Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (High-Brow Hybrids, Part 1) – The Surprisingly Long Story Of AC

‘Ello, guvs. It’s time for another paddle-less trip up the proverbial creek that is Britain’s overflowing carmaker graveyard. We’ve seen everything from toff-carriages and prol-mobiles, but for this fourth edition, there’s a definite theme: Anglo-American “hybrids,” i.e. English cars with American engines. We already touched upon this category in the Gordon-Keeble chapter, but this time, let’s really immerse ourselves in wood, leather and burbling V8s, starting with AC.

AC is not short for air-con, but go tell Google that. What a pain it is to search for anything with just two letters to guide you (that means you too, DB). Never mind. Auto-Carriers (AC) was founded in 1903, though the company was really started two years before by engineer John Weller as one of De Dion-Bouton’s London agents and repair shops. AC originally made three-wheeled cargo haulers; a passenger version was soon introduced and AC graduated to four wheels in 1913.

1925 advert

In 1919, AC launched a completely new model, the Six (16/44) which had a daring all-alloy 6-cyl. engine that would become AC’s main stock-in-trade for, it seemed, millennia. Designed by John Weller, the AC’s OHC six was initially a 1.5 litre producing 44 hp, but soon grew to 1991cc and remained in production, without significant changes, for the next four decades.

1936 advert

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, AC started to foster a more sporting reputation, though their output remained small. The usual AC client was an owner-driver, wealthy but discerning and keen on performance. Think Alvis in Britain, Salmson in France, BMW in Germany or Lancia in Italy.

After the Second World War, AC continued with their 6-cyl. models, rejuvenating the styling and nomenclature as the AC 2-litre. The 2-litre’s chassis was still rather primitive, with leaf-sprung solid axles front and back, as well as hydro-mechanical brakes. All relatively middle-of-the-road for a low-production British car debuting in 1947 – this was no Invicta

AC 2-litre variants, clockwise from top left: cabriolet, 4-door, Buckland tourer, one-off woodie

The body – initially a two-door saloon, soon followed by a drop-top, a tourer and a four-door saloon – looked more modern than most competitors’, but underneath was just as wood-framed and conservative as an Alvis or a Lea-Francis. Sales were far from brisk, but respectable enough for AC to start diversifying their production a bit.

Above: the Petite — “Yer gonna have to walk, luv. It’s a 3-wheeler, not a 3-seater.” Below: Invacar racing

Harking back to their humble beginnings, AC introduced a three-wheeler called the Petite in 1952. It had a single cylinder 350cc Villiers engine and was a success, by AC’s standards. AC developed the design from the Invacar, which they were making under a government contract since the immediate post-war. Invacars were built by various firms, including AC themselves, for the British government to dole out to folks who needed them – a scheme that lasted through to the ‘70s. In terms of units made, the Petite and Invacar trikes were undoubtedly AC’s greatest hit. But in terms of image, they could do a lot better. And they did.

Above: the Tojeiro prototype; below: the first production AC Ace in 1954, admired by a row of Petites

In 1953, the AC Ace arrived. The Ace had been developed by racer John Tojeiro and powered with either Lea-Francis or Bristol engines. Its tubular-frame chassis and independent front / de Dion rear suspension were a big leap forward for AC, who bought the design and installed their venerable 6-cyl., which barely had 100 hp to spare, under the bonnet. The Ace would come to be the definitive AC in the eyes of many, but it was clear to AC from the start that they needed an engine worthy of the new chassis.

In 1954, a fastback (hatchback?) coupé version – bizarrely named Aceca – was introduced and AC started to hunt around for a suitable power source. They soon reverted to Tojeiro’s original plans and struck a deal with Bristol for their 125 hp BMW-derived 2-litre 6-cyl. to equip the Ace / Aceca, as an extra cost option, from 1956.

The old 2-litre saloon was finally pensioned off as AC embraced their newfound hard-core sports car image to the full. The Ace / Aceca, whether powered by AC or Bristol mills, garnered a fair amount of good publicity and enabled the small firm to envisage launching a new model.

