Ariel Ace: Full UK road test

Prototype of the Ace as we tested it.

Fourty four years after the last Ariel motorcycle rolled off the production line - Ariel is back in the business of building bikes, again. Yet rather than creep back into motorcycling all quiet and apologetic, Ariel has landed with a boom using a 174bhp V4 engine in a radical aluminium chassis with styling taken from the future. You get the impression that doing things quietly isn’t Ariel’s style.

The historic Ariel name was sold to BSA in 1970 and reborn as a track day car manufacturer in 1999. That same firm now has a new motorcycle business, a crazy new bike from the same stable as the outrageous Atom two-seater track day car, and plans to build 100-150 motorcycles a year. And man, what a bike this new Ariel is.

The Ace is one of the maddest-looking production motorcycles we’ve ever seen. The aluminium frame is skeletal and echoes the radical Ariel Atom car with its outside in frame concept, where everything hangs off the main chassis. Even that frame takes 70 hours to make!

But more than the way it looks – the Ace works in every possible way as a standard mass produced production bike would, but with its own unique soul and character that’s handbuilt in Somerset.
But we’re not using the word character to mean creaking and old, this is a British bike using modern Honda technology and it’s an incredible bike to ride. In this guise the Ace is a performance cruiser with power and handling to see off most decent naked sports bikes, and by that I mean Honda CB1000Rs, Triumph’s Speed Triple and Kawasaki’s Z1000, as well as traditional performance cruisers like Harley’s V-Rod and Ducati’s Diavel. It sounds Ace (get it), handles, stops and goes exactly as it should, yet makes an incredible noise from the Honda V4 motor which now uses a closed airbox, Ariel’s own fuelling set-up and exhaust system.

Ariel Ace handles well. Peg scrapes but this is on the lowest footrest setting for extra hero points. 
It’s not a sports bike. It was never intended to be, but everything works as a package and this bike can hustle. Ariel uses the phrase ‘Serious Fun’ and it’s bang on. A bike that’s still incredibly fast, but not terrifying in any way, and one that can enhance the riding capabilities of most riders, rather than frighten them. It’s a that’s right for now. Perfect for those looking for a fast motorcycle that can cover ground quickly, but one that’s not going to help you lose your licence on. I absolutely love it.

Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay the incredible aluminium-framed beast is that it feels completely finished, and not like a prototype from a reborn manufacturer at all. Everything works to perfection and it’s the best chassis yet for the Honda VFR1200 that sits beneath the milled aluminium chassis. It’s a boring motor in its VFR1200 tourer guise, but in the stripped-down devil child that is the Ariel Ace, it’s a whole different bike. It pulls from low-down, has plenty of mid-range and a raspy top-end. Ariel will make the Dual Clutch Transmission an option too, and that set-up would work well on the performance cruiser.


ARIEL MAKE COOL CARS, SO WHY A BIKE?
“We always intended to build a motorcycle”, explains Ariel General Manager Tom Siebert as he shows us around the historic Ariel motorcycles they have tucked away at the Somerset factory.

“As soon as we got the Ariel name we wanted to build a motorcycle but my father already had the Atom car worked up so we went ahead and built that first. But motorcycles are what Ariel stands for. The problem was that we couldn’t find the engine we wanted to put in a bike. Ideally we wanted a something like a V4, and Ariel has a link to the past with bikes like the Square Four, and most people remember Ariel for the Ariel Square Four. But in 2007 when we first started thinking about the bike we’d build, there wasn’t a suitable engine. We were keen to use a Honda, as our Atom cars use a Honda engine.”

Tom added: “Then in 2010 the VFR1200 came along and we knew as soon as we rode it that was the right engine for the Ace.”

Ariel's Tom Siebert

Four years in the making and seven years since Ariel had the idea to build a motorcycle here it is in front of us. In fact there’s three – the two year-old prototype that the boys at the factory have used to get it to this stage, a finished performance cruiser version of the Ace with lashings of carbon fibre and a dual seat for pillion and rider. And there’s the sportier version of the Ace. Think Streetfighter with BST carbon fibre wheels, Ohlins front forks, a racier riding position and pointier seat unit.

It might be the same basic bike but it gives a very different feel. As Simon Saunders, Director of Ariel said previously: “Motorcyclists have a real passion for their machines. They like them to be individual and they want them to be their bike, not just another bike identical to hundreds or thousands of others. The usual route is to buy a standard bike and then add various aftermarket components to change the bike into what they want. However, with the Ace the uniqueness is built in as the bike is produced and each one will be as individual as its owner.”

