Ariel Atom
Ariel Atom. Click image to enlarge

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Photo Gallery: The Ariel Atom Experience

It’s not often that one gets to drive an engine stand, especially when the engine bolted to that stand is supercharged and putting that power out right behind your head. Strap yourself into the Ariel Atom though, and that’s exactly how it feels: the tubular frame and a couple of seats are just there as support, because this little sports car’s sole purpose in life is simply to get power to the wheels – and make them turn very, very fast.


Well-known to British racing fans, and more recently to American enthusiasts - Jay Leno got the first one, naturally - the Atom has finally come to Canada, both as a purchasable vehicle, and as a driving event at the Ariel Atom Experience, with opportunities this summer in Ontario and Alberta.

The Ariel name has been around a long time; the original company started in 1898, and made cars from 1902 to 1915, and again from 1922 to 1925, although its motorcycles lasted until 1967 (BSA then used the name for a very short while). The Ariel name was picked up again in 2001 for a new British car, the Atom.

The Brammo Motorsports/Ariel Atom Experience trailer
The Brammo Motorsports/Ariel Atom Experience trailer. Click image to enlarge

The car is now also made under license by Brammo Motorsports, in a facility in Ashland, Oregon, and is distributed in Canada by Trak Motorsports Inc., which also presents the Ariel Atom Experience - AAE for short - a chance for the public to drive and ride in this nifty little rocket.

Make no mistake: it may resemble a kit car, but the Atom is the real deal. It's built on a manual assembly line for uniform production, although each one is optioned to the customer's specifications. Prices start at US$42,500, with most averaging US$62,000, but numerous brake, shocks, seat and carbon fibre option packages can take the Atom wherever your wallet wants to send you.

If that isn't feasible, the AAE will put you into the car for a half or a full day, with prices ranging from $495 to $1,750 per person, including a gourmet lunch (and it really is gourmet), the use of racing suits and helmets, take-home branded apparel, photographs and an in-car video. Should you be sufficiently enamoured to want one of your own - and I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't - the cost of the program can be deducted from the price of the car.

The Brammo Motorsports/Ariel Atom Experience trailer
The Brammo Motorsports/Ariel Atom Experience trailer
Chip and Monica Petrillo (top photo) own the only street-legal Ariel Atom in Canada; note lighting kit (bottom photo). Click image to enlarge

The cars are considered off-road vehicles for track use, and that's the only way Trak Motorsports will sell you one, but while I was at the event, Toronto-based Chip Petrillo roared up in his, which he says is the only one licensed for the road in Canada. He said he had no difficulty obtaining his plates, but prospective buyers will have to deal with their respective licensing offices; you will need a light package, though, which Brammo offers as an option, and which includes headlights, backup lights and turn signals. The car's fuel requirement is run-of-the-mill premium gasoline, so keeping it going isn't a problem on city streets.

The Atom starts with a tubular frame, hand-built in the company's Oregon facility; sourced items include some seats and damper packages from the manufactory in England. The first Atoms used Honda Type-R engines, but the North American versions use GM's 2.0-litre Ecotec block, the same engine found in the Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged, built in Germany.

The Brammo Motorsports/Ariel Atom Experience trailer
The Brammo Motorsports/Ariel Atom Experience trailer. Click image to enlarge

Yes, you read that right, and stop wrinkling your nose; it works, and it works very well. There's a naturally-aspirated base engine, producing 200 hp, while the supercharged version, which powers all of the cars at the Experience event, makes 245 hp. There's also a 300-hp version, and if none of those numbers scream "race-car" to you, you need to keep in mind the Atom's weight: a mere 635 kg or 1,400 lbs. Strap a cruise missile to a skateboard, and you've got the Ariel.

The car's simplicity is so much of its charm. Nothing is power-assisted, and only a thin tub keeps your legs from scraping the asphalt; you can order polycarbonate side panels if you want to close it in, but the AAE cars are completely open. You see everything: flick the wheel, watch the tires respond. The entire braking mechanism is visible right from the pedals; the springs open and compress before your eyes. The only thing you don't see is the engine, but you hear its wonderful rumble right behind your head, which rises to a fever pitch when the supercharger really makes its presence known.

The shifter is also sourced from Chevrolet, and it makes the Atom astonishingly easy to drive: just a straight five-speed H-pattern, although you'll never need that top gear on the track.

All Atoms are two-seaters; the shift mechanism, like the engine, is from the Chevrolet parts bin
All Atoms are two-seaters; the shift mechanism, like the engine, is from the Chevrolet parts bin. Click image to enlarge

The Atom Experience is set up so that anyone can attend; the company is expecting that much of its business will be in corporate events, and perhaps the odd well-heeled bachelor party. The organizers emphatically reminded us that it is not a racing school, and is tailored to various levels of experience; participants can ride and drive or, if they prefer, simply ride.

My first trip around the track was as a passenger, and that's where the Atom's two seats set the experience apart. Very few open-wheel cars have more than one chair, and while I've ridden with many skilled drivers in closed cars, this was my first time out in the open. I'm not a professional race-car driver, and it gave me the opportunity to experience the Atom at a very high level of its ability. As my driver picked up speed, I could feel my helmet starting to lift off my head.

Next, I was alone in the driver's seat, last in a group of four following a pace car. My Atom didn't want to start - the cars have a toggle switch and starter button that come alive with a proximity key, but my ride had a cantankerous receiver - and the rest of the pack was already in the first turn by the time I left the pits. No problem; I caught up before they were through the second. To say the Atom is fast is like saying water is wet.

To say the Atom is fast is like saying water is wet
To say the Atom is fast is like saying water is wet. Click image to enlarge

The Atom handles like a go-kart; it sticks all the way through the corners, and on a rain-soaked track, it was simple to bring it back when the rear end started to dance out a little on the hairpin. The brakes have no power assist, but they're easy to modulate, and they bring the Atom down from speed rapidly. A few times, braking before a curve, I found I had come down too far and had to get back on the throttle. There's a lot of torque - 200 lb-ft of it - and it's a fat powerband, with power on tap pretty much whenever you need it, up to about 6000 rpm.

The track dried up after lunch, where I moved to the next phase of the AAE: driving the car, with a professional driver beside me to help with instruction for novices, or pointers for more experienced pilots. My passenger communicated with hand signals, but once the AAE program gets underway, there will be a helmet-to-helmet intercom system.

I liked this guy: he encouraged me to take it hard down the straightaway where, in fourth gear, the needle on the U.S.-spec speedometer wiggled just a hair under the 100 mph line.

Ariel Atom
Ariel Atom. Click image to enlarge

Should you decide an Atom would look good in your driveway, place your order now; 80 have been built and about 100 are on order, and it's currently a 210-day wait from signing your name to showing your friends. Right now, about three and a half cars are built each week, but Brammo is aiming for one a day.

The Ariel Atom Experience runs on select days in June and July at Shannonville Motorsports Park in Belleville, Ontario, and in July and August at Race City Speedway in Calgary, Alberta. For more information, visit www.arielatomexperience.com

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