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Life with the only street-legal Ariel Atom in Canada

Posted Jan 30th 2012 12:02PM


It seems that year-over-year our favourite sporty platforms get heavier, more complex and even more awkward. When bean-counters and lawyers get their mitts on the design process, the effort to make them safe or profitable has pushed the bottom line of weight, and resulting performance to new territory. It isn't very often that new cars are lighter and less complex than their predecessors, so the fans dedicated to the bare-bones visceral driving experience are slowly becoming extinct. The public has accepted heavy cars, useless luxuries and electronic nannies that almost completely detach the driver from the road.

The Ariel Atom is that shining light, one that refuses to acknowledge this practice as the norm. As much as we can't describe it as a proper car, it's buyer isn't a driver but a 4-wheel thrill seeker that wants to translate the track experience to the street. The Atom attracts the type of buyer that has done the motorbike thing and yearned for a bit more, dare we say it, practicality?

For a taste of our Ariel Atom experience hit the jump for more.
Related GalleryAriel Atom in Canada

When we got a random email from an Ariel Atom owner right here in Canada, our interest level was quickly brought to a boil. Yes, we had been in Atoms before at the track but all of them were plated in the States since strict Canadian laws would not allow the vehicle to be registered here. With no crash testing and well, a host of requirements for a motor vehicle missing altogether, the Atom was nothing more than a pipe dream for Canadians. Unless enthusiasts wanted to import it as a race car, meaning you might as well buy a used F2000 and pocket some money, the Atom just didn't make sense. The appeal of the Atom is that you can run the streets with it on clear days and the only guy in Canada who pursued that dream to do so was now on the phone with us scheduling a meeting.

The owner was a young, wealthy doctor from Toronto who was thrilled to be interacting with his favorite site, Autoblog Canada. Although he wanted us to do a detailed article on his car, he also wanted his private life to remain private, so much so that he didn't even want to show up at the photo shoot. Alright sounds good, but we asked how the vehicle is going to make it to the location and be moved around? Although it took a while to register, I'm sure lottery winners go through the same rapid-fire emotions of: denial, elation and then freak out... the owner wanted to toss us the keys to his baby.

After we assured him that we had blanket insurance to cover the car for $100,000 and the millions worth of liabilities that might swing our way, we also vowed to save it from police confiscation. Ontario is home to the fuzzy law that essentially assumes motorists guilty until proven innocent by seizing vehicles for seven days and racking up huge bills. The owner also asked that it not be taken to the track, and there was no protest on our end because this test and review would be on the streets of Toronto.

Among the many questions we were about to be asked over the next 24-hours was "have you taken it to the track?" While not everyone was content with our negative response, we already knew it was amazing at the track, we actually wanted to roll through the hottest districts of the mega-city and get people to interact with this unorthodox vehicle. We wanted to see the reactions, field all of the ridiculous questions and really be shocked by the uncontrollable actions of those just trying to get close to it.

Whatever we expected, we were clearly not prepared for what actually happened. We met the owner at a fairly low-key side street in downtown Toronto and the lunacy started right away. Motorists began pulling over and blocking the street in both directions so that nothing short of a bicycle could pass by. Then the cell phone cams came out, the barrage of questions popped off rudely interrupting our briefing of the vehicle. A few minutes later our Facebook and Twitter notifications started blowing up with sightings and one of our competitors even showed up to linger around to gawk at it. In retrospect, we should have conducted this at our underground parking garage but it was clear the distractions would be aplenty, so we accelerated the mission to hit the road.

We were granted the coveted Ariel key fob in exchange for only a business card and a handshake while thanking the owner in every way we could word it. Without sounding too over-excited, we wanted to get to business of driving the hell out of this machine on the city streets of this complex metropolis. We climbed into the elaborate cage structure of the vehicle and began adjusting the harness for maximum snugness, not comfort. After all, there are no climate controls to mess with, no nav to poke and certainly no radio, not that you could hear it anyway. As long as you can reach the go pedal and wrap your meats around the wheel, that is all you need to experience the Atom. The battery switch was flipped, ignition toggled to on and the fob wafted under the proximity sensor before the push of the 'start' button signaled the beginning of our 24-hour Atom odyssey.

The supercharged 2.0L K20A Honda mill sprung to life along with all of the noise and vibration you'd expect by having the uncorked motor close enough to touch right behind you. The hard urethane mounts might be considered obnoxious by most but gave us a real connection to the status of the Honda powerplant. The stunted Atom exhaust was a thing of beauty and tucks neatly within the confines of the tube chassis. The sound coming from the maze of stainless steel piping is quiet at idle but really unhinges itself at higher RPMs only to be overthrown by the whine of the charger that gulps in air from a duct right beside your head. Even the padding inside a helmet can't mask all the mechanical wonderland of noises back there, and the symphony of moving parts attracted onlookers at every turn.

