AC CARS HISTORY
AC Cars is Britain’s oldest vehicle manufacturer having been in continuous production since 1901.
The Weller brothers set up the company as engineers, repairers and manufacturers of motor cars and motor cycles in West Norwood, London. They were appointed as repair agents for De Dion Bouton vehicles.
John Weller was an engineer and a prolific inventor; he applied for several patents but unfortunately allowed most of them to lapse.
The business continued to grow and Weller Bros. was appointed Official Repairer for the Automobile Club.
1902 it became obvious that the company needed additional working capital. John Portwine a local businessman was a great friend and fan of John Weller. With his brothers, he operated at least 8 Butcher shops in the London Metropolitan area, trading under the name of ‘London and Suburban Meat Stores’. The family business is still trading today in Covent Garden.
A new company – Weller Bros. Ltd, was formed with John Portwine and the Weller Brothers as shareholders and Directors. Weller Bros. Ltd agreed to buy the business for £1700 (a substantial sum in those days). This additional finance allowed the company to move forward and for some of John Weller’s inventions to bear fruit.
1903 John Weller’s first major work concluded with the launch of the 20 hp Weller Touring Car at the Crystal Palace Motor Show.
Autocar on June 6th 1903 reported – ‘We see a brilliant future for the Weller Car and its talented designer’.Within a year of the launch of the 20 hp Touring Car another of John Weller’s inventions was to appear, it was decided to go into production of a three wheel commercial delivery vehicle.
This was to be called the AUTOCARRIER (from which AC was later derived) and in 1904 the Company name changed to Autocar and Accessories Ltd the Autocarrier was a great success and some of the purchasers included Boots the Chemist, Selfridges, Associated Newspapers, Carr’ Biscuits, Maple and Co. Dickens and Jones and The Goodyear Tyre Co who reportedly had a fleet of more than 70 vehicles.
The success of the Autocarrier leads to the design of a passenger vehicle based on the same design theme. ‘THE AC PASSENGER MACHINE’ – The Sociable. This was an extremely successful vehicle and stayed in production up to 1915.
In November 1907 the abbreviation AC was used for the first time and a new company Autocarriers Ltd was formed with Portwine and the Weller Brothers still as directors.
Motor Cycling magazine for August 1911 shows the Autocarrier being adapted for Military needs. The 25th London Cyclist Regiment was equipped with Autocarriers with Maxim guns mounted on modified bodywork. Other Autocarriers were adapted as ammunition carriers. It is recorded that the Autocarrier was chosen by the military due to its quality, reliability, manoeuvrability, and ‘Lusty Performance’
1911 the company moved from West Norwood to the Ferry Works site in Thames Ditton where it was to stay for more than 70 years.
As with many companies the war years took its toll on the company, with car production being replaced by the manufacture of shells and fuses.
As AC move into the 1920’s John Weller was there again, this time with a new engine ‘The Light Six’, a straight 6 configuration with aluminium pistons, cylinder block and sump, chain driven overhead camshaft, finger followers and 4 valves per cylinder with a patented spring slipper chain tensioner, used by many manufacturers since and twin spark plugs per cylinder. Initially the capacity was 1477 cc and produced 40 hp in 1919, but was soon increased to 1991 cc which in later years produced 105 hp. The last example of this engine was manufactured in 1963 a record run of 44 years.
The beginning of the 1920’s also saw the next major influence on the Company, Selwyn Francis Edge, a prominent racing driver of Napiers in the early 1900’s winning races and setting many records. He joined the company as Governing Director in 1921, but his personality did not endear him to Weller and Portwine who left the company within a year. AC Cars Limited was formed.
Although it took time, Edge eventually productionised Weller’s Light Six engine.
Until the Light Six engine was available, most of the post war cars were powered by a more modest Anzani 4 cylinder engine.AC cars were sporting in character, possessed amazing performance and were equipped with stylish bodies in a range of colours. In 1922 his 2 seater 12/24 sold for £575, £200 more than a Morris Cowley, they sold well and had a reputation for quality and good handling.
Competition was important to Edge, he believed, as do many manufacturers today, that motor racing was the key to keeping the company name in the public domain. This he did with J.A Joyce in a car with a 4 cylinder version of the Light Six engine, he was the first in a 1500 cc car to cover 100 miles in 1 hour, in fact over 104 miles in the hour. Later in 1924, Tom Gillett using Light Six power set a new 24 hour record at over 82 mph and in 1926 Victor Bruce and William Brunell scored the first Monte Carlo Rally victory for a British car. A year later Bruce, his wife and Joyce, covered 15,000 miles in 9 days in France.
By 1928 AC was one of Britain’s largest manufacturers producing 7 different models but the other manufacturers were catching up, although many changes were introduced the international recession took its toll and in 1930 AC was forced into liquidation. Edge retired a poor man.
During the early 30’s many low volume manufacturers were meeting a similar fate, never to return, AC’s extra-ordinary ability to survive was about to be demonstrated. The receiver sold off the remains of AC, cars were no longer being made, but a lot of parts were left in the otherwise empty factory, the workforce were still employed servicing existing customer’s cars.
