What to do with all these Mk. III chassis? Mk. III 289 and Frua 428.
With the frantic mk. III chassis production at an end, AC came up with two additional methods of using this design. Firstly, the obvious approach, was to produce a version of the mk. III for Europe. This had the 289 engine, usually had wire wheels and often had a mk.II style front bumper over the large air-intake. Although Ford owned the Cobra title, I believe AC still had the option to use this model name (contrary to what many articles state), but AC chose not to use it on this version. After all, they were getting so little credit for the Cobras in the USA, so it is understandable that they decided to cover this European mk. III with AC badges only. It was officially known as the AC Mk. III 289. These mk. III cars were officially launched in late 1965 and started to appear during 1966 but only 27 were built over a two year period (chassis COB6101 to COB6127) including a few LHD versions for continental Europe. An additional 5 chassis were produced (COX6128 to COX6132) and supplied to Paramount Films to have pre-war style special bodies fitted. Some of these chassis were converted into Cobras some years later. A few of the series of mk. III 289s were converted to 427s many years hence.
AC's second approach to utilising this chassis was to return to doing what it did best: Making refined luxury sports cars for the road. For this they lengthened the chassis to an 8ft. wheelbase and went to Frua of Turin to style and (initially) build the bodywork. The first car, a convertible, had sleek styling reminiscent of AC's own efforts with the MA-200 prototype, which shared the same wheelbase. This prototype, chassis CF1, was launched at the same time as the mk. III 289. Fitted with the Ford Galaxy 428ci engine, it became known as the AC 428. It had a steel body welded to the chassis and was much heavier than the Cobras. This prototype 428 became famous when it was featured regularly in the British TV series "The Avengers" during 1968/69.
As well as the convertible, a fastback version of the 428 was offered, and 3-speed automatic transmission became standard. Straight line performance was very fast indeed with a standing quarter mile in 14.3 seconds, 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds, and a top speed of 145mph (150mph for the 4 speed manual version). Styling was sensational and it had the traditional AC refinements of luxury. Potential customers appreciated all of these qualities and this was set to be a big success for AC, but yet again, it became another 'nearly' car for this company. Industrial action in Italy meant that orders could not always be fulfilled. Quality control problems on the new bodies meant more work and head-aches for AC. Then the supply of Ford engines started to get difficult. Finally, the early 1970s oil crisis that looked set to mark the end of big engined cars. Only 81 of these beautiful AC 428 Fruas were built (although two actually had the 427 engine).
AC 429 and the 1970s fuel crisis
With the ever present demand for 4 seater cars from AC's customers, it was found that a 4 seater design was available at Frua resulting from an aborted projected. It was a monocoque body structure, very modern in styling, but AC were not impressed with the mechanics of it. After getting hold of the prototype from Frua, AC sorted out better suspension and steering courtesy of Alan Turner and Vin Davison's expertise. This 7 Litre Saloon was also referred to as the AC 429. Sadly, it was hit by the same series of troubles that killed off the 428, especially the fuel crisis that looked as though it marked the end of big engined luxury cars. It should be noted that contrary to many articles' assumptions, AC were not as fragile a concern as many other small specialists, because of the support of their other engineering projects. However, they were still under similar kinds of pressures as costs rose and there was ever increasing competition from larger manufacturers benefiting from mass-production techniques, as the car buying market increased relentlessly.
Lateral Thinking and the 3000ME
AC were approached again in the early 1970s by specialist sports car designers, but this story was very different from previous collaborations between AC and others. Peter Bohanna and Robin Stables were responsible for a prototype mid-engined sports car called the Diablo. AC declined to get involved when first approached in 1971, but by 1972, the prototype had been built and the timing was better for AC so the project was taken up. The concept of the car was intelligently thought out with respect to the fast changing sports car market. It was decided to design a car that performed well on winding roads, rather than high speed tracks. It was also to provide more civilised comfort than the spartan roadsters that were common 10-20 years earlier. A transverse mid-engine was ideal to give ultra-sharp responsive handling, while sacrificing high speed directional stability. Bohanna and Stables were taken on by AC as consultants to work on the design.
