The story of the Ariel Leader
In 1959 the English motorcycle magazine "Motorcycle News" declared the Ariel Leader its machine of the year. The following year that honour was taken by the Leader's un-fared sister, the Arrow. For Ariel, it was a reward for the risks they'd taken with their radical designs. And yet despite these successes there remains a general perception that in some way the Leader was a failure that accelerated the demise of a venerable English company.
The Birmingham company began as a bicycle manufacturer in the late nineteenth century and then jumped onto the mechanised transport revolution in 1898 with a tricycle powered by a French De Dion-Boulton engine. From there they began building motorcycles in 1901, first using proprietary engines and then engines of their own designs. They even began producing their own motor cars.
An advertisement from 1903
In 1925 Ariel employed a young engineer named Val Page and he set about improving the design of Ariel's engines. By 1927 Page's designs crystallized into the Red Hunter, one of Ariel's legendary motorcycles. The Hunter came in either 350 or a 500cc versions and in the post-war years enjoyed great success in TT racing. The Hunter enjoyed an extremely long production run from 1927 to 1959, when it was retired in favour of the Leader.
This Ariel advertisement focuses on the Red Hunter's sporting credentials.
In 1930, Ariel had another stoke of good fortune when they picked up another brilliant young engineer, Edward Turner. Turner had been unsuccessfully trying to drum up interest in his revolutionary four cylinder engine. BSA and Triumph had both turned him down, but Ariel was impressed. The Four Square packed the power of a large multi-cylinder engine into a size little larger than a standard twin. The 'Squariel' as it was affectionately known remains one of the great English motorcycles and good examples fetch high prices these days. They were a big bike and the solid, reliable pulling power of the Four Square made them a good sidecar bike - an especially good feature in the 30's when most people could not afford cars. The earlier models had an unwarranted reputation for running hot on the rear cylinders, but this rarely affected overall performance. Like the Red Hunter, the Squariel had an exceptionally long production run, from 1931 to 1959.
Contemporary Four Square advertisement. If the Red Hunter was a sportsman's bike, the Four Square was a gentleman's bike.
But all was not well with Ariel. Hard times during the Great Depression led the company to declare bankruptcy in 1930. After a short shut down the company continued under new ownership but lack of capital would continue to plague the company. Both Val Page and Edward Turner drifted away during the 1930s to rivals BSA and Triumph and it seemed as if the days of innovative motorcycle design were over.
Military contracts during the Second World War offered Ariel something of a lifeline. Their 350cc overhead valve dispatch rider's bike was a hardy and robust machine that added to the company's well earned reputation, but continuing financial decline led the company to sell up to BSA in 1944.
Post War Stagnation
Val Page returned to Ariel 1949 and set about revising the product range, which hadn't really changed since the mid 30's. He added a parallel twin to the range with the 500cc KH model and updated the Red Hunter and Four Square. In 1954 came the Huntmaster, which featured a 650cc BSA A10 engine mounted in an Ariel frame, but Ariel's fortunes continued to decline.
The problem was Ariel's product range was seen as conventional and lacking flair. The old Squarial for instance was solid but staid. The Red Hunter was a successful sporting bike, but it wasn't as flashy or desirable as machines from Vincent, Norton and Velocette, while the Huntsman was basically just another BSA. Their engines too were bog standard four stroke technology which had barely changed in twenty years. A radical rethink was in order.
Ariel management decided to do something different. They decided to do market research, something unheard of in the motorcycle industry. Until that time motorcycle development was driven by the tinkering of creative engineers and the crucible of competitive racing and time trials. The customer was barely involved in the process, except as an observer and ultimate judge of the motorcycles' performance. Ariel's decision to actually ask the customers' what they wanted in a motorcycle was as radical a step as there was in a very conservative industry.
After two years of research Ariel felt they understood what the market was looking for and in 1955 Val Page and his design team came together to work on a new motorcycle design. The design they presented after six weeks brought together a number of novel features and was unlike anything Ariel had produced before. The most obvious feature of the 'Glida', as it was originally called, was its scooter-like body shell. In 1951 the British motorcycle industry had been shaken to its foundation by the arrival of the Vespa. Traditional motorcycle manufacturers had dismissed the little Italian scooter as a fad, but the public did not agree. The Vespa offered the British post-war commuter everything that the motorcycle didn't - style, comfort, weather protection, simplicity and reliability. You could ride to work on a Vespa in your normal clothes - no need for leathers, helmets and goggles - and they sold in their thousands. Given England's inclement weather, the Glida's body shielding was a sensible design feature.
