AC 428 FRUA COUPE - SON OF A SNAKE
On wild Welsh roads in the Cobra for grown-ups. Less venomous than the Cobra that sired it, this is AG’s strike at a GT to take on the Italian competition Richard Heseltine discovers a luxury car with bite. Photography Charlie Magee.
Apprehension is to be expected. Lips and fingers are turning blue, much like the air, as we wait for the rain to pass. North Wales may be beautiful outside the holiday season - but only when you can see it. Still, early murk allows time for reacquaintance with the #AC-Frua
428 , a car that worms its way into your affections from the outset. With its expansive glasshouse, acres of black leather, chunky switchgear and that fabulous U-shaped gear selector, it's hard not to come over all Johnny Jet-Set and idly daydream of crushing continents in a single bound.
Which was rather the point of the exercise in the first place. This was a hyper-exclusive GT car rather than a rudimentary roadbumer, but the #AC-Frua-428
has long suffered from a perception problem. The 428 borrowed heavily from its celebrated forebear, the mighty Cobra, and you could argue that it suffered for not being Cobra-shaped. And while non-Cobra types may fall for its Italian styling, they foresee blunt-instrument belligerence rather than long legged versatility and, as such, discount it.
Or at least they did, as times change and norms shift. This year will witness its fair share of motoring milestones, but this most handsome of Anglo-American hybrids reaching its half-century will not be among the most celebrated. It should be, not least because the 428 has undergone something of an image overhaul of late. Values have more than doubled over the past couple of years, the 1969 example here currently being for sale at just shy of £140,000. Drive one and you will wonder why it was underappreciated for so long.
Fully to understand how and why the 428 came into being, first you have to remember that demand for the Cobra never was white hot. While it may be the most replicated car on the planet, and by some margin, sales weren't particularly strong in-period. Scroll back to the mid-60s and production of AC's own MkIII (it was never badged as a Cobra) was patchy at best. A new model was needed and the Thames Ditton firm's managing director Derek Hurlock began to map out ideas for something that bit more grown-up, something a bit more couture.
AC had experience of making its own engines; it had done so for years. However, the Cobra influence loomed large here, the heady blend of a proven English chassis, a Detroit-sourced bent-eight and a little Latin styling sorcery clearly being seen as the way forward. The new car would feature a revised version of the coil-sprung MkIII's parallel-tube frame, but with an extra 6in inserted into its wheelbase. The Cobra's 427ci V8 was considered, and the prototype was thus powered, but ultimately it was deemed a little too uncouth for use in a luxury GT so Hurlock instead opted for the 428ci engine from the Galaxie uber-barge. This low- stressed V8 pushed out a (gross) 345bhp at 4600rpm and an elephantine 462lb ft of torque at just 2800rpm in full FE 'Police Interceptor' spec.
Hurlock canvassed several Italian styling houses to create a suitably swish outline, #Ghia
chief among them. Underwhelmed by their proposals, he instead turned to Pietro Frua's eponymous carrozzeria following an introduction by the Swiss AC distributor, Hubert Patthey. An agreement was reached whereby the prolific pen-for-hire would design and also build bodyshells. That the 428 emerged bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Maserati Mistral was intentional. Hurlock wanted something similar, and Frua had penned the #Maserati
after all, but the legend that panels were interchangeable between the two cars is precisely that. Only the door handles and glass frames were carried over.
The prototype - a convertible - was completed in time for the big reveal at the October #1965
Earls Court Motor Show. Dubbed the #AC-427
, if only briefly, it was a hit with the press and public alike, the prototype enjoying a secondary life as a star of the small screen (see sidebar). A fixed-head coupe version followed five months later at the '66 Geneva motor show, but there were one or two bumps in the road that hobbled the 428's chances before it could get into its stride.
Problems didn't stretch to a lack of demand. AC had a bulging order book despite the 428 costing almost twice the asking price of a Jaguar E-type (it was a lofty £5573 in 1968 ). The issue was one of supply. The deal with Frua meant rolling chassis were dispatched to Italy on slave wheels, with partially completed cars returning to Surrey on open-air transporters for trimming, wiring and painting. As such, there was a considerable time lag between orders being placed and cars being delivered. What's more, having untreated double-skin bodies open to the elements didn't aid matters, and a fair amount of rectification work was required when they arrived in Thames Ditton.
