Test-drive AC 16/80

2014 Drive-My

Not many cars served as a wartime farm vehicle before going on the Alpine Rally. Mick Walsh drives a very special AC 16/80. Photo Tony Baker. It’s July 1946, and Betty Haig – a determined rally enthusiast – is already packing her AC 16/80 for a trip to Annecy to compete on the Alpine Trial. Europe is still rebuilding following WW2 so, as well as preparing the 10-year-old sports car, which had worked hard during the war transporting six fruit harvests, Haig had the task at short notice of sorting European petrol coupons, currency, up-to-date maps and finding a female navigator to qualify for the Ladies’ Cup. Before arriving at the start, there was the obstacle of destroyed bridges across France, and long detours en route.

Test-drive AC 16/80

‘The AC caused quite a stir at the weigh-in as it was the first British car to compete after the war,’ recalled Haigin her diary. ‘As other competitors arrived we had a great reunion with all our continental friends after the long war years.’ After the first day of speed trials, in which the AC suffered with the ‘appallingly bad French petrol’, Haig and navigator Enid Riddell set out to conquer the six high cols over a non-stop route: ‘Just 19 of the 3 7 starters clocked in that night. The course was very severe, and the condition of the roads hard to imagine. All the bridges were down, and we crawled over deep ravines on nothing more than a few wobbling planks. Many of the mountain roads had subsided into the valleys below, and most of the villages were in ruins with the inhabitants living among the rocks in primitive conditions.’

Slowly, Haig’s key rivals expired and she collected a trio of trophies.

The AC rallied on through intense summer heat, the coolant boiling and forcing stops to refill from streams, while Haig worried about the old retreads she had no option but to use: ‘The final stage over the famous Col du Galibier was the toughest section with deep snow still covering the high passes. The road was in a terrible state and everyone was having tyre troubles.’ Slowly, Haig’s key rivals – including a very fast ex-Le Mans Darl’mat Peugeot – expired. Driving into the low sun towards the Marseille finish while trying to see through the dust-covered windscreen, Haig sensed victory: ‘Then came the unkind cut. A sudden rally sign directed us up a narrow road into wild Mediterranean foothills. For mile after mile, the rough narrow tracks seemed to shake the last ounce of life out of the exhausted cars and drivers.’

Test-drive AC 16/80

 

Haig made the finish and passed the final test, the tough AC greatly impressing the organisers and rivals: ‘All the components and electrical equipment were working 100%. The only breakage was a front tie-bar carrying the numberplate and spotlamp.’ Haig collected a trio of trophies, including the 2-litre class victory and the Coupe des Dames. Among the telegrams of congratulations was one from the Hurlocks, the owners of AC Cars. Soon after her returnthat summer, the trusty AC was hillclimbed a few times. Haig removed the chrome radiator slats to improve cooling, but eventually it was sold and a BMW 328 – acquired before WW2 but which she was previously embarrassed to drive -was disinterred for competition.

Today, that very 16/80 is in superb fettle and is the pride of lifelong AC enthusiast David Hescroff, whose passion for the marque started with his father’s pre-war two-seater drophead. “My brother John and I used to travel in the dicky seat, which was great fun,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget one drive across the New Forest when we arrived too fast at a humpback bridge. Both our school caps came off. When Dad sold the car in 19491 was only eight and I remember crying my eyes out.”

As soon as Hescroff passed his driving test, the only car he wanted was an AC: “I found a four-seater drophead that I ran for six months but sold it on because it needed too much work.” After a succession of Triumph TR6s, his interest in ACs was revived in the early 1970s by rumours of a supercharged 2-seater in the Dorset area: “I eventually found the owner but he’d just sold it. Then I started to look into the history of the pre-war cars, and really fancied one of the slab-tank models. Somehow they looked more sporty than the sloping-tail cars. I went up to the factory at Thames Ditton and, after looking through the ‘bible’ of build records, I discovered just how few were built – only 28 slab tanks and 14 sloping tails, which was nothing compared to main rival Jaguar.”

