House of Cards We drive Britain’s forgotten sports car, the AC Ace. Ace Brooklands There’s more than sleight of hand to the highly capable AC Ace Brooklands, says Martin Buckley as he samples the short-lived revival of a famous name. Photography Tony Baker.
AC’s luxury rival to the XJS was full of promise, so where did it go wrong?
The problem with comebacks is that, usually, the fans want to hear all your greatest hits – not the navel-gazing stuff from the new concept album. Which is why the AC Brooklands was probably doomed from the beginning. Actually, if you will allow me to continue with pop music analogies, it wasn’t so much a concept album as an easy, middle-of-the-road ’90s ballad from a company that had sealed its reputation with a Cobra. That lean, raucous roadster had a profoundly macho image, with one of the most easily recognised (and most replicated) profiles in the world of sports cars. It was a vehicle seemingly more about sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll than the refined, sensible (and undeniably fast) Brooklands, which always looked as if it was on its way to the golf club.
As a way of tempting Pringle jumper-wearing buyers out of their R129 Mercedes-Benz 500SLs, the Brooklands should have been a reasonably credible product in an early-to-mid-’90s market that was not as well supplied with pokey and luxurious two-seater ragtops as we are today.
It also acknowledged the old maxim that, if you are going to take on the established opposition, you not only have to be better, you also have to be cheaper. At just under £50,000 in ’1993, the handcrafted, alloy-bodied Brooklands even undercut the not notably overpriced Jaguar XJ-S convertible by £3000. The market-leading Mercedes cost a full £20,000 more, while the Brooklands was a third as much as Aston Martin’s hideously bloated Virage Volante. But timid pricing may have been the first and most fatal error of the whole Brooklands debacle. Rumour has it that AC lost £100,000 on each Brooklands built, so labour-intensive was its production process.
It was cheaper, even, than the beautifully fabricated Cobra clones being made by Brian Angliss, owner of the AC trademark after the Hurlock family era and driving force behind the Brooklands concept. Since the mid-’80s, Angliss had firmly believed that there was a market for a modern AC convertible as a companion model to the Cobras that he was producing at his factory on the Brooklands estate in Weybridge.
At £75,000 each, he made enough money out of the Cobra Mk IVs to pursue the idea seriously. From a business and marketing point of view, the pieces were falling into place in the background, particularly once Derek Hurlock had sold out to Angliss and Ford in 1986. Ford had the controlling 51% and was making plausible noises about going into production in a dedicated factory (at an unspecified location) with the Ace prototype – or something approximating it – that it had shown on its stand at that year’s NEC show.
Styled in Ford’s German studios and built by Autokraft in Weybridge, the silver two-seater had a targa-like top and was based on Sierra 4×4 running gear. It seems to have been as underwhelming to drive as it was to look at, although the fact that GT40 designer Len Bailey had engineered the chassis sounded promising.
It was soon forgotten by most people, but in the background Ford had passed the job of restyling the car to its Ghia studio in Turin. The Italians seem to have made it look worse rather than better – Angliss said the one-fifth-scale models looked like “bald, fat frogs” – so it was left to Ford’s in-house team at Dunton to come up with a new design using Ghia’s dimensions. Angliss liked those. Trouble was, when they were scaled up to full size by IAD of Worthing, the car sat too high at the back and the rear wheels stuck out because Ghia had cocked up its original measurements. Chopping two inches out of the middle made the headlamps too low and, with fat arches over the protruding rear wheels, the Ace looked awful once more.
All of this bungling resulted in nine months of lost momentum and, in frustration, Angliss gave the whole styling project to IAD, and paid for the work out of his own pocket. It wasn’t until early 1992 that the Ace Brooklands broke cover again, looking something close to the production versions you see here but with enclosed headlamps. It still had four-wheel drive and Ford V6 power, although this time it was a 220bhp 24-valve 3-litre from the American Taurus SHO. This second prototype was given guardedly favourable reviews (competent but not exciting), though the press was just as interested in Angliss’ rapidly souring relationship with Ford’s management.
It was not happy that its appointed MD had taken the Ace in his own direction without consulting the Blue Oval. With communication between the two parties seriously compromised, in May 1990 Ford petitioned the courts to liquidate AC Cars Ltd so that it could take out its shares. Angliss had, in fact, already tried to buy Ford out of the business. Trouble was, Ford valued its stake in AC Cars Ltd at two and a half times higher than Angliss’ £1million offer.
