DTW continues the story of AC Cars up to the present day.
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.
When finally launched, the 3000ME was already looking outdated against more recently designed competitors like the 1976 Lotus Esprit.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.