This turned out to be the Greyhound, premiered in 1959. The new AC was somewhat related to the Ace, but its body was now all-metal, its wheelbase lengthened to accommodate a rear seat and its interior was far better appointed to justify its price. The suspension switched to coils all around and semi-trailing arms at the rear; front disc brakes were fitted as standard. The geriatric AC 6-cyl. was still available, but most clients preferred the 2.0 litre (125 hp) or 2.2 litre (105 hp) Bristol engines.

Unfortunately, the Greyhound was extremely expensive. Not quite as much as a Bristol, but too close for comfort. Aston Martin’s DB4 was much better in every respect, which didn’t help matters. The Greyhound was something of a dead end: only around 80 were made when AC nixed the model in 1963. Fortunately for AC, by the time that door closed, a window was opening onto the jackpot that was the American market.

After Bristol quit making engines in 1961, some AC cars received triple-carb 2.6 litre Ford Zephyr 6-cyl. specially tuned by Ruddspeed. Concurrently, a small miracle was happening with the Ace. The little roadster was quite a performer on the racetrack, particularly with the Bristol engine. Carroll Shelby, who had just won Le Mans in an Aston Martin, checked out the little roadster and liked what he saw.

The first AC-Shelby Cobra being made, under the watchful gaze of Carroll himself

The Ace’s chassis was as sturdy as its pretty body was light, so soon the idea emerged to marry these with a big American engine. The exact paternity of said idea, in the Ace’s case, is open to question, but one thing is for sure: AC, Shelby and Ford V8s were always in the picture. In 1962, AC produced a beefed-up Ace chassis with front disc brakes and Shelby placed a Ford V8 260 (4.3 litre) between the front wheels and called it Cobra. The car was then displayed and demonstrated around the US, where it made a significant impact.

In late 1963, AC stopped producing any other car than the Ace – and finally ditched their old OHC engine, as well – to make the AC Cobra’s chassis and body, both being progressively modified to cope with the much wider wheels being used in these V8 monsters.

Said V8 became the famous 289 (4.7 litre) with the Cobra Mk II, churning out 270 hp an propelling the diminutive AC to speeds in excess of 120 mph. In 1965, Shelby managed to shoehorn a 427 c.i. (7 litre) V8 into the Cobra Mk III, producing a 425 hp car that could rival Ferrari in almost every way but the price. Demand was high and the Thames Ditton factory’s order book was running over. But somehow, AC had become a sort of subcontractor for Shelby and Ford. There were few European sales, as many in the Old World felt the Ace’s increasingly outlandish performance did not match its looks.

AC needed a new car they could market as a proper AC, whatever that still meant. In late 1964, a Cobra chassis was shipped over to Ghia and provided with a typically Italian body. This car was exhibited around Europe in early 1965 – AC were keen to gauge whether something like this would pique anybody’s interest. It seems the concept was viewed positively, but the execution was perhaps not what AC were looking for, so another Cobra chassis, this time slightly lengthened, went to Italy.

In October 1965, a new prototype two-seater convertible with a sumptuous Frua-designed body was shown at the Earl’s Court Motor Show. It would be AC’s answer to the Euro-American hybrids that proliferated in the ‘60s – fast, luxurious and stylish machines made for the happy few. Despite the advert above, the production car was not named 427, as the Ford 427 was soon ditched for the similarly-sized (but less expensive) 428, so the new car soon became known as the AC 428. Production was slow to start during 1966, as the Motor Show car really was just a prototype.

The AC 428 coupé arrived in 1967, when all these Euro-American hybrids were in full bloom – the Flower V8-Power era, if you will. This was also the era of the British Invasion and Carnaby Street, when the country’s many celebrities were flaunting their newfound wealth on the latest automotive toys. John Lennon bought an Iso that year, while Paul McCartney drove a DB6 – as did Mick Jagger. Ginger Baker fell for the charms of the Jensen FF; fashion icon Twiggy (among others) went for the Miura. Peter Sellers, a notorious petrolhead, had both a Ghibli and a Ferrari 275, along with probably most of the other cars in the table further down.

The AC 428, for its part, was favoured by Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, who owned a white coupé. The actual 1965 prototype drop-top even featured as Tara King’s ride (pictured above) in several episodes of the 6th season of The Avengers (the TV show, not the neverending Marvel franchise), broadcast in 1968-69. So let’s look at the AC 428 in its proper context, i.e. great big powerful cars of the late ‘60s.

