Historic Car Brands
Best known for its AC and AC Cobra sports cars, the AC brand goes back to the beginnings of the British car industry and, since then, has had more stops and starts than Dame Nellie Melba or Gunsynd.
Right from the start the signs were ominous: engineer brothers Weller were backed by pork butcher, John Portwine, in 1903. The Weller 20hp advanced car the brothers displayed at the Crystal Palace Motor Show proved expensive to produce, so the good butcher suggested that the brothers come up with a small delivery vehicle instead.
The three-wheeled Auto-Carrier of 1904 was the first product of the newly formed Autocar and Accessories Company and proved immediately successful. Powered by a single-cylinder engine it featured single rear wheel drive, via a two-speed hub.
It was followed in 1908 by a passenger-carrying version, the AC Sociable. In the 1912 Motor Cycle and Car Show catalogue it was described as: ‘one of the most popular cycle cars on the road, both for pleasure and business’.
The first AC four-wheeler was introduced on the eve of World War One and production resumed in 1918. This vehicle had a three-speed transmission integrated with the rear axle.
John Weller had been working on the design of a new engine and it was released in 1919. This two-litre, six-cylinder, overhead camshaft engine proved so successful that it continued, with upgrades, in AC cars until 1963.
In 1921, Selwyn Edge – previously with Napier – bought shares in the company and subsequently became governing director. Less than a year later, the Weller brothers and John Portwine resigned, thus ending the association with the original AC company.
Selwyn Edge embarked on a series of record breaking endeavours, but that didn’t lead to car sales and the company was liquidated in 1929. However, the 1920s record history was impressive: J A Joyce won at the Brighton Speed Trails in 1923/24; T G Gillett broke to continuous 24-hour record at Montlhery, near Paris, in 1924, covering 1949.3 miles in the process; Victor Bruce won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1926 and, in 1927, he, with wife Mildred and J A Joyce, set a 10-day endurance record at Montlhery.
The new owners of AC were the Hurlock brothers, who ran a haulage business and bought the company’s assets in 1930. They struck a deal with Standard to supply chassis, into which went the AC engine and a new four-speed transmission. The old rear transaxle was dropped.
Production numbers were less than 100 vehicles per annum, until the outbreak of WWII. After the War, AC scored a contract to produce invalid three-wheelers, powered by Villiers two-stroke engines. Car production resumed in 1947, using the two-litre engine in a underslung chassis, with leaf-spring suspension and ash-framed, aluminium bodywork in saloon or convertible styles.
The AC shape we’re all more familiar with emerged in 1953. This new sports car was a departure from its ladder-framed and leaf-sprung predecessors, featuring a welded steel 175mm tube frame and front and rear independent, transverse leaf-spring wishbone suspension.
Bodywork was from the Tojeiro drawing board and resembled the Ferrari 166 Barchetta.
Power came for the venerable two-litre engine, but with output of 105hp – around double the 1919 original’s output – and coupled to a four-speed manual box. Claimed top speed was 160km/h.
A year later came the Aceca coupe version that boasted a slipperier shape and a top speed of 200km/h.
At the same time, the 125hp Bristol two-litre six was available as an option and AC/Bristols clocked up racing victories in Europe, including a class win at Le Mans in 1957 and the USA’s Autosport Championship.
An AC Ace LM prototype was built in 1958, with an all-up weight of only 740kg and powered by a tuned engine from the Bristol 100D2/S, however it ran foul of the FIA regulations.
In the same year Zagato produced an AC coupe that featured a ‘double bubble’ roof line. It was powered by a 130hp Bristol engine and was subsequently owned by racing driver, Jo Siffert.
In 1960 an AC-Aigle was produced, featuring a fibreglass front moulding and a similar-looking special appeared at the Le Mans race two years later. In 1962 AC released the four-seat Greyhound coupe.
From 1961 the AC Ace 2.6 was available, but less than 40 such vehicles were produced. Power came from the Ford Zephyr six, with a choice of five stages of tune.
As early as 1957 the US racing driver, Carroll Shelby, started lobbying General Motors to produce a European-style sports car, with US small-block-V8 power. When his efforts failed he approached AC and shipped two Ford 221 cu in V8s to the UK, in 1961. Subsequent work saw that engine replaced by the 260 cu in engine and approval by Ford resulted in production of the V8 AC Cobra in 1962.
The bodied rolling chassis were built in the UK and shipped to Los Angeles for engine fitment. Before long the 260 (4.3-litre) gave way to the 289 (4.7-litre) as the standard engine. From 1966 the 427 (seven-litre) with a street-minimum 425hp was offered, but Europe still took the 289.
Racing Cobras were being outhandled by Ferraris at the end of 1964 and an AC/Ford engineering team redesigned the chassis and suspension, incorporating larger-diameter (100mm) main tubes and coil/shock units. This coil spring suspension was fitted to racing Cobras from early 1965 and made standard on all models from 1966.
In what were the golden years for the Cobra, 1962-67, more than 1000 vehicles were produced. Two special models were built: one for Carroll Shelby and the other for comedian Bill Cosby. These cars had dual Paxton superchargers and auto boxes.
Carroll Shelby sold the ‘Cobra’ name to Ford in 1965 and was then absorbed in Ford’s GT40 Le Mans racing project.
AC saw the need for an up-market GT model, to appeal to buyers who wouldn’t consider the somewhat spartan Cobra and, in 1970, Pietro Frua came up with the AC428.
This coupe or convertible bodywork was built on a 150mm-longer Mk III Cobra chassis and powered by a stroked version of the 427 engine. It was an expensive exercise that saw only around 80 production vehicles being built.
AC went small in 1973, introducing the mid-engined ME3000 coupe, with power from Ford’s three-litre Essex V6. Crashworthiness compliance took time and when the ME3000 finally made it into production in 1979 it had to compete with Porsche’s 924, BMW 5-Series and the Lotus Esprit. Only 71 vehicles were sold, before production ceased.
Recession was the last straw for the Hurlock ownership and the AC name was licensed to new Scottish owners, but that venture failed after some 30 vehicles were produced.
The AC brand then passed to Autokraft, a Boroklands-based Cobra restoration, parts supply and replica production business, where some 480 cars were built. In 1993 a new AC Ace was announced, based on a stainless steel chassis with aluminium bodywork. However, it was very expensive to develop and build, so only 50 were produced by 1996, before the receivers were called in.
The AC brand then went to a new company, AC Car Group Ltd, in Surrey, where the Ace and the Cobra Mk IV were produced, before a new Maltese company, AC Motor Holdings, took over.
In 2003, Carroll Shelby International and AC Motor Holdings announced production of the Shelby/AC Cobra AC 427 and AC 289 models. Production ceased in 2007.