Fast and Furious

Built in Halifax County, the Ariel Atom is a thrilling high-performance mini sports car that goes from zero to 60 mph in a lightning-fast 3.3 seconds.

Each North American Ariel Atom is manufactured under license by TMI AutoTech Inc. in Halifax County.  

Photos courtesy of TMI Automotive

Since ford ceased production of the F-150 pickup at its Norfolk assembly plant in 2007, the Commonwealth has been absent from the car manufacturing business. 

Or, it would be, but for tiny TMI AutoTech, Inc., in Halifax County.

Picking up where Ford left off, since 2008 the South Boston company has been the North American manufacturer of a racy little British sports car called the Ariel Atom. The Ariel Atom is like a life-size version of the RC Buggy you remember from Toy Story. But more fun.

The Atom is built with a sturdy exoskeleton that wraps around two seats that are snug as any in the cars racing at South Boston Speedway. But it is another racetrack that midwifed TMI AutoTech’s emergence as a car manufacturer—Virginia International Raceway, a winding 3.3-mile road race course in the grand European tradition of Germany’s famous Nürburgring circuit that sits on the Dan River, south of Danville.

TMI AutoTech co-founder, Mark Swain, a Canadian, and his business partner, were familiar with VIR from visits there as sports car racers. When the opportunity to become the U.S. manufacturer for Ariel arose, VIR’s industrial park seemed like the perfect location for the business, says Swain, who notes that they moved from Toronto specifically to start the business.

TMI fabricates the entire vehicle, both the Atom and the rugged off-road variant called the Nomad, right on site at its facility using a crew that has grown from three employees to today’s staff of more than 20.

The cars themselves are amazing. The steel tube frame is adorned with a brightly colored plastic bikini of bodywork providing the Atom and Nomad only minimal modesty. There is no roof whatsoever. No, not a folding convertible top. No roof at all. Or heater. It is just the barest go-kart of a car, complete with a tire protruding at each corner, just like those at a Virginia Beach kart track.

Clambering over the frame into the driver’s seat takes a bit of flexibility (remember, there’s no door to open), and driver and passenger settle into the cockpit shoulder-to-shoulder.

The $64,500 Atom 3’s 230-horsepower engine sits directly behind the cockpit. The motor is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder borrowed from the Honda Civic Si, but tasked with propelling a paltry 1,350 pounds, less than half the Civic’s mass. 

This produces outrageous performance, rocketing the low-slung missile to 60 mph in less than 3.3 seconds. On the track it hits 100 mph in 7.2 seconds and tears through the quarter mile in a stunning 11.2 seconds.

And that is the slow model. The $92,000 Atom 3S is pumped up with a turbocharger to 365 horsepower, so it is even faster. The Atom is meant for slicing up curvy roads, not smoking muscle cars at the drag strip, but it can capably do that too.

For shredding gravel roads, TMI AutoTech offers the Atom’s country cousin, the Nomad. The basic $80,000 Nomad Sport uses the same Honda engine as the Atom 3, while the $92,000 Nomad Tactical features an optional $7,000 supercharger that pumps its muscle up to 300 horsepower.

The engine’s raucous exhaust note comes as no surprise, egging the driver to acts of dubious legality. The surprise is the sound of the engine’s intake, gulping air right behind the driver’s right ear. This illustrates the lag between air going into the engine and air coming out, because the intake whoosh happens the very instant the driver tips into the gas pedal, while the exhaust roar follows a beat later.

To date, TMI AutoTech has sold nearly 500 of these self-propelled skateboards and interest is growing. (The cars are perfect for owners to take to amateur track days that are common at circuits all over the country.) But Virginians have the advantage of being conveniently near VIR, where there is an Atom-only racing series just for Ariel owners.

TMI AutoTech is happy to host visitors to its headquarters, so long as they call ahead. “We really welcome that,” says Swain. “Most of the time we don’t get to meet our customers, so come through on appointment.” 

A tour does sound like fun (especially if you ask them to take you for a ride in an Atom or Nomad), but anyone can tell just by looking at it that the Atom will turn a routine drive to work into a thrill ride. So go ahead and get one now, and maybe you can get your tour when you take it to VIR for some ticket-free high-performance driving.

This article originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.

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