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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)