Speed Scare - 1964 AC A98 Le Mans Coupe Ford
AC Cars was, and in fact still is one of the oldest independent British car makers in history. The company was founded by the Weller Brothers in 1903, and initially presented a 20 horsepower touringcar under the Weller name. However, their financial backer, a butcher by the name of Portwine, wasn't convinced a big luxury vehicle would be marketable, and pushed the Wellers to produce a small delivery vehicle instead.
This three wheeled contraption became known as the Auto-Carrier, and was in essence a motorized version of large carrier cycle. With a 631cc single-cylinder BSA motorcycle engine, two speeds and rear wheel steering, the Auto-Carrier became an incredibly popular option for commercial clients, who valued its ease of use, cheap running costs and dependable mechanicals.
Due to the success of the Auto-Carrier, the Weller brothers changed the name of their business to Auto Carriers Limited in a bid to establish more brand recognition. It was at this time the famous "AC" roundel emblem was introduced.
Just two years later, the firm returned to the world of motorcars with the introduction of the AC Ten, a small sporty two-seater. The effort was mostly in vain though, as the outbreak of a World War put paid to the Ten's chances of finding a foothold in the burgeoning car market.
After producing artillery shells and fuses during the war, AC resumed production and expanded their model range to include sportscars and large touring cars, just as originally intended. During this time the brand made a name for itself with 1919's six cylinder engine, which would usher in a new era of sporting excellence as the cars scored successes in speed trials.
After changing ownership twice, the firm changed names yet again to AC Cars Plc in 1930, under the management of the Hurlock family, who ran a successful haulage business. With the Hurlocks in control, the company was able to get back onto its feet after surviving yet another world war.
The AC 2 Litre represented the first tentative steps back onto the market in 1947, but the company finally hit it big in 1953. Impressed by a prototype presented to them by engineer John Tojeiro, the Hurlock family decided to buy the rights to produce his two-seater roadster, which would become known as the AC Ace.
Though a pretty and advanced design for the time, the Ace was held back by its ancient engine, which was essentially the same block created by John Weller back in 1919. More power from Bristol and Ken Rudd's modified Ford straight sixes helped the car along somewhat, but it wasn't until 1962 that the Ace would have the power to match its chassis.
Around the same time as the introduction of the Ruddspeed 2.6 cars, American racing driver and gifted engineer Carroll Shelby contacted the Hurlock brothers with an interesting proposal. While competing at Le Mans for Aston Martin, Shelby had noticed the Bristol-powered Aces perform very well in the 2 Litre GT category. Having seen their potential with smaller engines, Shelby was convinced the Ace would be the perfect candidate for a heart transplant.
After outlining his plans, Shelby was able to work with AC personnel to create the Ace 3.6 prototype, chassis CSX2000. Through a relocated steering box and a stronger gearbox, the car had been modified to accept a Ford 221 smallblock V8.
Having proved the concept, Carroll Shelby took the car back to America, and proceeded to refine it into the first Cobra, complete with a larger 260 (4.3L) V8. Near the end of its initial production run, the V8 was enlarged once more, this time to 289 cubic inches (4.7L)
It was this version of the car that would see widespread competition use during 1963. After Enzo Ferrari controversially walked out of a meeting discussing the sale of his company to Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II had sworn he would crush the Italian's core business in order to take his revenge.
This personal vendetta put a lot of momentum behind the Cobra project, as Ferrari only really cared about racing, and Le Mans was the most important event of all. Hell-bent on crushing the dominant Scuderia in both the prototype and GT-class at La Sarthe, Ford recruited Shelby to make the Cobra a Ferrari-beater.
This meant the hastily converted British roadster would have to take on the Ferrari 250 GTO, one of the most advanced and fastest GT racers of the time. Unsurprisingly, this was something of an uphill battle.
By then, the Ford V8's were pushing out nearly 400 horsepower, dramatically overwhelming the increasingly dated ladder chassis. So even though the Cobra was a monster in terms of pure acceleration, the immense chassis flex and crude suspension meant it was left for dead into and out of corners.
Crucially, the car couldn't make good use of its power on the long straights of La Sarthe either, as its open body caused massive amounts of aerodynamic drag. Shelby tried to remedy the situation by fitting the car with a rudimentary hardtop, but the Cobra was still a devastating 50 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour) slower than the Ferrari down the straights, as the 250 GTO was able to approach 299 kilometers per hour (186 mph).
It was clear dramatic modifications had to be made to the car for it to be able to keep up with the scarlet stallions. So for 1964, Shelby recruited young visionary designer Pete Brock to come up with a vastly improved coupe version, which would later be known as the Daytona.
