The Ariel Leader Was A Motorcycle And A Scooter Formed Into One Package

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Every once in a while, a motorcycle manufacturer decides to go after really specific markets. Some motorcycle manufacturers have tried attracting non-riders to their bikes. Some tried making motorcycles that don’t have the downsides of riding. Back in the 1950s, British manufacturer Ariel Motorcycles decided to bring the best of the motorcycle and the scooter into the same package with its “Leader.”

According to the Ariel Motorcycle Club of North America, the original Ariel dates back to 1869. Back then, James Starley — a foreman at a sewing machine company – decided to start building bicycles, joining forces with a man named William Hillman the following year. The pair — and yes, that’s the William Hillman that co-founded Hillman Motor Car Company — made wire-spoke wheels and used them to make the lightweight Ariel bicycle. This bicycle was one of those old-school units with a larger front wheel and smaller rear wheel. The company continued to build bicycles for years (and merged with a number of companies) until 1898, when the company began experimenting with motorized vehicles. Ariel made motorized trikes and even made tiny cars.

Motorcycle production began in 1901. That first Ariel had a 211cc Minerva engine producing 1.5 HP. Over the years, motorcycle production continued to increase and even included some unique models. One was the Square Four–which features an engine with four vertical cylinders–and the stylish Red Hunter. As Rider Magazine reports, thanks to former JA Prestwich Industries designer Val Page, Ariel’s motorcycles of 1926 and after became big and reliable. They were so reliable that as Rider Magazine notes, their engines were even once used for a pontoon boat. The company’s successes meant that Ariel was able to buy Triumph in 1936. Both of those aforementioned bikes were designed by Edward Turner, the man who would later pen the Triumph Bonneville. And both motorcycles would eventually reach American shores, too.

In the mid-1950s, Ariel brought back Val Page for a huge project. Page would design the Ariel Leader, a motorcycle that was a huge departure from what the company was known for.

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Ariel Motorcycles via eBay

As the Ariel Motorcycle Club of North America notes, the Leader was meant to draw in a variety of riders. This was a motorcycle advertised as having the good handling and speed of a motorcycle, but the cleanliness and weather protection of a scooter. As Old Bike Mart motorcycle magazine notes, the motorcycle was supposed to capitalize on the popularity of scooters. And reportedly, Page and his team were allowed to design whatever they wanted, from Old Bike Mart:

“Seldom since the earliest days of motorcycling can a new model have embodied quite so much novelty as does the 249cc Ariel Leader,” wrote the [Motor Cycle magazine]. “In laying out this aptly named two-stroke twin, chief designer Val Page and his team were given that dream of all designers – a completely free hand!

The only stipulations were that the machine must be an ultra-modern two-fifty with built-in weather protection and a lively but refined performance. Provided the model could be marketed at a competitive price, any method of construction they chose could be employed.”

And the end result was something distinctive. I got to see one in the flesh when I paid a visit to my local Chicago-area Volo Auto Museum.

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Mercedes Streeter

Constructed out of 20-gauge pressed steel, all of the motorcycle’s mechanical parts were hidden, and a giant windscreen joined forces with a leg shield to provide weather protection to the riders. Combined with the hidden drivetrain, that meant that you could get around without getting dirty, not unlike the scooters of the day.

It even featured innovations for the time like an optional clock on the instrument panel and the first turn signals on a production British motorcycle. The hollow frame contains the motorcycle’s fuel tank. Yep, that means that fuel tank isn’t actually a fuel tank, but a storage area large enough for a helmet.

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Mercedes Streeter

 

Ariel was even thinking about maintenance with this design, and the hidden chain had an oiler system to keep it in good shape. As Old Bike Australasia wrote, the options list was vast and included that clock, the turn signals, side cases, parking lights, front stand, and some pretty striking colors. Pricing was £209 11s (shilling) 7d (pence) — that’s the equivalent of roughly $5,500 today.

Power came from a 249 cc two stroke twin making 17.5 HP. That little engine moved a body that weighed in at 320 pounds dry. This was good for a cruising speed of about 55 mph. It released to the public in 1958 for the 1959 model year. And at first, the release was accompanied with rave reviews. The Leader even won the Motor Cycle News Motorcycle of the Year for 1959. Later in 1959, a stripped down, cheaper version of the Leader released called the Arrow. That motorcycle won an award in 1960. As The Classic Motorcycle wrote, sales were strong at first, but they wouldn’t last.

