Ariel 3

BSA Ariel 3 – What Were They Thinking?

Bike journo Vic Willoughby tests the Wallis prototypeProclaimed as the future for the Birmingham brand which had been producing motor bikes for sixty years, the Ariel 3 project would put the final nail in BSA’s coffin. So, what’s the best way to tell this story? Buy one, obviously.

BSA Ariel 3 – What Were They Thinking?

Those opening a copy of Motor Cycle newspaper on Wednesday 1st July 1970 may well have been taken aback by the half page advert displaying a trendy chap complete with Aviator sunglasses and dressed in the best ‘easy rider’ style. Clutching his ‘Stars & Stripes’ lid whilst looking decidedly uncomfortable aboard the revolutionary Ariel 3; the headline read ‘Here it is. Whatever it is’. The broadsheet also contained two full pages of dealer advertising offering instant delivery across the nation; BSA had done their homework and this machine was going to fly out of the showrooms as fast as they could build them. The factory geared up to supply around 1000 units per week as their market research had predicted a surge of buyers but at £100 per unit, they faced competition from Honda’s SS and C50’s both similarly priced when the average wage came in at £32 per week.

Innovation Meets Reality 

Ariel 3The design conception can be traced back to 1925 and a young engineer named George Wallis who produced a hub-steered Isle of Man TT and speedway contenders at Wallis Motors in Bromley. In 1967 he designed a tri-cycle that bent in the middle with the two rear wheels remaining constantly upright. BSA were keen to get into the moped market and with the rear wheels under 18 inches apart UK law at the time considered them as one, thus a motorised tricycle would be classed as a moped; production rights were agreed, and the factory took over. Wallis remained as a consultant but later explained the designers in Birmingham paid little attention to his input; convinced they didn’t need to, as researchers insisted the market (especially amongst younger ladies) was desperate for this new machine. A massive publicity campaign surrounded the launch, mini-skirts and bikini’s the required attire for models posing in every tabloid and most broadsheets. Whilst the lady’s sort visual attention, the Ariel’s design impressed those with a preference for engineering ingenuity; the ability to tilt its front wheel whilst the rear remains static, the BSA’ party piece.

Ariel 3 3-wheelerThis came courtesy of two sprung-steel torsion bars of around two feet in length clamped to a forked light-alloy engine frame at one end. At the front they are mounted in an anchor block just ahead of the pedals, so after leaning the front to corner the twisting bars return the machine to an upright position. Just prior to production the John Hobday designed 50cc motor was dropped in favour of the Dutch Anker Laura, this turned out to be embarrassing when it refused to cold start promptly during several press invited promotions. In haste BSA had ordered some 50,000 of these, many of which would never be fitted as sales failed to materialise. On the 11th June 1970 BSA’s Group Managing Director Lionel Jofeh told 200 journalists outside London’s Royal Festival Hall the Ariel 3 was the most exciting development to come out of Birmingham and predicted 25,000 would be sold generating £2.5 million. Famous folk gathered to be photographed aboard this new transport phenomenon; one image features The Settlers singer Cindy Kent alongside broad caster David Jacobs and a young Olivia Newton-John. Initially, the motorcycle press reacted with amusement and even praise for the Ariel’s stability and brakes; the latter operates at the front and just one of the rear wheels. As does the drive system, via a belt to a single rear wheel that can be disconnected should a breakdown or lack of fuel force the rider to pedal home. At 120mpg, only the most frugal would run low on the two-stroke mix and a top speed of just under 30mph was adequate for their target audience. Two teams of Ariel 3 girls toured the country to display this new marvel and a £70k budget was put aside with promotion events from village fetes to race tracks such as Brands Hatch.

Hire companies in London, Jersey and even Bermuda took delivery of Ariel 3’s and proved very successful but the financial burden on the company was becoming apparent by the winter of 1970. The phrase ‘white elephant’ was now being used by the same publications who praised the Ariel a few months before, whilst BSA offered promotion including a year’s free petrol with every purchase and free servicing for owners who could ‘introduce a friend’. By promoting and selling their machine via motorcycle dealers, BSA inadvertently ‘put off’ the female clients they were looking to supply.

George Wallis maintained advertising should have been considered within non-motorcycle magazines with alternate outlets including department stores rather than motorcycle shops, the domain of the 70’s male. Whatever the reasons for the Ariel 3’s disastrous first year sales of just 7,000 it seems the machine itself wasn’t totally at fault. Poor management, lack of initial testing and a reliance on market surveys were just some of the poor decisions taken, missing the target audience and promoting the Ariel 3 as another motorbike instead of a new mode of transport just made the situation worse.  

