Race Ace Mille Miglia AC Ace. Testing the newly restored ex-Mille Miglia car. This AC Ace is a veteran of the Mille Miglia – and not just the retrospective, but the original 1956 event too. Now it’s been restored to period-perfect condition. Words Mark Dixon. Photography Tim Andrew.
History is bunk, Henry Ford may or may not have said, but history is all-important when you’re talking about competition cars. And that’s why the AC Ace featured here is such a special car. It has continuous history since the day in 1955 that it was bought by a young Italian guy who lived in London and wanted to go racing. It competed in the 1956 Mille Miglia – the only Ace ever to have done a Mille in period – and it’s tackled several of the retrospectives, more than four decades later. That history is a chequered one, however. So, on a bright spring day, we brought some of the key characters involved to Thruxton circuit to help unravel the tale of a true race Ace.
Step forward, Mr Mark Aldridge. He’s the owner of the car and the chap responsible for having it painstakingly restored to a state not seen for almost 60 years.
Then we have the man who masterminded that restoration, Steve Gray of Brooklandsbased AC Heritage. As the CEO of the company that retains AC’s original body bucks, along with everything else that came out of Thames Ditton and Brooklands when AC Cars closed its doors, he was the de facto choice to mastermind the rebuild.
1955 AC Ace testing the newly restored ex-Mille Miglia car
Our third witness is Max Ferrari, son of the first owner, Bruno Ferrari, that 1950s ragazzo who entered his new car for the Mille Miglia. And last but very definitely not least is the dapper figure of Michael Anthony, who cheerfully informs us that at 89 he is the second longest-serving member of the BRDC – the longest being his old friend and rival Sir Stirling Moss. Michael is here because he raced the AC during 1958, his best result being first in class at the Belgian Sportscar Grand Prix, held at Spa, where he beat the works Porsches.
The ACE is unloaded from its trailer and pushed into the pitlane. It looks absolutely perfect: not just in terms of condition, although it is absolutely flawless, but in authenticity too. It’s even wearing the race number from the 1956 Mille Miglia. But how come the figure ‘4’ on the nearside (see the picture overleaf) is so compressed?
‘That’s exactly how it was!’ explains Mark. ‘The guy painting the numbers before the race made a mistake.’ And, indeed, he shows me an old photo in which a hapless Italian with a brush and a painter’s mahl stick is glumly trying to rescue the digit that he’s spaced as a figure ‘1’ instead of a ‘4’…
I’d already had an inkling of Mark’s obsession with getting it exactly right when, ahead of our photoshoot, he sent me the car’s detailed history file, immaculately researched and presented – and very necessary. To put it simply, this car hasn’t existed in this form since 1958, and the story takes some deciphering.
The first part is straightforward. Chassis AE40 was built up during 1954-55 at Thames Ditton with an AC straight-six engine and despatched on 14 February 1955. It was sold through a London dealer to Bruno Ferrari and registered PYF 800.
Almost immediately, Bruno took it racing at Silverstone, but with little success, and he also raced at Oulton Park, Brands Hatch and Goodwood – never troubling the leader board. That didn’t deter him, however, and for 1956 he entered the ultimate event for any Italian petrolhead, the Mille Miglia.
As explained on page 141, where his son Max outlines his father’s career, Bruno Ferrari had no direct familial connection with the Modenese carmaker. However, he certainly knew influential people at the factory, and that might have helped him gain an entry; it also explains why the car wore Ferrari ‘prancing horse’ logos for the event.
‘Bruno seems to have been something of a gofer for the factory in England,’ says Mark, ‘and on the way to the start of the Mille he stopped off at the factory for them to service it and fit a Perspex racing screen. The mechanics stuck a couple of tiny Ferrari logos on the car for good luck. We’ve replicated them on the restored car and they confuse the hell out of people at events!’
Look closely at the photo on page 141 that shows PYF 800 about to start the Mille Miglia and you can just make out one of the Ferrari stickers on the car door. They didn’t bring the hoped-for luck, however: Bruno and his codriver Franco Dari crashed out before Rome.