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Mercedes Streeter

There are many theories as to why the Leader fell from grace. Some blame the ride of small cars, while others believe that the Leader tried to attract too many different people–car drivers, scooter riders, and motorcycle riders–and ended up getting few. The Classic Motorcycle also blames the bike’s performance due to its weight. A lack of interest from the States also gets cited.

Either way, according to classic bike magazine Sump Publishing, Ariel sold 18,347 Leaders and 16,850 of all variations of the Arrow before both ended production in 1965. Ariel itself ended production two years later. Competing manufacturers tried to copy the Leader’s design with little success. Designs similar to this would appear over and over in the future. Examples include the Suzuki SW1, Honda PC800, Suzuki Burgman, and more with varying levels of success. And today, Ariel is still around, sort of. The Ariel name was used again on future motorcycles and currently, the unrelated Ariel Motor Company is claiming the name for those fantastic Atom and Nomad sports cars.

(Top photo credit to H&H Auctioneers.)

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30 Responses

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  2. I am totally flummoxed, nay befuddled.
    1. Is this the same Ariel that created the Atom?
    2. How is either a scooter or motorcycle weather protected when there is no roof? Granted some knee guards keep your knickers a little cleaner and drier but neither do much to keep you dry and clean.
    3. Did the company try to create a clothing line, more profit, than pretend a knee guard keeps the driver dry or clean? Maybe this is why it failed? It’s the difference between tossing a towel in the pool to dry the person off or tossing a toaster in the pool. Sure one doesn’t kill you but neither dries you off.
    Think about it.

    1. 1. It is not! I edited that final sentence to make that more clear. The newer Ariel is unrelated to the one of old, but the company claims the history, anyway.

      2. “Weather protection” on a motorcycle generally means equipment that shields you (at least somewhat) from the elements. You’d think that a windscreen and a leg shield would do little, but they actually can do a wonderful job when you’re moving. A few years ago I rode home from a friend’s house in a snowstorm. Thanks to the leg shield and windscreen of the scooter I arrived home mostly dry and most importantly, warm.

    2. “1. Is this the same Ariel that created the Atom?” No..
      “2. How is either a scooter or motorcycle weather protected when there is no roof? Granted some knee guards keep your knickers a little cleaner and drier but neither do much to keep you dry and clean.”
      A shocking amount of dirt, mud and water is kicked up by exposed rotating parts, this design sought to prevent that. Also you would be surprised how a windscreen will cause rain to fly over your head even at lower speeds, lastly the scooter like shields keep rain and dirt/water/mud from cars in front from getting slung onto you. As dry as a car, no, of course not, but way cleaner and drier than a bicycle or conventional motorcycle.

      1. Very true. I was in one of those intense local thunderstorms on the coast of the panhandle of Florida for vacation one time, on my PC800. The wife and kids were in a car following me. When the wind and rain hit, I had no time to get on special gear. As I was using my summer Scotchguarded cordura riding suit, I just increased my speed to about 80MPH, and the weather passed right over me. My wife was shocked when we got to the hotel. I took off my suit, and just had a bit of wetness around my boots. She had slowed to about 50MPH, turned on the emergency flashers, and had to wait for the storm to pass, while I slammed through it, like a boss, to the other side.

        1. I had to ride from South Carolina to Massachusetts while a line of rain stalled along the east coast. I found I could get my head in just the right spot and my tiny bikini fairing sent the rain over me. Not even behind the fairing as it was opaque anyway, just in a laminar flow zone. I could then ride with my visor up and actually see. What a miserable ride.. ugg

  3. “The company continued to build bicycles for years (and merged with a number of companies) until 1998, when the company began experimenting with motorized vehicles.”
    I think you accidentally a 9.. Also there is not connection between Ariel Motor Co LTD and the old Ariel motorcycle company.

      1. yeah that seems janky, like they make good cars, but it’s almost like stolen valor.. Also interesting I read they had to modify their name because of the Ariel owner club, which I imagine could be 60-70 years old..

  4. Mercedes, this is EXACTLY why you need to be a motor journalist. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgable about motorcycles. But your article brought out a bunch of stuff about this machine of which I was unaware. Absolutely great two-wheeled topic. Thank you very much!