With an estimated £2 million in development and around 50k Anker Laura engines stockpiled, BSA were in trouble and collapsed in 1973 with debts of £3 million. George Wallis then took his design to Daihatsu who produced the ‘Hallo’ in 1974 but the final product although well-built and reliable proved expensive and never sold in the UK. Finally, Honda not content with just the licence to manufacture, purchased Wallis & Son design company and built the Stream in the early 80’s which proved a long-lasting success, especially in Japan. Back in the nineties I often took the chance to ride Honda’s version and it was brilliant fun but what of the original from the Midlands? Did it compare with Japanese options or was it really a 3-wheeled flop? The only way to answer so many questions was to purchase an Ariel 3 and put it to the test, nearly half a century after its launch.

Wanted Ariel 3 – What was I Thinking

Ariel 3 restoration projectWe’ll have a go at anything within the ‘ped shed’ but my mate Alan looked decidedly uneasy about the Ariel challenge ‘you’re not getting me on one of those’ his first comment. I had already decided to leave behind any prejudice before embarking on this mini-trike trial and the rumour of a local machine in reasonable order had sent me out with a few hundred quid in my pocket. The first point to raise should anyone be considering following my folly is don’t buy an Ariel 3 without a V5 unless you enjoy doing the ‘DVLA dance’ of form filling. BSA (in their wisdom) didn’t stamp their frames, the manual says they did, towards the rear but this is incorrect. Instead they chose to attach a clear sticker at the front offering the machines details; most of these failed to survive their first birthday. I ignored my own advice, even though the remnants of our sticker had worn away, but this Ariel came with an old ‘buff’ registration book, MOT and tax disc from 1977; so there is hope.

Ariel 3 engineAlthough the registration date reads November 1972 it’s a fair bet our Ariel left the factory the previous year and whilst surface rust attacked the steel components like acne, she is solid. First test was to search for the smallest signs of life from the Anker Laura engine, it turned over and offered a spark. The previous owner told me he had it running once, many years ago but I took that with a pinch of salt. We balanced the drive wheel on some wood, added fresh juice and I pedalled like a teenager; two minutes of coronary inducing effort and it actually started up! The shed filled with ‘essence of two stroke’ as the realisation dawned, this thing may have a future.

Make do and Mend

Ariel 3 solid chassisI foresaw many hours of sheared bolts and seized fittings ahead as we began to dismantle but again the BSA surprised, with angle grinder and drill remaining in the tool box. Four of the five cables from the handlebars were usable (the decompressor had seized) and the wiring seemed to carry current and whilst the plastic panels had aged they were largely undamaged. A couple of hours passed before the engine and its alloy cradle became the final parts to separate from the frame. Detaching the steel torsion bars that offer the Ariel’s unique cornering ability was straight forward (just four bolts) and with the chain split the surprisingly light motor could be lifted away. I am not sure if the front suspension owes more to ‘witchcraft’ than the science of physics, a single pole bouncing up and down on polyurethane blocks. The original items had long since perished and replaced rather neatly with substitutes that resemble car bump stops. This novel approach seemed to work well but we wouldn’t be convinced before a serious road test.

Ariel 3 engine stripdownBSA didn’t fit a speedo to the Ariel, thus we had no idea of the mileage covered but the brake pads and head stock bearings gave us a clue with minimal wear all round, these like so many other parts would be refitted once the paint had cured. Pacific Blue or as close as we could get is quite a common option, so once the frame was down to shiny steel the primer coats concealed a couple of tiny ‘rust worms’ that had got through. The frame and fork leg are in superb condition and both were recoloured in a couple of days; the rear section had suffered a lot more. Once the plastic side trims had their pop-rivets drilled out the box section took an age to get into primer, whilst the engine cover had suffered from plenty of rust scabs with the resulting finish not quite what I had hoped. Four 12-inch steel rims required de-rusting before a straightforward silver/lacquer combination returned them to respectability and whilst the engine ran, its appearance ensured a day’s toil with wire brushes before stripping down. The carb enjoyed a good bath whilst the exhaust proved solid and responded well to a repaint. The tin work that enclosed the chain and stopped any enthusiastic ‘fettler’ from losing fingers on the fan was originally yellow and would be returned that way. Overall, the engine only took a couple of days before it was ready to refit.