1930 enter the Hurlock family, William and Charles, successful car and truck dealers in South London; they bought AC for its factory and profitable servicing business with no intention to manufacture cars.
But the spirit of AC refused to die. William Hurlock wanted a new car, using available parts in store he built his own.
By 1933 AC was back at the London Motor Show with 5 cars on the stand. The following years saw many different body styles, saloons drop-heads, tourers, coupes; all were hand made, very few identical, all were the epitome of 1930 elegance. Equipment included built-in jacks, automatic chassis lubrication and adjustable shock absorbers.
The Second World War again required the factory to be transformed for the manufacture of fire fighting equipment, aircraft parts, radar vans, flame throwers, guns and sights.
Following the end of the war, attention returned to car production, which grew slowly until the 2 litre was being produced at the rate of 5 per week; again these were available in various body styles.
During the Hurlock years at Thames Ditton the company only survived due to the diversification introduced by the Hurlock’s.This included the manufacturer of golf trolleys called ‘Bagboys’ and most notably and surprisingly the success in securing the contract to manufacture the electric trains used to carry holiday makers along the pier at Southend on Sea, all 34 carriages were entirely built by AC. These trains ran up until the late ‘70’s when the pier was closed for major renovation work. AC also built 5 rail cars; one is currently on display at the Colne Valley rail museum.
1953 the AC Ace was in production. This was a revolutionary car for its time, in terms of styling and chassis design. It used a 3” diameter tubular ladder chassis and quickly gained respect amongst the sporting motorists. It was highly successful in club racing, being the type of fast, tough car that a private owner could race and rally and still use for every day motoring. Little did the company realise what the Ace was to become.
1954 saw the introduction of a Coupe version of the Ace, the ACECA, which was launched at the London Motor Show.
The Ace continued its international racing successes and in 1957 an Ace-Bristol finished 10th overall, 2nd in the S2.0 Class at Le Mans and 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the SCCA EP Class Championship. In 1958 an Ace-Bristol finished 8th overall, 2nd in the S2.0 Class at Le Mans, 1st in the GT2.0 Class at Sebring and 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the SCCA EP Class Championship. In 1959 an Ace-Bristol finished 1st in the GT2.0 Class at both Le Mans and Sebring and 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the SCCA EP Class Championship. In 1960 an Ace-Bristol finished 1st and 2nd in the SCCA DP Class Championship and in 1961 an Ace-Bristol finished 1st in the GT2.0 Class at Le Mans and 1st in the SCCA CP Class Championship.
Again diversification raised its head and in 1957 it saw the successful negotiation of another manufacturing contract, this time with the Government to produce the light blue invalid carriage, over 1200 were produced and were a common sight on the road for many years. This era also saw the manufacture of the 3 and 4 wheeled Petite.
In 1961 the AC Ace 2.6 was developed with Ken Rudd and the engineers at AC and went straight into production. The Ace 2.6 utilized the Ford Zephyr 2.6 L six cylinder engine that had been tuned and tested by Ken Rudd and his Rudd Speed development company. The shorter block configuration allowed for the lowering of the hood line and changes to the radiator opening, which had been a setback to the Ace-Bristol. Rudd and the AC Engineers also designed modifications to the Ace chassis and suspension for the increased weight and horsepower. These changes combined with the additional horsepower of the 2.6 L engine made for the fastest Ace ever produced. Only 37 of this model were produced from 1961 through 1963 because a new V-8 version of the Ace to be known as the Ace Cobra was introduced in 1962.
In the early 60’s Ford was trying to find a car that would beat the Corvette and therefore had developed a new light weight V-8 engine. Carroll Shelby had seen the racing success of the AC Ace from 1957 through 1960 and went to England in 1961 to negotiate with AC Cars to design and manufacture an AC Ace to be powered by the new Ford V-8. Shortly thereafter the AC COBRA was born. Depending on if you are English or American there are many versions of what subsequently happened. The fact is that the AC records show that commencing 20th June 1963 AC manufactured approximately 1000 Cobras and shipped them to Shelby in the USA where the engines and transmissions were installed and then delivered to customers by the Ford Motor Company. A number of AC Cobras were built complete at AC Cars in London with engines and transmissions similar to the specifications as the cars that were shipped to the USA and sold in the European market place for both racing and street use.
The AC Cobra was entered into Le Mans and in 1963 secured 7th overall place with a team managed by Sterling Moss.
In 1964 AC were ready to re-enter Le Mans with a special ‘Le Mans’ Coupe built using the Cobra chassis and 289 engine.
It is widely reported that during preparations for Le Mans, a car was clocked at over 183mph at 4.30 in the morning on the newly built M1 motorway, although the motorway was empty at the time the report caused uproar and questions were even asked in the House of Commons.