Bruno later claimed that the pair had been in second place before venturing off-piste in the mountains. ‘When you start going up into the hills, there is a section there which is quite famous from Stirling Moss’s Mercedes being off the ground for umpteen yards. It is a very famous photograph, the car flying through the air. Well, his suspension was a lot better than the AC’s because when he came down he carried on. When I came down, the front suspension broke and I ended up in a cornfield.’
Bruno would return to the Mille in 1957, but this time driving a Lotus Eleven (he retired from that event, too). During the rest of 1956 he competed with the AC in several more British races but his passion for it seemed to wane and by January 1958 it had been sold to a new owner, a Sussex dentist called Malcolm Knights.
This is when the Ace literally took on a new identity. In later years, Knights recalled how the AC’s engine was ‘clapped’ and the body in ‘very tatty condition’, so he stripped it and had a Bristol BS4 engine fitted, with six-port head and bigger Solex carburettors. The body was modified to look like the 1957 Le Mans Ace, front disc brakes added, and a ZF differential fitted inside an Austin A40 back axle.
For some reason, Knights applied to have the vehicle re-registered as a new car due to the various mods, and the licensing authorities agreed – even though the chassis had not been replaced. So the AC was allocated a new, fictitious chassis number (BE377) and given a different registration, EJK 213.
Malcolm Knights had become acquainted with semi-pro race driver Michael Anthony, and offered to let Mike share the Ace as part of the Ken Rudd Racing Team – the car having been bought through Rudd. Mike had been competing since 1947, most recently in Lotuses, and was a friend of Colin Chapman even though Chapman had sued him – and lost! ‘In 1955 I was racing a Lotus X, so I knew the Bristol engine very well,’ says Mike. ‘I kept the engine afterwards and when Malcolm bought the AC with its AC engine fitted, we stripped it out and put the Bristol unit in.
‘Its big moment of glory was its first race abroad, at Spa in ’58, when Jimmy Clark came fifth and I came first! Spa was wet, of course, because it’s always raining somewhere on the circuit, and I was using the new and untried Michelin X tyres. Ted Whiteway, who was in the team and drove out to the circuit in our van – which was also fitted with these tyres – had had a blow-out on the way, and so every time I came past the pits they were trying to slow me down because I was a minute in front of Ted! ‘We drove the Ace everywhere in those days, including to Spa and back. And when we went to Clermond Ferrand [in late July 1958, for the Trophy d’Auvergne], I took the car over, we did the race, finished second in class, and then I drove Malcolm’s little Fiat-Abarth home again while he went on holiday in the Ace.
‘It was fitted with disc brakes by then, but they were an early type, and I remember driving out to a race in Copenhagen, coming into a village in Northern Germany on the way to catch the ferry, and putting the brakes on; but the discs were cold and wet, so I went through the village and up the hill at the end, and that’s when they started to work!’
Mike clearly has a lot of affection for a car that he raced for only one season in a relatively long career. ‘What I didn’t realise, until Mark [Aldridge] showed me the results, was how many races I’d done in the Ace. It went very well and we could beat most people in it.’
Malcolm Knights kept the Ace for another couple of years before selling it in January 1961 for £1450. As the ’60s progressed, it passed through several other owners’ hands, selling for a little less every time – £725 in 1966, then £600 later the same year – and acquiring a colour change to blue/black. In 1968 it was bought by Geoffrey Orme, who fitted a 3.8-litre Jaguar XK engine… before tucking it away in a lock-up garage near Heathrow. And there it stayed for almost 20 years.
In 1988, a young classic car journalist on Classic & Sportscar magazine, Richard Sutton, bought the recently rediscovered AC for £2500. ‘I think I got it from a guy who was a dealer in Bristols,’ recalls Richard. ‘It was in a grim state, having been fitted with the Jaguar engine and flared arches to cover massively offset wires for hillclimbing. It clearly had some provenance but there was no chassis number visible anywhere.’ (The AE40 chassis stamp had disappeared when the AC engine mounts were removed to fit the Bristol engine in 1958, but period photos taken at the time of the conversion have helped confirm that this is the same chassis.)
