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AC Cars is Back in Business!

16 July 1997

by Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

There can few words as emotive to auto enthusiasts as AC Cobra and it looks as though the great name and the great car might well be back in business.

Let us, however, start at the beginning.

In 1901 John Weller, an engineer backed by a wealthy tradesman set up a workshop in South London, England to build motor cars. This was three years before Messrs Rolls and Royce met in Manchester to build automobiles. By 1903 a two-cylinder 10 horsepower model and a 20 horsepower four-cylinder model were displayed at the British Motor Show. In 1904, by now known as Autocar & Accessories Ltd were producing a single engined tricycle, which proved to be a success. In 1907 it was joined by the "Sociable"-a passenger-carrying version. At that point the company's name was abbreviated to AC.

By 1910 the military were placing orders for special version which were fitted with Maxim machine-guns. 1911 saw the first 4-wheel design. Full production did not commence until 1918 because of the War. When the car did go on sale it was sold for 255 pounds. At today's exchange rates that translates to about 400 dollars but at that time it was an awful lot of money. 1921 saw the opening the showroom in London's elegant Regent Street. The next year a Mr. J.A.Joyce lapped the legendary Brooklands racetrack at over 104 miles per hour in an AC!

Six years later there were 7 models in the range, from the Aceca two seater sportscar to a long wheelbase coach built saloon. At that time the company was one of Britain's largest automakers! Not for long though because the 1929 worldwide economic crash forced AC into liquidation for the first but definitely not the last time. A year later the Hurlock Brothers took over what was left of the company. For a while there were no new cars being built but later, at the persuasion of wealthy individuals the directors agreed to make a small number of 6 cylinder specials, mostly by hand.

In 1937 they even exported a few cars to the United States. The Second World War saw the company yet again as producers of aircraft parts and guns and it was not until 1950 that five cars per week were produced. 1953 saw the introduction of the AC Ace, which became a huge hit, especially with British club racers.

1961 was one of the major turning points in the company's history. Carroll Shelby, the much-loved Texan entered into negotiations with AC and suggested-with the backing of Ford Motor Co.-the installation of a large Ford V8. The rest, as the saying goes is history.

The AC Cobra, one of the fastest and most brutal sportscars was born. Each and every one was hand-built at the Thames Ditton plant near London. 1963 is a year no sportscar enthusiast will ever forget, certainly not in England. The cars were being prepared for the Le Mans 24 hour race and to make sure that the cars had straight-line stability for the awesome Mulsanne straight they asked the police if they could test the cars on Britain' s one and only motorway. The police were very helpful, they made certain there were no other cars or trucks on that stretch at 6 o'clock in the morning and they were off! Would you believe 196 miles per hour?! Unfortunately not everybody saw the funny side of it, there were questions asked in Parliament and a year later a 70mph limit was introduced. Still, at least AC had the honour of being listed as the world's fastest production car in the Guiness Book of Records.

The company was never really profitable and most of the time is kept alive by producing invalid carriages for the Ministry of Health. The 70s were years of stagnation and it was not until 1985 that the updated 5 litre AC Cobra was introduced to the United States meeting EPA and Federal regulations. A year later the Hurlock family decided to sell after some 56 years of ownership and the company became a joint venture between Autokraft Ltd and the Ford Motor Co. It would be fair to say that the partnership was not a success and after various dramas the company finally went into liquidation in March 1996.

Enters the knight in shining armour, South African Alan Lubinsky. In December of that year he buys the company from the receiver with the backing of Pride Automotive Group Inc. a NASDAQ quoted company. He pledges to build Cobra sales worldwide and also to put into production the much-awaited AC Ace. Nearly 100 years on from John Weller's small beginnings in a shack in South London all we can do is hope that he succeeds where so many have fallen.