of AC's post-war 2 Litre Saloon
It is interesting to see what a range of road-testers, journalists, owners and other motorists think of the AC after driving it. And so I have listed my own reactions to a range of driver reviews. This is split into 3 sections: Archive articles, later classic car related articles, and the opinions of drivers I have spoken to.
One has to make certain allowances when interpretting these driver reviews. Period articles and road-tests tend to be diplomatic in their criticisms, and may still be comparing the AC to prewar cars more than new rivals. Much later articles in the classic car press often dwell too much on sports performance. Or else they dwell on technical discussion rather than simply accepting what the AC does well or badly. I have deliberately omitted one article from 1993, in an effort to exclude the "gutter-press" and also prevent myself from responding in a series of expletives! Finally, feedback that I have heard from folk I've spoken to, can be the most interesting, because these drivers have had a wide range of experience of cars through the decades.
The Motor - 5th March 1947
This was mainly a description of the prototype Saloon, but they did have a quick drive and were impressed by its high speed stability and quick throttle response. A compliment that has followed the AC through the years was highlighted in this article: The light and airy interior.
Autocar - 7th March 1947
This was another description of the prototype Saloon. The front suspension came in for close analysis since it retained conventional leaf-springs and beam axle: "...thoroughly conventional but extremely effective, especially when cornering." In a brief mention of on-road qualities, "Autocar" complimented the steering accuracy, were amazed at the power of the brakes, the stability on corners combined with ride quality: "...the really extraordinary brake power, which is so much more effective than usual as to revive memories of the first four-wheeled brakes in comparison with rear-wheeled brakes of the earliest cars." Summing up, they said it combined sports car qualities with the comfort and protection not usually associated with performance cars.
Motor Manual (Australia/New Zealand) - June 1948
This article introduced Autralian and New Zealand readers to the attributes of AC cars and especially its straight six engine. Of the Saloon's driving characteristics, they stated: "On the road, the AC feels and acts like a sports car, and after the visibility one is immediately impressed by the positiveness and accuracy of the steering. The stability of the car on corners is remarkable, as also are its riding qualities, which are both smooth and comfortable." They also commended its acceleration and the car's quietness at high speed. They concluded: "The AC is essentially a car for the enthusiast; it is a true sports car yet combines all the comfort, convenience and elegance of a town carriage". This write-up contained no criticisms at all.
The Motor - 20th October 1948
"The Motor" described the AC again, with its detail improvements over the prototype version. Although no test driving was done, they complimented its practicality: "...ease of entry comfortable seating and excellent vision in all directions".
The Autocar - 29th July 1949
At last, the first proper road-test! A comment that may seem curious now, is that they were impressed at how taut and solid the car felt. Presumably this is because they were still accustomed to cars with separate wings and headlamps vibrating around independently. The tester focused his attention on the front axle to see how it faired against independemt front suspension systems. He likened it to a fairly stiff torsion-bar IFS, adding that there was no harshness. A tactful way of saying it's better than previous conventional systems but still not as comfortable as IFS. But this slight negative point may be taken as the trade-off for some very positive attributes: "The cornering abilities are exactly as recalled with prewar versions of this make, but the riding is more comfortable". "... the car sits down really firmly, and takes bends or the more acute turns... rock steady without a hint of side sway". They also gave credit for rear seat passenger comfort.
They noted that its average speed on long journeys was better than expected, considering its acceleration figures were not exceptional. The selection of gear ratios was praised, in contrast to what some drivers have commented in more recent years. They also liked the gear-stick and gear selection, which is another topic to divide opinion these days. They mentioned that the synchromesh on third did not work well.
As usual, the all round driving vision came in for more praise, and also the fact that one can clearly see both front wings. There were a few minor criticisms: Brake pedal effort required was high; horns needed to be louder; headlamps needed to be brighter; sun-visors needed to be wider; headlamp dipper switch was not well positioned.
The thermostatically controlled cold-start carburettor enabled instant starting and permitted driving straight off.
The Motor - 21st September 1949
"The Motor" road-tested the very same AC, but fitted with the earlier Moss back axle with a lower gear ratio, providing slightly better acceleration. Motor's assessment of the riding comfort versus handling, echoed what Autocar had already found. Not quite as soft as independent suspension, but highly impressed with the cornering and braking abilities of this AC. They observed that some of the old vices of beam front axles were absent on the AC. The high gearing of the steering was mentioned, but it was also considered to be light steering. "The Motor" also noted the heavy brakes, and recorded a pedal force of up to 160 pounds. However, this produced a remarkable 31.5 feet stopping distance from 30mph, which would be good for a modern car on wide radials.
