Open Menu
Open Menu

The Simeone Museum to feature AC Cars Retrospective

Published in

1910 Autocarrier. Photos courtesy the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum.

Best known on this side of the Atlantic for providing the chassis that underpins Carroll Shelby’s Cobra, the history of AC Cars dates to 1904, the year the firm was founded by John Portwine and John Weller. In the years since, it’s produced a diverse range of vehicles, from the practical to the excessive, which will be honored with a new retrospective exhibit opening on February 18 at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The first commercial product of Autocarriers Limited, the company that would eventually become AC Cars, was a three-wheeled delivery vehicle called the Autocarrier. Powered by a 648cc air-cooled, single-cylinder engine shifting through a two-speed epicyclic gearbox, the cyclecar featured two wheels in front and a single driven wheel in the rear. A cargo box was positioned in front of the vehicle’s single seat, and no thought was given to keeping the driver shielded from the elements.

Despite its drawbacks, the Autocarrier proved to be a commercial success, so much so that in 1907 the firm began producing a passenger variant called the Sociable, which featured side by side seating (in two-passenger variants) or driver-behind-passengers seating (in three-passenger variants). In 1913, the firm produced its first four-wheeled “light car,” with a 1.1-liter water-cooled engine sourced from French supplier Fivet.

The company focused on munitions production during the First World War, and the postwar years initially brought prosperity. Selwyn Edge joined the firm in 1921, and his arrival was soon followed by the departure of Portwine and Weller. Edge believed in promoting sales through racing, so under his leadership the automaker (now AC Cars, Limited) entered the motorsports arena. The Great Depression nearly signaled the end of the company, but instead AC was purchased by the Hurlock family, who wanted the factory as a storage warehouse.

1960 AC Greyhound

1960 AC Greyhound.

Initially, this signaled the end of automobile production, but in 1932 AC once again began its manufacturing efforts, sourcing key components from a variety of manufacturers. The AC Six, a car that the firm originally produced from 1920 to 1929, reentered production in a larger and more sophisticated form, carrying AC into the Second World War years.

Automotive production ceased from 1940 through 1946, and in 1947 the company returned to market with its 2-Litre models, available in a variety of body styles. Looking to diversify its offerings, AC also built everything from invalid coaches (the Invacar Type 57, constructed under license from Thundersley) to golf carts and railway cars.

It was the 1953 introduction of the AC Ace, designed by John Tojeiro, that would go on to have the biggest impact on the company’s fortunes (and its identity). Featuring a tubular steel frame wrapped in a body that could have come from Italy (but didn’t), the Ace’s independent suspension enhanced its agility. Power initially came from the same AC inline six that powered the 2-Litre (and dated to the 1920s), but in 1956 a Bristol-supplied 2.0-liter engine increased output from 100 to 120 horsepower. The Aceca Coupe, based upon the Ace roadster, joined the lineup in 1954.

The first attempt at stuffing a more powerful engine beneath the Ace’s hood came in 1961, when Ken Rudd found it was possible to fit a 2.6-liter Ford inline six in the space, and the Ruddspeed Ace was born. A year later, American Carroll Shelby approached AC with a request to supply Ace bodies, assuring the automaker he could supply Ford V-8 engines to build an Anglo-American supercar. Deal with chassis supplier AC in hand, Shelby then cut his engine deal with Ford, and the rest is automotive and racing history.

1963 Shelby 289 Competition Cobra

1963 Shelby 289 Competition Cobra, CSX 2085.

AC’s history doesn’t stop with the Ace or the Cobra. Its Greyhound 2+2, also based on the Ace and Aceca, was produced from 1959 to 1963, and at a quick glance can almost be mistaken for an Aston Martin DB5. The AC Frua, built from 1965-’73 upon the Cobra 427 Mk III chassis, featured a body by Italian coachbuilder Frua and a Ford V-8, and was intended to compete with grand tourers from the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. Even the AC 3000ME, first shown in 1973, might have punched above its weight with other mid-engine exotics from Italy, had development delays not pushed back its introduction to 1979.

It’s difficult to represent 113 years of AC’s history in a single exhibit, but the Simeone Museum plans to do its best in the brand’s retrospective. Models confirmed for display include a 1910 Autocarrier; a 1913  “Light Car;” a 1934 Six (16-70); a 1937 Six (16-80) SWB Competition; a 1937 16-80 March Tourer; a 1953 2-Litre Buckland Tourer; a 1957 Ace Bristol Competition; a 1957 Ace Bristol; a 1958 Aceca Bristol; a 1959 Ace; a 1960 Greyhound; a 1962 Ruddspeed Ace; a 1963 Shelby 289 Cobra (CSX 2099); a 1963 Shelby 289 Competition Cobra (CSX 2085); a 1964 Shelby 289 Cobra (CSX 2539); a 1964 Shelby Daytona Coupe (CSX 2287); a 1965 Shelby 427 Cobra (CSX 3130); a 1967 Frua; a Tojeiro AE20 prototype; and a 3000ME.

The AC Retrospective kicks off with a dinner on Saturday, February 18, and runs through March 12. For additional information, visit