Test-drive AC 16/80

After joining the AC Owners’ Club, Hescroff read about Haig’s exploits: “The stories of her adventures on the 1946 Alpine Rally fascinated me. The car hadn’t been seen for years, and I tracked it down to ‘Bunny’ Burnett in Cheddar. The good news was that he agreed to sell, but it was in a sad state. As a student in the ’60s, Bunny had been involved in a head-on accident and the AC, although complete, hadn’t been touched since. At some point the body had been painted red, and the chassis was bent in the heavy shunt.” Hescroff couldn’t resist the daunting project, and instructed trusted specialist Phil Whitaker with the rebuild. Following a total strip-down, EPJ 101 started to come together, including a respray in its original silver paint.

After learning that Haig was still alive but by then in her 70s, Hescroff became extramotivated to get the car finished for a visit to her home: “It seemed appropriate that our first trip should be to see Betty, and she was really happy to see the car. All the memories of her rallying adventure with friend Enid came back, and we tempted her out for a drive. Even in her senior years, she’d lost none of her gusto behind the wheel, which was a little scary.”

 

Test-drive AC 16/80

Left: signature March styling with slab tank and twin spares. Below, l-r: Haig rests by barricaded bridge at Tournus – hood is raised as protection against fierce sun; posing with silverware; crashed project as discovered.

Once sorted after the rebuild, the most famous of the 1930s AC sports cars began an active life in VSCC hillclimbs, rally events, driving tests and many memorable road miles in England and Europe. Highlights have included the Mille Miglia retrospective, a car and balloon challenge from London to Paris and a spirited parade around Spa on an international AC rally. On all occasions, it was driven to events.

This year, Hescroff plans to retrace Haig’s wheel tracks on the Endurance Rally Association’s new Alpine Trial for pre-war cars. I’m sure that the grand-niece of Field Marshal Earl Haig, and founder member of the Historic Sports Car Club, would approve. “Betty drove the event on retreaded tyres and used engine oil,” says Hescroff. “Hopefully the roads will be better and the weather cooler.”

My interest in ACs stems from childhood, when Dad bought a Buckland, but a lucky meeting with Hescroff at the Circuit des Remparts in 1985 sealed that enthusiasm for Thames Ditton’s finest, and led to some of my most memorable motoring experiences. That fantastic weekend was capped by EPJ winning the concourse at Angouleme, and Hescroff claiming an impressive prize of his weight in vintage Remy Martin cognac. The subsequent road trip home with new friends on back routes across Brittany and Normandy, our borrowed Dax Cobra following the stylish silver 16/80, was a magical sunny adventure, and swapping cars educated me in the ways of this pre-war beauty.

Test-drive AC 16/80

Clockwise, from right: ambition fulfilled – Walsh drives 16/80 down tree-lined Blandford Road; AC mascot designed by Louis Lejeune; stylish interior with comfortable seats but no glovebox.

Last September, we celebrated that introduction with a joyous drive around Hescroff’s favourite Dorset roads, and again the appeal of EPJ was quickly confirmed. Firstly, the graceful styling attracts, its presence less sensational than the contemporary rival SS100 but, from the Le Jeune mascot to the purposeful twin spares and chrome luggage rack, it’s hard to fault from any angle. Only the small-diameter drum brakes that look lost in the tall, narrow-spoke wheels spoil its thoroughbred stance. With the well-designed hood erected, the 16/80 has even more character.

Turn the low chrome handle for the rear- hinged cutaway door and the traditional cockpit immediately evokes privileged 1930s motoring. The bucket seats with ‘Float-on-air’ inflated bases are comfy and supportive, while the door trim features a dramatic Deco-style sunburst design with a handy zip-up pocket.

With the seat well forward, it’s a squeeze to slide my short legs under the broad four-spoke wheel. The dashboard – with sweeping scuttle that’s a signature of the Earl of March styling – matches the body colour and is packed with handsome Smiths instruments, the speedo to the right of the column reading up to 100mph.

interior AC 16/80

The AC’s traditional cockpit immediately evokes privileged 1930s motoring.

First owner Thompson ordered metallic paint AC was one of the first to feature such a finish but didn’t want a glovebox. “It’s the only 16/80 without one,” explains Hescroff, “and Haig approved of the omission. ‘Why would you want that ugly hole?’ she said to me!”

Turn the key, press the dinky starter button on the central ignition cluster, and the ‘six’ wakes easily with a rorty rasp. The fly-off handbrake is deep under the scuttle, which initially makes hill starts awkward, but the triple-SU engine is more responsive and torquey than you’d expect for a pre-war 2-litre. Little wonder the 16/80 was a familiar sight on 1930s trials, particularly in the hands of Ray Morley.

