When AC cars went into liquidation in 1930, the Hurlock brothers bought the factory for their trucking business and continued to service AC cars and trucks. When customers asked for a new model, the brothers saw a chance to clear the parts bin, and obtained a Standard chassis that was supposed to be exclusive to Williams Lyons at SS. A series of lightweight two-seaters followed and were quite successful. By 1950, however, the Hurlocks very much needed a new sports car. Jaguar had the XK 120 and MG had the T-Series, while Triumph’s TR2 and the Austin-Healey 100 were also not far off.
The Hurlocks then discovered John Tojeiro’s space-frame aluminum barchetta, which was built for Cliff Davis and inspired by the Ferrari 166. AC proposed building a production version of the racer, and Tojeiro agreed to a deal. The car was launched at the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show powered by AC’s 2-liter OHC engine. It was an immediate success and 466 were built, but the AC engine that dated back to the end of the First World War was long past the end of its development potential and only produced 75 bhp. Salvation arrived with the Bristol-sourced 2-liter, OHV six-cylinder, which was basically the same unit from the BMW 328.
Once installed in the Ace in 1956, this Ace-Bristol proved an immediate race winner on both sides of the Atlantic and enjoyed seven years of successful production, with 463 sold. After Bristol stopped producing their six-cylinder, AC was forced to look for other options. The quick choice was the 170 bhp Ruddspeed Ford Zephyr 2.6-liter 6-cylinder engine, which was available from 1961. Only 37 of those were built, however, before the Ace evolved into the Shelby Cobra, powered by the 264 bhp Ford 260 cubic inch V-8.
Soon after the introduction of the Ace, AC began work on a closed version called the Aceca. This was a more comfortable and refined version of the Ace, but offered similar performance and was one of the best and prettiest GTs of its time. The tubular substructure of the Ace’s body was mostly kept, but the doors were much longer and squarer as well as timber-framed, and the roof was supported by a steel square tube frame. A fiberglass bulkhead also insulated the cabin from noise and heat, while rubber mountings on the differential reduced vibration. The interior was more luxurious as well, with full leather, Wilton carpets and varnished timber trim. The rear storage area was also fairly decent for a car of that size, and was accessible through a hinged panel like on an Aston DB2/4. The Aceca didn’t have the huge racing success (or the V-8-powered descendants) of its soft-top sibling, so they remain relatively obscure, and only a little over 300 were built.
As the Ace became the Cobra, the power of the Ford V-8 required more and more improvements to the running gear. The Ace-Bristol, however, is the originating model, and with 125 bhp in its final tri-power D2 form, it remains competitive in historic racing. Based on a twin-tube ladder frame with four-speed and overdrive transmission, independent suspension by transverse leaf springs and disc-drum brakes, it handles and stops well and has a top speed of 125 mph. In race tune, the Bristol engine also makes an incredible sound. The Ford Zephyr motor offered more power, but was only available in England, so parts are harder to source.
As Shelby prices have boomed, Aces have been drawn upwards too, and the best cars are no longer really affordable alternatives to the Cobra. Full provenance is essential and since many cars were used in competition, they should be carefully examined for crash damage repairs.
Speaking of competition, the Ace was a potent international racer in the late 1950s, and the company mounted annual Le Mans efforts between 1957 and 1959. Ken Rudd (of Ruddspeed) and Peter Bolton finished 10th overall in 1957 (2nd in class), Bolton and Richard Stoop were 8th overall in 1958 (2nd in class) followed by Hubert Patthey and Georges Berger (9th overall and 3rd in class). Finally in 1959, Ted Whiteaway and John Turner finished 7th overall and 1st in class. The last Ace to run at Le Mans was driven by Jean-Claude Magne and Georges Alexandrovitch in 1961. It finished 17th overall and won its class. The Cobras appeared in 1963. In The United States, the Ace cleaned up in the SCCA’s E-Production class, winning National Championships in 1957, 1958 and 1959. It was so successful that it was moved up a class twice, but Aces were still able to take National Championships in both D and C-Production. It will always live in the shadow of the Cobra, but the Ace created a very impressive legacy for itself long before Carroll Shelby stepped into the picture.