What AC came to build was almost totally different under the skin to the Diablo. The Diablo had a complex space-frame chassis, and was powered by an Austin Maxi engine - this being suitable because of its transmission for a transverse installation. AC kept faithful to Ford power and utilised the V6 Ford Essex unit. AC's chassis followed the principle of a perimeter type chassis, but with separate subframes front and rear. The central portion was a deep sided tub, integral with the bulkheads and floor. The rear bulkhead incorporated an inverted compartment for the fuel tank, that could catch fuel spillage if the car rolled over, and also give protection in the event of a tank fire. The fuel tank was located at the centre of gravity of the car. Vin Davison was largely responsible for the new chassis and as always, Alan Turner was involved with the redesign. Bodywork was of double-skinned GRP.
AC had to design a transmission to adapt the Essex engine to its new lateral arrangement, and AC built the casings for this transmission. Connection between engine and gearbox was via a triplex chain. A number of prototypes were built trying out alternative options. This car design was packed with subtle, but good, ideas to improve braking and roadholding.
Unusually for AC, they had displayed a prototype mock-up at the 1973 motor show to test the public and press reaction, before committing themselves. The excitement it generated was enough to inspire them to press ahead, but with the car at such an early stage in the gestation process, it was likely to be 2 or 3 years before production could commence. In fact, it was to take a lot longer. This most promising of cars, known as the AC 3000ME, had its development badly hit by the new type approval regulations. It is ironic that a car with so many more safety features built in than 'normal' cars, should fail the very crude 30mph frontal crash test. This meant long delays while the chassis frame design was altered and more prototypes built. There were also administrative costs for the paperwork, or a case of paying the government for their red tape! All this draining the finances of the small AC company. Only decades later did legislation change to accommodate small specialist manufacturers without crippling their finances. The AC was finally launched into production in 1978, after several prototypes had been built. The first two prototypes were just mock ups, and were then broken up. Three mobile prototypes were built in 1974 and were also broken up, and so surviving 3000MEs start from chassis ME 00104.
By this time, it was no longer quite so new and exciting, and earlier potential customers had been waiting too long. Worse still, an early magazine road test was less than favourable about the car's handling. More recent analysis by classic car journalists are baffled as to why it was criticised, as are many happy owners. Usually it's the other way around with contemporary road tests versus nostalgic articles! The AC was somewhat under-developed, but improvements came in fast, helped along by some talented enthusiasts. The standard 138bhp of the V6 was very modest, but there was lots of potential to uprate it. The durability of the specially designed transmission caused problems later on, but again, a lot of improvement work seems to have addressed this. Sales of the 3000ME only ran to about 80 cars by 1986.
Snakes Alive - the Cobra Resurgence
Apart from rebuilding a smashed up Cobra 427, AC Cars virtually washed their hands of the Cobra by the early 1970s. They sold off the tooling to Brian Angliss of "Cobra Parts" (later known as Autokraft) in the UK. With emission laws in the USA, type approval looming, and the fuel crisis, AC had to move onto other things, little knowing what a cult car the Cobra would become. Changing times for motorists was building up the nostalgia market even for the relatively modern sports cars of the 1960s. Cobra Parts were able to rebuild wrecked Cobras, including new chassis and bodyshells, all done to extremely high standards. Meanwhile, the word "replica" was gaining a new meaning. It should mean exact copies of an original, and this used to be the case with production cars that were based on race winning machines. Now, replica was coined to mean a car that outwardly resembles another make/model. With fibre glass body building well established, this was a cheap method to reproduce a classic shape such as the Cobra's. Replica Cobras were, therefore, quite different under the skin and extremely varied in quality. Tojeiro himself was involved with one of the better replicas called the Dax.