Worse was to come. A steel strike in Italy that began in 1969 and carried on into 1970 meant delivery dates became something of a lottery. On occasion AC would complete two cars in the same week, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, interest in the 428 remained high. Even more so after the motoring media finally got their mitts on a demonstrator, John Bolster being among the most effusive. The broadcaster and former racing driver recorded a top speed of 145mph and 0-60mph in a time of 5.4 seconds. He enthused in Autosport 'It seems like a long time since I was able to go all starry-eyed over a British car... It is therefore all the more delightful to give unreserved praise to the AC 428.'
Autocar, meanwhile, was rather more muted in its admiration. It summarised in stop-start fashion: ' (The 428) was extremely fast and not too heavy on fuel. Plenty of adhesion; little roll, no dive or squat. Firm ride, comfortable seats. Positive steering, too much kickback. High price for [a] hand-built, exclusive GT from (a) small manufacturer.'
Regardless of the positive ink, the 428's days were clearly numbered. Attempts to do away with the logistical nightmare of shuttling cars backwards and forwards between the UK and Italy came to naught. Coventry Panels was sounded out about building bodyshells in Blighty, but without any joy. Throw in an 'oil shock' or two and demand for thirsty V8 GTs soon dwindled to nothing. The 428 was further undone by heightened safety and emissions regulations. AC enjoyed far greater prosperity knocking out duck-egg blue invalid carriages for the Ministry of Health than ever it did making luxury GTs, and Hurlock had thrown in the towel by 1973.
In nine years only 81 cars had been completed, 29 of them in open form. The last of them was a restyled roadster with a longer nose, pop-up headlights and wider wheels, the only car to feature this body style. Similarly a new four-seat, two-door saloon by Frua (often referred to as the 429) remained unique. AC changed tack and acquired the rights to 1972's Bohanna & Stables Diablo show car that, following its relaunch at the 1973 London Motor Show, underwent a further six-year gestation period before finally going on sale as the 3000ME.
Which brings us to today. As 428s fell down the food chain, a few were converted into ersatz Cobras, while others simply rotted away. Accordingly, survivors in this condition are rare. Up close, it couldn't look further removed from the car that bore it. The 428 appears every inch the glamorous GT, albeit an Italian one. There are few hints of it being a product of Old Albion, that's for sure. That said, it doesn't have the feel of a copy-and-paste Maserati clone, either; at least not in the metal. It appears lower, wider and more menacing than the Mistral ever did; the proportions are perhaps a little skew- whiff in places, but it has plenty of presence. Nor is it overly adorned, brightwork having been used sparingly. The outline certainly hasn't lost its impact through familiarity.
The sense of drama is perhaps not mirrored on the inside, but the cockpit is attractive and well-stocked. The oh-so- period dash is home to classic white-on-black Smiths instruments and man-sized switchgear, the heater controls being partially obscured by the auto shift lever, at least when it's in Park. If anything, the earlier dash was more attractive still and perhaps better ergonomically, but it's a matter of personal preference. The seats lack much in the way of lateral support but, despite the slightly offset pedals, your driving stance doesn't feel unnaturally off-kilter, as it would with some of the AC's better-known contemporaries. All-round visibility is excellent thanks to the bountiful use of glass and spindly pillars, and there's a capacious boot as befits a true grand tourer. And while it's strictly a two-seater, the fastback comes complete with a padded rear bench should you absolutely, categorically need to transport midgets or the most flexible of contortionists.
And then the good bit. Fire up and the 7.0-litre V8 (yep, that's what 428ci adds up to) doesn't erupt into life. There is no Cobra-esque surround-sound barrage of pent-up fury here. Instead, there's a gentle burble that's right for an urbane GT. While the 428 was offered with four-speed Ford TopLoader manual 'boxes, the majority were sold with the three-speed C6 automatic unit and it suits the car's character perfectly: there's so much torque, why change gear more than you have to? Select Drive, depress the light(ish) throttle and it gently ambles of the line. Gearchanges are near-seamless, the torque converter cushioning each movement. It's only when you make full use of the kickdown function that the 428's roots start to show.
All too often with cars of this ilk, fast doesn't necessarily feel fast. Here it does. Keep your toe in and the back end squats a little, finds traction, then the 428 launches itself to the horizon. It makes your eyes widen yet it doesn't intimidate; you're not obliged to cling to the tiller like a life raft as it darts across the road. The rack-and-pinion steering isn't exactly communicative, but there's no vagueness to it.
