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This 1958 AC Ace-Bristol sold for $258,000 at auction earlier this year (Scott Nidermaier/Gooding & Co.)
This 1958 AC Ace-Bristol sold for $258,000 at auction earlier this year (Scott Nidermaier/Gooding & Co.)

1958 AC Ace-Bristol

Coming up Aces: Shelby's British past Add to ...

The names Shelby and Cobra are inextricably linked in the minds of most North American car enthusiasts, and that’s fair enough as Texan racer and chicken farmer Carroll Shelby, who once wore bib overalls as a driving suit, came up with the notion that resulted in the legendary Cobra sports car.

Unless they’re Cobra cognoscenti, however, few will likely recall it was British company AC Cars Ltd. that created the AC Ace sports car it was based on and actually built the car.

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The Cobra was born when Shelby decided in 1961 that stuffing an American V-8 in a lightweight British sports car would likely create a race winner. He talked Ford into providing its new 260-cubic-inch V-8 and AC Cars into modifying one of its Aces to accept this new powerplant.

The result, which appeared a year later, was the Cobra that AC built in 260-, 289- and 427-cubic-inch engined versions and which tore up American tracks and streets until Ford and Shelby (apparently not making any money on them), stopped importing them in 1967. AC continued building them for another two years.

Which brings us back to AC Cars and what proved to be the Ace up its sleeve.

AC began building three-wheeled delivery vehicles called Auto-Carriers in 1904 and shortly after that the AC Sociable, a lightweight cycle-car. This was followed by larger, more conventional cars in the 1920s and 1930s powered by an inhouse-designed and pretty clever for the times overhead camshaft inline-six-cylinder engine. This engine, that first ran in 1919, would be produced until 1961, one of the longest runs of any auto engine design.

Largely due to the engine’s performance, AC cars developed a sporting reputation with wins at Brooklands and in the Brighton Speed Trials, broke the 2-litre 24-hour record (running 1,949.3 miles) at Montlhery, France, and won the Monte Carlo rally. The company failed in 1929 but was reconstituted and, by 1932, was building a new range of cars at the rate of about 100 a year.

After the Second World War, it struggled back into the car business with the AC 2-Litre, built in a variety of sporting body styles into the early 1950s, employing basically leftover 1930s technology and powered by its then-venerable six.

AC’s defining moment came at the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show in London where it impressed the punters and press alike by stepping out of character and unveiling a thoroughly modern-looking and advanced two-seat sports car called the Ace.

AC had turned to engineer and increasingly respected racing “special” builder John Tojiero for help in creating the Ace and this chassis specialist conjured up a stiff, light, steel tube frame with independent suspension provided front and rear by transverse leaf springs and lower wishbones.

The AC six was tweaked yet again, with the addition of three SU carburetors, to produce 85 hp which was applied through a four-speed gearbox. Drum brakes supplied decent stopping power; in 1957, they upgraded to Girling front discs. All this was wrapped in very pretty aluminum two-seater roadster bodywork and the specs indicate it weighed just 16 cwt (cwt standing for “hundredweight” in arcane Imperial measure which, of course, is actually 112 lbs).

The Ace was soon winning races – no surprise as it was basically a sports racer in street clothes – but it was obvious the ancient six wasn’t going to let it do so for long. After looking around, AC chose another 2.0-litre six, this one from aircraft manufacturer turned car maker Bristol Cars Ltd. which had acquired the rights to the engine BMW had used in its great pre-war 328 sports car.

This was an unusual design with complicated crossed pushrod valve actuation that allowed it to rev to 6,000-plus rpm and triple Solex carbs. Depending on state of tune it produced from 105 hp to 128 hp in the Ace. A contemporary report says that with 120 hp engine it could run up to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds and had a top speed of 115 mph.

With this hot six under its hood (the old six was still also available), the car was known as the Ace-Bristol and its power and handling made it a popular choice with racers, particularly in the United States where in the 1950s it won more 2-litre class events than any other make. It was literally in a class by itself, and a special series set up to recognize that. An Ace-Bristol finished second to a Ferrari in the 2-litre class at Le Man in 1957.

It’s no wonder Shelby turned to AC when he went shopping for a car in which to insert a Ford V-8.

The Ace was soon joined by the equally pretty Aceca coupe and when production ended in 1963, AC had produced 723 examples of the Ace, 463 of them Ace-Bristols, and 328 Acecas.

In the 1960s, the company also produced the AC 428 a good-looking and luxurious GT car based on the new chassis developed by Shelby and Ford for the Cobra 427. AC soldiered on into the 1970s – helped by a government contract for three-wheeled invalid carriages – then sort of survived the 1980s and 1990s with ownership changes and sporadic outbursts of limited production. Its current iteration is involved with Iconic Motors in the United States, which is producing the Iconic AC Cobra, a “kit-car” evolution of the original for which it is asking $475,000 a copy.

The 1958 AC Ace-Bristol pictured here was originally shipped to France, arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, later fully restored and re-sold. It underwent a full concours re-restoration a few years ago and was sold for $258,000 at Gooding & Company’s Scottsdale auction earlier this year.

Back in 1958

The Beatles, then calling themselves the Quarrymen, pay less than a pound for their first recording session, laying down tracks for Buddy Holly's That'll Be The Day and In Spite Of All The Danger by Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

Private number 53310761, aka Elvis Presley, is inducted into the U.S. Army.

The Explorer 1 satellite is sent skyward from Cape Canaveral. It relays data for four months until its batteries die, but stays in orbit until 1970.

Groups who didn't think nuclear devices were good get a boost from Brit designer Gerald Holtom who creates what would become the universal peace symbol marched under by ban-the-bomb protesters. The symbol is based on semaphore signals for N (nuclear) and D (disarmament).

NASCAR stages the Jim Mideon 500 on the Canadian National Exhibition track in Toronto, a race in which Richard Petty makes his debut and is punted off by his father Lee, who went on to win.


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