With more replicas than real Cobras driving around, great confusion developed among car enthusiasts. I used to see people tap on the hand-formed aluminium panelling of a genuine mk. II AC Cobra and say "It's a fibre-glass kit"! With AC and Cobra badges appearing on many of these replicas, it is very common for them to be confused for the real thing.
Meanwhile, the wreckage of AC's Cobra Le Mans Coupé was bought up by well known AC enthusiast/expert Barrie Bird, for rebuilding. This was achieved on the original A-98 chassis, and the original body-buck was available to allow a new shell to be made complete with the rear spoiler salvaged from the wreckage. Many original parts and original spares were also used in the rebuild which was finished in 1985. Beautiful car!
Decline of AC at Thames Ditton and the AC Scotland affair
The type approval problems of the 1970s followed by the launch of the 3000ME, saw AC Cars Limited run at a loss in 1979. The early 1980s saw the business become a public limited company, as AC Cars plc. They sold the old High Street factory and moved to smaller premises. In 1982, Brian Angliss of Autokraft, set up a deal with AC for him to manufacture a new version of the Cobra using the AC name under licence. Then in 1984, AC finally gave up manufacturing cars themselves and permitted a new business venture, AC (Scotland) plc., based in Glasgow, to take over the manufacture of the 3000ME. At the same time, they would work on development of a new replacement mid-engined AC. About 30 Scottish MEs - nicknamed "McMEs"! - were sold before this business venture failed.
In 1986, Derek Hurlock retired and sold off his interest in the AC company.
AC Cobra Mk. IV
As mentioned previously, Brian Angliss' Autokraft business had bought up tooling for the Cobra chassis and bodies from AC in the early 1970s. They also stocked spares to keep British owned Cobras running. By 1982, they got an agreement with AC to build a new car based on the Mk. III Cobras. The new car was not initially allowed to use the Cobra trademark, and was called the AC Mk. IV. Chassis design was based upon the Mk. III but with slight improvements. Surprisingly, this old body/chassis concept was successfully adapted to pass the required type approval regulations. Detail improvements to this end included spring-loaded bumpers. Body panelling was hand-crafted in aluminium just like the 1960s ACs, not only using the same tooling, but also some of the same crafts people from AC. Chassis were numbered from AK1000 onwards. Power came from Ford's 302ci V8.
Subsequently, the Mk. IV gained legitimate use of the Cobra model name, and also production transferred to Brooklands at the AC Autokraft factory, once ownership of AC Cars had passed to Angliss and Ford. The late 1980s classic car boom, and huge rise in second-hand Cobra values, put AC Autokraft in a very lucrative market while it lasted. A few Mk. IVs were 427 powered. AC Autokraft also rebuilt the occasional other AC model as a "Cobra", such as an Ace (AE chassis) and a 428 (CF chassis). It was getting hard to distinguish old genuine, new genuine, legitimate reconstructions and 'replicas'!
Third time around for the Ace
In 1986, when Derek Hurlock retired, ownership of AC Cars was split between Angliss and another owner who soon sold their share to Ford. Ford had already got involved with AC to produce a prototype for a new AC model, the Ace (name rings a bell!). The 1986 Ace featured Ford Scorpio 4 wheel drive transmission and V6 engine. It also looked rather like a Scorpio, having been styled by Ford. This car design was dropped, and Ford tried to come up with alternatives but ran into problems, and so another period of delays beset AC. Finally, Angliss commissioned UK design consultants IAD to dream up a new AC and this they did extremely well, with a sleek and individual piece of styling. Meanwhile, an excellent chassis design was drawn up. Like the 3000ME it followed the perimeter chassis principle, but this time a one-piece frame. Also, it was made of stainless steel. Bodywork continued the AC tradition of hand-formed aluminium. The result was like a much modernised AC 428. I saw the prototype under construction in 1991, and it still had 4 wheel drive, which seemed to be all the rage during a short period in the late '80s/early '90s. Thankfully, rear wheel drive was adopted for the production version, which also used the Ford V8 302 power-plant. For a while it looked as though it would end before getting started, as a dispute with Ford seemed likely to close AC down altogether. Angliss' determination paid off and Autokraft became outright owner of AC Cars.
