Years be­fore Car­roll Shelby deal tit aV 8, the AC Ace was a six-pot Brit with brio

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Six-pot AC Co­bra pre­cur­sor

CAR­ROLL Shelby once said of his most fa­mous cre­ation, the AC Co­bra: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – but you can make a mighty fast pig.” The fact is that Shelby had started with a silk purse, in the at­trac­tive, well-built and beau­ti­fully bal­anced AC Ace.

AC Cars traces its his­tory to 1901, when Lon­don en­gi­neer John Weller es­tab­lished a work­shop to pro­duce cars and com­po­nents. Au­to­car & Ac­ces­sories Ltd had its first suc­cess in 1904 with a three­wheeled de­liv­ery ve­hi­cle called the Au­to­car­rier; the firm was re­named Au­to­car­ri­ers Lim­ited in 1907, and AC Cars in 1921.

By 1928, with mo­tor­sport suc­cesses, its own en­gines and seven mod­els, AC Cars was one of Bri­tain’s largest car mak­ers. A year later, it went into vol­un­tary liq­ui­da­tion. Then, un­der new own­er­ship, it opened a show­room on Lon­don’s swanky Park Lane. By the turn of the 1950s, with out­dated mod­els, its rep­u­ta­tion was on the ropes again.

All that changed with the AC Ace in 1953. A year or two ear­lier, rac­ing car con­struc­tor John To­jeiro had seen Fer­rari’s Tour­ing-bod­ied 166MM Barchetta and built him­self an al­loy-bod­ied, lad­der-chas­sis replica racer, us­ing a 1.5-litre MG en­gine and var­i­ous Cooper me­chan­i­cals. To­jeiro sold pro­duc­tion rights to AC Cars, which re­vised the body­work and fit­ted its own age­ing, 63kw 2.0-litre six-cylin­der to create the Ace. A year later, the very pretty road­ster was joined by a sim­i­larly el­e­gant hard­top, dubbed the Aceca (pro­nounced “a-see-ka”).

The Ace’s ini­tially lack­lus­tre per­for­mance from the AC en­gine stepped up in 1956 with a more modern 90kw, 2.0 litre Bris­tol six­cylin­der, de­rived from BMW’S pre-war M328. When Bris­tol axed this en­gine in 1961, AC turned to tuner (and en­thu­si­as­tic Ace racer, Ken Rudd), whose Rud­dspeed busi­ness pro­vided mod­i­fied 2.6-litre Ford Ze­phyr units, good for up to 127kw. These 2.6-litre cars were iden­ti­fi­able with a lower bon­net line and smaller grille. Only 37 2.6-litre cars were pro­duced (to 1963) – as by that time, even the Rud­dspeed six was be­ing made to look puny by a lanky Amer­i­can in­ter­loper.

In Septem­ber of 1961, AC Cars had been con­tacted by a cer­tain Texan chicken farmer turned rac­ing driver, with the no­tion of a Euro­peanamer­i­can hy­brid sports car. Af­ter just 689 AC Aces (of all six-cylin­der en­gine types) had been built, Shelby’s scheme to mate im­port-duty-free rolling chas­sis from AC with Ford’s freshly-minted, ini­tially 3.6-litre (221ci) small-block V8 would write a whole new chap­ter for the AC Ace – and in sports car his­tory.

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