At around the same time, AC Cars' own design team had identified the very same problems. And just like Shelby, they came to the same conclusions. Working completely independently from the American team, AC designer Alan Turner started work on a coupe version in the Thames Ditton factory in complete secrecy.
Turner's fully aluminium-bodied creation completely reinvented the Cobra concept. A long, tapered nose section, an extremely low and stretched out roof line, and an innovative sheer Kamm-tail were signified the main improvements over the aging bodyshell, and were directly inspired by the body of Ferrari's 250 GTO.
The car also sported vents in the front wings just like the Ferrari, and borrowed inspiration from Mercedes' 300SL by incorporating strakes over the wheel arches to improve airflow. The Ford 289 V8 remained, and was still connected to a Borg Warner T-10 four speed manual transmission.
Contrary to tradition, AC didn't bestow the car with a regular chassis number, choosing instead to designate it by its project number "A98". In comparison to its American brother, the A98 was 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) lower at 104 centimeters (40 inches) lower and overall more aerodynamic.
In terms of weight and power however, it was at a clear disadvantage. The Daytona was 17 kilograms (37 lbs) lighter than the British car at 1107 kilograms (2440 lbs). Moreover, the Shelby didn't really pay much attention to longevity, as its V8 was tuned up to 390 horsepower, 45 more than the A98 had to offer.
The A98 was done just in time for its first big test, arriving at the Preliminary test session at Le Mans in naked, unpainted aluminium under its own power. There it would meet its burger-chowing brother for the first time, as the original Daytona Coupe (chassis CSX2287) was present in the hands of Jo Schlesser (FRA) and 1961 F1 World Champion Phill Hill (USA).
Despite the talent and experience of seasoned AC factory driver Peter Bolton (GB) the A98 had a lot of trouble trying to keep up with the colonial. Turner's new body looked very striking and promising, but it really wasn't very good. Due to a dangerous amount of front-end lift, Bolton couldn't get the car over 260 kilometers per hour (161 mph), barely any quicker than the roadsters.
Aside from the stability problems, the team found the engine was running far too hot under the A98's sleek bonnet. The end result was predictably disappointing. The American coupe was clocked at 4:02.300, while the British version remained stuck at 5:01.100, nearly a full minute slower per lap. And with that, it was back to the drawing board.
Back at Thames Ditton, Alan Turner reviewed the results from the Le Mans test and came up with a number of fixes. The car's instability was dealt with by fitting a large ducktail spoiler to the rear of the AC, while a large vent in the bonnet was created to duct away hot air from the engine compartment and simultaneously resolve the front end lift problem.
Along with the aerodynamic improvements, the car finally received a coat of classic British Racing Green paint. Since the main event was just a few months away, Turner needed to test the A98 once more to see if his improvements had any effect.
To this end, the car was driven to the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) test facility located the former RAF Lindley airfield. The day turned out to be a waste however, as Turner found the car had in fact become too fast for the test track. With no straight long enough for the car to reach its full potential, another venue had to be found just two weeks before Le Mans.
After clearing his plan with the Hurlock family, Alan Turner sent his team, accompanied by Derek Hurlock, to conduct a max speed test on the M1 motorway. Since there were no speed limits on motorways at the time, this was actually a perfectly legal option. At 4:30 in the morning, the team assembled near the Teddington area at a Southern gas station.
Three time British Saloon Car Champion Jack Sears was the first to the A98 out for a spin, hammering down the public road at what was later calculated to be 185 miles per hour (297 kph). Then it was the turn of Peter Bolton, who recorded very similar results. Happy with the incredible advancements made, the team went to get a well-deserved English breakfast.
But the day wasn't quite over just yet. At around noon, Jack Sears received a call from a journalist for the Sunday Times asking about the test. The man had heard about the speed run from Derek Hurlock's nephew Tony Martin while the two were having drinks at a local bar.
Thinking nothing of it, since car manufacturers used the motorway for tests all the time, Sears corroborated the story, and a controversy was born. In an attempt to grab attention, the media made it appear as if Sears and Bolton had terrorized local motorists during the test, while in reality the road had been completely empty.
The media outrage elevated the A98 to nearly mythical status as on exaggeration after another hit the presses. Though it might not have caused it directly, the A98 case likely had a strong influence on the UK government's decision to introduce a 70 miles per hour speed limit across the country in 1967.
Regardless, AC Cars had more important matters to focus on. With the preparations finally finished, it was time for the main event. Qualifying at Le Mans once again underlined the hard work done by the factory, as Jack Sears and Peter Bolton were able to shave over a minute off their fastest time.
With a 3:58.200, the duo was just 2.1 seconds behind the fastest Shelby Daytona driven by Dan Gurney (USA) and Bob Bondurant (USA), and 4.1 seconds faster than the second Shelby driven by Jochen Neerpasch (GER) and Chris Amon (NZ). Tellingly, the Neerpasch/Amon car was the same that had been a minute ahead of the AC in the preliminary tests.
