Up and Atom: The Ariel innovators behind Britain’s Best Driver’s Car

With back-to-back victories at Autocar’s Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contests and a five-star road test verdict to its name, the Ariel Atom 4 is a car that punches above its weight. But so is the company that makes it.

You’d be forgiven for driving straight past Ariel’s works, on the A30 Yeovil Road, just outside Crewkerne in Somerset, the first time you visit. It comprises some neat brick buildings that could be tidy barns or small industrial units. But from here come world-beating sports cars. Pull in and to your right is the service department. To your left is the production line, main offices and the R&D and engineering studios. Ariel is threatening to outgrow the place, but you wouldn’t know it from how well organised it is.

It’s a neat site because Ariel likes to do things properly. Inspect an Atom 4 closely and you’ll note how it is beautifully assembled and finished.

I’ve come to see what a typical day is like at Ariel. I’m aware that general manager Tom Siebert does a bit of everything – and he’s spent plenty of time with us over the years – so I’m expecting him to tell me no two days are alike, but that’s not the case.

“I do have a typical day – at the moment,” he says. “I get here at about 7.45am and spend until 10am doing emails. Then the phone starts ringing – customers, more business stuff. And a lot of my job is HR.”

Over the years, Siebert has taken over more of the daily running of the business from his old man, founder Simon Saunders. “My job is just organising the whole thing, basically,” says Siebert. “From ‘matey’s going to fix those tiles’, to budgets and dealing with customers.” Phone up to order an Atom and there’s still a decent chance Tom, who oversaw the car’s development alongside his brother Henry Siebert-Saunders, or Simon, will answer.

Talking with customers, or to plebs like me, is apparently one of the more enjoyable parts of Siebert’s job, allowed by the company’s organisation. “I’ve spent a long time putting in a proper business structure, making sure that for the most part everything functions without having to micromanage people,” he says. Previously, he says, Ariel was really just a group of “mad men who wanted to drink cider and make cars”.

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“When we’re doing things like assembling a prototype, I’m spending more time making sure it’s going smoothly,” he says. For the upcoming Hipercar, I get the impression there’s quite a lot of time spent doing that. “It probably has double the number of parts as an Atom,” Ward says.

“There’s always stuff going on with Ace, Nomad or Atom 4 production,” he adds. “It’s calm now but once a month someone has an idea to make the build better.”

Ariel’s history

Ariel’s origins can be traced back to its ‘Ordinary’ (penny-farthing-style) bicycle of the 1870s. It came with wire-spoked wheels that made it lighter than its contemporaries, hence being named after ‘the spirit of the air’. Ariel made powered trikes from 1898, quadricycles from 1901 and its first motorcycle in 1902. It remained a bike maker and endured the receiverships and mergers typical of British motorcycle manufacturers until its demise in 1970, by which time it was part of BSA. Automotive designer and lecturer Simon Saunders adopted the Ariel name in 1999 when launching the Atom, which had been designed as the Lightweight Sports Car by one of his students, Niki Smart. Today, Ariel has at its Crewkerne works a collection of Ariels from each decade of production.