Douglas Vespa - "the two wheeled car." The Vespa transformed personal transport world wherever it went. http://92l2.blogspot.com/ & http://www.veteranvespaclub.com/1008.html
The decision to fully enclose the body of the motorcycle required a complete change in construction. The standard tube frame chassis was replaced by an integral box girder frame. The petrol tank and electrics were hidden away inside the hollow frame, maximizing the use of space and keeping the centre of gravity of the machine low. The sheet metal construction posed a particular problem for Ariel which did not have the capability to manufacture these parts itself. Production of the body, frame and other sheet metal parts was outsourced to local manufacturers and Ariel's Selly Oak factory largely became an assembly hall for the Leader's pre-manufactured parts.
After fifty years of four-stroke engine development Ariel made the decision to employ a two-stroke power-plant. The reasoning behind this decision is unclear, but the origin of the design is not. Quite possibly Ariel were influenced by another recent import to appear on British shores - the German Adler MB250 motorcycle. Coming so soon after the war, the Adler was not a popular seller in Britain, but no one could deny the impressive performance of their neat 200 and 250cc two strokes. Adler's engine was in fact a DKW design that they had been building under license since the 30's. BSA had obtained copies of DKW's engine designs as part of war reparations and Val Page had undoubtedly had access to these during his time with BSA. Ariel's two-stroke wasn't an exact copy of the DKW or Adler engine, but it's so close that their common origin cannot be denied. http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/the-motor-cycle-ariel-two-stroke-engine.html
Amongst other new features were trailing link forks, which contributed to the bikes smooth handling and road holding. The fork ends were highly stylized and distinctive, like many of the bikes decorative features. This was one of the advantages of the steel body shell; it could be used in imaginative and functional ways. While the real petrol tank was hidden away inside the bike, a traditional looking dummy petrol tank was fact a large storage compartment. Unlike contemporary motorcycles, the Glida had an elaborate control console with a range of standard and optional features including an 8 day clock. Other features included indicators, rear panniers, and a full windshield.
Ariel management were delighted with the design and a prototype was built. Ariel's parent, BSA, however, were horrified by the bike, but Ariel decided to press ahead with production regardless. This was quite an exercise as it meant completely retooling the factory. Fortunately their marketing department rethought the name and in July 1958 the bike was debuted as the Ariel Leader.
The reaction of both press and public was uniformly positive. The motorcycle magazines were almost gushing in their praise. "Undoubtedly a most significant step forward in design as far as motorcycles are concerned..*" was a typical comment. Orders for the Leader quickly outstripped production, requiring some serious reorganization at Selly Oak. By the time Motorcycle News had declared the Leader motorcycle of the year in early 1959, Ariel had decided to stop production of all other models in order to concentrate on the production of the Leader. After some 30 years, it was time for the Four Square and the Red Hunter to gracefully leave the stage. http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/introducing-leader-motor-cycling.html
Advertising for the Leader and Arrow steered away from English motorcycling tradition and attempted to capture a new, younger market who had been influenced by the scooter phenomenon of the mid 1950's
In 1959 Ariel released the Arrow, the un-fared sporting version of the Leader. The more traditional looking Arrow was an instant hit and was named 1960 motorcycle of the year by Motorcycle News. The Arrow gained a great racing reputation. In 1960 a deluxe version of Arrow called the Golden Arrow was introduced. The Golden Arrow featured racing handlebars, a small windscreen, two toned gold and white paint job and a bigger carburetor. The bike made such an impression that the British model company, Airfix, released a plastic model of the bike. http://airfixtributeforum.myfastforum.org/sutra236140.php
Even the Leader competed in the racing circuit, but it was the Arrow that really made a name for Ariel's two strokes.
Ariel's board must have had entered the 1960s with a renewed sense of confidence, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. Two unrelated developments, one domestic, one foreign, clouded the horizon. In 1959, the British auto company Morris released the Mini-minor, Britain's response to the German microcar invasion of the 1950s. For little more than the price of a Leader you could now buy a cheap, reliable British made car. The Mini went on to become a British motoring legend, selling over one and half million cars between 1959 and 2000. But for Ariel, a large portion of its potential touring bike market had suddenly evaporated.
