The Big Car Database

Ariel Motorcycles

Ariel Motorcycles
Industry Manufacturing and engineering
Fate Sold to BSA and discontinued
Successor BSA
Founded 1902
Defunct 1970
Headquarters Bournbrook, Birmingham
Key people
Jack Sangster, Edward Turner and Val Page
Products motorcycles

Ariel Motorcycles was a British motorcycle manufacturer based in Bournbrook, Birmingham.

It was one of the leading innovators in British motorcycling, and was part of the Ariel marque. The company was sold to BSA in 1951 but the Ariel brand survived until 1967. Influential Ariel designers included Val Page and Edward Turner. The last motorcycle-type vehicle to carry the Ariel name was a short-lived 3-wheel tilting moped launched in 1970.

Ariel made bicycles before making motorcycles, and also made automobiles. Car production began in 1902 and moved to Coventry in 1911, but ceased in 1925.

The 'Ariel' name was reused in 1999 for the formation of Ariel Ltd, a sports car producer.


Bicycles and early motorised vehicles

Ariel - 50" High Wheel Bicycle
Ariel tricycle circa 1902

The original company was established in 1870 by James Starley and William Hillman. They built wire-spoke wheels under the first British patent; this allowed them also to build a lighter-weight "penny farthing" bicycle which they named 'Ariel' (the spirit of the air). They put the name on the factory where they made penny-farthing bicycles and sewing machines. In 1885 James Starley's nephew, John Kemp Starley, invented the 'Rover Safety Bicycle' - a bicycle with two similar-sized wheels and chain drive to the rear wheel, which is essentially the design still used on bicycles today.

Ariel merged with Westwood Manufacturing in 1896 and made a powered tricycle in 1898 with a 2.25 hp de Dion. Hillman left soon afterwards to found Premier Motorcycles. More tricycles were produced and motorised quadricycles were added in 1901 as Ariel then moved into car production. (See also List of motorized trikes and/or Quadricycle)

Components Ltd.

1928 brochure for the British motorcycle

In 1902, Ariel produced its first motorcycle, which had a Kerry engine with an innovative magneto ignition and a float carburettor.[citation needed] That year, Ariel was taken over by Components Ltd., owned by Charles Sangster. Sangster built a three-speed, two-stroke motorcycle that was sold as the "Arielette", but he stopped production on the outbreak of the First World War.

In 1918, Sangster's son Jack began managing the Ariel division of Components Ltd. and developed a motorcycle with a 4 hp White and Poppe engine that proved successful. Jack increased the range of motorcycles to include 586 cc and 992 cc machines. A range of motorcycles was made with engines either bought in or assembled to other people's designs until 1926 when a new designer, Val Page, joined Ariel from JAP. That year Page created a pair of new engines which used many existing motorcycle parts, and then redesigned the motorcycle for 1927. These new Ariels are known as 'Black Ariels' (1926–1930) and were the basis on which all Ariel 4-stroke singles were based until their demise in 1959 (except the LH Colt of the mid-1950s). During the 'Black Ariel' period the Ariel horse logo came into being as did the slogan 'The Modern Motor Cycle'.

Ariel Motors

1938 Ariel 350 cc Red Hunter

Components Ltd. suffered several financial crises including spells in receivership in 1911 and in the early 1930s. In 1932, Components Ltd went bankrupt, and Jack Sangster, Charles Sangster's son, bought the Ariel subsidiary from the receivers at a bargain price. The company was renamed Ariel Motors (J.S.) Ltd, and promptly resumed production. A new factory was set up at Selly Oak in Birmingham. One of their first bikes was the Ariel Square Four, designed by Edward Turner, followed by the Ariel Red Hunter. The Red Hunter was a success, and enabled Ariel to purchase Triumph.

Ariel 1000 Square Four

The Ariel Square Four with a 500 cc engine designed by Edward Turner first appeared for the 1931 season. Around this time the company went into receivership and then a new company was formed. The Square Four displacement was increased to 600cc. Throughout their history, the Square Fours had overheating problems with the rear cylinders which resulted in distorted heads. A redesign in 1937 resulted in a 995 cc OHV version designated the 4G.

In 1939 Anstey-link plunger rear suspension was an option. It was still available when production restarted in 1946, with telescopic forks replacing the girder forks.

During the Second World War, the Ariel factory was turned over to military production, including the Ariel W/NG 350 army motorcycle based on the Red Hunter but with higher ground clearance.

In 1949 the Mark 1 Square Four had cast aluminium barrels and heads instead of cast iron. With the lower weight the bike was a 90 mph plus machine.


In 1951 Jack Sangster sold Ariel and Triumph (bought in 1936) to the Birmingham Small Arms Company group (BSA), and joined their board. Ariel began making the 500 cc KH model and the 650 cc Huntmaster, which had an engine based on the BSA A10 parallel twin. Reliable and capable of 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), the Huntmaster proved popular with sidecar enthusiasts.

By 1956 Sangster was voted in as the new Chairman, defeating incumbent Sir Bernard Docker 6 to 3. Sangster promptly made Edward Turner head of the automotive division, which then included Ariel, Triumph, and BSA motorcycles, as well as Daimler and Carbodies (the manufacturer of London Taxicabs).

In 1953 the Mark 2 Square Four had a redesigned cylinder head, and was capable of 100 mph.

The Red Hunter formed the basis for Sammy Miller's 1955 trials motorcycle which proved very successful in competition.

Two-strokes and demise

250 cc Ariel Leader
Ariel 3, a 49 cc banking-trike

In 1959, Ariel dropped its four-stroke engines and produced the Ariel Leader, a fully enclosed 250 cc two-stroke with a fully faired body from the headlamp aft. The Leader aimed to combine the benefits of the motorcycle with the advantages of a scooter. Ariel also made the Arrow, a more open version of the Leader which kept the Leader's enclosed chain case and deep mudguards. Both models were an unsuccessful attempt to compete with new Japanese imports.