The Moss gearbox is stirred by a short lever topped with a wonderful soap-sized white knob. It initially feels like a notchy, slow change that’s not helped by the heavy clutch, but it’s immensely rewarding to snick cleanly once you master the double-declutch timing. As with all Moss gearboxes, you can’t race the movement.

The chassis, with conventional semi-elliptic springs all round, rides well thanks to the adjust-able Hartford dampers but there’s the expected scuttle shake and steering kickback over the worst bumps and holes. “There are comparisons with the Ace,” says Hescroff. “It has a very seat- of-the-pants feel, and I’ve never spun one.”

With a limited lock, the steering requires busy hand-to-hand work for the tight turns, but its action is precise and perfectly weighted at speed and through open bends. The top speed is around 85mph, while the later supercharged ‘sloping tail’ 16/90 was good for 90mph – as Hescroff once proved when driving the Nordschleife. Geared for 20mph per 1000rpm, EPJ is most comfortable cruising at 60mph but will eagerly push on to 70mph for short bursts.

I’ve long wanted to drive up the spectacular tree-lined Blandford Road from Kingston Lacy past Badbury Rings in a memorable car and, with ’screen folded flat, the AC is a treat. The view over the dash cowls and down the handsome louvred bonnet, with the chrome greyhound sprinter pointing ahead, is very nostalgic.

After a morning run, the 16/80 is rested at Shapwick. Enquiries about the car are constant during our pub lunch, but surprisingly few know the AC marque. We can’t help being distracted by the WW1 memorial in the centre of the village. The engraved death count, including many from the Kerley family, is a chilling tribute. Betty Haig bought EPJ in 1939, just as the next hellish conflict started. Prevented from taking the new sports car abroad on rallies, she put it to work on her Sussex farms, where it paid its way delivering produce during the war years.

Like all great cars with a rich history, EPJ continually conjures vivid imagery from its past as old pictures are studied and stories unfold. As it rests bathed in autumn sunshine, it’s easy to imagine the AC back in Sussex, laden with apples as Hurricanes and Spitfires flew overhead to take on the Luftwaffe. Haig had driven a Singer through Germany en route to winning a gold rally medal in the 1936 Olympic Games, so she knew what evil was brewing on the continent.

As youngsters, my two sons always referred to EPJ as “the magic car” due to its habit of appearing on the drive after late-night returns from events. For many reasons, it’ll always be high on my list of all-time favourites.

It’s comfortable cruising at 60mph, but will push on to 70 for short bursts.

 

Car

AC 16/80

Sold

1937- 1939

 
Number built  42 (28 ‘slab tank’) 
Construction

steel ladder-type chassis with hand-made aluminium body, wooden frame 

Engine

all-aluminium, sohc 1991cc straight-six, three 1 1/8in SU carburettors 

Power 80bhp @ 4000rpm 
 
Torque N/A
Transmission

four-speed manual, RWD

Suspension

front beam axle, Hartford friction dampers

rear live axle, friction dampers; semi-elliptic springs f/r

Brakes

Bendix cable-operated drums

Steering

Bishop cam type

Wheels and tyres 

– 

 
Length 12ft 9in (3886mm) 
Width Width 5ft (1524mm)
Height

Height 4ft 4in (1321mm) 

Wheelbase 8ft 10in (2692mm) 
Weight 2239lb (1016kg)
Track:  front 4ft 64 (1402mm) rear 4ft 63/4n (1417mm)

 0-60mph

18 secs 

Top speed

90mph

Mpg

Price new

£445

Price now 

£160-200,000

 


 

March family link

The first AC 16/80 short-chassis two-seater competition sports is appropriately owned by: Lord March, grandson of the car’s stylist and founder of Goodwood’s Festival of Speed and Revival. Finished in silver-blue, CPL 572 was completed in July 1935 and made a low-key debut on the Barnstaple Trial driven by Pige Leschallas. The AC was later handed over to The Autocar for a road test around the West Country. That September, just prior to display at the London Motor Show, it was entered in a one-hour speed trial at Brooklands organised by the MCC, where it averaged 79.61mph.

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After many years in France, the 16/80 is now : a familiar sight at Goodwood. “My grandfather ; styled various ACs in the ’30s but never owned one” says Lord March. “For me, the 16/80 is one of the best-looking British sports cars of the ’30s, and I’m proud to own the prototype”.

 

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