The next year, 1965 the 70 mph limit was introduced. In the racing world the 289 Cobra was winning everything it was entered into in International and USA racing events to include FIA, USSRC and SCCA. In 1965 Ferrari was to be beaten by the international Cobra teams that went on to win the FIA World Championship with the AC built 289 ‘FIA Roadsters’ and the ‘Coupes’ that were built on the AC designed 289 chassis. The AC Cobra continued to improve, from the original MK1, 260 through the 289 and up to the impressive and legendary MkIII AC Cobra with its 4” diameter chassis tubes to handle the immense torque of the big block V8 engines which produced over 500 hp, independent wishbone suspension front and rear with a beautiful hand-formed aluminum body designed by AC Cars in 1965. At that time the Guinness Book of World Records listed the AC Cobra MkIII as the fastest production car in the world, a title it held for many years.
The MkIII Cobra has become one of the most copied cars in the motor industry, it is estimated that approximately 50,000 copies of the AC Cobra have been made by numerous companies around the world making it the most copied car in the World.
Frua of Turin designed a new steel body for the Cobra chassis, named the AC428. With bodies imported from Italy AC built 29 convertibles and 51 fastbacks up to 1973 when production ceased.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s a totally new mid-engined 2 seater sports-car was developed using a Ford 3.0 ltr V6 engine, the ME3000. It had a composite body on a steel chassis. Although relatively popular it was not a great success and suffered from some reliability problems.
1982 Brian Angliss (a Cobra fan) had started a company called Autokraft, he had acquired most of the original cobra production tooling and jigs and the rights to use the AC name and put the Cobra back into production. The MK IV Cobra was certified for sale in the USA with a federalised 5.0 ltr V8 Mustang engine with a roomier cockpit and modern switch gear.
By 1986 most of the major motor manufacturers were buying up niche sports car companies – GM bought Lotus, Chrysler bought Lamborghini, Fiat bought Ferrari. Ford bought AC. Derek Hurlock retired after a 56 year family ownership. The Thames Ditton factory was sold for redevelopment and Ford built a new 90,000 square foot factory on the then new Brooklands Industrial Park where AC was located up until 2001.
Ford Motor Company recognised the skills of the AC workforce and used the Brooklands site for prototype manufacture. The booted Scorpio prototype was produced there.
Ford continued with the production of the MKIV Cobra but they recognised that AC needed more than just the Cobra and invested in the development of a new car, resurrecting the ACE name. This was an up to date specification with electric hood, air conditioning, electric windows and had a new stainless steel chassis and aluminium body.
Unfortunately the car was not fully developed for production and was expensive to build, less than 100 were built. In the mid 90’s Ford sold the company back to Brian Angliss who continued with the production of the Ace and MKVI Cobra building approximately 480 through the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Brian had many interests and moved the company into restoring vintage motor cycles, amassing over 200 examples; he also started to restore a Second World War Hurricane and Tempest. These activities drained AC’s resources and in 1996 the receiver was called in.
Alan Lubinsky, a South African entrepreneur stepped in and bought the company. He reviewed the AC products and was soon aware that AC was not selling enough Cobras.
He decided that AC must make a stand by producing original AC Cobra’s at an economic sales price.
AC conducted an evaluation to optimise the production processes and thus enabled a reduced price car to be manufactured whilst maintaining the finish quality. AC had a highly skilled traditional craftsmen workforce of panel beaters, welders, fabricators and trimmers.
The main cost saving opportunity was to change the body material and manufacturing process.
An aluminium body is hand beaten from approximately 40 pieces of aluminium gas welded into 2 body halves, front and back. It is then wrapped onto a steel the skeleton framework on the chassis. This process takes approximately 5 man months to complete a body ready for paint. An alternative process was required.
The new car, the AC CRS, was launched at the 1999 London Motor Show.
2001 AC Cars was 100 years old. AC celebrated its centenary at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the home of the Chelsea Pensioners and Chelsea Flower Show, at the invitation of the Governor, General Sir Jeremy Mackenzie, now Chairman of AC Cars (England) Ltd, in beautiful weather over a weekend at the end of July.
It was believed to be the largest gathering of AC cars in recent years with 30 cars on display and over 70 visiting owner’s cars from the AC Owner’s Club.
It was a very successful event, which concluded with a luncheon in the presence of Prince Michael of Kent.
To create an evolution of the legendary MKIII 427 Cobra the company linked with Lotus taking their new 3.5 ltr V8 engine and coupling to a 6 speed transmission the AC 212 was born delivering 350 hp in a 900 kg car. Unfortunately Lotus had to cease production of the engine so only 2 212’s were built.
A new model was developed, the AC MKV, composite bodied on the original design steel ladder chassis and fitted with a Ford 5 ltr 340 hp fuel injected engine and 5 speed manual transmission. Production of the new AC MKV has commenced in 2004 and ceased in 2007.
AC currently has a collaboration in the UK with AC Heritage, based at the historic Brooklands Racing Circuit in Surrey where the aluminum bodied historic AC Cobra based models of the 1960’s, the AC 289 MkII and AC 427 MkIII are built virtually to original specification off the original AC owned tooling for collectors. Servicing, repairs and full restoration of all AC models is undertaken by AC Heritage.
In 2012 AC produced a number of AC MkII Classic’s. The AC MkII Classic has a 5 litre V8 engine and other than the main mechanicals and changes done in order for the car to be homologated, the car is based on the original 1960’s car.
AC will soon be announcing a new model range which will appear on this website.