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

The AC name is, or was, well known. Remember the Cobra? A Ford V8 and a Carroll Shelby designed installation in the compact AC Ace body and chassis, which dated from 1953. The resulting car was billed by some as the fastest car in the world in the early 1960s, albeit with a very different heritage and driving experience to a top European sports car. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as a de Tomaso Pantera for the 1960s, not a Ferrari. But it was still hugely charismatic and appealing, and that endures.

But the Ace was really AC’s last roll of the dice, as a manufacturer. Aside from the Ford V8, the engines used by AC had been reworked versions of the 2 litre, straight 6 engine used by AC since the 1920s.  In some ways. AC was like Swallow Cars, the predecessor of Jaguar, in that cars were built with specialist body work on a chassis purchased from Standard Motor Co, usually with an AC engine. Unlike Jaguar, AC production never reached the higher volumes, barely averaging 100 cars a year through the 1930s. For one of Britain’s oldest surviving manufacturers, it was a low number.

After the war, AC resumed production with the 2 Litre, based on the pre-war car, and still with beam axles front and rear. The body was wood framed with aluminium panels, and not surprisingly volume was truly limited.

But in 1953, AC got a successful roll of the dice with the Ace roadster and the later Aceca Coupe, which still used the familiar 2 litre 6 cylinder around a wood framed aluminium body, now with independent suspension based around transverse leaf springs. If you feel the styling apes contemporary Ferraris and Maseratis, join the queue….

This is the car Shelby put the Ford V8 into, creating the Cobra, and the AC image that exists to this day.

An extended Cobra chassis was used to create the AC Frua or AC 428, a car that conceptually challenged an Aston Martin  DB6 or DBS, although given the Ford V8 engine it was closer to an Iso Grifo or a Facel Vega than the more thoroughbred Aston. Volume remained very low, still.

AC also built the once familiar Invacar, a three wheeled vehicle powered by a motorcycle engine and designed specifically for disabled war veterans. These were built with a glass fibre body over a basic chassis, and perhaps could be considered as the last gasp of the cyclecar. The intention was to provide independent mobility to wheel chair users through various government disability benefit schemes. Production of these ended in 1977, after 18,000 had been built in just 5 years, with Steyr-Puch engines, due to safety concerns and they were finally legislated off the road in 2003.

By the end of the 1960s, then, AC was seen as the Cobra and not a lot else. The company, owned and led by the Hurlock family, knew it needed to produce a new product, or fade away.  Derek Hurlock found something, from within Britain’s extensive independent sports and racing car network.

In late 1972, a car named the Diablo was shown by two former Lola racing car engineers, Peter Bohanna and Robin Stables. The car was built around a BLMC E series four cylinder engine with the five speed gearbox in the sump, mounted transversely behind the driver, and taken from the Austin Maxi of all places.  The intention was to build and market the car as the Diablo, but BL declined to supply the Maxi engine, suspecting that the production volume would be needed for the Maxi and Allegro. The Diablo project was effectively ended.

At this point, AC saw the potential and stepped to, with adequate funding to complete the project, but with a different engine and thereby creating a car with a very different character.

By the London Motor Show in October 1973, AC had a prototype ready.  AC had picked a route, one of two chosen by so many other specialists. These two options were – the Rover (ex-Buick) 3.5 litre V8 or the Ford Granada and Capri 3.0 litre V6, known as the Essex, the area of England in which it was developed. The Essex engine was part of the family of V4 and V6 engines Ford developed in the UK, separately from the German Ford V4 used in the Taunus range.  It may seem surprising now, but British market and European market Granadas had different engines, with the German built cars having German V4 and V6 engines. All Essex engines were of 60 degree angle, single OHV V format and had a reputation for toughness and durability, if not sophistication, and appeared in many, many places, including TVR, Reliant Scimitar and Gilbern products, as well as Ford cars and vans.

AC went for the Ford 3.0 litre V6 with a bespoke five speed gearbox developed by AC themselves and mounted below the engine and driven by a Renold triplex (3 strand) chain , within a spaceframe chassis under a composite body. The Diablo styling was gently reworked for a bit more presence and the car had a definite impact in the right strong colour. The AC ME3000 was shown, as a prototype, with production planned for 1974 at a claimed rate of perhaps 1000 a year, and priced to compete with the likes of Lotus Esprit and TVR 3000M.