BSA closed the Ariel factory at Selly Oak in 1962 and moved production of the Leader and the Arrow to the BSA factory at Small Heath. Production of the 50 cc Pixie began in 1963.

In 1965, Ariel produced its last motorcycle, the Arrow 200 with capacity reduced to 200 cc introduced earlier during 1964 to qualify for lower UK rider insurance. Ariel motorcycles ceased production in 1967.

Later use of the Ariel name

In 1970, parent company BSA produced the Ariel 3, a 49 cc automatic tricycle with a coupling between the front and rear frame sections allowing banking when cornering. The front half was hinged to the rear and could tilt into corners while keeping all three wheels on the ground. The design was licensed from George Wallis, of G.L.Wallis & Son, who had patented it in 1966. A small museum dedicated to the trike has been established in Bristol, England.

Following the failure of the Ariel 3, the design was licensed to Honda which produced it as the Honda Gyro.

Ariel Ace

In 1999 a new company was formed using the old 'Ariel' name. Initially, the Ariel Motor Company made only one model, the Atom, a high performance, minimalistic 2-seat road-legal sports car, followed by a large-capacity motorcycle named Ariel Ace.

Famous models

  • Models A - G
  • VCH
  • KHA
  • Cyclone (model owned by Buddy Holly)
  • Trials HT5
  • Trials HT3
  • Scrambles HS (Mk1,11,111)


Cars were produced over two periods: from 1902 to 1915, and again from 1922 to 1925. The first proper Ariel car was a 10 hp (7.5 kW) twin-cylinder car produced in 1902. In 1903, their first four-cylinder was a 15/19 model. Both these vehicles had a leather cone clutch that was entirely separate from the flywheel. In early 1904, Ariel began production of a six-cylinder model built on a seemingly inadequate tubular steel chassis.

An entirely new range was announced at the end of 1905; called the 'Ariel-Simplex', these cars were Mercedes-inspired four-cylinder designs of 15 hp and 25/30 hp and a six of 35/40 hp. In 1907–1908 the company began production of their 50/60 hp six, which offered a 15.9-litre engine for a chassis price of £950. In 1907 Ariel sold its Birmingham factory to the French Lorraine-Dietrich company, who wanted to enter the British market; Ariel cars were thereafter assembled at the Coventry Ordnance Works, a branch of Cammell Laird. The arrangement with Lorraine-Dietrich was cancelled in 1910.[citation needed] Production of a 1.3-litre light car ended with the outbreak of World War I.

Ariel did not return to motor car manufacture until 1922, when the Ariel Nine was launched. The car featured a flat-twin, water-cooled engine of 996 cc and was capable of 55 mph; about 700 were made.[citation needed] It was designed by Jack Sangster, the son of the owner, who had designed the similar, but air-cooled, twin-cylinder Rover 8 when he worked for Rover. The Nine was replaced in 1924 by a 10-hp (RAC) car with a 1097 cc four-cylinder engine and a gearbox combined with the rear axle. The car was advertised at £180 for the chassis, and about 250 were made. In 1925 Ariel abandoned the car market to concentrate on motorcycles.

List of Ariel motorcycles

Model Year Notes
Ariel   325 cc
Ariel 3.5 hp 1913 499 cc, single-cylinder side-valve four-stroke
Ariel V-twin 1915 700 cc
Ariel 4 hp 1918 White and Poppe engine
Ariel Model D 500 cc 1926 Four-stroke OHV single
Ariel VB 1926–35 598 cc side-valve single
Ariel 557 cc 1926–35 Side-valve single variously designated A, B, SB, VA or VB
Ariel LB 1929–32 250 cc side-valve
Ariel LF & LG 1929–32 250 cc OHV "Colt"
Ariel 4F 1931–40 "Square" four-cylinder engine in 500 cc (1931-32) & 600 cc (1932-40) versions
Ariel VH 1932–59 500 cc OHV Red Hunter
Ariel NH 1932–59 350 cc OHV Red Hunter
Ariel LH & OH 1934–40 250 cc OHV Red Hunter
Ariel LF, LG, & OG 1934–40 250 cc OHV "Colt"
Ariel Badger 1936 500 cc OHV Red Hunter square
Ariel 4G & 4H 1937–40 "Square" four-cylinder 995 cc
Ariel VA 1940 500 C.C. Side Valve four stroke
Ariel W/NG 1940–45 350 cc (Military)
Ariel KG & KH 1945 500 cc parallel twin, later versions called the "Fieldmaster"
Ariel VB 1947–58 598 cc side-valve single, later models had alloy head
Ariel Square Four Mark I 1949–53 "Square" four-cylinder 995 cc
Ariel Square Four Mark II 1953–58 "Square" four-cylinder 995 cc
Ariel FH 1954 650 cc parallel twin called the "Huntmaster" with BSA A10 engine
Ariel 350 cc HT 1954 Trials special with competition frame
Ariel 500 cc HT 1954 Trials special with competition frame
Ariel LH 1954 200 cc OHV Ariel Colt
Ariel Leader 1958–1965 250 cc two-stroke
Ariel Arrow 1959 250 cc sports version of Ariel Leader
Ariel Golden Arrow 1963 250 cc
Ariel Arrow 1967 200 cc reduced capacity to place it in lower road tax bracket
Ariel Pixie 1968 50 cc version of BSA Beagle engine
Ariel 3 1969 Three-wheeler with Anker (Dutch) 50 cc engine
Ariel Ace 2014 Ariel marque's first new motorcycle in more than 50 years and it uses the 1200 cc V4 engine from the Honda VFR1200.