Every summer, your thoughts no doubt turn to treating yourself to a sporty motor – perhaps one that lets you get the wind in your hair. There’s a raft of punchy open-tops on offer, but one of the sportiest of the bunch lets you get the wind in your eyes, mouth and shorts as well.
Yes, it’s the Ariel Atom – the two-seat track toy that goes like a rocket, sounds like a superbike and looks like a scaled-up Lego kit. You’d have to be pretty serious about your Sunday drives to look past similarly powered and priced hot hatchbacks, but for the sheer viscerality and authenticity of the Atom’s driving experience, not much else comes close.
The first Atom left Ariel’s Somerset production line at the turn of the millennium, packing up to 190bhp from a variant of the four-cylinder Rover K-series engine used by its fully fendered Lotus Elise contemporary and weighing in at just 456kg. It quickly gained recognition as one of the most capable and fun track day cars on the market, if not one that was especially keenly priced.
Production of the Atom was limited, so you won’t find many of these early examples for sale.
Slightly less rare is the Atom 2, which arrived in 2003 with a Honda Civic Type R engine pushing out 245bhp, plus a supercharged version that packed 300bhp and a welcome sixth gear in its manual ’box through which to send that increased grunt.
You can pay upwards of £30,000 for a run-out model from 2007. That sounds a lot of money for a car that might do no more than 2000 miles per year, but given its relative rarity and supreme build quality, you can expect this to be a safe investment.
The second-hand Ariel market is dominated, however, by the Atom 3, which, despite looking nearly identical to its forebear, was labelled a completely new car, promising a stiffer chassis, extra cockpit space, lower seats and a more refined ride.
It was built from 2007 to 2018, gaining updated 3.5-litre and insane V8 versions along the way, and it still commands extremely strong money; £36,000 buys a 13,000-mile 2009 car, while a V8 will set you back more than £170,000 – if you can find one.
So this is an apex-hunting track toy that you can drive to the shops; what’s not to love? Well, the outright cost, for starters, but there’s also the upkeep to consider. Unless you live next to Cadwell Park or on the Côte d’Azur, you’re unlikely to use an Atom for more than a few days per year, but it has to be stored and kept in good working order regardless.
Servicing and repairs are no DIY job, so most owners take their Atoms back to Ariel for regular check-ups (“Who better to work on your car or bike than the people who build them?”), and you can’t skimp on any necessary replacement parts.