The A98 overtaking the 1000cc Alpine M63B of Roger Masson (FRA) and Teodoro Zeccoli (ITA), Le Mans 1964.
Despite the weight penalty, power disadvantage and a higher gear ratio, the A98 was able to match the American cars on top speed, confirming its superior aerodynamics. As a result, it qualified second in GT and 13th overall.
In any case, Ford mission had succeeded so far, as all three Cobra-derivatives out qualified the Ferrari 250 GTO/64, as the fastest Fezza was just 19th overall. With the pieces set on the chessboard, it was time to start the game.
The race was off to a good start, as the AC was able to chase down the prototypes at the head of the GT field. Hovering around 6th and 7th overall, the A98 was motoring along quite nicely indeed. An average speed of 193 kilometers per hour (119 mph) was nothing to scoff at either, but the race had only just begun.
Though no 24-hour race has ever been decided in the first few hours, it was smooth sailing almost all the way through Saturday evening, when Peter Bolton brought the car in for a routine stop at 19:30 local time. The stop itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but Bolton returned just a lap later with a terrible fuel pick up problem.
After twenty minutes of feverish tinkering, the AC mechanics finally discovered the source of the problem. Flaky debris of some kind had blocked the fuel filter, starving the thirsty Ford V8 of its favorite drink.
The fuel lines were soon flushed out, and the car was on its way again. Upon closer inspection, the junk drawn from the fuel lines turned out to be newspaper clippings, making the team suspect sabotage.
Around two hours later, at 21:26, the car was brought in once again. Taking just fuel and remaining on its quite aged set of tires, Peter Bolton steered the car back into the darkness. He wouldn't get very far. Half an hour later, he would receive the shock of his life.
While barreling down the high speed straight between Arnage and Maison Blanche on the funny side of 200 kph (125 mph), the A98 had one of its tires blow out in dramatic fashion. Peter Bolton inevitably lost control of the car as it started to flip several times through the air.
Ferrari driver Giancarlo Baghetti had been right on Bolton's tail in his 275P, and was unable to avoid the spinning AC. The Italian struck the A98 from behind, and followed it over the crash barriers. Despite damaging branches of trees up to six meters high, Peter Bolton made it out of the car with only minor injuries, and was transported to a local hospital.
Baghetti was not as lucky. Even though he was totally unharmed himself, his Ferrari had struck three spectators who had snuck into the restricted area beside the track. Sadly, it was a direct hit, and the three were crushed, losing their lives on the spot.
Unsurprisingly, the AC A98 had been totally destroyed by the several hard impacts it had sustained. The damage was so severe the crew didn't even attempt to bring the car back to life. Instead, it was taken back to a quiet corner of the Thames Ditton factory, covered with a tarp and promptly forgotten about.
It took until 1972 before the car was disturbed again. Eight years after that fateful day at Le Mans, regular AC campaigner Barrie Bird was finally able to talk the management into selling him the neglected wreck in that lonely corner of the factory.
After purchasing the corpse, Bird recruited the services of its original creator to rebuild its bodywork. As like would have it, fabricator Maurice Gomm had kept the original wooden bucks, enabling him to make near-perfect replicas of the original panels.
Over the course of twelve long years, the entire car was recreated nearly from scratch. In fact, the only panel on the car that was still original was the crucial rear spoiler. The car was finally ready in 1984, and had its full restoration recounted in a June 1986 issue of the French magazine Fanauto.
With the car back in full working order, Barrie Bird started to make it a staple of classic car meetings. The biggest of which involved a return to the hallowed grounds of Circuit de La Sarthe, as the car was taken back to be raced as part of the festivities surrounding the Le Mans Legend revival event.
While becoming part of the exhibition and vintage racing communities is to be expected for a car of the A98's stature, it has another ace up its sleeve. From the very beginning, the car had been registered for road use under the registration BPH4B, which is why it was driven to and from tests under its own power, and why it was able to do its infamous speed run on public roads.
This fact hasn't changed since its restoration, leading to the unique vehicle mixing itself with everyday traffic on Scottish roads. From regularity rallies to ordinary meets at restaurants, the one of a kind Coupe has seen it all. Though it was far from the most successful Cobra derivative, the A98 lives on today as a vision of what might have been.
Despite being slightly overweight and down on power, it was able to confidently battle its American brother. Even though it failed to finish, and the Shelby Daytona would garner all the fame, it was arguably the most competent of the four Cobra Coupes.
"Gentleman" Jack Sears, who drove all three variants that were actually raced in period, the Shelby, Willment and the AC, was certainly the most qualified to comment on their performance, and his findings speak for themselves.