The Ariel

In the beginning the Ariel was a fine, powerful car, in the best “Mr. Toad” style, a copy of successful continental techniques. There was little shame in that, at a time when the lead set by Mercedes with its honeycomb radiator, gate gear-change, channel-section steel chassis-frame and so on was widely adopted by other makers. In this case the manufacturer was the Ariel Motor Co, of Bournbrook, Birmingham, which had commenced motor-building in 1898 with petrol-propelled tricycles and quads. However, around 1904 they became ambitious, replacing a simple 10hp twin-cylinder car with the big, impressive Ariel-Simplex. The name was a sop to Mercedes imitation, perhaps?

The company had been formed by Charles Sangster, who brought into the business his shrewd son Jack. So it was no surprise to find the latter driving a big Ariel at the prestigious opening meeting at the new Brooklands Motor Course in 1907. He was unplaced and lost the car’s bonnet in one race, which probably led to compulsory bonnet-straps. But in the Stephenson Plate of 300 sovereigns. AE Harrison, driving for him, was second to the winning Darracq of the Marquis de Mouzilly St Mars. At the 1910 Olympia Show Ariel & General Repairs Ltd, of Camberwell New Road, London, represented the parent firm, but only one Ariel was displayed a 15hp semi-torpedo four-seater priced at £325.

It hid its light under that of two Hurtus and an 10/12hp AGR chassis, whatever that was, which the punters could have had for 240gns, without tyres. By 1913 there was a continuation of the smaller horsepower car, with a new 16hp chassis, as maybe more suited to the changing market than the giant 60hp Ariel-Simplex of yore. The smaller car had a four-cylinder engine of the classic 80 x 150mm dimensions, and the specification was attractive, embracing as it did a four-speed gearbox controlled with a righthand lever, full pressure engine lubrication, and a petrol tank neatly formed as part of the scuttle-dashboard.

Cooling was on the simple thermo-syphon system, to a slightly vee or rounded radiator and the rear Y4-elliptic springs underslung the axle. The manufacturers guaranteed that this new Ariel would run at from four to 55mph in top gear, return a petrol consumption of at least 25mpg and that, its weight being kept to no more than 13 and a half cwt in chassis form, it would climb the 1-in-5/1-in-4 Brooklands Test Hill on its standard gear ratios. But the carburettor, set low down on the off-side of the engine, fed through a very long exposed inlet pipe, crudely attached with two two-bolt flange-joints, so how starting was achieved in cold weather rather troubles me – except that having then only recently been born I had no knowledge of this brave new Ariel and its induction arrangements.

Around this time there was a move to fit some Ariels with Alford & Alder front-wheel brakes, thus following the pioneering in this field by Argyll, Crossley and a very few others. The light-car market was also sought, with a 1.3-litre Ariel. But by then we were at war and it was still-born. Ariel’s real glory had been the big cars and no doubt these had appealed to those who appreciated the advances made on the Continent but preferred to buy patriotically from Britain’s Industrial Midlands.

After the Armistice the Ariel Company made motorcycles, very successfully. One remembers such notable models as the Val Page-designed ohv 497cc Ariel, the Red Hunter with which Ben Bickel did so well on Brooklands, those side-valve models which Hartley tuned so effectively, and Edward Turner’s great Ariel Square Fours, etc. But by 1922 the decision was taken to return to the car market, in view of the success that the postwar small cars were indulging in.

The first such was the Ariel Nine, with an 85 x 88mm. horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder engine in a simple chassis sprung on 1/2-elliptic springs, a three-speed gearbox with ratios of 16.2, 9 and 5 to 1 mounted on the front of the torque-tube, and a cone clutch with the refinement of a clutch-stop. In 1922 the price, sans speedometer, clock or a special paint job was £215.