The Ace Brooklands was announced at the NEC in 1993. Angliss had managed by then to achieve independence from Ford but, crucially, had not fallen out with the firm to the extent that it would not supply him with major components. Where Ford had talked in terms of 2000 cars a year or more, Angliss had set his sights at a realistic 260. Equally important, he had listened to the critics and reinvented his new car as a rear-drive V8 powered by the 302 Mustang engine, a much more exciting combination. It retained the non-stressed, hand-rolled aluminium bodywork on Bailey’s hugely stiff monocoque built from a special form of stainless steel called Cromweld. As well as being rigid (it had 8in-deep sills), it was also light. So while the 260bhp Brooklands had less grunt than some of its rivals, its power-to- weight ratio was significantly better: 180bhp per ton. This not insubstantial 6ft-wide car weighed 400lb less than a Porsche 928GTS.
It boasted bespoke double-wishbone suspension front and rear (having four dampers at the back in a Jaguar-like arrangement with a Salisbury differential), plus vented discs with anti-lock electronics. There was a choice of a Borg-Warner five-speed manual or a Ford four-speed.
As well as creating a car that was more fun and instinctive to drive than the preceding versions, Angliss wisely had the awkward styling tweaked with a fairly handsome chip-cutter air intake. It was flanked by much less bland lights borrowed from the contemporary BMW 3 Series.
When you first see a Brooklands in the metal, you can amuse yourself for a few minutes spotting all the borrowed bits. There’s the Citroën CX door mirrors – heated no less, as were the washer jets, windscreen and Recaro seats – and, inside, the Fiesta/Mondeo/Granada switches.
Even the ignition key is from a Fiesta. But to dwell too long on such trifles would do a disservice to a car that is much more mature and carefully developed (with notable exceptions, such as the guaranteed-to-fail electric window motors and hopeless air-con) than almost any other specialist sports car of its ilk or generation.
Bath-based architect Edward Checkley bought the blue Brooklands auto in 2015 via the AC Owners’ Club after a long search, and on the rebound after being gazumped on another one. “I have wanted a Brooklands Ace since I was a kid, but it had to be a blue or a red one,” he says. “Because they made only one in red, I was stuck with blue – and it had to be an automatic. I paid £25,000, which seemed quite expensive at the time but would probably be cheap now.” The owner lived in Reading and had bought the car new: “He had made his money in the early ’90s in the technology boom and, having looked at TVRs – which he said seemed to be made out of Sainsbury’s shopping bags! – decided on the AC.”
Checkley, still in his early 30s, has not regretted making the effort to track down such a rare car that, I have to confess, almost completely passed me by when it was current. I was about his age then (’96) and it vaguely registered, but only as yet another doomed British sports car revival project, of which there were quite a few around that time. It was news to me that they managed to build as many as 46, never mind the additional dozen produced after 1996 in Coventry when Alan Lubinsky revived production through to 2000. You can spot one of those by its single Mazda 323-derived lights, but they were simplified, somewhat compromised versions.
Checkley was clear from the off that he wanted one of the originals: “I absolutely love it. I’ve had loads of cars, but I was getting fed up with the older stuff that I didn’t like doing long trips in. Also, I was sick of losing money. I had a Bentley Brooklands that cost me only £10k, but then it generated £10k in bills – and I sold it for £10k!
“So I wanted the Aston or Bentley ambience but without the running costs. If the engine goes pop in this I can buy a crated one from the States. I could have looked at the Jensen S-V8, but I had heard that they weren’t particularly well made. I looked at late Bristols, although I couldn’t get on with them. I like the coachbuilt feel of the AC.” For everyday use, he has an R129 500SL: “It’s so competent in a way the AC just isn’t. You have to be in the right mood for the AC…”
Having said that, the Ace feels like a proper car rather than a lost cause. It is screwed together nicely and doesn’t rattle or suffer from scuttle shake. You begin to think that perhaps Angliss got it right in the ways that some of his illustrious predecessors at Thames Ditton struggled to.
The view of the huge clamshell bonnet makes the car feel wide (it is) and the ‘heritage’ slice of walnut surrounding the instruments and the centre console can’t disguise the humble Ford origins of much of the fittings. With the Peugeot 306-sourced electric hood lowered (it latches against a BMW 3 Series cabriolet header rail), there is a pleasing lack of wind disturbance. The Brooklands gathers itself in one seamless rush with an alternating woofle from the tailpipes that is obviously V8 in origin, but not overtly so.