Drive it with decorum and what strikes you most of all is the ride quality. Given the car's ancestry, not to mention the lack of ground clearance, you expect to feel every change in topography through your posterior, but no. Drive a Cobra, at least an early example on cart springs, and you're constantly aware that you're sitting on a chassis rail. Here, the longer wheelbase makes all the difference while the coil-over-damper units iron out the worst bumps. In period, some road-testers commented that the back end could get a little bouncy, but that is true of most cars of this ilk. It feels far more planted than many alleged thoroughbreds we can think of.
However, this isn't a car best suited to B-road bravado. Despite the engine being mounted well back in the frame for a 53% rearward bias, the AC's weight begins to show on testy switchbacks. Abusing the scales at 3214lb (1458kg), it doesn't feel particularly agile, the twin- servo-assisted Girling discs scrubbing off excess speed but only in their own time. It comers flat at moderately enthusiastic speeds, but somehow you sense it wouldn't take much to get the tail to start flailing. The 428 is patently a cruiser, more at home devouring the autostrada than descending the Horseshoe Pass, but that is par for the course.
Make no mistake, the 428 is a devastatingly capable machine, one that in so many ways has been poorly served by history. It's easy to rail against the injustice of it all; shout about how it could have been a contender had fate been kinder. It was always onto a losing streak despite having so much going for it.
But that was then. Some might view the 428 as being a reconfigured Cobra with some of the venom but none of the charm. Well, that's their loss. The truth is, it's one of the best cars ever to wear the AC badge, and that's high praise indeed.
THANKS TO lain Tyrrell, cheshireclassiccars. co. uk; the car’s owner Jane Weitzmann, jhwclassics. com; and Andy Shepherd, acownersclub. co. uk
THE AVENGERS: AC 428 ON THE SMALL SCREEN
The 428 was a favourite of the beautiful people, with The Who drummer Keith Moon and FI team owner Rob Walker among their number. However, in terms of column inches, the model’s repeat appearances in The Avengers trumped everything. The car used in the final series was ‘CF1’, the original prototype and test car that was later pressed into service as a media demonstrator. It differed from production models in having aluminium panels amongst the steel.
Why the car was chosen by the producers remains unrecorded. What is known is that it was meant to be the hero car driven by John Steed (Patrick Macnee) in place of his pre-war Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. However, he only ever drove the car once on screen before it was handed over to his glamorous sidekick, Tara King (Linda Thorson). The show’s instigator, Brian Clemens, recalled in Ocfane54that Thorson couldn’t drive at the time, so ‘she was put on a crash course, so to speak’. Nevertheless, she reputedly found the 428 a handful so it was replaced with a Lotus Europa (she also made fleeting appearances in a Plus 2). As for the fate of the Avengers AC, it was advertised for sale in the USA some 15 years ago but has since dropped off the radar.
THE RACING 428: RISE OFTHE BLACK CAR
The 428 isn’t an obvious competition weapon but that didn’t stop accomplished racer and AC authority Andy Shepherd from venturing trackside in one. The 428GTR - or the ‘Black Car’ - was built by Uniclip Automotive to contest the AMOC Intermarque Championship, a series in which Shepherd had been hugely successful in his Cobra MkII. By 2002, however, Malcolm Hamilton was the man to beat aboard Rob Beere’s 8.0-litre V12 Jaguar E-type, and, with the likes of Richard Chamberlain also competing in his wild #Porsche-935
clone, and Win Percy in a #Jaguar-XJ220
, a new car was needed if he was to run at the front.
His 428 - ‘Boris’ - was the starting point, all its body panels bar the roof replaced with carbonfibre. Lister Storm-like inboard coil-overs and pushrod suspension featured up-front, while a lighter 650bhp 351 ci V8 bored and stroked to 428ci was substituted and moved further back in the chassis. It even featured a flat-floor aero pack and diffuser from an Audi TT DTM racer. The car emerged weighing only 1000kg, and was blisteringly quick. Unfortunately for Shepherd, it fell victim to a rule change. The Black Car managed only one season before being outlawed.
‘The 428 appears every inch the glamorous GT, albeit an Italian one. There are few hints of Old Albion’
Above and above left. It’s every inch the archetypal low-volume British GX. within, the U-shaped transmission lever adding airliner character; loping torque is a watchword of the vast Ford V8.
Car #1969 #AC #428 #Frua
ENGINE 7014cc V8, OHV, single four-barrel Holley carburettor
POWER 345 bhp @ 4600rpm
TORQUE 462 lb ft @ 2800rpm
TRANSMISSION Three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion
Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers.
Rear: trailing arms, coil-over-damper units.
PERFORMANCE Top speed 145mph. 0-60mph 5.4 sec