The car’s suspension was by wishbones front and rear with coil springs; the wheelbase was 91 inches and the length 157 inches. The car weighed in at just under 2400lbs. Performance was not spectacular – 8.5 seconds to 60mph and 120 mph maximum. A Rover 3500 would out perform the AC, and the Ford Granada with the same engine was very close; the Lotus Esprit was off into the distance.

1974 and 1975 were absorbed by development and a struggle to achieve type approval. Significant issues were encountered in ensuring that the steering column’s rearward movement under impact was within limits, necessitating another round of (expensive for AC) testing. The prevailing economic conditions didn’t help of course.

The car was a regular at the then annual London Motor Show, with “production coming soon” always being the headline. By 1976, AC were claiming 1200 deposits, but in the face of extreme inflation,  funding the car was getting harder. The price of £3-4000 predicted in 1973 now looked very unlikely.

In October 1978, the car finally went on sale, now labelled the AC 3000ME, at a cost of £11,300, an increase of around 50% over the 1973 prediction. But it was March 1980 before Autocar got to test one, by which time the cost was over £13,000 and within spitting distance of a more powerful Porsche 924 Turbo. As I’ve said before, no one got fired for buying IBM, and no one gets mocked for buying a Porsche….

Autocar liked some aspects of the car, though. The space and practicality (relative, of course) were praised but crucially performance was lacking and the handling was not considered as the best or most stable. This was not a Lotus Esprit, perhaps its closest British competitor. Over the next five years, production totalled just 71 cars and in 1984 AC finally accepted the inevitable. Production ceased and the company licensed the name and design to a separate business, based in Glasgow.

The new company, AC (Scotland) plc started production in Glasgow and developed a MK2 version of the car, using the Alfa Romeo 2.5 lire V6, originally built by Alfa for the 1970s Alfa 6 saloon.

Mentioning this gives me the excuse to show another photo of an Alfa Romeo engine….

In this case, this is the engine of the pre-production AC 3000ME Mk2, with the Alfa V6 engine, as prepared for the son of Derek Hurlock. The car was definite step up from the Ford engined car, and included Alfa suspension elements as well.

However, only one car was built to this specification, as the company folded around it. The interior was fundamentally unchanged,but the Alfa input was evident – the steering wheel, stalks and gearlever are all recognisably Alfa, even if the rest of the interior still shows a lot of 1970s BLMC items.

By 1985 it had all stopped again. AC (Scotland) plc ran out of money, and after 30 cars, production stopped again.

There was one final attempt to restart production in Scotland but by 1988 it was definitely all over. Another British sports car marque, and its history, was gone.

To resolve the performance issue, a turbo charging package was devised by an aftermarket tuning company.  A total of 19 cars were modified, offering around 200bhp. But, really, this was tinkering around the edges.

The feature car is recorded as a 1986 car; I’m guessing it’s therefore likely to be one of the Scottish cars and  one of the last ACs built. There are fewer than 300 ACs of all types recorded in the UK now.

There was one other episode in the AC 3000ME story. One car was shipped to Ghia in Italy, then owned by Ford of course, and reskinned as the AC-Ghia concept.

AC were not interested – after all, the money had pretty much all been used anyway and you sense the car needed more than a new skin to make it a true commercial success.

There was interest from a Shelby associated consortium in marketing the car in the US, with a Ford 2.2 litre engine. Another dead end.

In hindsight, many things were against the AC 3000ME. The delays in coming to production, the lack of performance, the price for a hand built composite car against a Porsche, the humble origins of the engines, the Lotus Esprit with its James Bond association and stronger performance. But, now, a rarely seen (I think this is the first I have ever seen on the road) memory from a time when the British sports car industry still seemed to have a future of variety (Lotus, Jaguar, TVR, Reliant, Morgan, AC, Aston Martin) and a piece of optimism against the mass market manufacturers’ perennial threat of collapse.