision to make. That said, it would be a pity if these unique British skills start to die out’.
With construction of extra factory space currently being undertaken at Ariel, Saunders clearly has no plans to end UK production any time soon.
Despite the undeniable security of Ariel’s future, one method of ensuring it further, as well as that of other British sports car companies, would be a cooperative, whereby manufacturers such as Ariel, Noble, Morgan and Caterham share a factory, parts suppliers and the costs that come with building cars. ‘In theory it is quite a good idea. But it’s a slightly utopian thought’.
Driven by passion
Saunders is a man whose opinions on such a situation must be taken seriously. He previously worked as a designer for Porsche, Aston Martin and GM, and it’s blatantly clear after talking to him for just a short while that he is in this business because it is his passion.
‘If you want to make lots of money, don’t make cars. Go and make toothbrushes. We’re here because it’s what we love doing’. So how did Ariel come to be? ‘We’ve got lots of speed cameras, and the roads are very congested. You can’t often drive very fast. We could see there was a need for people to have a vehicle that they could drive fast, but not necessarily on the road. We’re successful because we’ve been driven by the enthusiasm of the people working here’.
Enthusiasm is clearly something that Saunders values very highly. ‘A few key guys have left Caterham, which seems to have taken away the enthusiasm. It will be interesting to see if they can survive as a business. The future of TVR will be down to Nikolai Smolenski and his drive. I think he is determined to do it. If somebody gave me TVR on a plate though, I’m not sure I’d want the job’.
With the popularity of the track day scene rising, it’s rapidly becoming a lucrative market. Major manufactures have begun to build track focussed cars, such as Porsche’s 911 GT3 and BMW’s M3 CSL, to get their slice of the pie.
Can Ariel compete with them? ‘Absolutely. The major manufacturers have more barriers to overcome, mostly relating to legislation. Their cars will always be more compromised on a racing circuit, as they have to work well on the road, too. The Atom will always be faster on a track, and more fun, mostly because it’s so light. It’s also a lot cheaper to run than something like a GT3, and doesn’t go through tyres and brakes so quickly. It’s more a case of them being able to compete with us. I don’t think they can’.
Brave words indeed. When you consider what he has achieved though, it becomes impossible to doubt him.
Scared the **** out of me
The final question was Simon’s: ‘Do you want a ride in an Atom?’ Oh God yes. Turns out there’s a top-spec 300 that needs a test run. That’ll be the supercharged one then. 0-60mph with a heart attack. I stand on the one-piece composite seat, and lower myself into the cockpit. As I’m handed a helmet, I find myself hoping it’s just for wind protection. The black visor comes down, and I note the wide array of bugs splattered onto it – if I can’t look cool riding in a supercharged Atom at 8,000rpm in third, wearing a red helmet with a black visor, there’s no hope.
Turning out of the factory, I fight the urge to wave at other cars and pedestrians, even though some of them point and stare at us. To those who didn’t look, what on Earth else did you have to look at? Needless to say, it was brilliant. Ruthlessly fast, solid as a rock, and it scared the life out of me. It accelerates in fourth like my Focus accelerates down a cliff.
A genuinely successful British sports car start-up is a rare thing these days, which makes the Ariel Motor Company even more impressive. It’s a shame that the company’s hometown don’t embrace it further. Crewkerne-under-Ariel seems far more appropriate.