THIS LITTLE GEM OF A Bob Currie feature was published in 1969 but harked back to 1962, so here it is: “Carrying what looked like a pair of Ariel Leader headlamp cowls welded side-by-side, Sammy Miller pushed open the door of the old Selley Oak competitions shop where Ariels had been since penny-farthing days. ‘Oh…er…hello.’ said Sammy. ‘Hello yourself,’ I answered, looking pointedly at the twin-headlamp assemble. ‘That’s going to look a bit peculiar on the trials model!’ But Sammy wasn’t to be drawn. He gave one of those slow-spreading Miller smiles. ‘This?’ he countered. Just a little idea somebody had.’ And that remark ought to go down in history as the classic understatement of all time. The somebody with the little idea was veteran designer Val Page. Over the years, Val’s fertile brain had produced a whole catalogue of outstanding motor cycles. To name but a few these had ranged from the Brooklands Le Vack JAPs of the early 1920s to the first Triumph vertical twin (the 650cc of 1933, not the later Edward Turner model), a BSA single eventually to develop into the Goldie, the immortal M20 of wartime days, and the highly unconventional Ariel Leader. Ostensibly Vale page had retired in 1959 at the age of 67, yet three years later he could still be found at his desk in the Selly Oak works, with the semi-official position of consultant. There was one last design, his swan-song in the motor-cycle industry, which he wanted to see through to, at least, the prototype stage. That 1962 summer, enthusiasts living
round Selly Oak, or, maybe, out in the quiet lanes of Warwickshire, might have spotted the unusual double headlamp assembly on which Sammy Miller had been working. But the machine behind it would have been dismissed, at a casual glance, as just another Ariel Leader, except, perhaps, for the nondescript dark-and-light-green paintwork. A shade longer in the wheelbase than a Leader, a bit bulkier all round; but not that you would notice…Nor did the song of the exhaust offer much of a clue to what lay hidden behind those very convenient side panels. After all there is not a deal of difference between a two-stroke twin and a four-stroke four. Yet that was the secret of the green Leader. It was, indeed, a four, Val Page’s dream (he had begun the paper work before his official, 1959 retirement) translated into metal. For many years the Ariel range had included the illustrious square four, but the new one was of a totally different layout. It was, for a start, a 696cc overhead-valve straight four with the crankshaft in line with the frame but with the cylinder block lying horizontally, vale gear to the left. Logical enough, when you think about it. The in-line crankshaft permitted the use of a car-type clutch and gear box and, the ultimate touch, a straightforward shaft final drive. The horizontal cylinder block ensured that much of the weight was not to one side of the bike’s longitudinal centre line. Val intended the machine as a luxury tourer. So, a conventional starter motor (slung beneath the gear box and operating on the toothed flywheel rim) was incorporated. Nothing so mundane as a kickstarter could be seen. But wouldn’t a four-in-line, especially one hidden behind metal panels, suffer dreadfully from overheating? Val had a simple answer. Incorporated in the engine flywheel at the rear of the unit was an extractor fan connected to ducting which jacketed the cylinder block. By this means, an ample supply of air was drawn over the unit. Says Clive Bennett, Ariel development engineer at the time: ‘It was a beautiful machine to ride; very smooth, almost dead silent and with impeccable steering. The suction cooling system worked very well; there was no trouble on that account. Maximum speed was around 80mph but, of course, the design wasn’t taken beyond the very first stages of development. We put in over 1,000 miles of test riding and I reckon I did most of those miles personally. But I don’t think any of us at Ariels were under the illusion that we would be allowed, eventually, to go into production with the four.’ The sad fact was that the top brass of the BSA group (to which Ariels belonged) had already decided that the Selly Oak works were doomed on economic grounds. In those twilight days of the famous old firm, permission to go-it-alone on development projects had to be fought for tooth and nail. That the straight four did, indeed, get the green light was itself, something of a surprise, but the go-ahead was given on the understanding that it was to be little more than a design exercise. However, even at this late stage, there
seemed to be a faint glimmer of hope. The four-cylinder engine could prove useful as the power plant of a portable generating set for military purposes. Ken Whitstance tried hard and for a while it seemed that the Greek authorities might place just such an order. Had a contract materialised then the four, expensive to produce solely in motor-cycle form, might have been brought down through quantity production to an acceptable price. But the generator-set proposal came to naught. So the doors of Selly Oak close for the last time. The big, green Leader with the surprising power unit was carried across Birmingham with other remnant of Ariel history to the parent plant at Small Heath. Later, it was exhumed from its dusty dungeon and transferred yet again, this time down to the new BSA research centre at Umberslade Hall, in the quiet of the country. It’s still there, a trifle tatty and partly cannibalised, but with its majesty only slightly dimmed. It would be wrong to write off the straight four as so much wasted effort. Though it is extremely unlike now that it will ever go into production as a complete entity, the project is considered by BSA to be dormant rather than irrevocably dead. For that reason the Umberslade Hall boffins are reluctant to disclose too many of the model’s internal secrets, even now. Calculations, ideas and design work which went into it could yet be useful some day, in some model at present unborn—be it BSA, Triumph or (anything is possible) Ariel. For our part we can mourn for the four-which-might-have-been, the luxury multi to end all multis. And yet…Once upon a time a gentle touring seven-hundred, turbine smooth, silent as any Rolls and with the refinements of total enclosure, shaft drive and electric starting might have had the customers fighting for the chance to part with their money. After all, the Sunbeam S7 had attracted a similar sort of clientele.But the Sunbeam was already long dead and times were changing. No, if epitaph be needed for the Leader Four, might not this serve? It was fabulous, but it was far too late.”
When Bob wrote that Val Page designed Triumph’s first vertical twin he could have added “in recent times”. As the planet’s leading expert on the history of British bikes, he knew perfectly well that before the Great War Triumph produced a tidy 180° vertical twin with side valves fore and aft of the cylinders, and right-angle, skew-gear-driven camshaft, with the magneto behind the cylinders (you’ll find details and pics in 1913). As Bob also knew, the Leader was Ariel’s second two-stroke. At about the same time that BSA came up with its first vertical twin, Ariel launched a 350cc two-stroke which could do 35mph at 90mpg.
WITH MZ’S DESIGNS as inspiration, Suzuki won the new 50cc class in the world road racing championships.
KAWASAKI WAS ALSO getting into twostrokes, launching the 50-250cc Samurai range.
IN ANOTHER ATTEMPT to snatch scooter sales from the Italians Triumph came up with the T10 Tina, powered by a horizontal 99cc twostroke. It was pretty, but dogged by problems with its toothed-V-belt auto transmission.
HAVING PRODUCED 500s, 600s and 650s, AMC built its biggest vertical twins – the export-only AJS Model 33 and Matchless G15.