‘I never wrote about it in the magazine because I intended to sort it out a bit first,’ adds Richard, ‘but life got in the way and I ended up selling it at a loss to [AC specialist] Bill Monk. Oddly enough, I only found out later that I had been living in the same street in Covent Garden as Bruno Ferrari…’
BILL YOUNG set about subjecting the Ace to a £50,000 rebuild in the early 1990s. A new body was commissioned from Shapecraft, and a Bristol BS4 engine sourced and fitted.
Repainted maroon, the restored car was exported to Germany and then Italy, being campaigned on six Mille Miglia retrospectives during 1998-2011 and at Le Mans Classic in 2004. Although it had dropped off the radar of AC enthusiasts in Britain, it was ‘hiding in plain sight’ because, when not being used, it was loaned to the Mille Miglia museum in Brescia. Then Mark Alridge became aware of it, via Rob Hall of specialist Hall & Hall. ‘I had a Ford 2.6-engined Aceca, and liked it very much,’ says Mark, ‘but I really wanted an Ace. Right-hand-drive Aces don’t often come up for sale, and this one had so much provenance that it seemed a golden opportunity to bring it back to life.’
A blown head gasket on the test drive proved a blessing in disguise: partly because it provided leverage for some negotiation on the €450,000 asking price, and also because the block later was found to have a massive crack that had been stitch-welded on three different occasions…
That discovery provided added impetus for having the car fully restored to exact 1958 condition – unlike the 1990s rebuild, which had endowed it with an incorrect ‘short boot’ body. As originally built, chassis AE40 had been clothed with the ‘long boot’ style, but that body had been much modified over the years before being finally ditched in the early ’90s. ‘We’ve tried to depict the car as it was when it was sold by Bruno Ferrari and fitted with the Bristol engine by Malcolm Knights,’ explains Mark. ‘Steve [Gray] at AC Heritage has been absolutely brilliant in finding all the little bits and pieces to get it looking absolutely original, and Jim Stokes Workshops have gone the extra mile in getting it prepped for racing.’
‘We were just so fortunate that the car had not been re-chassis’d,’ adds Steve. ‘The main chassis tubes and spring towers were in fantastic condition, and we spent many hours in conserving them rather than renewing. We’re lucky to have also restored chassis AE35, an ex-Ken Rudd Ace, and it was fascinating to compare welding and assembly techniques on another car just five chassis numbers apart.
‘We’ve set Mark’s car up like one of the Rudd team cars, including the drum brakes. If you’re a heavy braker, these cars aren’t very nice to drive, because then the brakes can feel rather wooden; it’s better to carry speed through the corners and drift it.’
Let’s find out for ourselves. Climb into the cockpit, taking care not to put your weight on the alloy fairing behind the driver’s seat, and settle behind the rather prosaic three-spoke wheel. Press the starter, and the already-warm engine fires lustily, fizzing through the metal pads of the foot pedals. Shift the long, heavily cranked gearlever to first, and accelerate down the pitlane: the car sprints eagerly onto the circuit, though even with the close-ratio ’box there’s no chance to go beyond second and third gears until you’re past the Campbell/ Cobb/Segrave series of S-bends.
Crumbs! Steve wasn’t joking when he said the brakes can feel wooden if you stand on them… Lesson learned. But now you’re on the faster, more flowing sections of the circuit and can open the taps; that thoroughbred Bristol straight-six sounds glorious (and, as I discover later when Mark takes his car out for a few hot laps, it sounds a hundred times better if you’re watching it from the pit wall), pulling strongly towards its 5800rpm rev limit, then emitting a satisfying bark as you double-declutch and change down for the Club chicane.
Look at any period photo of an Ace being cornered hard and it appears to be rolling like a racing yacht while the driver heels over the other way; driving the car hard does involve a certain physicality and it’s a salutory reminder of how exhausting it must have been to race these cars for hours at a time.
