Last year, we drove the Ariel Atom at Lime Rock Park. It’s time for another rendezvous on an abandoned Soviet airfield where we've found the Atom is still the sharpest and simplest driver’s car ever made.
Author’s note: If you’re looking for a review of the Ariel Atom, a description of what it’s like to drive and to be driven in by a professional, please see John Krewson’s excellent first drive from last September. What follows is a collection of vignettes inspired by a day out photographing the only Atom in Hungary.
Perhaps as divine providence of the automotive kind, my life has not been lacking in Ariel Atoms. I have seen and heard examples of this bespoke quest for trackday
perfection in the sands of Arabia, the forests of New England, the hill roads of Budapest, and I can now tell you that the place you shouldn’t be taking yours is an abandoned Soviet military airfield.
Not that it’s not a visual and aural thrill to see this most weaponlike of British cars blasting down a runway at full throttle. And there’s nothing wrong with the airfield in question either. Located by the Hungarian town of Kiskunlacháza, it was used by the Red Army during its extended stay in Central Europe and it has its very own Chernobyl-esque abandoned city, complete with abandoned school, abandoned theaters, and abandoned kindergarten.
The problem lies elsewhere.
It was on an overcast and unseasonally cold September day that we made our way south to the airfield, we being your humble correspondent and his friend-and-
relations, including my wife Natalie, her friend Dóri from Argentina, and our European intern Máté.
We were headed for an event organized by a local auctions site where the owner of Hungary’s sole Ariel Atom was present to give hot laps on the runway to all willing. Natalie likes fast cars. Dóri likes the company of Natalie. And Máté is such a speed freak he spent all day trying to get his hands on the keys. He had to make do with a racing gokart.
Racing gokarts look silly, but don’t be misled: racing gokarts are also frightening. In my fourth decade of life, I’m definitely too old for racing gokarts. Máté is young.
You can think of the Ariel Atom as a big racing gokart. A very big racing gokart. Suffice to say that a finely made shopping cart powered by a 300 hp supercharged Honda Type–R engine is still madly thrilling.
After their Thelma and Louise act, accompanied by the heavy clicking of camera shutters, I asked Ms. Natalie of Budapest and Ms. Dóri of Córdoba their opinion on the Atom.
Natalie, after the Atom’s owner took her for a spin:
It wasn’t bad, but doing 120 mph in a straight line grew old 15 years ago when I first floored a BMW on the Autobahn. Corners were fun but few. I was surprised by how precise the gearbox is.
Dóri, who opted to watch only:
The Atom scared me. It doesn’t feel safe at all. It’s full of holes.
They make a perfect pair, don’t they?
There is a road for every car, and for the Ariel Atom, that road is Lime Rock Park. Watching test driver Mark Swain work the pedals from the best seat in the house, it
was pretty much the most fun I’ve ever had in a car. Hitting 100 mph after West Bend on the steep downhill section prompted wild cackles inside my helmet. Not that they were audible. The Honda engine is supercharged, and the supercharger sounds like a jet plane on takeoff.
In this day and age of car parts sourced from every part of the globe, it is perhaps a quaint notion that cars reflect national identities, but they certainly reflect the identities of the road infrastructure of their homes.
Endless American straights beget cars with big engines for straight line speed and little else, smooth Autobahns allow for suspension in German cars which rattle the bones once exported, and it is the twisting and hilly country roads of Britain which give rise to cars like the Atom.
This is why you should not take your Atom to an airfield. Yes, it can be driven around in circles. No, that’s not the point. The point is corners.
Also present at the event was a guy with a Caterham Seven, one with a 120 hp 1.8-liter Ford engine. It was the first time I saw these two side-by-side outside the pages of Evo magazine and a curious observation presented itself.
While the Atom looks thoroughly and frighteningly modern, the Seven looks like the 50-year-old racing car it is. It is a strange freak of history, designed before the
mid-engined revolution, a race car from a bygone age. A modern Seven has obviously got very little to do with Colin Chapman’s original, but that doesn’t make the car look any less dated.
When you compare it to the Atom, the Seven feels random. Had things happened differently and another vintage racing car had made the jump from the ‘50s into the modern day, we would be driving Maserati 250F’s with S54B32’s and Speed Sixes. On the other hand, the Atom looks like a car with no past. It is a message from the automotive gods.
A few months ago, I wrote about an epiphany I had in the Audi R8 V10, namely that supercars—which I define here as a car in the spirit of the Lamborghini Miura, a
road car built like a race car—are simply frustrating, not awesome or liberating.
After all these encounters with the Atom, the feeling grows ever stronger that perhaps the end of the line in the quest for automotive perfection is this: Get whatever suits your practical needs, be it a Ford F–150, a Lexus LS600hL, or a Smart ForTwo, then get an Atom for fun. It is the very ludicrous essence of the driver’s car. There is no alternative.
If human nature didn’t make James May’s proposal for timeshares in interesting cars impossible, you could also hook up with your friends and buy one for the price of a used Honda. But then an Atom is not a car to share. Would you trust your straight razor to a friend?
The message is simple. Get an Atom. You need one like a fine pair of English shoes.
Special thanks to Dóri Kaszás, Máté Petrány, and Natalie Polgar.