To make matters worse, there were changes afoot at the bottom end of the market too. Imported Japanese motorcycles were now beginning to appear in Britain and, although originally regarded as cheap and poor quality imitations, they quickly made headway in the market. For low cost they offered exceptional performance and reliability that left many British made bikes for dead. The British motorcycle industry completely misread the Japanese threat. Edward Turner, now the head of Triumph, expressed satisfaction that many young riders were buying Japanese bikes as one day they would want to upgrade to something better. He was of course expecting that they would want to upgrade to something British - like a Triumph - without ever thinking that maybe after having experienced the quality of Japanese bikes, they would want to stay with Japanese bikes. The British motorcycle industry's complacency was to cost it dear.
This photo of the Ariel stand at a motorcycle exhibition must be dated 1964. It features the Leader and Arrow but the new Pixie is also visible at the front left.
Ariel's response to the Japanese threat was to introduce a cheaper 200cc version of the Arrow in 1964. They also produced a 50cc moped called the Pixie as competition with the worlds most successful small motorcycle, the Honda Cub. Neither were as successful as Ariel hoped and both were withdrawn the following year, along with the original Arrow, leaving only the Leader and Golden Arrow in production. By this time not only Ariel's, but BSA's financial position was dire. In 1965 Edward Turner sealed Ariel's fate but shutting down all further development of Ariel products. The company was wound up later that year.
Celebrating the 25,000th Ariel motorcycle. Sadly Ariel wasn't to last much longer.
In the years following Ariel's demise there has been something of a backlash against Ariel's two-strokes and the Leader gained a reputation as a failure. This was both unfair and incorrect. In all, some 35,000 Leaders and Arrows were produced over seven years and they were extremely popular and sold well, especially in the early years. They retain a loyal and dedicated following to this day.
Sadly Ariel's long term viability was always undermined by insufficient capital. Had they managed to survive the late 60s economic downturn though, what would they have done? Fortunately several designs for the next generation of Leaders and Arrows have survived. The 1965 Leader Mark II would not have looked much different from the earlier Mark I, but would have had a more sporty, streamlined fibreglass front faring that owed its design to the Arrows' racing heritage. Such a bike would have been quite appealing and a little less radical in the late 60s that it appeared in the late 50s. Ariel was also experimenting with a four-stroke engined Leader (the prototype survives) and was considering bringing back the trusty old four square.
The design for the new Arrow was radically different from its predecessor and was clearly influenced by BSA. The new Arrow dispensed with the central frame in favour of a return to a tube frame chassis, but the Ariel two stroke engine remained. Two prototypes were built before the Ariel went out of business. Ariel also experimented a with triple cylinder two stroke engine for the Arrow, but this idea barely got off the drawing board.
The TS5 prototype. Unfortunately the prototype was later scrapped when BSA wrapped up Ariel - or was it? See the update below).
* L.J. Bacon in Sheet Metal Industries magazine, January 1960.
More interesting news about Ariel's next generation.
Thanks to the dedication and persistence of members of the British Leader and Arrow forum (on Yahoo), some unprecedented discoveries have been made regarding the Ariel TS5 Arrow.
Two TS5 frames were discovered by forum members in 2011. It appears that after BSA wound up Ariel the prototype and parts were put into storage, possibly intending to be used as spares. One of the prototypes was acquired by a couple brothers and converted it into a racer. They had several years of success racing their 'custom' bike which had been chopped and changed around during the course of its career. In the end the bike was partially dismantled and stored away. Roger Bedford, in conducting his research into the Leader MkII, was introduced to the brothers, who happily unveiled the remains of the bike.
The frame, tank and engine baseplate are part of the original TS5 prototype. The forks, suspension and swing-arm are racing modifications.
Another frame has also been identified but no details are available at this time. It will be interesting to see if these unique machines will be restored and returned to the road.
Additionally, two gents in the forum have independently undertaken their own builds of the Leader Mk II replica.
This is Roger Bedfords' mock up of the Leader MkII. It features a modified fibreglass dolphin faring. It should be on the road in 2012 (see below).
In April 2012 the first of the Leader MkII finally hit the streets. This example has been built by Eddie Buck. It has turned out a very impressive result. It really makes you wonder what might have been....
Saturday, July 3, 2010
The story of the Ariel Leader