It was in production by 1994 and was very well received in reviews and tests, for its handling, refinement and driving pleasure. Build quality looked even better than my old 2 Litre Saloon! At this stage, readers may well be holding their breath wondering what disaster might befall this latest of promising sports cars? Sadly, after a few short years, the receivers were called in (1996) and it looked as though it was over. I'm not sure what had happened, since Angliss' philosophy for the business and his enthusiasm for the AC marque inspired confidence. The AC company was saved again by one Alan Lubinsky in 1997, the company becoming the AC Group. The Ace was cost reduced, although benefiting from a new Ford 4.6 litre V8. Unfortunately this version was less well received by the press and the new owners. An Aceca hard top version was planned but only barely made it into reality. Both models were then dropped by 2000 and the company concentrated on more sports cars derived from the Cobra.
More new Cobras and Cobra derived cars
If the existence of "replica" Cobras and the new Mk. IV was confusing for car enthusiasts, it was just about to get even more so! Shelby got involved with Cobra production again in the 1990s. The unused series of Mk. III chassis numbers (CSX3056 to CSX3100) were produced. Then a new series from CSX4000 onwards, usually with fibre-glass bodies, recreating the Mk. III Cobras. Then the CSX7000 series based upon the Mk. II FIA Cobras and the CSX8000 series for the street version of the Mk. II. See the official website for more details: Shelby Automobiles.
Meanwhile back in Olde Englande, the AC Group were building the Superblower ("ACSB" chassis numbers), a super-charged derivative of the Cobra. Then the CRS, with its carbon-fibre bodyshell. Power finally changed from the traditional Ford V8 to the new Lotus V8 engine. A lot of concern was expressed by dedicated AC enthusiasts as worrying changes came thick and fast to their favourite maker. No new models, as opposed to new versions of the old. Manufacturing moved from Brooklands to Frimley, and finally closed in the UK, with offices in Guildford for a time. Then manufacturing for this old British firm moved out of the country to Malta in 2005 to build (can you guess?) another new car derived from the Cobra!
AC Mk. II, III and V
21st century AC manufacture has given us the AC Mk. V, developed from the Mk. IV Cobra, but with a carbon-composite body. Also available are newly manufactured versions of the Mk. II and III Cobras (although not Cobra badged), with aluminium bodies and using some of the original AC tooling from the 1960s to make them. These models are produced as the AC Mk. II 289 Roadster, AC Mk. II 289 FIA, and AC Mk. III 427 SC. More details at the official AC site: AC Cars.
Over a century of car manufacturing created just a few thousand AC cars, ensuring that they will always be individual and special. But not simply because of their rarity, but because they were designed and built by enthusiasts and not marketing committees. They were handcrafted in a way that is always appreciated by people with a feel for art and skillful creativity. The beautiful body styling appeals even to the less artistic. The fact that most ACs are preserved, shows that owners hold them in high regard, whether they be saloons, grand tourers, or race-honed high performance machines.
I started out writing this from memory, but couldn't resist digging out many of my old reference materials (although I've been unable to find everything). I've listed my known references below:
"Sunday Times sponsors an AC Cobra" (Sunday Times 7th April 1963).
"Cobras warn Ferrari: Le Mans only the beginning" (Sunday Times 23rd June 1963).
"Cobra reached 190mph on the M1" (Sunday Times 14th June 1964).
"AA and RAC furious over 200mph test run on M1" (Daily Mail 15th June 1964).
"Ministry probe on M1 speed tests" (Yorkshire Evening Post 15th June 1964).
"Leeds MP urges 100mph speed limit on the M1" (Yorkshire Evening Post 16th June 1964).
"A lone Cobra in the Ferrari sweep" (Daily Mail 22nd June 1964).
"Derek Hurlock" (obituary) ("The Times" 31st August 1992).
AC Ace ("The Motor" 1st December 1954).
John Bolster tests the AC Petite ("Autosport" date unknown).
