Ariel motorcycles made some machines over the years. From motorcycles featuring square four engines to pressed steel monocoque frames, Ariel were leaders in design and innovation within the industry.
The Ariel company was created by James Starley and William Hillman. In the early days the company made tires for horse drawn carriages before branching out into making bicycles, then motorcycles. The company produced motorcycles from 1898 (a motorized tricycle) to 1967; however, the company became part of the BSA group in 1944. Although Ariel motorcycles ceased production in 1967, the Ariel name was also used for a trike, sold by BSA in 1970.
During the 50s and 60s, taking design clues from the auto industry, many of the motorcycle manufacturers were designing machines with copious amounts of sheet steel. Triumph had their bathtub 3T model, Velocette had their LE and Ariel had their Arrow and Leader models. In addition, scooters from Italian manufacturers Lambretta and Vespa were becoming popular.
In 1958, Ariel introduced their Leader model and its sporting version the Arrow. The machines were an immediate success, so much so that in 1959 the company decided to stop production of all their 4-stroke machines.
Pressed Steel Backbone Chassis
The innovative design of the Leader and Arrow included a twin cylinder piston ported 2-stroke engine producing 20 bhp. The engine was slung beneath a pressed steel backbone chassis which carried the fuel tank; early bikes had a 2.3 gallon tank, later versions a 3-gallon unit. The relatively lightweight machine (290 lb’s. dry) was capable of more than 75 mph.
In keeping with the aesthetic appearance of the Leader, the chain final drive was fully enclosed in a sheet metal container. With fully enclosing engine and gearbox side panels, the Leader was a striking looking machine for the time.
Road Racing Version
By contrast to the Leader, the Ariel Arrow had an exposed engine and gearbox; the removal of these panels was to reduce overall weight to increase performance. A modified Arrow (the Sprint Arrow), a road racing version, was offered in 1960; a Herman Meier tuned version finished 7th in the Light Weight TT ridden by Mike O’Rourke.
Over the production run (approximately 35,000), Ariel made very few changes to the Leader or the Arrow. The con-rods were reshaped from ‘H’ section to oval, and later the cylinder heads were modified to give a higher compression--10:1. The later heads are easily recognized by their center, vertically positioned spark plugs.
Riding the Leader shows the well-designed engine to be smooth and relatively fast. Brakes were poor and the rider needs to use the rear brake to compliment the front’s retardation. Although the handling on these machines is predictable and above average, they suffered from a lack of ground clearance under the two silencers. Fuel consumption, when ridden with care, was more than 70 mpg.
Checking the Chassis
Before buying one of these machines it is important to check if the chassis is in good condition. Although rusting can be a problem, it is relatively easy to repair. However, chassis damage from a frontal impact would require extensive engineering to repair. (Note: The front fender should clear the cylinder heads by approximately 2-1/4”, 57-mm, any less indicates a front end impact).
Ariel Arrow Specification:
Price new: £187.11.5 ($300) including £32.1.5 ($51.26) purchase tax
A clean example of a 1959 Leader is valued at $7,000 (the Arrow carries less value at $3,900)