For now, and until we can tease the keys for the sportier bike out of Tom’s hands, we’re riding the prototype. Tom explains it’s seen some action and isn’t as well finished as the production bikes, but it’s hardly shoddy and it’s only when parked next to the shinier, newer bike that you can tell the differences in finish.

All the bikes are called Ace. All use the same basic Honda VFR1200 motor, a machined aluminium chassis in the vein of the ‘outside in’ concept seen on the firm’s Ariel Atom car. But then the owner specifies how they would like the bike. It’s bespoke motorcycling if you like. Would sir like more carbon fibre? A different seat unit, 14.1 litres tank, or 21.3 litre tank? Girder forks or Ohlins? Step this way. There’s a myriad of options available.

This is the Ace as a streefighter with conventional forks, different seat unit and bling carbon wheels. It has a very different vibe.

Not one Ariel Atom car leaves the Somerset factory the same as another one, and it’s the same concept for the bikes. Owners spec it to their preference – from carbon bolt-ons to top-of-the-range semi-active suspension if the customer wants it.

There’s a whole host of options from exhausts, wheels, brakes, suspension, girder forks, upside down forks, seat units and bars. Anything is possible within reason, it just depends how much you want to spend. A basic spec bike like the prototype we’re riding would cost in the region of £20,000.

As it is, the whole concept is stunning. The link with the cars is obvious from the frame set-up. This is made in three sections – an adjustable headstock, and two sides milled from aluminium. To give you an idea of what that frame costs to make – Tom says that he gets back £800 in scrap from the aluminium swarf from each frame. The front girder set-up is again aluminium. It’s beautiful in the metal, completely unique and incredibly well-finished. 

The Ace is one of our tester's favourite bikes in years. He's ridden thousands of them. Yes, we said thousands.

It’s testimony to the belief that Ariel have that after a couple of hours doing interviews, a factory tour, and photographs, that they just chuck me the keys and say ‘see you in a couple of hours.’ No back-up van, no nervous outrider supporting us in case of breakdowns, just ride off and see you later. 

IT’S A HONDA MOTOR BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT:
The riding position sits you well in the bike so there’s very little wind coming your way.  The bars are wide and you hide behind the frame rails and the top of the tank. There’s an ultra trick digital dash in front of you with settings for everything you can think of, and Honda switch gear. This bike doesn’t have traction control, production bikes will have the Honda system if owners want it. The buttons will be mounted on the left side of the bike, behind and to the left of the headstock.

The riding position sits you back against the seat back, perched above the Honda shaft drive. It feels relaxed and natural. The adjustable steering head angle is set to a neutral setting (adjustable from 21.8 degrees to 28.4 degrees), and it not radically quick to steer, but feels neutral, agile. Perfect almost. Wheelbase again can be set from 1541mm for a sportier ride, to 1563mm for a lazier feel depending on preference.

Immediately obvious is the Ariel girder style front end which feels abnormally soft at first. Tom explained that they designed it to feel like a normal fork set-up for those of us brought up on conventional forks. Get on the brakes and there’s dive like on a normal set-up, it does a fine job of soaking up bumps. The Ohlins shock is incredibly plush and that slightly soft feeling works. You just need to get your head around the way it works. But work it does.

You can adjust the front suspension (fully adjustable front and rear) on the move using the clickers on the front Ohlins shock. I dial in two more clicks of compression to suit my riding style and weight, and it feels absolutely bang-on. Ride it slower and I’d leave it where Ariel set-up. The boys at the factory are all into bikes, there’s a KTM parked outside, a ratty old scooter which they all take the mickey off, and Tom used to race off-road and makes a regular pilgrimage to the Isle of Man TT on a tuned Honda C90. Bikes run in the Ariel blood, and you can tell by what they’ve achieved with this bike first time round.

The steering system means the standard Honda six-piston Nissin calipers are transformed. You can pin the brakes hard and it doesn’t affect the ABS, just stops. Fast. Nail it into a corner and you can turn it hard on the brakes feeling the front-end working as you tighten up the line. It may look complicated but feels so right. In fact, if I was speccing up an Ariel Ace for myself (hello, Mr Bank Manager…) I’d keep the aluminium front-end over forks as it suits the bike so well and adds to the shock factor of how the bike looks. It works brilliantly.

The Ace handles incredibly well. Front end is set up soft but feels great, and plush.

The motor perfectly matches the bike’s outlook on life. The V4 burbles along smoothly with barely any noticeable vibration. It never gets hot around town, pulls cleanly from low revs with no hint of a splutter, and has an incredible mid-range. Ariel have set the bike up to their preference and combined with their exhausts system it feels like the bike has a few more ponies than standard, yet Ariel are modest in their claims of 173bhp the same as Honda quote.

