AC Cars Group Ltd. formerly known as Auto Carriers Ltd. is a British specialist car manufacturer and one of the oldest independent car marques founded in Britain. The most recent manufacturing location of AC is Hal Far, Malta but this has now closed.
The first car from what would eventually become AC was presented at the Crystal Palace motor show in 1903; it was a 20HP touring car and was displayed under the Weller name. The Weller Brothers of West Norwood, London, planned to produce an advanced 20 hp (15 kW) car. However, Portwine (their financial backer) thought the car would be too expensive to produce and encouraged Weller to design and produce a little delivery three wheeler. Weller did so, called it the Auto-Carrier, and a new company was founded and named Autocars and Accessories; production started in 1904. The vehicle caught on quickly and was a financial success. In 1907 a passenger version appeared, called the A.C. Sociable. It had a seat in place of the cargo box.
The company became Auto Carriers Ltd in 1911 and moved to Ferry Works, Thames Ditton, Surrey - at this time they also began using the famed "AC" roundel logo. Their first four-wheeled car was produced in 1913; it was a sporty little two seater with a gearbox on the rear axle. Only a few were built before production was interrupted by the first World War.
During the Great War, the Ferry Works factory produced shells and fuses for the war effort, although at least one vehicle was designed and built for the War Office. At the end of the First World War, AC Cars started making motor vehicles again, designing and building many successful cars at Ferry Works, as well as expanding into an old balloon factory on Thames Ditton High Street.
After the war, John Weller started on the design of a new overhead cam 6 cylinder engine. The first versions of this design were running by 1919. The Weller engine would be produced until 1963; it is possibly the second-longest-lived production motor in history after the Volkswagen boxer. In 1921, Selwyn Edge (who had been with Napier & Son) bought shares in the company and was appointed governing director. He did not get along with Weller or Portwine, who resigned less than a year later. In 1922, the name changed again to AC Cars Ltd.
Selwyn Edge bought the company outright for £135,000 in 1927 and re-registered it as AC (Acedes) Ltd but sales, which had been falling, continued to decline. The company was caught by the crash of 1929 and went into voluntary liquidation. Production ceased for a time, and the company was sold to the Hurlock family who ran a successful haulage business. They wanted the High Street factory only as a warehouse (Ferry Works was not acquired), but allowed the service side of AC to continue.
A single car was made for William Hurlock in 1930. He liked it and agreed to restart very limited production, mainly using components left over from previous models. An agreement was reached with Standard to supply new chassis, the ancient three speed transaxle was replaced by a modern four speed gearbox (built in unit with the engine), and by 1932 a new range of cars was finally launched. Production continued on this small scale, averaging less than 100 vehicles per year, until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The final pre-war car was delivered in June 1940, after which the factory was fully involved with war production.
In 1953 the firm began production of the AC Ace, a lightweight chassis designed by John Tojeiro with the venerable Weller-designed 2-Litre engine. Soon after, car dealer and racing driver Ken Rudd fitted his own competition Ace with a pre-war BMW-designed, Bristol-produced 135 bhp (101 kW) six-cylinder engine. This combination was put into production as the AC Ace-Bristol in 1957. In this form, the car raced at Le Mans in 1957 and 1958.
For 1954, a new aluminum-bodied closed coupe was unveiled at Earls Court, the AC Aceca. It was only slightly heavier than the convertible Ace, and because of better aerodynamics was actually slightly faster (128 mph top speed). Only 328 Acecas were produced, and they were equipped with either of the Ace's engines. There was a demand from some customers for a larger four-seater car, for whom AC produced the Greyhound. This was built on a stretched Ace chassis with coil suspension all around and a 2.2-litre Bristol engine.
In 1962 AC was approached by Carroll Shelby to use a small block Ford V8 engine in the Ace chassis, producing the AC Cobra. Shelby needed a car that could compete with the Chevrolet Corvette in US sports car racing. The resulting Cobra was a very powerful roadster, and it is commonly blamed for the introduction of the 70 mph (113 km/h) limit on British motorways after a coupe version was caught doing 196 mph (315 km/h) during a test run.