The AC 428 was expensive. You could buy two Jaguar E-Types for the price of the AC and still have a few quid left over; the standard Jensen Interceptor (absent here) cost about £3800. Sure, the Italian exotics were even dearer, but they also had highly sophisticated engines and gorgeous looks. The AC was Italian-suited as well – like many cars on this list, but perhaps not by the best tailor in town. In terms of raw power, the Ford 428 engine was pretty awesome, but you could trump it with a heavy Olds Toronado (which was just as exotic in the UK as the DB6 was in the US).

Why did the 428 cost as much as a decent-sized house? Because, in no small part, AC got their bodies made in Italy. They would ship chassis down to Pietro Frua, who subcontracted the body-making to the lowest bidder among the Peninsula’s many second-tier coachbuilders. The cars then went back to Thames Ditton for additional detailing, finishing and tuning. This was a punishingly long and expensive production method, as others (e.g. PininFarina’s Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, Ghia’s Imperial limos or Vignale’s Triumph Italia) found out earlier.

Frua’s AC proposals — above: 1969 4-seater (a.k.a AC 429); below: 1972 facelift

And AC never did manage to launch any variants, sticking with the strict two-seater, despite Frua’s efforts to attempt something a tad bigger, based on a Monteverdi design that had fallen through. This project, along with a revamped front end for the 428 drop-top, did not reach production. AC literally sold about one 428 per month: only 80-odd cars were made during the 1966-73 production run. Luckily, there were still some Invacars to make, so Thames Ditton kept the lights on.

The writing was on the wall for the hybrids by the early ‘70s. AC were ready to try out something a little different, something more in tune with the spirit of the times. It so happened that someone else had already made the car AC were looking to build: the Bohanna-Stables Diablo, unveiled in 1972, was a GRP-bodied mid-engined sports coupé that had little chance of being developed further. Just like they had done with the Ace, AC swooped in, bought the rights to the car and set their engineers on the prototype.

The Austin Maxi engine of the Diablo was traded for a 3-litre Ford Essex V6 and a 5-speed gearbox was devised, along with many other changes. The resulting AC 3000 ME was more or less ready, by late 1973, to take over from the 428, at least as far as AC were concerned. Unfortunately, the world had changed somewhat: performance cars were now subject to extensive European safety norms. It was getting mighty complicated to make sports cars the old-fashioned way.

The 3000 ME entered a long period of development hell, not unlike the contemporary De Lorean. The car was not up to scratch safety-wise, which led to a complex redesign of the chassis. The crash-test hurdle was finally overcome by 1976, but now there were other issues at play with suppliers. Finally, the phantom AC was re-introduced in 1979 – right on cue for the second Oil Shock.

By the time production finally started, the 3000 ME’s interior looked just as dated as its exterior

By this time, AC had begun to slip from most people’s memory banks. And it would have taken a real die-hard AC fanboi to prefer the AC 3000 ME over the Lotus Esprit or the BMW M1. At £12,700 a pop in 1983, the 3000 ME was certainly in that ball-park. And they never left it, either: AC were unable to export their cars.

Notwithstanding this impending fiasco, Ford-owned Ghia designed their own interpretation of the new AC in 1981. After all, its design was already 10 years old, so something more in tune with the ‘80s zeitgeist would have been welcome. Alas, the Ghia special remained singular and AC stayed the course with their strangely-styled 3000 ME. Some potential clients wondered whether a different engine might be used, such as the Ford Cologne V6. Double alas, AC had designed the gearbox to mate with the Essex exclusively.

1984 brochure, shortly before the company went into administration

The Thames Ditton factory produced around 50 cars before the receivers were called in 1984. A group of Scottish investors took over and made about 30 additional 3000 MEs, but the game was up by 1986. Ford bought the remains of AC and planned to make a completely new factory for their R&D, hopefully while keeping the marque alive as part of a joint-venture with Autokraft, who had bought the tooling for the Cobra a few years earlier.

