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A European Diary Last Updated: Aug 16th, 2006 - 11:01:00

The History of AC Cars
By Anthony Matthews
Jul 28, 2004, 17:46

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AC is the oldest British car manufacturer with continuous production since 1901.  The marque has enormous prestige and an extraordinary history – seemingly more fiction than fact. 

It all started in 1901 when John Weller set up a small engineering workshop in south London to build motorcars.  He was backed by a wealthy tradesman named John Portwine.  By 1903 John Weller had designed and built his first cars.  There were two engine options a twin cylinder 10hp and a 4 cylinder 20hp.  These were displayed at the 1903 British Motor Show.  “The Autocar” of 6th June reported, “We foresee a brilliant future for the Weller car and its talented designer.” How right they were.

By 1904 the business was named Autocar & Accessories Limited and started production of a small delivery vehicle called the Autocarrier.  It had a 5.6 hp air- cooled single cylinder engine and was, in fact, a tricycle.  It was very successful and by the following year had found a number of buyers including two famous London stores, Maple & Co and Dickens & Jones.  The Goodyear Tyre Co also had one for delivering new wheels and tyres to wealthy car owners.  The Autocarrier was soon a common sight on the streets of London and it was considered a “must have” by any commercial business that wished to be seen as fashionable.  One company ran a fleet of over seventy.

In 1907 a passenger version was introduced called the Sociable.  The August 1910 edition of “Motor Cycling” showed the Autocarrier adapted for military purposes and the 25th London Cycle Regiment was equipped with these vehicles. A number of Autocarriers had Maxim guns mounted on special bodywork whilst others were adapted as ammunition transporters.  The Autocarrier was chosen by the British Army because of its “reliability, lusty performance and manoeuvrability”.  Such was the increase in production that in 1911 AC moved to larger premises in Thames Ditton, Surrey some 16 miles from the center of London.  The Autocarrier’s simple, sturdy and practical design ensured its production until 1915.   It was at Thames Ditton that Weller designed the first production four-wheel car. By the start of the First World War, AC’s efforts were concentrated on the manufacture of shells and fuses, though the odd vehicle was still made.  

For the first time in 1915 the abbreviation AC was used and in November of that year a new company was formed, Autocarriers Limited.  This business acquired Autocar & Accessories with Weller and Portwine as directors. In 1918 full production of the two-seater four cylinder commenced and the car was sold for around £255 ($1020). These new AC’s were immediately successful in competition, particularly in hill climbs and trials such as the Land’s End.

1921 saw the opening of showrooms and offices in London’s Regent Street and the AC board of directors was joined by the famous English racing driver of that era, S.F.Edge.  Weller and Portwine resigned and Edge became Chairman of the new company, AC Cars Limited.  The new ACs were sporting in character with amazing performance and had stylish bodies in a good range of colors. This was the start of a very successful period for AC on both the ordinary motoring and sporting fronts.  Soon the company had a new slogan: “The First Light Six – and still the best”.

In 1922 came one of AC’s greatest sporting achievements.   A special AC record-breaker driven by J.A.Joyce, using the 16 valve 4-cylinder engine, shattered the One Hour record at an average speed just in excess of 100mph with a fastest lap of 104.85mph.  This took place at one of the most famous British racetracks, Brooklands, which was only a few miles from the AC factory.

During the next six years more models were introduced, seven in total.  These ranged from the Aceca two-seater coupé to a long wheelbase coach built saloon.  The output of AC’s six-cylinder engine was increased from 40 to 56bhp.  By 1928 the AC Car Company was one of Great Britain’s largest automobile manufacturers. 

Then came 1929 and with it the Wall Street Crash and world economic recession.  Like many other manufacturing companies of this period, AC went into voluntary liquidation.

1930 saw the acquisition of the AC Car Company by William and Charles Hurlock.  Initially no new cars were built but servicing facilities were provided for existing owners.  Following pressure from satisfied customers, the brothers decided that there was a market for limited production hand made cars.  Throughout the ‘30s the AC six-cylinder engine served faithfully and achieved tremendous results in the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and Monte Carlo rallies.  New showrooms were acquired in Park Lane, London and once again the AC Car Company was both stable and prosperous. 1931 saw the name Ace used for the first time.  Two years later four new cars were entered in the RAC rally and all of them took prizes. A four-seater sports driven by Miss Kitty Brunel took an outright win, Charles Hurlock finished fourth and his brother, William was sixth.  Mrs G Daniel finished seventh and took first prize in the Concours d’Elegance.

