The Ariel Atom has its roots in the designs of Simon Saunders, and transport design student Nick Smart, who were responsible for what became known as the 21st century’s answer to the legendary Lotus 7. The Ariel name itself can be traced back to the 1870s when it manufactured its first two-speed lightweight Penny Farthing. The intervening years were filled with a range of early sports cars and bikes and it was this name that Solocrest Limited the manufacturer of the Atom purchased in 1999 to become Ariel Ltd.
From there, the first Ariel Atom released in 2000 was the ultimate expression of a pure and distilled driving experience. Doors, windows and a windscreen were all considered superfluous while the advanced tubular chassis was a prominent design feature, dispensing with ‘unnecessary’ body panels making the car’s inner workings clearly visible.
Thanks to its extremely low weight even the first Ariel Atom with its fairly modest Rover K-series engine had superbike rivalling acceleration. Newer versions moved on to Honda VTEC power, adding a supercharger and then a racing-spec V8 engine to ensure that even the Millennium Falcon would be left in its dust in a drag race.
The Ariel Atom remains the purest expression of automotive minimalism, eschewing anything that does not add to the driving experience. Values and demand for this tiny rocket ship are high for a good reason, not many road legal cars recommend you don a helmet for a drive to the shops, making the Atom’s closest competitors of the two wheeled variety...
Which one to buy?
The first Atom 1’s were powered by the ubiquitous Rover K-series engine, in outputs ranging from 120 to 190bhp. Very few were made and even fewer actually come up for sale so you will generally have much more luck finding an Atom 2. Released in 2003 with various chassis tweaks as well as a JDM-spec 2.0 Honda VTEC engine, there are more in circulation and offer most of the benefits of the new generation cars. Earlier versions made 220bhp, getting a 25bhp bump up a few years in, while braver occupants could opt for the 275bhp supercharged cars. These also got a 25bhp power hike mid-life so owners could reach the national speed limit in less time than most cars can get off the driveway.
The Atom 3 was released, or perhaps more accurately unleashed, in 2007. Bringing with it a bit more interior room and a newer version of the Honda engine, power was unchanged but a few of the rougher edges were polished out, providing a marginally more comfortable drive when not at the track. A small vestigial windscreen became an option to make helmet free driving a possibility. The revised 2013 Atom 3.5 saw another update to the Honda engine and more chassis tweaks. Engine outputs remained largely the same as before with minimal power hikes and detail changes such as a digital dashboard and a slightly stiffer chassis being introduced.
A limited edition V8 was released in 2010, with either a 475bhp 3.0-litre or 500bhp 3.2-litre engine. The 0-60 sprint was over before most supercar drivers could find first gear, major suspension changes and additional downforce thanks to front and rear wings made this Atom one of the fastest road legal cars in existence. A Honda-powered 270bhp Mugen version with the V8’s brakes and suspension was also built in very limited numbers. Finding one of these will require some serious detective work, unless you are very patient or know someone who knows someone. You’re generally better off looking at one of the more mainstream models; resale values remain fairly static and the Atom 3 245 is currently the pick of the range, with just the right mix of power, chassis development and pricing.
Performance and specs
Ariel Atom 3 ‘310’
Engine 1998cc 16valve DOHC, in-line four-cylinder supercharged
Power 310bhp @ 8400rpm
Torque 169lb ft @ 7200rpm
Top speed 155 mph
Fuel consumption 33mpg
Gearbox Six-speed manual
Insurance group 50
Dimensions and weight
Ariel Atom 2
Curb weight 456kg
• Parts are available from Ariel as well as independent specialists, but generally there isn’t a lot of things to go wrong. The usual wear and tear items such as brakes and tyres are long lasting too. Track usage is not a problem as long as the vehicle has not been abused by an inexperienced driver.
• The early Rover K-series powered cars are generally reliable but check for signs of overheating as these engines are known for head gasket problems.
• Honda engined cars give very little trouble in the engine department both in standard and naturally aspirated form, oil surge when levels are low can occur under hard track use so check the fluids regularly. Annual servicing is recommended or at every 4500 miles.
• Rover gearboxes are a bit recalcitrant in operation but are pretty robust, Honda gearboxes are smoother but there have been a number of issues with synchros on the Atom 2 especially in the upper four ratios.
• Clutches tend to last but replacing then is a labour intensive job so check for any slippage while on a test drive
• The suspension bushes should last for up to five years, less if track days are frequent. Rear wheel bearings wear on pre-2011 Atoms so listen for any suspect grumbling sounds.
• The bodywork in this case amounts to a series of tubes and a set of plastic chairs. Corrosion can occur from stone chips and bad repair work. Also look out for neglected suspension and frame components.
• Instrument packs can fail on older cars and replacements are expensive.
2000: Ariel Atom introduced with Rover running gear – only 100 units built. 120-190bhp
2003: Atom 2 introduced with Honda VTEC powertrains in either n/a or supercharged versions. 225-300bhp
2007: Atom 3 introduced with new Honda engines and uprated suspension. Power outputs remain unchanged. Chassis modified to increase interior space. Optional windscreen an option
2010: Limited edition V8 version introduced with 475bhp 3.0-litre V8
2013: Atom 3.5 introduced, with digital dashboard and updated chassis tweaks
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• www.arielmotor.co.uk – New and used cars as well as servicing
• www.atomclub.com – Ariel Car club and good source of info
• www.upanatomhire.co.uk – Hire an Atom before you buy
Summary and prices
With approximately 100 Ariels built per annum, the waiting list for a new one can be quite long so a second hand model may get you some jowl deforming, bug in face lunacy a lot more quickly. Residuals are strong though, and there isn’t a great amount of choice out there as most owners tend to hang on to their cars.
Most have low mileages and decent specifications however don’t expect bargain basement prices as even ten year old naturally aspirated Atom 2’s hover around the £25,000 mark. The newer Atom 3’s start at £30,000 with a supercharged 2014 Atom 3.5 costing £45,000. Whichever version you choose though, rest assured that each drive will leave you grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Words: John Tallodi