Written in 1963
IT IS A PATTERN of the motor industry that manufacturers expand and become substantial producers, become absorbed by a rival or simply cease production. A. C. Cars Ltd., although a public company, has an authorised capital of only £100,000, and despite its up and downs remains a small-scale manufacturer and something of a family concern. The story started in 1900 when John Portwine; a prosprous pork butcher and John Weller, who was then in his twenties and already had a reputation as something of a mechanical prodigy, combined their respective resources to produce the Weller car, which was exhibited at the 1903 Motor Show at , the Crystal Palace. The Weller was a 4-cylinder 20-h.p. tourer, with the engine, gearbox and radiator mounted in a sub-frame, so as to prevent torsional stresses from the chassis being transmitted to the power and drive units. Rising production costs made the Weller an impracticable proposition, so Weller and Portwine decided to try for a different market and in 1904 they formed Autocar and Accessories Ltd., to produce the Autocarrier threewheeler.
Power unit of the Autocarrier was a 5.6-h.p. air-cooled single-cylinder engine mounted in front of the single rear wheel, which it drove by chain and the clutch and an epicyclic gear with two forward speeds were incorporated ip the hub. There was tiller steering and the driver's seat was over the engine and ahead of this a large box carrier. Despite the prejudice of horse owners, the Auto carrier proved extremely popular and was so much faster and more economical that one could do the work of three horse-boxes. Among the many users were the Great Western Railway, Selfridges, The Evening News and Boot's Cash Chemists. Just as William Whiteley Ltd. claimed to be the universal provider, so was the Autocarrier the universal delivery van and for this company too!
Portwine saw prospects of expanding into the passenger market and in 1907 he and Weller formed Autocarriers Ltd., which took over all assets of the existing company and announced the A.C. Tricar, with seating for two at £85 or with an extra seat for £95. Teams took part in trials events regularly from 1909-1 I and in 1910 the company produced a military version, which became. the standard equipment for the 25th County of London Cyclist Regiment. A year later, to enable production to expand, the works were transferred from West Norwood to the riverside village of Thames Ditton, where they have remained ever since. Once again, in 1911, the company was reformed and became known as Autocarrier (1911) Ltd. and the following extract from an instruction book of that year makes interesting reading and one wonders whether present-day manufacturers should not try to placate disappointed customers with similar words :-"if you should have any little difficulties just at first, don't blame the machine; remember it has passed very severe tests at the hands of experts before it was delivered, and quietly read through these hints to find where your trouble lies" -and there follows the usual maintenance hints and warnings about petrol and oil.
Not content with the success of the tricars, John Weller started work on a four-wheeler and by 1912 chassis design had been settled, but he was unable to find a suitable 4-cylinder power unit in this country and settled on a French design known as the Fivet, which had a good power-to-weight ratio. Weight of the car was kept to a minimal 10 cwt. by extensive use of aluminium and there was a combined final drive and gearbox unit which weighed less than the usual banjo-type crown wheel and pinion. Suspension was by transverse leaf springs at the front and quarter-elliptics at the rear. The cone clutch fitted to the prototype proved too heavy in operation and was replaced on production cars by one of disc type. There was a transmission brake on the rear of the differential housing. Testing was carried out satisfactorily at Brooklands in 1913 and showed a creditable top speed of 45 m.p.h. along the Railway Straight and a lap speed of 35 m.p.h. Just as production was getting into its stride, with a price for the 2-seater of £179, the first W odd War broke out, and until 1918 the factory concentrated on the manufacture of fuses and shells. Prouction of the same model was resumed n 1918, but there were difficulties over the supply of Fivet engines. This factory had been severely damaged during the war and could not meet production demands, and so engines were bought from Anzani until the company could start production of their own unit. Even A.C. themselves are not sure whether any tricars were built after the war, but it is believed that they concentrated on cars proper. The greatest tribute to Weller's ability is the long production life of his 6 cylinder 2-litre engine, which, because of its advanced design, is still marketed now without being entirely outdated. The first engine was built in 19 I 9 and its success fulfilled Weller's greatest ambition. It was of 1991 C.C. (65 X 100 mm.) and the block and sump were cast entirely in aluminium with a cast iron cylinder head and steel flywheel and with starter and dynamo the unit weighed 350 lb. In the early stages, Weller was very concerned over the high cost of developing the engine and the excessive noise made by the helical gears driving the single overhead camshaft. The latter problem was overcome by changing to an endless chain drive, a system which was effective only because of Weller's patent spring plate tensioner. In the meanwhile production of the Ii-litre 4-cylinder car continued, but in 1920 the name. of the company was AGAIN changed, this time simply to Autocarriers Ltd. and in 1921 .S. F. Edge, formerly with Napiers, joined the concern and took over control the following year when Portwine and Weller resigned.
Under the influence of Edge, A.C. set out on a determined policy of record breaking 'with a special car having four valves per cylinder. Harry Hawker, the aviation pioneer, persuaded the company to sell him this car in 1921, but was not satisfied with the power output of 36 b.h.p. and so this was developed to give 42 b.h.p.; the car was fitted with a sleek streamlined single-seater body designed by Weller 3nd in June, 1921, at Brooklands, Hawker covered the flying half-mile at 105.14 m:p.h. and same distance from a standing start at 61.43 m.p.h., both of which were world-class records. Three weeks later Hawker was dead, tragically killed in an aircraft crash. The car returned to the works, where power output was pushed up to 64 b.h.p. and Kaye Don then covered just over 94 miles in the hour. A team was formed by the works to have a crack at the Double-12 and 200 miles Brooklands races, with "Sammy" Davis among the drivers, but although they won their class in the 1922 Double-I2 race at a record average of 71.23 m.p.h., in general, the team cars suffered from lack of adequate preparation and A.C. continued to make its mark mainly in record attempts. In 1922, A.C. made headline news once again when works driver J. A. Joyce covered 100 miles in the hour (from a standing start) with the special single-seater.
The emphasis was turning to the 6-cylinder-engined cars, which continued to uphold A.C.'s prestige in the field of record breaking. T. Gillett drove single-handed for 24 hours at Montlhery in 1925 covering 2,000 miles at an average of 82.58 m.p.h. and, in the process, breaking S. F. Edge's record with a Napier which had existed since 1907. Two years-later the Hon. Victor Bruce and Mrs. Bruce, despite heavy fog, snow and sleet, covered 15,000 miles at the same track in 10 days, but towards the end of the run J. A. Joyce had to help out with the driving. The A.C. was the first British car to compete in the Monte-Carlo Rally ind925 and the Bruces scored an outright win in 1926.
A particularly good model at this time was the Montlhery sports, so named after the successful record attempt, an open 2-seater with polished aluminium coachwork. It was sold with a Brookland's certificate to the effect that it would actually achieve 85 m.p.h. and in top gear the engine was flexible enough to pull smoothly at as Iowa speed as 6 m.p.h. It would accelerate in second gear from 10-60 m.p.h. in 21.6 sees., but low gear work was hampered by the three-speed box, for which Edge was very much an advocate and bombarded the press with letter extolling the virtues of the A.C. gearbox in unit with the final drive. Road holding was up to the traditionally high standards of the vintage period and this model was priced at £630. 1927 saw yet another change in the name of the company when it became A.C. (Aced-es) Cars Ltd. To conform with current styling trends, the bulbous radiator was changed for one of a less rounded and higher pattern in 1928 and the name Aceca appeared -for the first time, as a drophead coupe; this was priced at £475, while the cheapest model in the range was the Royal open 2/3-seater at £350. Power output had been increased to 56 b.h.p. from 40 (it is now 102) and the crankshaft line was stiffened by the addition of a fifth main bearing.
The departure of Weller and Portwine from the company had been the nrst stage in its downfall, for Edge had lacked Portwine's financial acumen and Weller was a brilliant engineer, even if he did suffer from occasional aberrations. One of these was a chassis consisting of two very long leaf springs on which the engine was mounted with an axle at either end. He had an unshakeable faith in, this design, which proceeded in a series of kangaroo leaps and bounds, and it was only with great reluctance that he abandoned this abortive attempt to oppose the law of mechanics. It is true to say that few substantial technical advances have emanated from within the company since Weller's resignation. Like many other companies, A.C. were unable to weather the financial storm in the late twenties and production ceased and a receiver was appointed in 1929. Shortly afterwards the company went into voluntary liquidation.
W. A. E. Hurlock reformed the company in 1930, when he assumed control as managing director, with his brother, Charles, as General Manager. For a short while they operated service facilities only and, in fact, at one time the Thames Ditton works were listed by the A.A. as a 5-star garage. Production was soon resumed with a new model named the Magna, a substantially built 3-seater drophead coupe or full 5-seater saloon. This, which was incidentally the first A.C. to be fitted with hydraulic brakes, indicated the policy which the Hurlocks were to pursue until the introduction of the Ace in 1953; no radically new models were introduced, but rather the existing chassis was refined and the 6-cylinder engine developed within its limitations and used in conjunction with heavier and more comfortable coachwork. As there was a considerable sales resistance to the combined final drive and gearbox, this was replaced in 1932 by a conventional gearbox in unit with the engine. The Ace chassis was introduced in 1933 and a year later A.C. fitted a 4-speed gearbox, an E.N.V. crash type, Lor the first time. The Ace was available with a wide range of coachwork and used to be advertised with such slogans as "Thames Ditton, the Savile Row of motordom" to indicate that the company would adapt their standard specifications to meet their customer's wishes, just as Frazer-Nash have done since the war.
A typical Ace, with close-coupled foursome drophead coupe coachwork and weighing 22 cwt., cost £395 and for this the customer got a top speed of around 75 m.p.h. and a fuel consumption of 23 m.p.g. In addition the Ace would accelerate rather leisurely from 0-60 in 39 secs. and sixty was the maximum obtainable in third gear; needless to sat its road manners were delightful. In 1934, the Greyhound saloon was added tOr the range, a true closed 4-seater sports car, and this was joined a few months later by the March tourer, which had coachwork designed by the Earl of March (now the Duke of Richmond and Gordon); the latter model set the pattern for the very fine looking and fast sports models marketed in 1936. From 1935 onwards a synchromesh gearbox was fitted, but this did not accord with the tastes of many of the make's enthusiasts.
Based on a chassis of shorter wheelbase, the Ace Competition sports 2-seater was introduced in 1936; this had stark and handsome coachwork, with heavily louvred bonnet sides, cutaway doors and a 20-gallon slab fuel tank at the rear; the general concept was much the same as that, of the H.R.G. and S.S. 100 Jaguar. Standard equipment included centre-lock wire wheels, Andre Hartford adjustable. shock-absorbers, triple S. U. carburettors and, from 1937, automatic chassis lubrication; a Wilson preselector gearbox was an optional extra. Power output was originally 70 b.h.p., but this was stepped up in 1937 to 80. Despite this, top speed was no higher than that of the Montlhery, built some ten years previously, remaining around 85 m.p.h., but the earlier car was some what lighter than the Ace. The competition model was timed from 0-60 in 19 secs. and was capable of close to 70 m.p.h. in third gear with a fuel consumption of 18-20 m.p.g. The stubby central gearchange was a delight to handle with a short, precise movement and it had very high cornering power at the expense of excessively harsh suspension. It was priced at £455 and to the writer's mind was the nicest pre-war A.C. A blown version, with an Arnott supercharger boosting at a maximum of 3t lb./sq. in. and developing 90 b.h.p. was also offered. This never really had the company's blessing, as they felt it had an adverse effect on bearing life, but it was what the public wanted.
On the declaration of war, the factory naturally ceased car production and instead made a variety of essential equipment ranging from aircraft components, such as gun turrets and undercarriages to fire appliances and guns. To meet pressure of work, larger premises were additionally acquired on Taggs Island on the Thames, just north of Hampton Court Bridge.
When hostilities ceased, work started on the post-war product, which was, in effect, a composition of the basic prewar design and the lessons, which had been learned from it. The prototype was built in 1946 and fitted with a drophead coupe body, for the simple reason that this happened to be one that was in store. However, the design department were soon at work on a saloon body and the distinctive lines of this may best be judged from the accompanying illustration. The first production cars left the factory in October 1947, and by 1950 output was at the rate of five cars per week. Mechanically, there was nothing remarkable about the 2-litre saloon, except that a rigid front axle suspended by half-elliptic springs was retained until the model was withdrawn in 1956; this was by then a unique feature shared with the H.R.G. alone, which ceased production the same year, and according to the makers this was at the wish of their customers, who must have been conservative in the extreme! Power output was 76 b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. giving a top speed of approximately 80 m.p.h. and a fuel consumption of around 21-3 m.p.g. Hydraulic brakes were not fitted to the rear wheels until 1951. The original 2-door saloon was subsequently joined by a four door version and the model was available for a while with tourer coachwork by Buckland Bodyworks and as a drophead coupe.
In 1953 the 2-litre saloon cost a few shillings under £ 1600, and there were a number of other manufacturers, notably Jaguar, offering a lot more performance for the same money; it was clearly necessary for the company to find a successor and they chose as the basis for the new model John Tojeiro's Bristol-engined sports car, which had a phenomenal record of successes in British National events in the hands of Cliff Davis. The Tojeiro was based on a simple ladder chassis with independent suspension front and rear by transverse leaf springs and wishbones and light alloy bodywork of a style known as the" Barchetta" designed by Superleggera Touring. The new A.C. Ace was identical to this, except for the 2-litre A.C. engine, which now had a power output of 85 b.h.p. and this was eventually raised to 102. Although John Tojeiro, with very limited resources, has built rather less than thirty cars, many of these have been of considerable interest, notably the current Buick-engine G.T. cars of Ecurie Ecosse, the J aguar-engined car that so nearly rivalled the Lister and the J.A.P. engined device that stimulated Brian Lister's interest in sports-car racing;
By early 1954, the Ace was in full production, with a radiator grille of rather more prominent design than the prototype, and was raced with considerable success during the 1954 and '55 seasons by A.C. distributor Ken Rudd. The elegant I Aceca coupe, with lines reminiscent of the DB2-4 Aston Martin, joined the range at the 1954 Earls Court Show. Despite Rudd's excellent performances with a modified car and John Gott's class win in the 1955 Tulip Rally, it was clear that although the Ace had superior roadholding to either of its principal rivals, the TR2 and the Austin-Healey 100, it offered no more performance for rather more money, and Rudd urged the directors to make it available with the Bristol 2-litre engine. Early in 1956, arrangements were made for this to be supplied and Rudd showed the wisdom_ of this policy by finishing second on handicap and scratch winner of the Autosport production car championship that year.
A modified works car was entered for Le Mans in 1957 and driven by Rudd and Peter Bolton finished second to a Ferrari in the 2-litre class. The company was clearly satisfied with this and entered for the 1958 Le Mans race a very special version of the Ace designed by Tojeiro with a space frame and independent rear suspension by helical springs and wishbones, and a pretty sports-racing body styled by Cavendish Morton. Bolton and Dickie Stoop drove this to a class victory and finished eighth overall. Innumerable successes have been scored by the Ace both in this country and the/United States, the most recent being that of Bob Burnard in the series of races for the 1962 Veedol Cup, but since its inception there have been few mechanical changes in the design of the model. Disc brakes on the front wheels became optional and later a standard fitting and since late 196 I the Ace has been given a smaller and "weaker" radiator grille and as Bristols are no longer making their own engine, so supplies have become difficult and the 2.6-litre Ford Zephyr is now a cheaper, and with "Ruddspeed" modifications, faster alternative. The Aceca is no longer made and in late 1960 the range was supplemented by the Greyhound, a longer wheelbase full 4-seater saloon with either 2 or 2.2-litre Bristol engine, which is similar in concept to the now defunct Bristol "406", but at a much lower price.
The prototype Greyhound was first seen at Goodwood in 1958, when it was understood to be fitted with a flat-four engine, which A.C. are known to have been experimenting with for some time. If this engine ever goes into production, it will be a magnificent achievement for such a small concern. Carrol Shelby, American car distributor and former Allard and Aston Martin driver, had the bright idea of installing a 4,26 I c.c. Ford Fairlane engine and Borg-Warner 4-speed all-synchromesh gearbox in an Ace chassis. He was not the first to have this sort of idea, as other American drivers have improved the performance of the Ace by squeezing in a Jaguar unit. The Fairlane engine develops 260 b.h.p., giving a searing and rubber-depositing acceleration from 0-60 in 5 secs. and up to 130 m.p.h. in around 23 secs., with 85 and 110 m.p.h. available in second and third gears and close to 145 in top. Perhaps ,the most remarkable features of this old wine in a new bottle are the flexibility of the engine, which permits a snatch-free 10 m.p.h. dawdle in top gear and the fact that the roadholding and Girling disc brakes !ire more than adequate to cope with this doubled engine power.
The American Ford Company were sufficiently interested to supply Shelby with engines and A.C. were induced to ship cars less power unit and transmission for these to be fitted in the States, and now the Cobra is a best seller over there and A.C. are Doping to market it in Great Britain before long at a price of around £2,500 (to be followed by a fall in second-hand "E"- type prices?). Already entries have appeared at Sebring, where they met with little success, and at Le Mans. This was ied by the works car of Ninian Sanderson and Peter Bolton, sponsored by the Sunday Times, and had Stirling Moss as pit-manager; it was backed up by two entries from Shelby and another from Ed. Hugus. The Hurlock brothers estimate that the tuned Fairlane engine is developing close to 350 b.h.p.
Perhaps the name Cobra is especially appropriate for the latest and greatest A.C., for their history has been chequered, with ups and downs not unlik,e a game of snakes and ladders and there is perhaps no less promising source for high-performance cars than the humble Autocarrier.