The 1970s were not a good period for luxury car manufacturers and Derek Hurlock went searching for a totally new smaller car. Mid-engined designs were in fashion at the time and in 1972 the Diablo, a prototype with an Austin Maxi engine and transaxle was built by privateers Peter Bohanna and Robin Stables. In much the same way as they had taken up the Tojeiro prototype and turned it into the Ace, AC acquired the rights and at the 1973 London Motor Show showed their own version, the mid-engined ME3000 with the 3.0-litre Ford Essex V6 engine installed transversely over a bespoke AC-designed gearbox. Development was virtually complete in 1976 when new Type Approval regulations were introduced. A prototype failed the 30 mph (48 km/h) crash test, and the chassis had to be redesigned. On the second attempt, the car passed with flying colours. This was a huge achievement for a tiny firm - Vauxhall had to make several attempts before the contemporary Chevette passed. For AC, such delays meant that the first production cars (now renamed 3000ME) were not delivered until 1979, by which time they were in direct competition with the Lotus Esprit. Although comfortable, brisk, nicely built and practical, AC's ambitions of selling 250 cars per year were a distant memory. After just 71 cars were sold, Hurlock called a halt to production as his health was suffering and the company was struggling in the teeth of a recession. In 1984 production stopped at Thames Ditton and the car and the AC name were licenced to a new company registered as AC (Scotland) plc run by David McDonald in a new factory in Hillington, Glasgow. Here, 30 cars were built, including a development car tested with Alfa Romeo's 2.5-litre V6 engine and a nearly-complete Mark 2 prototype of the same. Regardless (or possibly because) of these developments, AC Scotland called in the receivers in 1985. After selling the historic High Street works for redevelopment, AC themselves soldiered on as a service operation in the '21st Century' works on Summer Road until the Hurlock family finally sold their holdings in 1986 to William West. After some complex machinations the company was split between property interests and the car brand; the former was renamed and the latter was acquired by Brian Angliss.
Early cars were sold as the Autokraft MKIV but eventually Angliss acquired the rights to use the AC name. Derek Hurlock had been strongly protective of the name, but Angliss' high standards of craftsmanship won him over. When the Hurlock family finally sold up in 1986 Angliss fully acquired the AC trademark rights and set up a new AC company as a joint venture with Ford, who had also recently bought Aston Martin. A big conflict followed over the future direction for AC, but Angliss eventually won his independence as well as Ford's continuing and essential cooperation as an engine and parts supplier.
Angliss looked for a new car to complement and perhaps replace the MKIV. At the 1993 London Motor Show, he introduced a new vehicle that he named the AC Ace. It was a modern automobile with a stainless steel chassis and an aluminum body, but was expensive to develop and build. The costs hit Angliss hard and he sold his large motor bike collection, vintage Bentley and other assets to try to make ends meet. The receivers were called in by 1996 after approximately 50 "new" Aces had been built.
In March 1996, largely due to the cost of developing the new Ace, Angliss' company went into receivership and was eventually sold to Alan Lubinsky's Pride Automotive in December 1996, who continued car production in Weybridge, Surrey under the name of AC Car Group Ltd. Lubinsky transferred AC trademarks and intellectual property to a Delaware, USA holding company, Acedes Holdings LLC, at some point. Both the Cobra Mk IV and the Ace were made, and soon a 'CRS' version of the Mk IV was announced with a carbon fibre body shell as well as the Superblower with a supercharged Ford V8. Two or three closed Aceca coupe versions of the Ace were also made. However, the company soon fell into receivership again, and was saved by Jimmy Price, who owns Superformance in the US and South Africa. After a bitter fight, Jimmy Price walked away and left Lubinsky in control again.
In 2003, Carroll Shelby International and AC Motor Holdings, Ltd. announced production of authentic Shelby/AC Cobra, with the production vehicle arriving at dealers in July 2004. Initially, available models included Shelby AC 427 S/C Cobra and Shelby AC 289 FIA Cobra, which would be branded as the CSX 1000 and CSX 7500 Series, respectively. In February 2004 the first handcrafted aluminum body shell was built. However, AC Motor Holdings, Ltd. failed to perform under the terms of its license agreement with Carroll Shelby, and a lawsuit was filed by Shelby against AC Motor Holdings, Ltd. and its proprietor, Alan Lubinsky, in May 2006.
In 2005, AC relocated to Malta and started production of the carbon-fibre bodied AC MkV.