Roadster Revelry: Saying Goodbye To Winter With An AC Ace
Photography by Will Broadhead
We’ve a bit of a perverse relationship with the weather here in England, we complain about it endlessly, and can’t stop talking about it. We aren’t fans of the cold, yet at the merest hint of some sunshine we descend en masse to our gardens to light the BBQ, or head to the beach and sunbath in weather that would put penguins off. Yeah, we are very strange, so it shouldn’t have surprised me in the least that in the midst of a tiny bit of February sunshine I got a call from my buddy Ben at the Classic Motor Hub asking if I fancied checking out a unique AC Ace; because what everybody needs to do in the British winter is spend a day in a roadster.
Actually, to be fair, it was the mercury pushing into the teens that had put these plans into action, but on the day of the shoot the red of the thermometer had retreated into itself again and sunshine had been replaced by mist and clouds. But no matter, just wrap up warm right? As the great explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes said, “There’s no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” Mind you, that’s coming from a man that lost the tips of his fingers to frostbite.
Clad in woolens and unperturbed, we pressed on with our enthusiasm increasing the benefit of our knitwear tenfold. It’s been a long winter not photographing cars, so to be out doing my job again was a thrill and a privilege, a bit of nippiness wasn’t going to ruin it.
This car itself is something I’d love a chance to drive in just about any weather anyway. And this isn’t just any old Ace, but the only one fitted with a 2.2-liter 110 Bristol engine straight out of the factory. Yes, 463 left the Thames Ditton production line with a Bristol straight-six under the bonnet, but this is the only one that featured the superior Type 110 power plant, whilst the rest had the Type 100, which had slightly less displacement at 2.0 liters. Those were down on power and torque, although they did have more about them than the first Aces that relied on AC’s own six-pot until Ken Rudd fitted a Bristol engine to his and helped AC see the light.
It feels fresh and spritely, and like all cars of this ilk, it responds well to being leaned on, but not hammered, with the overdrive cutting in nicely once you’re on the pace, making the lazy, meandering Cotswold roads a delight to just cruise down. In period this was of course a dual-purpose machine; it could be driven on the roads during the week and raced on weekends, a defining characteristic of the popular sports cars of the time. This was illustrated wholeheartedly when an Ace driven by Ted Whiteaway and Jack Turner finished seventh overall in the 1959 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning the two-liter GT class in the process for Ken Rudd’s team. The car had been driven to La Sarthe, and after its victory it was driven back home, too.
Our car, chassis BE1096 might not have the racing pedigree of the Le Mans winner, but it does have that bigger heart and breathing through triple carbs it sounds and feels every inch a competent ’50s sports car. It looks the part as well, with the timeless styling still turning heads—and that instantly recognizable grill lends more than a little nod to Ferrari’s own Le Mans winning 166 MM. Ferrari himself would have approved of the more powerful engine fitted to this example I’m sure, although as the evolution of the Ace continued into the early ’60s I daresay he was less than happy with the eventual result!
That decade changed the trajectory of the Ace forever. Bristol stopped producing their six-cylinder engine when they built their 407 model in 1961. The straight-six was by now pretty dated—based as it was on a pre-war BMW design—and Bristol opted for the much bigger 5.2-liter Chrysler V8, and AC, again at the behest of Ken Rudd, opted to fit a 2.6 liter Ford Zephyr engine, although only 37 of these were built and the Ace came to the end of its ten-year lifespan in 1963. However, it wasn’t just Rudd that had opinions on fitting Ford engines into the Ace, as some Texan fella named Carroll had also been onto AC about building an Ace with a Ford V8, a path that would eventually seal AC’s position in motoring history forever.
Back to BE1096 though, and the history of this particular car shows that it was dismantled for 20 years or so, before being rebuilt in 2012 to its current state, thankfully with the original engine still intact. It is a driver’s car in the best tradition of AC machines, and although it could be expected that an engine that was a touch long in the tooth by the end of the ’50s might let the car down, it only serves to highlight the capability of the chassis. Its direct lineage to its more famous relative is there to be seen in its lines, albeit easier to spot in the earlier Cobras, and in many ways, it is easier on the eye than the enhanced haunches that would appear as that particular machine went through its own evolution.
Cobra aside, this uniquely powered Ace is an important part of the AC story, and still stands up on its own as a fabulous sports roadster of its period, a proper GT car and, perhaps most importantly on a freezing February day, a tremendous bit of fun. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed larking (sorry, read that as working) about in motor cars over the winter, and current events have only served to reinforce the importance of not taking these things for granted. I suppose the spell of a barren winter could have been broken by any car, but in this case it just happened to be this little AC, and it was—excuse the pun—ace.