Ariel 3 restorationThe reassembly was a reversal of the deconstruction only taking twice as long, feeding the cables back through the frame could only be achieved by taping wire to both ends and encouraging with lots of words your mother wouldn’t approve of. We replaced the crusty fuel line and installed a filter, as the inside of the tank enjoyed plenty of debris no matter how many times it was washed through. Every nut, bolt and screw were replaced where possible and although we took the Ariel back to basics the overall condition meant this was more of a ‘paint job’ than a full restoration. The plastic clips that secure the engine cover were either broken or missing, these are very difficult to locate and are the only items on our shopping list. After some paint and polish the motor inspection revealed it wanted nothing but a new spark plug whilst the wire gauze air filter enjoyed a clean. Mopedland made up a new de-compressor cable for £25.00 and with paint and materials we took our total spend so far to around £100; the Ariel 3 turned out to be a cheap fix and not what I expected. Another bonus arrived via the postman some weeks later. After contacting and joining the excellent EACC via Mark Daniels (Mopedland) a large envelope of DVLA required paperwork hit my door mat, but crucially instructions were included; as the folk at Swansea will only look into re-registering if you meet their strict criteria … and that changes like the wind. Within a couple of days and with a small cheque included my ‘papers’ went back to the EACC to be verified, then just a couple of weeks on the Ariel’s V5 arrived and she retained the original reg number.

The Truth is in the Test.

Ariel 3 restored engine and frameFor someone who wanted nothing to do with the Ariel, once aboard we wouldn’t get Alan off the thing and as his confidence grew the chance of an accident increased as he swerved the trike from side to side with the rear end almost drifting in his wake. Luckily, the last of the crap within the tank found its way into the carb and brought a halt to proceedings. Road test report; no brakes and clutch sticking causing the Ariel to stall once static, these could be fixed or even better the clutch might fix itself with some use. Once the ‘crash test dummy’ had finished wearing out the tyres I adjusted the brakes up to the point where it thinks about slowing and headed out to conduct a more adult review.

Ariel 3 minimalist controls!Without any speedo assistance, its difficult to confirm but what seemed like sixty must have been somewhere nearer 30mph and straight ahead everything feels fairly stable, but cornering takes time to master. Understeer is available by the bucket load as the front struggles for grip until the rider develops some understanding of the tilting system but returns again when you become a little too clever or the elements supply a hint of moisture. In traffic, fear takes over as the rider is forced to the nearside and the lack of suspension means every drain cover or pothole offers the chance to visit casualty. Saying all that, every ride is an adventure whilst making new acquaintances is guaranteed, although most folk tend to point, wave or utter ‘WTF’ .. In conclusion, what BSA were thinking when they launched into the Ariel 3 will remain a mystery and certainly their marketing did the machine no favours, the wheels are too small and it’s under powered.

Ariel 3 front endThe brakes are poor and the tilt system, although genius, takes time to master but for the moped collector it is a ‘must have’. Parts are still available and although their following has increased recently it’s still not an expensive ‘ped’ to purchase with mechanically sound options changing hands for around £500. The BSA Ariel 3 … fascinating, frugal and fun, definitely for the fearless and unlikely to be forgotten.




BSA Ariel 3 Technical Bits

Engine: 49cc reed valve, two-stroke single. Crankshaft supported in ball bearings, roller big end and plain small ends. Lubrication petrol to oil 24 to 1.

Carburettor: Encarwi 12mm with wire gauze air filter; choke operated by handlebar mounted trigger. Claimed power 1.7bhp

Transmission: Primary by toothed rubber belt to single plate centrifugal clutch; secondary by fully enclosed chain to n/s rear wheel.

Electrical: Ignition and direct lighting by six-volt flywheel magneto with lighting coils. Headlamp 4in square with 17-watt bulb.

Special equipment: Plastic encased wire shopping basket and Perspex screen.

Fuel Capacity: 6 pints / 3.4 litres

Brakes: 4in diameter single leading shoe both front and rear; rear operating on driven wheel.

Tyres: 2 x 12in Dunlop studded on interchangeable pressed steel wheels.

Suspension: Trailing link front controlled by micro-cellular polyurethane blocks; rear by torsion bars with damping by rubber snubber blocks.

Dimensions: Wheel base 49 inches, ground clearance 3.5 inches.

Weight: 98lbs /44.5 kgs



Ariel 3 front end