Autokraft AC Corbra, 1987 brochure

So AC’s prodigal son came back home in the late ‘80s, even as original ’60s Cobra prices were skyrocketing. But the Cobra had never really disappeared: since AC stopped production back in 1969, a slew of replicas of the iconic sports car were made by various concerns. And it seemed the market was fine with these, for the most part – so AC returned to Cobra production themselves for a while with the Mk IV, now powered by a 4.9 litre Ford V8. About 500 were made in ten years – competing, oddly enough, with Cobras made by Carroll Shelby himself in the early ‘90s, as well as dozens of copycats of dubious quality from all corners of the globe. To this day, a trickle of AC Cobras is still made, but not always hailing from southern England and sometimes using (blasphemy of blasphemies) Corvette V8s.

Ford did not let AC go gentle into that good night quite yet. Surprisingly, a completely new Ace did appear in the mid-‘90s. It was dubbed AC Ace Brooklands V8 and sported the Mustang’s 5.0. Alas yet again, not unlike the 3000 ME, this AC was a short-lived reappearance of the marque, which Ford sold off in 1996. Production paused for a while, then recommenced as another investor picked up the baton: the Brooklands name was dropped and an Aceca coupé version was launched, but AC dropped the whole affair soon. Altogether, about 60 cars sold from 1993 to 2000. AC continued making Cobras, folded again in 2002, and again in 2007, but never quite managed to find a final resting place within Britain’s crowded cemetery of automotive marques.

The AC 428 was a Sin, but not quite a Deadly one. And it looked so great, I’m tempted to absolve it.

AC is the Schrödinger’s cat of the car world. It’s difficult to say whether the marque is alive or dead. They went bust at least six times and had several dry spells, starting in 1929-32 when no ACs were made. This happened again from 1940 to 1946 (easily forgiven), from 1974 to 1979, from 1986 to 1993, from 1996 to 1998 and again for most of the present century. The Thames Ditton works are long gone, yet an entity called AC Cars still exists, allegedly. Deadly Sins? Well, if the darn thing can’t be killed, how “Deadly” could those sins be?

The Deadliest Sin of the bunch was the unfortunate 3000 ME. It was a brave effort, but neither well-timed nor well-born, it was destined to fail. And it caused the Hurlock family to sell their controlling share after having led AC since 1930. The Hurlock era were AC’s glory days, when the marque stood for quality and sporting prowess. It’s a great shame that the Shelby / Ford involvement skewed things to breaking point, but then AC were always a minuscule player on the automotive scene. And neither Shelby nor Ford could be blamed for the misfire of the 3000 ME, which took place long after the Cobra. Speaking of which, the Cobra might also qualify as a Deadly Sin – it was so successful that it became the most copied sports car ever, and became an albatross around AC’s neck. On the other hand, without the Cobra, it is doubtful that AC would have survived past the mid-‘60s…

Nowadays, AC’s existence remains a matter of some debate. There are occasional murmurs of a new AC to be launched imminently – as a super-exclusive supercar, usually – with various far-fetched backers from unlikely origins. One of the latest plans was to build a factory in Malta to make a Zagato-bodied coupé, using South African-made components and a Ford engine. At least that last element seems rooted in reality, but otherwise, it’s unlikely that AC will make a return to a dealer near you.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1986 AC 3000ME – Optimism, With A V6, by Roger Carr

CC Capsule: Monday Morning Rarities – Cobra Daily Driver, by JohnH875

eBay Find: 1963 AC Shelby Cobra 260 – Yes. Yes it is., by Geraldo Solis

CC Capsule: Shelby Cobra 427 Replica – An Accessory To Mischief?, by Joseph Dennis

Curbside Credibility: Is This a Real Cobra?, by Mike Butts

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European Deadly Sins series

French DS 1 (Hotchkiss, Panhard, Citroën) — French DS 2 (Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Monica)

French DS 3 (Berliet, Salmson, Delahaye) — French DS 4 (Simca, Talbot, Matra)

British DS 1 (Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler) — British DS 2 (Alvis, Lagonda, Gordon-Keeble)

British DS 3 (Invicta, Standard, Reliant)

German DS 1 (BMW, Borgward, Glas) — German DS 2 (Neckar, DKW, NSU)

Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia) — Italian DS 2 (Isotta Fraschini, ASA, De Tomaso)

Other DS 1 (Minerva-Impéria, Monteverdi, DAF)