On the down side, they remarked on the noise from the engine at idle and vibration at high engine speeds. Presumably this car had been thrashed a few times before this test! There were tactful hints that the gearbox synchromesh could easily be beaten, and double-declutching may be necessary. The telescopically adjustable steering column was appreciated.
The large amount of heat entering the passenger compartment from the engine, was not appreciated. The tester quite rightly attributed this to the heat released through the engine mounted silencers. "The Motor" did not like the dipper switch either.
The road-test opened and finished with comments that this sort of car should appeal to those who like to keep a car for a long period. Wise words, since a number of ACs did stay in the same ownership for decades.
The Autocar - 19th September 1952
This road-test might look fairly routine at first glance, but it is in fact quite amazing. Consider how many cars have had adulation heaped upon them when they were launched, only to be dismissed as rubbish a few years later? The AC was first described by "The Autocar" at its launch in 1947, who road-tested it 2 years later. Another 3 years later came this test, and they liked it just as much, or maybe a tad more.
This test analysed in greater detail how good each feature and control was, making it a more enlightening test. They commented again on its solid feel, and how well it withstands a punishing series of tests. A "happy" cruising speed range was given as 60-70mph. This car responded well to small steering movements, and the steering was in sharp contrast to those cars that feel as though one is steering via rubber rods (I think I've driven some of those cars!). Part of the price to pay was observed as some kick-back through the steering wheel, an effect noticed when traversing a diagonal trench filled in. Rear axle hop was another negative comment. Both this test, and their 1949 test claimed that the car does not pitch. That is interesting, since stiffer springs at the front, than the rear, would tend to promote pitching, depending on the road surface.
They reckoned that the clutch was light (I think it's heavy!). During brake testing, no fading was noticed. This car had the later twin-leading shoe front brakes, meaning lighter operation. They did not like the lack of space to rest ones left foot. They would also have preferred a greater amount of fore and aft adjustments for the front seats. Manoeuvring in tight spaces was helped by having both front wings in full view.
While they liked the car, they considered it specialised, appealing to enthusiasts who wanted something individual, and something that retained some of the vintage technology, combined with modern refinements and style.
The Autocar - 24th January 1958
This was a used car test of an AC advertised for sale at a London dealer. It was tested prior to having its engine overhauled.
The engine started easily, but the cold start carb had had a manual switch installed, as many owners later did. The clutch juddered a little. No noise from the rear axle, but the familiar Moss gearbox whine was heard. The gear stick/selector was still popular with this tester, as it had been with the original road testers (but divides opinions in more recent times). This tester's impressions of the brakes and steering were just as enthusiastic as the 1940's road testers'. One criticism was the effect of cross-wind on the car. Also, wet roads had the car sliding unduly.
This tester did note some pitching initiated by the stiff front springs but was still impressed with the ride qualities. Summing up, the tester said that affection for the AC increases with time and mileage. He also commented upon the lack of rattle and the solid feel of this 7 year old car.
As an aside, a common thread in the 1940s articles and road-tests was a love for the curvaceous styling. By the time of the 1958 used car test, fashions had changed, and the writer was not so keen on the looks. Fashions change again, and in the early 21st century, most people seem to love it again.
Classic Cars - November 1989
This test was an interesting concept: 5 luxury, sporting saloons of the early 1950s were brought together. Their owners then tried out each others' cars and rated them. It seemed like a good idea, but it was evident that at least 2 of the cars were not in perfect mechanical order. I recognised a problem on the AC as being a need to adjust the front wheel alignment, to eliminate any tendancy to veer off course over bumps. The other cars were a Riley 1.5 RME, Rover 75 P4, Ford Zephyr 6, Sunbeam Talbot 90 Mk II and a Triumph Renown TDC.
The other problem was that each comment tended to be predictable based upon which car the tester owned. Since 3 of the cars had bigger engines than the AC, it was criticised for lack of power, but the Riley 1.5 owner was impressed by the performance. The Rover 75 owner's report on the AC was so "off the wall" with his criticisms that one is not surprised that he then complimented a bad point on the AC: A good steering lock said he. Good compared to what, asks me?! Having driven a Rover 80 P4 myself, I could not wait to jump back into my AC and drive a car with sharp handling. I also think that each driver needed to research the other cars to appreciate each one better.
There were mixed views on the steering, in sharp contrast to the old road-testers. The choice of gear ratios was also a minus point for some. They didn't like the heavy brake pedal, although the brakes worked very well. Unfortunately, that wheel alignment problem caused the bulk of the criticisms and masked the car's potential dynamic qualities.