Mark Aldridge has already had some small experience of this. ‘My objective is to compete in the “big four”, he tells me later; ‘Goodwood Revival, the Mille Miglia, Le Mans Classic and Monaco Historique.
‘I ticked off the first of those in 2016. After an 18-month rebuild, the first time I sat in the driver’s seat was for Qualifying on the Friday of the Revival. In the wet Lavant Cup race next day, I finished 15th and set the tenth-fastest time – not bad for a car “straight out of the box”.’ And, as we close for press, we’ve just heard that the Ace has been accepted for this year’s Mille Miglia. Mark’s hoping that it will be allocated start number 234 – complete with that wonky spacing on the co-driver’s side, of course.
THE FERRARI CONNECTION
Max Ferrari recalls his father, Bruno, the AC’s first owner
‘Dad was born in Italy, in a small village near Modena, but came over to boarding school in England early in WW2, because my grandmother had a fruit-and-veg business in Covent Garden. The school was run by monks and, because he couldn’t speak English, he talked with them in Latin!
‘He subsequently went into the family business, which allowed him to buy nice cars and go racing. But his early results weren’t exactly stellar. After crashing out of the 1956 Mille Miglia in the Ace – the story goes that during the night he unexpectedly encountered a humped-back bridge, took off and came down in a field – he returned the following year in a Lotus Eleven, which also retired.
‘In the Modena area, Ferrari is not an unusual name and there’s no direct family connection with the carmaker. However, because dad was involved in motor racing and spoke Italian, when the Ferrari race team came over to England he would help out. Once he had to drive Fangio up to Silverstone and did his best to impress the World Champion with his driving, only to look in the rear-view mirror and see that Fangio was fast asleep!
‘Over the years he owned about seven Ferraris, including a 275 GTB, a 330 GTC and a Dino, as well as a 131 Abarth and a Stratos. I can remember being scared as a youngster by the noise the Stratos made when he fired it up; he eventually spun it into a tree near Elstree Aerodrome – he was also a pilot – and wrote it off. He claimed that a dog had run out in front of him, but none of us really believed it…
‘When racing started to get a bit too serious and not so much fun, he took up karting – with such success that he was British Champion six times. But by the time my sister was born in 1971, my mother had had enough of him being away racing all the time, so he quit.
‘When the family fruit business folded due to supermarket competition in the early 1990s, he set up a karting workshop, tuning karts and importing Italian parts. He brought Cadet Karting to the UK and was involved with the sport until the day he died – it even earned him a mention in Lewis Hamilton’s biography.’
From top Bruno Ferrari and co-driver Franco Dari on the 1956 Mille Miglia; racing at Silverstone in 1955 – note the additional air intake – and ’56, complete with helmet tricolore.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE
‘The mechanics at the Ferrari factory stuck a couple of tiny Ferrari logos on the car for luck’
Below. Unplated bronze spinners and black-painted wheels suggest this car is built for go rather than show; ‘234’ race number is authentically misspaced!
Right. A touching moment as Mike Anthony, on right, presents the trophy that he won at Spa in 1958 to Ace owner Mark Aldridge. ‘It should stay with the car,’ says Mike simply.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1955 AC Ace
Engine 1971cc Bristol 100D2 straight-six, OHV by side-mounted camshaft, three Solex B32 carburettors
Power 128bhp @ 5750rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual plus overdrive, rear-wheel drive
Steering Bishop cam
Suspension Front and rear: transverse leaf, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers
Brakes Front discs, rear drums
Performance Top speed c120mph. 0-60mph c9sec
‘In 1988, a young classic car journalist bought the recently discovered Ace for £2500’
‘The drum brakes can feel wooden; it’s better to carry speed through the corners and drift the car’
Left and below. Cornering the Ace requires some serious input from the driver; Bruno Ferrari’s original 1956 Mille Miglia route map, and his entrant medallions from the 1956 and ’57 events.