  5. They were very popular with police forces all over the UK, so much so that the factory was saved from closure for six months to complete an order from the Northumbria Police nearly two years after the last ‘civilian’ one was produced.

  6. This is such a clever design, it’s surprising it wasn’t more popular. I wonder if Ariel’s marketing department and dealerships just didn’t really figure out how to pitch it – the market really doesn’t seem to have been customers/enthusiasts of traditional motorcycles, really, it should have been scooter buyers looking for something with more grunt, first time motorcycle buyers looking for an easy/comfortable starter, and folks looking for a cheap, economical commuter vehicle. Seems to overlap with a lot of the people who bought Hondas in the 1960s, but the Leader had a lot of appealing extra features. By then, though, the company might have been too weak to take advantage of Honda’s coat tails

      1. Maybe not in North America but I spent many years working in West Africa and 125cc semi auto motorcycles were everywhere. I understand they are common in the south and south east asian markets. A couple of us looked into shipping them home because they were fun and amazingly reliable but the hoops and paperwork to drive one on the road was overwhelming.

  7. I think scooter mischaracterizes the Ariel Leader since its frame and wheels are clearly motorcycle based and the Ariel Arrow makes it more obvious. The Leader is a fully enclosed motorcycle evolving from the Vincent Black Prince and bit of Velocette LE and ultimately evolves into the Honda PC800. As a side note Ariel built a prototype bike based on
    a Leader powered by a horizontal inline 4 that clearly anticipated the BMW K100RT.
    The contemporary DMW Deemster is more of a motorcycle/scooter Mashup
    https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15320/lot/526/

    1. I do want to note that the intent here (as it was with the cited publications) is to say that it’s a motorcycle blended with some scooter traits. Indeed, it’s very much a motorcycle underneath! I apologize if that got lost somewhere.

  8. I forgot to mention that the mjor factor in Ariel’s demise was the end of gearbox supply for the Leader/Arrow after an acquisition. Unfortunately I have mislaid my Vic Willoughby book on the Leader so I don’t have the details at hand

  9. My first bike was a very cool 1953 Ariel Red Hunter 500 VH, one cylinder, of the regular motorcycle looking old kind:

    The one cylinder thump could start car alarms on narrow streets, it leaked a lot of oil, shook like crazy when going 60 mph, spit flames from the exhaust, when letting go of the throttle high RPMs, and I had to learn just how to start it, so I could leave it unlocked everywhere (didn’t have a key anyway) as only I and the previous (nice) owner knew how. When my taste for longer trips at reasonable speeds grew, I traded it in for the BMW R75 I still own.

    So I fully undeerstand Ariel’s decision to move away from these very classic vintage feeling almost pre war like machines, they were making in the early fifties.

  10. What is the meaning of this bit in the ad, “”Enjoy real motorcycle performance and riding pleasure plus freedom from the necessity of special motorcycle tags?”. Were they licensed as something other than as a motorcycle? Too small of an engine to be a motorcycle at the time?

  11. My dad had the Ariel Arrow. He fitted a sidecar when he met my mum. There’s an infamous story where they went on holiday with a couple of suitcases in the sidecar. It wouldn’t go up a big hill fully loaded, so he made my mum walk up the hill! Oh, the good old days of chivalry.

  12. When I was a child, I was very much a bookworm, and I spent many weeks of every summer at my grandparents’ homes.

    At one of their homes, a very large room in the basement was stacked floor to ceiling with neatly ordered magazines of all types, several of them going back before WWII. The whole spectrum of human interests was there for review, as long as I put each one back where it came from when I was done with it.

    Postwar advertising was therefore a huge part of my entertainment and education growing up. Looking back, I find it difficult to believe that I didn’t get a job in advertising, or at least marketing.

    But that said, as a result, one of the first motorcycles I grew up wanting was one of these Ariels, decades after they’d quit making them. I dreamed of finding one, as new old stock, still in a shipping crate in some abandoned motorcycle dealership. I’d long forgotten the maker or the model name until this article came across.

    Thank you.

  13. I knew someone who had one of these! I even got to tool around Sheffield on it many decades ago. It was actually a great design for a commuter. Just a little more grunt than a scooter, but with similar easy going manners. I wonder if his son kept it.

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