Classic Cars - April 2011
An AC for sale in Scotland was taken for a test drive and written up. Some of the 1940s testers' comments resurfaced, more than 60 years on. The amazing all round visibility and the light interior. The kick-back from the steering at low speeds over pot-holes. The precision of the steering. The power of the brakes. Then testing it harder through sweeping bends to discover the high levels of road-holding and the very small amount of body roll. This tester explained that one needs to get the engine revving relatively high to reap the full benefit of the triple carb set-up. He summed up the AC as having certain pre-war characteristics combined with rather more modern attributes.
I was delighted to hear from a previous owner of the dark blue Saloon that features in a piece of my artwork. He reminisced about what was his first car back in the late 1960s. Silent idling, quick to start up, a vintage feel to the steering. He also showed how a real car escapes from a frozen uphill car-park, leaving behind the Minors and Anglias!
Believe it or not, I actually used to let someone else drive my AC back in the 1980s! This friend had a lot of experience of driving old and new cars and knows the difference between good and bad design (unlike most designers!). He was immediately impressed by its sporting nature: "It's like a sports car!" Could have done with a bit more power (my AC engine was not on top form at that time). Brake and clutch were a bit heavy. He was reluctant to hand over the wheel if we were supposed to be sharing the driving on a journey!
I'll be like the road-testers and focus on the front suspension to start with. If you've ever watched cars such as Jaguar Mk IIs and Rover P4s riding over rough roads, you might notice that their front ends weave slightly as the suspension and steering seem to be working on two different sets of geometry. Provided that the wheel alignment is correctly set up on the AC, you can whizz down straight, bumpy country lanes with your hands off the steering wheel, and the car runs absolutely straight in a very modern way. With radial tyres fitted, you won't need to be so meticulous with the toe-in settings.
The firm front springing and lack of body-roll, also gives a quick turn-in to corners, despite the car's long wheelbase. The traditional cam and peg steering has high gearing (albeit with a pretty big steering wheel), and I can confirm what the old testers said about very precise steering. Compared to modern front-wheel drive Euro-boxes, the AC feels like a go-kart. The steering off-set gives all the feel and feedback you need. I tried driving with thin driving gloves, but even those took away a noticeable amount of feel.
It's ironic that the excellent front axle comes in for criticism, but it is the rear live axle that introduces limitations to the AC's performance. Rear axle hop is quite prominent on bumpy corners, and this takes away some of this car's amazing cornering potential. On smooth roads, you can relish in its cornering power, even on 5.5 inch wide cross-ply tyres. Fit it out with radial tyres, and it goes around corners as if on rails, and rides even more comfortably.
The brakes have oodles of feel too, and one can judge when the front tyres are close to their limit of adhesion - even when driving over wet mud on the road. They are very heavy by modern standards, though, as is the clutch, which has a very short travel and takes some adjustment to if one drives a modern car too.
The gear selector feels as though it is slotting through a Ferrari-style metal gate. It clunks positively into each gear leaving no doubt as to which gear you have selected. On the down side, there is no synchromesh on 1st, and this can be reluctant to engage (usually at traffic lights with eager motorists on one's tail). So, you need to slip it into 2nd briefly, and then into 1st. The old style synchromesh on the other 3 gears is less effective than more modern boxes, and if it is worn too, you may need to double-declutch on up and down changes. The Moss gearbox does have a reputation for being almost indestructible, having been used in high performance cars, and endurance races including Le Mans 24 hours.
The dashboard and minor control layout should be taken as a "yardstick" to all car designers wanting to do it right. Each control looks different, rather than having a pretty row of identical switches just for appearance. The headlamp switch is shaped so that you can see and feel what position it's in. The fuel/oil gauges are arranged so the they read from left to right, or from bottom to top. This seems like common sense, but common sense was abolished a few years ago (take a look at a range of dashboards through the years to the present day).
The forward vision is amazingly good. No reflections inside the screen, and the A pillars obstruct very little. Having both front wings in full view, makes it easy to judge narrow gaps, since the car is widest across the front end.
I like the ride comfort. The AC soaks up the roughness of road surfaces and the seats are much softer than modern ones that leave me feeling sore (being a thin person, soft seats are better for me). Although soft, the AC's seats give firm support in selective areas, so that they adapt to a variety of people. On the down side, there is little lateral support from the seats, although adding seatbelts helps a great deal. With no handbrake lever between the seats, the full width of the car is used for comfort. Why do so many cars waste space with massive central consoles, permitting only narrow seats? The firm suspension springing means that the car bounces around on roads that have undulations rather than smaller pitch bumps, but the tyres and seats continue to cushion you. Friction between the leaves is an inevitable problem of leaf-springs, but with good dampers, one can lubricate the AC's springs generously to keep the ride relatively soft.
Most of all, this car feels like an extension of your body when you drive it. Like a top quality pair of shoes that fit perfectly. It's as much fun to drive in a hurry, sweeping around bends, as it is to cruise around gently soaking up the driving pleasure and the admiring glances.