The accessibility of engine and chassis components was commendable, and the Ariel Nine (MC rating 8,96hp) seems to have been well received. However, Nick Georgano’s 99.9 per cent infallible Complete Encyclopedia of Motor Cars says the engine “was noisy and vibrated badly”. It is quoted as air-cooled but, in fact, the Ariel’s flat-twin power-unit was water-cooled. It was reputedly made for Ariel by the industrial establishment of Harper-Bean at Tipton. So probably the contributor to the Encyclopaedia was thinking of another car. Indeed, the price just quoted was a reduction, consequent upon an extended manufacturing programme.

The next move was to replace the flat-twin with a four-cylinder engine. There need be nothing adverse read into that: it was a normal development by others, at different times, such as Rover, BSA, Morgan etc. The new Ariel Ten had a Swift side-valve power unit of 60 x 97mm (1097cc), the same dimensions as those of the Swift Ten, with pressure lubrication. Little else seems to have been changed.

Indeed, the entire car was so similar to that of the Swift that one wonders whether Ariel were supplied with most of it by their Coventry neighbours. Apart from a Smiths instead of a Solex carburetter and a magneto instead of coil ignition (to which Swift went over in 1925), the engines appeared identical, but Ariel used a right-hand gear lever, Swift a central one, changed to a r/h position for 1925. however.

When in 1924 Ariel introduced a longer-wheelbase, full four-seater (£225, or £235 in deluxe form with mirror, spring gaiters, hood cover, speedometer, mats and leather upholstery — happy days!), so did Swift. The Ariel occasional four-seater in four-cylinder guise cost £198, or £210 with the deluxe equipment, but a starter-motor was 2 extra. It was claimed that in spite of the 6 in longer wheelbase of the new model, weight had been kept down to retain a lively performance. The older model had a wheelbase of eight feet.

Ariel had appointed a Mr Tippen to design their cars, but in the case of the four-cylinder job he must have had a fairly easy time. The first flat-twins were notorious for broken backaxle half-shafts, until these were increased to an unnecessarily large 11/4in diameter.

Like most of the small cars of the time the Ariel appeared in trials and other competitions. In the 1924 Scottish Six-Days Trial the Ariel Ten driven by Croal won a silver cup, as had Sanderson’s Ariel Nine in a 1922 Six-Days. Another notable performance was that of the soon-to-be-famous Donald Healey, who undertook an RAC-observed trial of 1788 and a 1/2 miles in 1924, driving an Ariel Ten from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s and back, concluding with an ascent of the notorious Bluehills Mine. The little car gave an astonishingly useful 53.79mpg, 6433mpg of oil, and used a little over five pints of water. It was on Dunlop low-pressure tyres and, with passengers, weighed 17 and 1/2cwt. No downhill coasting was allowed. The only breakage was of a leaf in the n/s front 1/4-elliptic spring, but Healey drove the car on without replacing it.

At the 1924 Olympia Show Ariel had the distinction of being on Stand No 1, although I believe that was the luck of the SMM&T draw. The only contact I had with one of these cars was when I saw two elderly ladies driving an Ariel Ten briskly across a local crossroads, after a toot on its bulb horn. Enquiry indicated that they let a local garage remove it each winter and then re-energize it when the next Spring day arrived, but that now the ladies were disposing of it. This sent me post-haste to the garage and then to the house, with visions of obtaining an interesting mount for VSCC Light Car Section “jollies”. Alas, someone had beaten me to it and the car had departed for far places, to Cornwall I believe.

But before I left I thought to ask why such a rare make had been chosen. It transpired that the girls had gone to the 1924 Motor Show to buy a new car but found walking round Olympia in high-heeled shoes tiring. So they decided that they would buy the next car that would fit their garden-shed. They had a tape-measure with them, and the Ariel’s measurements were in order! They were still running the car on the country roads of Berkshire and Hampshire into the 1950s, although production had ceased by 1925. Maybe that is a good enough testimonial for the Birmingham-produced small-car that had stemmed from the great Ariel-Simplex Sixties of long before. W B