Ariel Atom 4: A Street-Legal Racer That Wows

WHAT URGE MAKES middle-aged men want to slip the surly bonds of inertia in ever more minimalist machinery? I’m asking for a friend. The Ariel Atom 4—a skeletonized version of a mid-engine two-seater ($87,910, as tested)—belongs to a class of barely-there G-force generators that also includes sailplanes, parasails, ultra-lights, hang-gliders and hot-air balloons. You can’t tell me that’s not symbolic.

Why just men? No one can say. When I asked Mark Swain, president of TMI AutoTech, which builds the Ariel in Virginia under license from the UK-based founders, he only noted the clientele were “almost entirely male,” which made me giggle, but I took his point. The shop in Virginia is tooled up to make 50-70 Ariel Atom 4s per year, said Mr. Swain.

Introduced in 2000, the Atom became famous in a 2004 episode of Top Gear in which host Jeremy Clarkson’s face flaps in the wind like Air Force Colonel John Stapp’s on the rocket sled. Now that was good television. It also nicely illustrated the Atom’s unique transparency to the elements at speed.

No top, ever. There are two frameless windshields available, small and smaller. The reinforced-plastic seat is bolted to the floor. Looking over the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel, the TFT display, and the cockpit switches, the driver sees, well, almost nothing—or everything, depending on one’s phenomenological status.

Holding up the car’s slender nose, the pushrod/inboard-coilover suspension and double wishbones do their kinematic thing practically at arm’s reach. Dancing at their ends are the hubs, wheels and wide tires, wearing small skull caps of fiberglass: The fenders.

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