Ariel Motorcycles have acquired an image & a level of respect that is perhaps greater than the volume of motorcycles it sold would dictate. The legendary Ariel Square Four, designed by Edward Turner (who would go on to create the seminal 1937 Triumph Speed Twin), has gone a long way to establish the marque in the eyes of collectors & enthusiasts of Classic British Motorcycles. But Square Four was only part of the Ariel story. Great single cylinder bikes like the Ariel Red Hunter sold well enough & fared well in off-road competition. Ariel also built its own 500cc vertical twin, designed by Val Page, the Model KH. The later 650cc FH Huntmaster twin was actually powered by a disguised BSA A10 engine. The Ariel Leader & Ariel Arrow were 250cc two-stroke twins, so Ariel’s product line was quite diverse. Always robust & considered reliable for the day, were well respected machines in their day, as they are even more so today.
THE EARLY DAYS
Ariel Motorcycles started out as the Ariel Cycle Co. making bicycles in Birmingham, England in 1897, and was owned by Dunlop Tire Co. They built their first powered vehicle, a tricycle in 1898. Interestingly, sadly perhaps, the last vehicle ever built with the proud Ariel name on it was also a trike, the horrid 1970 BSA-spawned project that failed miserably. But that’s another story.
Prior to World War II, Ariel Motorcycles built a line of side valve & OHV (Overhead Valve) singles & of course the seminal Ariel Square Four. The onset of war diverted them to war production & it was during this period, in 1944, that Ariel Motorcycles was acquired by the BSA Group, at the time a mega-corporation with vast holdings & resources. When the smoke cleared from the war & Ariel’s workers realized they had a new boss, they promptly went on strike, fearing that BSA would close the Selly Oak factory where Ariels had always been built. (Another interesting deja vu moment: In 1974, the Triumph workers closed down the Meriden plant when they heard owner BSA was going to close them down. You’d think BSA would have learned.) The strike was settled quickly & production resumed at Selly Oak.
Post-war, the Ariel Motorcycle product line was quite impressive & business was good. The Ariel Red Hunter singles were entered into off-road competitions & did quite well, establishing a new market for Ariel. Of course the Ariel Square Four continued to sell well & became the icon of the company. Things could have gone along pretty much as they were, but Ariel Motorcycles had a different vision for their future.
BAD MARKET RESEARCH
In mid-1950s England, vast numbers of BSA Bantams & other light two-strokes from James & Francis-Barnett (both owned by AMC) were being sold to the working-class masses as basic transportation to commute to & from work. Ariel launched an early version of what we call today “market research” & determined that the right motorcycle to build to meet this new emerging market was a sleek 250cc two-stroke twin.
ABOVE: This 1961 Ariel Leader 250cc two-stroke twin shows the direction that Ariel’s designers believed motorcycling was headed for. We were all going to be riding fully enclosed bikes like this.
ONE REALLY BAD MOVE
They had so much faith in the concept that they intended to drop all the other 4-stroke motorcycles in their line-up, hot-selling Ariel Red Hunters & Ariel Square Fours included, so as to concentrate on this one-and-only 2-stroke Ariel Motorcycle. Of course, it was a phenomenal flop & the final swan song for yet another great Classic British Motorcycle company. The project bombed. The last Ariel Motorcycles were built in 1959. That is, with the exception of a few later attempts on the part of parent-company BSA to cash in on the respected Ariel name by plastering it on an otherwise lackluster product. Shame that.
But at least we have our memories…of these wonderful Classic British Motorcycles that have survived, once again to be cherished. And we have some gorgeous photos to slaver over. Enjoy.
Ariel Motorcycles MODEL-BY-MODEL
ARIEL SQUARE FOUR
500cc: 4F 1931-33; 927 built
600cc: 4F 1932-40; 2,674 built
1000cc: 4G 1937-49; 4,288 built
1000cc: MkI 1949-53; 3,922 built
1000cc: MkII 1953-59; 3,828 built
650cc OHV Vertical Twin
Check out this lovely 1958 Cyclone 650.
250cc two-stroke twin, 1958-65; 22,000 built
The Ariel Leader was Ariel’s idea of ‘the next big thing’. Their ambitious plan was to replace their entire line of well-respected 4-strokes (including the seminal Ariel Square Four) with these funky, fully-enclosed bikes that were supposed to offer the comfort of a scooter with the performance of a motorcycle. Won 1959 Motorcycle of the Year award.
Atrociously ugly attempt to do battle with the Japanese imports that failed miserably. They took the handsome Ariel Leader, stripped all the bodywork off & built this cheaper version. Includes Ariel Golden Arrow.