Naturally, whenever we have some exotic piece of machinery at our disposal, Murphy's Law dictates that some absent-minded driver is about to crash into it. Within one city block, we almost had the 'SAAB' logo tattooed into our foreheads as one of them made a rolling right turn on a red. But at the same time, can we blame them? The Ariel Atom drags itself mere inches off the ground and its overall height wasn't even waist high. Driving in the fast-paced city means that drivers are probably looking outward on a level plane for cars, pedestrians and bicycles, not looking down for insane open-wheelers! Chalk it up to anticipation and reaction times, we swerved sharply and averted a potentially very embarrassing accident.

We had been planning this day for weeks and had mapped out the city, connecting the dots of hot-spots and what time they would be packed for an audience to witness the Atom in motion. Getting to our first destination was no easy task because everyone attempted to hold up traffic to talk to us about the car. We even had pedestrians stop in the middle of intersections, green lights be damned to get pictures of the car and delay us while their accomplices could chat about the car. The questions all started out innocently enough but rapidly got annoying. In no time it was as if you wanted to slap some vinyl on the side of the faring that answered the common questions:
  • "It's an Ariel Atom"
  • "The U.K."
  • "$100,000 Canadian"
  • "Very fast"
  • "Totally street legal"
  • "No, you can't go for a ride"
Within hours we basically stopped answering the basics, just pointed at our helmets and made the universal "I can't hear you" head shake. We wanted to save the chit-chat for later as we concentrated on driving around the already dangerous city from the perspective of staring directly at car wheels, bicycle cranks and the knees of pedestrians. We opened it up a bit on our way to the first destination, Toronto's upscale Yorkville district. It was over 20-degrees in on this day and we wanted to capitalize on it by talking it up with all the pedestrian traffic.

As soon as we hopped out the swarms of people started rolling in. Everyone from modest students to millionaire business owners were all over us with questions and the polite Canucks started forming a line-up to take photos in front of the car. As it happened, a double-decker bus full of tourists rolled up to the stationary Atom and the tour guide started talking about it! The guide blurted out "On your right we have uhh, an Ariel Atom folks. Wasn't' expecting that, so take a picture for sure." With that, the entire bus clamored over to the right side with such urgency, we thought it was going to capsize. Although this area hosted the 2010 Gumball 3000 car show and street party to highly exposed big-dollar exotics, the Atom was a huge hit with nearly everyone. After more interesting interactions it was off to Liberty Village on the West side of the city to post up for a while in this trendy area.

Liberty Village is full of young hipsters, boutiques and pricey shops. We were literally taking over the area with our motion shots for video and photography and the crowds began to gather. We parked it in a covered promenade area for some shots when the first of many drunk girlies laid eyes on the car. "Whose car is this?" she asked and to cut down on the explanation, I said it was mine. She sauntered over in her 5-inch heels ran her hand down my chest and told me how badly she wanted a ride. Well, I convinced her to settle for a seat in it and had to pile her in and out of the difficult process. That kind of desire to get into the car and well, straight up get close to the owner was very evident and although there was a girl in the passenger seat at times, girls stared right past her without any acknowledgement just to talk to the driver. If your intentions for owning this car would be to attract the fair sex, well then mission accomplished.

After a break in the action we decided to do some highway runs. Without getting into too much gritty details, the Atom ate it up. On ramps, off ramps and the explosive acceleration are so completely effortless for this tiny cage on wheels, it is frightening. The car accelerates so fast, the puny windscreen does zero to shield from the wind and you can feel the pressure build up under your chin, hit your neck and pull your head back. Unlike a motorbike, where your seating position is forward and the helmet meets the air head-on, in the Atom the air slams into your chest it gets very cold, very fast. At the same time, having that rush of air around you was addictive and the sensation of speed was intense. We had a moment whipping around an on-ramp where we hit these awesome layers of fog that literally passed by your head though the Atom and you could even breathe that distinct foggy scent in.

After some heart-pounding moments, we decided to take it down a level and go to the Shops at Don Mills. The new outdoor mall is a major attraction and we joked with the valets at the popular restaurant Joey that if they could figure out how to start it - they could park it. Despite their pleading, we had to break the news that only I was authorized to drive it. At the moment, the restaurant patrons literally started spilling out onto the street for a closer look. More questions, more pictures and a few more ladies in heels out for a good time on a Friday night making inquiries about getting a ride in the open-wheeler.