Cruise and it will cruise. Wind it up and it will play. On a hot sticky day it doesn’t need traction control. Nail the throttle and try and unstick the Dunlop Roadsmart tyres and you won’t be able too. It hauls ass all the way to a claimed top-speed of 165mph, something I never got near on the rolling lanes of Somerset, but can well believe.

First time Ariel's two-seater has been photographed

The only limiting factor is the ground clearance. The footrests dig in early, but as we said before, this is a performance cruiser and not a sports bike, although it does encourage you to ride like a sports bike. If that’s the way you ride then spec it to have one of the higher footrests positions. This was set to the lowest and away from photoshoots where you repeatedly hack into the same corner for the camera, I never ground it out when ‘real riding’.

So it’s good to ride, it’s well made, and it looks incredible. One other thing you will never be short of when riding the Ace is attention. Everywhere we parked it blokes in vans pulled up, the post man asked for a picture, and we were mobbed in the local town of Crewkerne where Ariel are based. Every single one of them also shouted ‘Atom’ when they saw it too, such is the power of the car and the styling that the bike shares with its four-wheeled brother.

After a brilliant day’s riding and time spent at the Ariel factory I am a massive fan of what they are trying to achieve, their passion for motorcycles and things with engines in general. But beyond that they have taken a concept, fitted it with a Honda V4 engine and transformed what that slightly dull bike previously meant to me. Before I rode the Ace, the Honda VFR1200 lump was a lovely engine but was all a bit dull and felt heavy. In the Ace it’s a revelation and the fact that the guys in Somerset have built a bike this good at their first attempt is an amazing feat. Cider all round lads, you should be very proud.

Okay, so with a basic bike starting around £20,000 some people are going to say it’s too expensive. Don’t buy one in that case, but don’t sniff at people who do, because the Ace is one of the most unique experiences on two-wheels and a bike that you would never forget riding. I know I won’t.The spec is incredibly high on all the bikes, and basically the price is your limit if you want to buy one. The rest of us can just dream.

This is the two-seater bike as it will make it to production. The finish is high and there's loads of carbon-fibre on this bike.

TECHNICAL SPEC

 Price

 Prices start at £20,000

 Power/Torque

 173bhp@10,000rpm, 96ftlb@8750rpm

 Engine

 Liquid-cooled Honda V4, 1237cc

 Fuel tank size

 14.1 litres, 18.6 litres, 21.3 litres

 Colours

 Whatever colour, spec you’d like from frame, to tank, to wheels, and everything in between!

HISTORY OF (OLD ) ARIEL

The first powered Ariel-badged vehicle was a tricycle, which appeared in 1898 followed in by its first motorcycle in 1901, incidentally in the same year as the first Ariel car.

The firm made its first motorcycle engine in 1903, though from 1910 Ariel standardised on the White and Poppe proprietary engine; engines were made in house from 1911, the manufacturing rights having been acquired.

During World War One, machines were supplied to the forces, with civilian manufacture restarting in 1919. Bought-in engines – from MAG in Switzerland, JAP and Blackburne in England – were used alongside Ariel’s own, then in 1925 Ariel employed the brilliant Val Page and so began its first halcyon period. In the late 1920s the famous Page-designed ‘Black Ariels’ curried much favour.

The 1930s was a period dominated by Edward Turner (later, Triumph’s head man) who brought his famous Square Four design to Ariel. Turner also introduced the popular, stylish Red Hunter range, which could lay claim to being the finest 250, 350 and 500cc single cylinder models of the 1930s.  

During World War Two Ariel supplied the W/NG model – based on the 350cc Red Hunter – with the firm acquired by BSA in 1944. During the 1940s and 50s, the 350 and 500cc Red Hunters and 1000cc Square Fours – plus 500 and 650cc parallel twins – made up the range. 

Then in 1959 a bombshell – the whole four-stroke range was discontinued, replaced the futuristic 250cc two-stroke twin cylinder Leader, then later the Arrow was added. There was the 50cc Pixie too – then in 1965, BSA ended Ariel production. The name was revived in 1970 for the disastrous three-wheeled Ariel 3. It was later relaunched as the Ariel Motor Company in 1999 with the Ariel Atom car, before launching a bike this year.

Thanks to Ariel Motor Company for letting us play on their new toy, scrape the pegs and bring it back with a screw in the tyre, and especially to Tom Siebert for putting up with us and answering our annoying questions. Nice one fellas!