Innovation & Design

The Atom's Fast Company


With just eight employees, Ariel Motors would seem an unlikely player to turn the world of supercars on its roof. But with the team's combined engineering expertise of over 40 years, design experience at General Motors (GM), Porsche, and Aston Martin, and most important, the vision of founder Simon Saunders, that's just what it has done with the Ariel Atom 2.

A former motorcycle designer, Saunders set out to produce a stripped-down supercar. The Atom has no windscreen, no doors, no windows, and no body work. In fact, its integrated chassis and body are one piece, making it possible to view the performance parts underneath.

AWESOME PERFORMANCE. Every aspect of the car's design and engineering is intended to minimize weight and maximize aerodynamics. The merging design is so revolutionary, it's on display at the national Design Museum in London.

Quietly introduced in Britain three years ago, the stock Atom features a 220-horsepower, four-cylinder Honda Civic Type-R engine. It can take the 1,200-pound machine from a standing start to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and cruises happily at 160 miles per hour.

The Atom is available at a base price of $35,000, although at least in the U.S., where it has just become available, most of the models have sold with extras that upped the price tag to $50,000.

BusinessWeek spoke with the Atom's British designer from his studio in Somerset, England.

So what's the 'why' of the Atom?

We were trying to strip it down, get to the basics of the experience. And the basics are going very fast and having lots of fun.

The idea was to take the plus sides of a formula racing car -- the dynamics, the performance, and the speed -- without the downsides, the poor reliability, lots and lots of costs.

The choice of a Honda Civic Type-R engine may seem pedestrian to casual car fans. Why this engine and why the Honda (HMC) gearbox?

Well for one, they're very good engines: lots of power without tuning, reliable, tested, top-of-the-line performance, and provenance that's second to none. As is often the case for potential buyers, there's a difference between perception and desire and what's actually needed.

A casual bystander, if asked to choose between an F1 engine and the Honda, might choose the F1. The bad news is that it costs $4 million and needs to be rebuilt every half-hour at $1 million a pop.

What's more, it could very well blow up going around the first corner. I think if you asked most serious people which engine they'd choose from all the manufacturers out there, they'd go with the Honda.

The British automobile industry has been in a great state of flux for the past 20 years, with the MG-Rover sale to Chinese Nanjing Automobile Group last year as a sort of end-cap milestone. What do you think the place of British designers and manufacturers ought to be in the global auto market?

If you look around, British designers are working in practically every major car company in the world. We're very good at design, and we have a lively motorsport industry at home.

In fact, that's one of the reasons we brought back the Ariel nameplate. Ariel was a typical British car company -- imaginative, technologically innovative. They made bikes and trikes and did one of the first four-cylinder engines.

They were one of the great motorcycle companies of the 1950s, but they didn't reinvest and got beaten up by the Japanese. It's a fairly typical British story. Today, though, the English have become the world leaders in racing. We've got a lot of experience, and many Formula One and Indy cars are made here.

Can you explain the significance of the Atom's body and chassis being one?

The engineering reason is to maintain a very light weight. The fewer the parts, the lighter the car. But, moreover, we wanted the chassis to be the aesthetic, much like in a motorcycle.

At many auto exhibitions, they show supercars with the body work taken off -- in fact, the chassis is the exhibit -- revealing the real stuff, the underlying technology. We chose this design because we wanted the Atom to show that the sum of its parts is its whole.

What was your reaction to the [BBC's TV show] Top Gear tests? They're usually pretty brutal, but [compere Jeremy] Clarkson seemed to be having the time of his life.

I think the thing about those guys is that they're very good at putting their finger on the essence of a car. If you're not very good, they'll sense it and crucify you.

We took a big risk. They could very well have hung us out to dry. But in the end we did very well, and the only car faster than ours in their tests was a Ferrari Enzo, at many, many times the price.

If engineering dictates the aesthetics of the Atom, what specific pieces of engineering did you take inspiration from?

It evolved over time. We didn't have a preconceived idea. A lot of it came from our use of high-quality components, wanting to expose them, make them visible.

Look at most motorcycles or something like a 1960s Bell helicopter, where you can see the structure. Even buildings where the structure is on the outside. Those are all captivating. We want the elements to become the aesthetic.


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