After an outrageously grin-filled day, we were about to lay it all on the line and dig down to the real reactions of the public. A place where the beats are pumping and the truth serum flows like water... the club-district. With almost 100 clubs packed into four city blocks, we were about to roll-into the war zone with people staggering everywhere and everyone trying to make a statement with either their attire or car they drive. The Atom stopped people in their tracks, drew them out onto the streets and caused them to give, well the most uninhibited responses we heard all day. "No f**kin way...that thing is f**kin amazing...holy sh*t...oh my, I f**kin' love that must get so much Pu**y in that thing...Jesus Christ, is that a f**kin Ariel Atom?" Just a handful of the dozens of colourful statements we heard and since this was a younger demographic, many of them actually knew what it was. It was amusing for a bit, but we can certainly see why the proper doctor was ready to sell it and cryptically said earlier "yeah it will be fun to have all the attention... for a weekend."

Beyond all of the lunacy surrounding the Atom, we did have some semi-intelligent conversations with potential buyers who claimed to have the $100K to buy it. They took names, emails and the source of the Kijiji ad where the vehicle was being advertised. Many of them wanted to know the origins of the car and how it came to be plated here in Canada. The owner kept that classified but has shared some details with us since it has been recently sold.

This 2007 Ariel Atom was already in Canada but had been seized by police as the proceeds of crime. It was put up for auction by the Attorney General's office where the current owner purchased it for under market value. He had to undertake a host of modifications to make it street legal and circumvent traditional methods because this was not kit car designation we believed it to be. The car possesses a real 17-digit VIN and is registered as a 2007 Ariel Atom on the title. The fact there are plates on this car was really the most shocking part for everyone, including the Metro Toronto Police, who pulled us over, not once but three times in one day.

After putting as many kilometres on the Atom as humanly possible, it was time to catch some sleep before we had to deliver it back to the man holding the title. The Ariel Atom is dripping with charm and it has this soul that you really connect with and don't want to let go. Sure parts of the drive are annoying, but it is just so hardcore that you don't care. The Atom is all attitude and can grant you exotic performance, styling and technology for much less than anything else out there that might have the same impact.

One person asked what it is like to drive and my response was: "Like a superbike but your passenger is sitting beside you rather than behind you." Like every test drive we have, it was fleeting and we had to settle for what is parked in our driveways after the short experience. However, Toronto has never seen anything like that and may never again depending on the whims of the proud new owner. The previous owner would not confirm or deny that he received the $100,000 asking price. We however, wanted to flaunt it around town to make a splash for Autoblog Canada for a lot less, set, match.

Image Credit: Copyright 2012 Ste Ho of / AOL


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How to get it to be street legal in Toronto is my own question.

May 22 2014 at 11:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

you won't need a helmet to drive the atom and the last thing you want to do is visit a police any dot tire is legal for use and no a windshield is not a mandated nesscescity on a street car
my car has been on the street for 25 years now and has logged almost 100000 summer street kilometers
its been to a few track days at mosport and did not embarrass itself
my car has a 17 character vin assigned by mot and it is surprising how little equipment was required when constructed to be street legal
the big issue is not getting these cars on street but getting insurance

June 18 2013 at 10:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ok so this is street legal big deal so is this
1188lbs with full tank of gas 12:21@116mph in quarter 209bhp 197 ft/lbs torque 4wheel discs, brake bias adjustable from drivers seat ,onboard data gathering and a whole lot cheaper than the atom no windshield fenders are not required if operated on dry roads and it surprises a lot of the socalled muscle cars

June 18 2013 at 10:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What modifications were required to make it street-legal?

I thought all that was needed is to get the parts and build it as a kit car then get it licensed...

September 06 2012 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Quik's comment

Well, looking at this one over a stock one I can see a few things.

1) Need to get a VIN number for it if Ariel didn't produce one when purchased
2) The larger headlights which are an option from Ariel
3) Must have fenders over all wheels, again an option from Ariel
4) Mirrors, maybe
5) Front license plate bracket, Canada requires front and rear plates, U.S. only requires rear. Probably a custom mount
6) Likely requires helmets to be worn at all times like a motorcycle
7) Not sure if semi-slick tires are legal, but this one has them
8) Visit or letter to local police asking them to stop harassing you every time you drive it.

Hope that helps.

April 06 2013 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Grey's comment

9) argh, forgot the windscreen.

April 06 2013 at 3:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

Does anyone have any idea what modifications were made to make this street-legal? I imagine there would be a few of them.

January 31 2012 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I saw this car in the city last year, at Yonge and Sheppard. I did a double take, since I couldn't believe what I saw!

January 31 2012 at 11:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply