Born Survivor (Part Two)

DTW continues the story of AC Cars up to the present day.

AC 3000 ME. Image: old concept cars

In the early 1970’s AC began developing an ambitious new sports car, the 3000ME. This was a GRP bodied mid-engined two-seater. The initial design work had been undertaken by Peter Bohanna and Robin Staples. Their prototype, called Diablo, used the engine and transaxle from the Austin Maxi. Not having the resources to develop the prototype for production, they showed it to both AC and TVR. Derek Hurlock, who was then Chief Executive of AC, was sufficiently impressed to buy the design outright for further development.

A prototype was displayed at the 1973 London Motor Show. The Maxi drivetrain was ditched in favour of a Ford Essex 3.0L V6 engine and bespoke transaxle gearbox, designed and built by AC. The prototype continued to appear annually until the production car was eventually launched in 1979. The main reason for the protracted development period was the introduction of new Type Approval regulations in 1976. The 3000ME initially failed a 30 mph frontal impact test, which necessitated a complete redesign of the chassis.

1979 AC 3000ME (c) honestjohn.co.uk

When finally launched, the 3000ME was already looking outdated against more recently designed competitors like the 1976 Lotus Esprit. Moreover, reviewers, including Autocar magazine, expressed concerns about its wayward on-the-limit handling. In 1981, Ghia produced a rather more contemporary looking concept based on the 3000ME underpinnings, but it remained a one-off. The 3000ME was not a commercial success and only 71 were built in a five-year production run before AC went into liquidation in 1984.

The 3000ME enjoyed a brief afterlife when a new company, AC (Scotland) plc, acquired the rights to build it at a new plant near Glasgow. The car was re-engineered to accept an Alfa Romeo 2.5L V6 engine in place of the Ford unit and a prototype was built, but the company ran out of funds and went into liquidation in 1985.

1981 AC Ghia concept. Image: carstyling.ru

Meanwhile, AC’s Cobra tooling and manufacturing equipment had been acquired by Brian Angliss, whose own company, C.P. AutoKraft, specialised in the servicing and restoration of Cobras. Angliss restarted production of what was initially called the AutoKraft MkIV. This version was equipped with a 302 cu.in. (4.95 litre) Ford V8, a five-speed Borg-Warner gearbox and independent suspension. The engine produced 250 bhp (187kW) which gave the MkIV a 0 to 62 mph (0 to 100 km/h) time of 5.2 seconds and a top speed of 134 mph (216 km/h).

The rights to use the AC and Cobra names had initially been withheld by Derek Hurlock, but when he saw the high quality of the production cars, he signed the rights over to Angliss. Production was relocated to a new factory at Brooklands in Surrey, where around 480 Cobras were built. Angliss also began funding the development of a new model, resurrecting the Ace name, in a joint venture with Ford, which had recently also made an investment in Aston Martin as a prelude to a full takeover.

1986 Autocraft Mk4 advertisement (c) mycarquest.com

Ford’s potential conflict of interest caused considerable tensions with Angliss and the US company eventually withdrew from the joint venture, leaving the new Brooklands Ace underdeveloped and the company in a parlous financial position. The car was launched in 1993 and just 46 were built before Angliss called in the receivers in 1996.

The assets were acquired by a South African born businessman and entrepreneur, Alan Lubinsky, via his company, Pride Automotive. Production of the Cobra and a redesigned Ace (without the Brooklands prefix) continued at a low level under the corporate name AC Car Group Ltd. Only 12 Aces were produced before the model was finally discontinued in 2000.

1993 Ac Ace. Image: Favcars

Lubinsky also initiated a programme to make the Cobra easier and cheaper to build.  The construction of the body was very labour-intensive and involved gas-welding forty separate aluminium panels together before the front and rear halves of the body could be mounted onto the steel chassis. This process was estimated to take around 750 man-hours to complete. A total of 61 Cobras were built before the company was again uprooted.

In 2002, ownership was transferred to a new corporate name, AC Motor Holdings Ltd., incorporated in Malta. This was done in preparation for the transfer of production to the Mediterranean island. The Maltese government was keen to attract inward investment and offered start-up finance at advantageous rates through the Malta Enterprise agency. In 2006, a new factory was opened in the Hal Far industrial area in the south of the island to build replica Shelby and AC Cobras and a new carbon-fibre bodied version of the car.

According to a report published on the Malta Today website in July 2012, only two cars were ever produced before the venture collapsed in 2008. The report alleged that Lubinsky had failed to make his promised investment and fled the island owing Malta Enterprise €550K, with judgements against him for additional debts of €60K.

A new holding company, Acedes Holdings LLC, was registered in the Caribbean island country of St. Kitts and Nevis in 2008. According to UK Companies House records, Alan Lubinsky remains a director of the operating companies. Under an arrangement with AC Heritage, a Brooklands based successor company to C.P. Autokraft, a small number of replica Cobras are still built there in addition to servicing and restoration work.

There is also a somewhat murky underworld of companies building unauthorised Cobra replicas, as well as ‘continuation cars’ authorised by Carroll Shelby (but not AC Cars) and built by an engineering company based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Shelby had previously been accused in 1993 of passing off as genuine cars newly built by another engineering company, McCluskey, based in Los Angeles, California.

There is an apparently active website for the company, www.accars.eu where one can find information on the company’s current model, the Cobra 378. This is powered by a 378 cu.in. (6.2 litre) GM engine lifted from the Chevrolet Camaro and is built in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. According to the website, orders are still being taken for the car.

EVO Magazine tested the Cobra 378 in December 2018. Reviewer Steve Sutcliffe was impressed with the build quality and driveability of the car. The clutch was light and the six-speed gearbox slick in operation, and the power steering was direct, if somewhat lacking in feel. The car on test produced 440bhp and 445lb ft of torque, giving it a claimed 0-60mph time of around 4 seconds, with a top speed in excess of 140mph. The composite body had tight and consistent panel gaps and an excellent paint finish. The price at the time was £90k, although a more powerful version with 550bhp and 550lb ft of torque was offered for £102.5k.

2020 AC Cobra Electric (c) newatlas.com

So, there you have it, the extraordinary and eventful history of Great Britain’s oldest car manufacturer, and a true survivor.  The announcement in July 2020 that two new Cobra models, an EV and an entry-level model powered by Ford’s 2.3 litre turbocharged engine, are now available to order, suggests that there may still be life in the evergreen Cobra.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

19 thoughts on “Born Survivor (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning Daniel and thank you for this “you couldn’t make it up” tale. I completely lost track of AC after 1984, having believed at the time that the end had come – now I know better! But it’s rather a case of the broom with three new heads and two new handles, don’t you think?

    1. Good morning JTC and thank you for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the AC story. It is indeed a convoluted one that took some unravelling on my part. If it hadn’t been for the enduring appeal of the Cobra, AC would have perished long ago.

      Whilst I’m sure I would look ridiculous in a full-fat Cobra and would probably kill myself, I’m really rather taken by the understated electric one in the last photo. That colour, which I would call ‘Old English White’, suits it very well. I’ve driven Ford Mustangs with the same 2.3 litre turbocharged engine now offered in the Cobra over thousands of miles and found it nice and ‘grunty’, so it should perform well in the much lighter AC. Of course, HWMBO would never approve, so it will remain a pipe-dream.

  2. Good morning Daniel. What a story and thanks for pulling it together. My first sight of an AC Cobra was back in the ‘70’s in Ecclestone Square in Victoria London. One of the large properties housed a Foreign language school and a student there had a dark metallic blue one with left hand drive. You could hear it from a long way away!
    It seems incredible to me that so many people have tried to resurrect the name and spent so much money doing so. Beautiful cars nonetheless.

  3. There were plans by Project Kimber (failed buyers of MG-Rover) to use the AC branding on a new AC Ace. It would have been a re-badged Smart Roadster/Coupe built in Wales, re-engineered to accept manual gearboxes, with Gordon Murray’s involvement and sold via Smart dealers. Their website (inactive since 2006) states plans of 8000 cars per year….apparently they couldn’t reach agreement with Daimler-Chrysler after all. A shame, or just as well?

  4. Thank you for the second part Daniel- what a rollercoaster! Incidentally, there was an AC Zagato 378GT shown at the 2012 Geneva motorshow. It was a coupé powered by a Chevrolet V8 engine. The 378 AC cars now has on their website is the classic Cobra shape so it seems the Zagato effort came to nought.

    1. Excellent article again, Daniel. Thanks for posting the Zagato here, I’d forgotten all about it.

    2. Hi Freerk. So had I, but Bruno reminded both of us with his comment above!

  5. Hello gents, yes there are so many threads to the AC story, such as those mentioned by Tom and Bruno above, that it could (and may still) run on and on. Incidentally, in similar vein I notice that TVR has just announced that it is “confident” of launching the new Griffith model in 2022.

  6. I find it fascinating the Cobra is such an evergreen, it should rightfully belong in the public domain after all these years, as a free for all in the land of do as thou want with it. The Autocraft are true replicas, with all the craftsmanship continued, and they should be well worth their money. But I wouldn’t underestimate the five to ten thousand fibreglass replicas made either, though they aren’t really replicas but silhouette hot rods. It’s just an expression for the human want of fun and joy and has there ever been a car that has pleased as many people? Electric Cobras seem to be the next thing, and I’m overwhelmingly convinced the Cobra will be with us for at least another hundred years or so in different forms.

  7. Hmm. My first sight of a Cobra was in, if I recall correctly, August of 1962 at SCCA regional races at Connellsville, Pennsylvania. I think it was the first Cobra to turn a wheel in anger. It made a few very slow laps and went back on the trailer. Overheating, the radiator was sized for a Bristol engine, not the 26o CID Ford that was fitted.

    The car had been assembled in Pittsburgh by Ed Hugus, the local Ferrari dealer — he had a showroom in downtown Pittsburgh with his LeMans cars — and racer. The original plan was for Shelby to assemble Cobras for delivery in the western US in Venice, Ca. and for Hugus to assemble cars for delivery in the east. You might want to ask Google to search for Hugus.

  8. Is it my work-jaded eyes or does the headline blue picture resemble a Stratos? No bad thing. The picture also seems to have been taken on the Brooklands track concrete banking. Again, not a bad place to while away an afternoon once reopened.

    Full marks for the AC unravelling, Daniel, wotta tangle. The Ghia concept looks like a full size radio control car blended with a running shoe. Not a fan

    1. I was about to suggest you need a lie down, Andrew, but I took another look at the high-angle shot of the blue 3000ME and can see what you mean. Unfortunately, the red example quickly disabuses one of the notion, as it’s a bit ‘lumpy’!

  9. I remember at the time I always thought the design of the 3000ME was well resolved. Much better than so many other British sports cars of the time. The TR7, the Reliant Scimitar SS1 and TVRs of the time spring to mind. The stance was right, track and wheelbase were good, it felt squat and purposeful. It was quite clean and discreet too, with subdued detailing. It’s aged rather well to my eyes. Even in the bright tomato soup red of the example in this video. Its owner clearly loves it, either way! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgfHsILAfbc

  10. I found this in a Road and Track article by Maximum Bob from Augusr 2019:

    https://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/a28309491/bob-lutz-the-shadiest-people-i-ever-worked-with/

    “One of the most notorious was “Ol’ Shel,” beloved by all except those who regularly did business with him. Again, the stories abound: faked serial numbers, 20 “original 1960s” Cobra chassis that turned out to have been recently built then buried for a while to promote “aging.” Shelby was funny, intelligent, and great to be with. The longer I worked with him at Chrysler, the less I liked him.”

    1. An interesting read, so thank you for sharing, Robertas. The story about Shelby and the fake Cobras is certainly true.

      I wonder why do the words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ keep coming to mind?

    1. Hi Bob. Thanks for sharing this information. I don’t think the automotive world was the poorer for for these going no further than the prototype stage!

    2. Daniel

      That is true, OTOH both prototypes had they reached production could have provided some competition to Reliant after the latter acquired Bond. Not sure about the Variomatic-like transmission used the AC 3-wheelers (possibly also the 4-wheeler) however the Steyr Puch engines were said to be very good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.