In 1958, Ariel was in deep trouble. The company had sold only two examples of its flagship Square Four in 1957, and it couldn’t afford a long overdue overhaul. Its other four-stroke heavyweights, meanwhile, were not strong competitors and the picture looked bleak for Ariel.
Just in time, though, designer Val Page came up with an unconventional idea to save the company. Page was aware of the inroads that Vespa and Lambretta had made into the UK market, and that their scooters were badly copied by everybody else. He felt he could design a motorcycle that offered the benefits of a scooter, but had decent performance and full weather equipment.
Page avoided the 10-inch wheels and step-through construction and designed a proper machine with 16-inch wheels and enough grunt to safely do 75 mph. It would be easy to ride, practical and easy to maintain. The company bet the farm on retooling for the 250 cc Leader, which had fully enclosed bodywork and was available in attractive colors. Page hit every target he aimed for, but failed to win either motorcycle or scooter fans. It must have galled him that many of his ideas appeared on the Honda Dream.
Page based his design around the excellent German Adler two-stroke twin. It was suspended beneath a pressed steel beam that extended from the steering head to the rear suspension. The advanced engine was enclosed behind detachable panels, and the halves of the crank were bolted and keyed together so the engine could be rebuilt without splitting the case.
The fuel tank was placed under the seat in the beam and the seat hinged upwards for refueling. A dummy tank in front was a lockable storage area. The bodywork featured integrated leg shields, a windshield and a full dashboard including speedometer, ammeter, height-adjustable headlight and flashing turn signals. A trailing link front suspension and fully enclosed chain guard completed the package, which was offered in bright colors and with whitewall tires. The bike had a four-speed gearbox and weighed only about 275 lbs.
The press loved it, but bikers and scooterists didn’t. You can’t be a bad boy on an Easter egg color bike with leg shields and a big windshield, and how do you attach clips-ons to pressed steel forks? Scooter riders thought the Leader was too big, and Vespa and Lambretta hit back with low-cost financing.
Page was undeterred. He stripped off the bodywork to create the sporting Arrow, often called Golden Arrow because of its color. Power was bumped up to 20 bhp and Herman Meyer tuned Arrows for racing, with Michael O’Rourke’s scoring a seventh place finish at the 1960 Isle of Man Lightweight TT, at 80.18 mph.
One other big problem was that Americans didn’t want an all-weather bike, as they saw motorcycles as fair weather fun. To most of them, it didn’t matter that the Leader was reliable and could return 70 mpg at 60 mph. Sales never took off in the U.S., and production ceased in 1965.
The Leader and Arrow were successful in the UK with 35,200 sold, and that’s the place to look for one. Bodywork is very difficult to find, but mechanical parts are available.
Leaders and Arrows are not expensive and are reliable, quiet and economical. They do require mixing two-stroke fuel, though. With their bright colors, prominent features, and very 1950s-looking presence, the Ariel Leader and Arrow are bound to attract attention everywhere.