AC Ace Bristol ("The Motor" 26th August 1959).
AC Aceca Bristol ("Autosport" 17th April 1959).
AC Greyhound ("The Motor" 2nd August 1961).
AC Ford Cobra ("Road & Track" September 1962).
7 litre adrenalin pump ("Motor" 25th November 1967).
AC 428 ("On Four Wheels" volume 1, number 1, 1973).
"AC" by Martyn Watkins (Foulis - 1976).
"The Classic ACs - 2 Litre to Cobra" by John Mclellan (Motor Racing Publications Ltd. - 1985).
"Thames Ditton Chat" (highlighting preparations by AC of 3 - not 2! - Cobras for Le Mans) by Tony Martin (May 1963 Bulletin).
"Racing News and Comment" by Geoffrey Dempsey (August 1963 Bulletin).
"Editorial" (concerning AC production and Cobra model naming) by Tony Martin (January 1964 Bulletin).
"The M1 Incident" by Tony Martin (October 1964 Bulletin).
"Le Mans 1964" by Tony Martin (October 1964 Bulletin).
"Round the Circuits" by Clive Willoughby (June 1965 Bulletin).
"Le Mans 1965" by Ian Webb (Winter 1965 Bulletin).
"1965 World GT Manufacturing Championship goes to AC-Shelby Cobra" by Geoffrey Dempsey (Winter 1965 Bulletin).
"The Ace Le Mans" by Barrie Bird (Summer 1966 Bulletin).
"The AC Flat Six Engine" by Tony Clarry (1971 Bulletin).
"Profile of a Greyhound" by Tony Clarry (1972 Bulletin).
"Coupé de Maitre!" by Tony Clarry (referring to the 3000ME) (Bulletin '73).
"Origins of a Coupé" by Peter Bohanna (AC Owners' Club Review 1974).
"Leave some room for a suitcase!" (about the AC Cobra Le Mans Coupé) by Bill Fone (AC Owners' Club Review 1974).
"A Picnic Daytona Cobra" (about the Willment Coupé) by then owner George Pitt (AC Owners' Club Review 1974).
"A Seven Litre Saloon" by Derek Hurlock (AC Owners' Club Review 1976).
"Another COB 1" by Rod Leach (AC Owners' Club Review 1976).
"The M1 Cobra" by unknown company author (ACtion September 1976).
"A 98 - Notes on a Mk II Cobra" by Barrie Bird (owner of A-98) (ACtion February 1985).
ACOC model registers:
Ace (March 1991)
Aceca (June 1992)
Ace Bristol (June 1997)
Ace and Aceca 2.6 (December 1991)
Greyhound (October 1986)
Cobra (May 1981, December 1987 and May 1996).
3000ME (June 1978, listing all prototypes and February 1997).
Mk. IV (August 1994)
"Accent on AC" by John Mclellan - about the AC 428 (Thoroughbred & Classic Cars - September 1983).
"What a splendid show" by John Mclellan - Aces at Le Mans (Thoroughbred & Classic Cars - May 1984).
"Alive Again" by F. Wilson McComb - about the A-98 coupé (Thoroughbred & Classic Cars - April 1985).
"MA-200" by F. Wilson McComb (Thoroughbred & Classic Cars - June 1985).
"A family affair" by John Mclellan - AC/Hurlock history (Thoroughbred & Classic Cars - November 1985).
"Head to Head" about the dispute between Brian Angliss and Ford (Car - March 1992)
AC (Scotland) plc. share prospectus, 1984.
"Cobra Ferrari Wars" documentary DVD (full 3 hour version) published by Spirit Level.
Corrections and photo additions:
The webmaster confesses to being human. Therefore, if any well-informed readers spot any mistakes in my history article, then feel free to let me know by email. If you have any photos of Cobra coupés, MA-200, Petites, Ace 2.6s, Superblowers or CRS cars that I may use here, then please email them to me and I'll watermark them with your copyright credit. Thanks.
Ian Strange - 2007
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