By 1937 AC cars were being exported to North America for the first time, however this ceased shortly after with the advent of the Second World War and production facilities were turned to the manufacture of fire fighting equipment, aircraft parts, radar vans, flame throwers, guns and sights.

When the war ended in 1945, thoughts again turned to the production of cars.  Slowly but surely through development and improvement, production grew.  By 1950 five “Two Litre” models a week were being produced in several body styles and in 1953, a landmark year for AC, the AC Ace was introduced.  This was an open two-seater sports car that quickly gained a big following amongst sporting motorists.  It was very successful in British “Club” competition, being the type of car that the enthusiast could race or rally at the weekend and still use for every day motoring.  The 1954 London Motor show saw the debut of the Aceca Coupé and production commenced the following year.   Le Mans 1957 was a good one for AC with an AC Bristol finishing tenth overall – not a bad result for a two-litre car.  The following year was even better with a special bodied AC Bristol finishing eighth and a standard car ninth. Meanwhile AC did not rely solely on cars and the famous blue invalid carriages continued to be turned out in their hundreds.

Nothing much changed with AC until in 1961, when Carroll Shelby entered into negotiations with AC Cars.  Backed by the Ford Motor Company, he proposed the installation of a large Ford V8 in the current lightweight AC Ace.  Built by AC Cars, the combination resulted in the AC Cobra, one of the fastest and most brutal sports cars of all time.  By 1963 production of the hand built aluminum bodied car had reached 15 per week. 

Meanwhile production of the invalid carriage had been moved toTaggs Island about half a mile from the AC car plant.  Invalid carriages were being produced for the Ministry of Health and numbers produced had now reached 1,200.

1964 was the year when an AC Cobra caused a sensation by “testing” on the unrestricted M1 motorway at speeds up to 183mph.  Questions were raised in the British Parliament and this episode would eventually lead to the imposition of a 70mph speed limit on British motorways and two lane highways. The same year saw one of the two AC Cobras entered at Le Mans being the first British entry to finish.  Unfortunately better results could not be achieved due to problems with the aerodynamics. The following year the AC Cobra won the World Sports Car Championship.

Between 1967 and 1973 the AC 428 was manufactured with a body designed by Frua of Turin.  During this period 29 convertibles and 51 fastbacks were produced.  During the ‘70s and early ‘80s AC developed the ME3000, a totally new mid-engined two-seater sports car.

1985 was another landmark year with the re-introduction into North America of the AC Mk1V.  This had a 305 cu.ins. engine that met 50 State EPA and DOT Federal Regulations.  The car was based on the original Cobra tooling.

The following year after some 56 years of ownership, the Hurlock family sold their controlling interest in AC cars to a joint venture company owned by Autokraft Limited and the Ford Motor Company.  Two years later in 1988 production was moved to a new purpose built factory sited within the old historic Brooklands racetrack complex, the scene of so many achievements by AC competition cars more than 60 years before.

1990 saw the production of the lightweight version AC MklV and the following year a new pre-production AC Ace was constructed by Autokraft with body design by International Automotive Design.

In 1992 Brian Angliss personally acquired Ford’s interest in AC Cars Limited.  The  MklV lightweight was re-engineered to meet 1993 European Economic Community (EEC) Type Approval and 49 State North American Certification Standards.  Following Type Approval by the EEC, the AC Ace was launched at the London Motor Show. Production commenced the following year and in 1995 the AC Ace was unveiled to America at the Detroit Motor Show. 1996 saw the acquisition of AC Cars by AC Car Group and Alan Lubinsky pledged to build MklV sales and complete the development of the AC Ace.

Once again AC’s fortunes seemed to be picking up and in 1997 the new AC Ace was introduced alongside the Superblower with its 305 cu.ins. V8 producing 320bhp.  The following year saw the launch of the new AC Aceca, which was shown alongside the AC Mk ll 289 FIA Roadster, the AC Ace and the AC Superblower.

1999 heralded the launch of the new AC Cobra MklV Carbon Road Series (CRS) with its carbon fibre body instead of the traditional handmade aluminum body.  The new Millennium saw the Birmingham International Motor Show introduction of the AC 212 S/C powered by a 213 cu.ins. Lotus V8 twin turbo.

In its centenary year, 2001, AC relocated to Albany Park, Frimley, Surrey and production of the handmade aluminum bodies and the CSR continues to the present day for shipment to the United States.

The AC story is one that is truly hands across the sea for more than 40 years.  Long may it continue.  The AC Cobra has become an automotive icon – a legend in its own lifetime. 

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