It has just the right amount of performance, with acceleration that can dispose of 90% of the cars you’re likely to encounter, rather than being wearisomely brutish like a TVR. On the other hand, it is more alert, athletic and frankly masculine than the SL – with sharp but slightly light power steering, little roll and magnificent brakes. The quiet, controlled ride completes the aura of competence. AC apparently spent two weeks at Koni in The Netherlands sorting damper settings and it shows in the blend of composure and comfort, rare in such a low-volume vehicle. Checkley’s Brooklands is an earlier car with the 260bhp V8. Only the first 18 are thought to have had this unit, which featured a 65mm throttle body, improved inlet manifolds and reworked injection plenum chamber, plus gas-flowed heads and exhaust manifolds. These tweaks upped power by 7% and torque by an alleged 14%.
The Tourmaline Green example of engineer Neville Hall is one of 25 manuals. Its five widely spaced gears have a smooth, precise and quiet action that makes slightly more versatile use of less power – 240bhp – so in the end there is not a huge amount between the two cars on the move. When it was realised just how much money was being lost on each car, the niceties of blue-printing and polished ports were the first casualties.
Still, it should get to 100mph in 15.4 secs (faster than a 500SL R129 or a 6-litre XJ-S/XJS) and was geared to do 60 in second. Obeying the redline, third is good for 90mph, fourth for 115 and you would be hard pressed to pull much more than 4300rpm in the long-striding overdriven top. In a way, you’d have thought that there would have been enough affluent buyers, as the UK pulled out of the early-’90s recession, to generate more than 46 orders before production of the definitive batch of Ace Brooklands ended in ’1996. Then again, the history of AC is littered with projects that looked good on paper but failed to achieve critical mass – fewer than 100 each of the lovely 428, the awkward 3000ME or the underdeveloped Greyhound. So, in at least one respect, the Ace Brooklands maintained a great tradition of (unintentional) rarity.
Thanks to the AC OC: www.acownersclub.co.uk
Tech and photos
‘THE ACE FEELS LIKE A PROPER CAR RATHER THAN A LOST CAUSE. IT IS NICELY ASSEMBLED’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE AC ACE BROOKLANDS
Sold/number built 1993-2000/58
Construction Cromweld stainless-steel monocoque with aluminium body panels
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 4942cc Ford Mustang V8, electronic fuel injection
Max power 260bhp @ 5250rpm / DIN nett
Max torque 320lb ft @ 3250rpm / DIN nett
Transmission five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, driving rear wheels
Suspension independent all round, by unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers (twin at rear)
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes 273mm front, 268mm rear discs, with servo and ABS
Wheels & tyres 7 ½ x 16in alloys, 225/50xZR16s (f), 235/50xZR16s (r)
Length 14ft 6in (4420mm)
Width 6ft 1 ½ in (1870mm)
Height 4ft 3 ¼ in (1300mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 1 ¼ in (2472mm)
Weight 3175lb (1440kg)
0-60mph 5.9 secs
Top speed 144mph
Price new £49,995
Price now £20-35,000+
The 1990s incarnation of the Ace is by no means the only occasion on which a famous name from the automotive past has been applied to a new model. Some sit far more happily than others. Few, for example, could protest too much about Rolls-Royce reviving Phantom and Ghost for its current leviathans.
Viva seems like a reasonable moniker for Vauxhall’s latest supermini, too, and Volkswagen did well – particularly in the United States – out of giving the Golf MkIV platform a new set of clothes and calling it the Beetle.
In the 1990s, Jaguar also went retro for a time, evoking its 1960s saloon with the launch of the S-type (above), which this time around was based on a Lincoln platform and led to the superbly bonkers 400bhp S-type R.
Even Rover got in on the act, tenuously adding the BRM name – the two companies had entered a gas-turbine racer at Le Mans in the mid-1960s – to a modified and upgraded version of the 200vi hatchback (below).
The enduring appeal of British classics has led to various attempts to revive the likes of Jensen, Invicta and Healey. The first of those was reintroduced in the 1980s via Ian Orford’s company, Jensen Parts and Service, which was renamed Jensen Cars Ltd when it updated the Interceptor – a model last built in 1976 – via a few cosmetic tweaks and the contemporary Chrysler 5.9-litre V8 engine. That latest Interceptor limped on until 1993, by which time the Jensen name had again changed hands and the company once more went into receivership. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, either.
When Stutz was reborn in 1968, it launched the Blackhawk, the original, and handsome, version of which had been produced in 1929- ’1930. The 1971 incarnation, however, was not even on nodding terms with the notion of good taste: among those to own one were Elvis Presley, Liberace and Evel Knievel. James Page