1954 AC Ace
Year of manufacture1954
Number of seats2
The ex-Works, Derek Hurlock, John Gott, Ken Rudd, Paul Fletcher, Bob Staples, Tulip Rally class winning, Goodwood race winning
1954 AC Ace Roadster
Registration no. UPJ 75
Chassis no. AEO1
'Of them all, the Ace was the truest sports car: it could be used for daily commuting or for high-speed long-distance touring, but it could also be driven to a race meeting, campaigned with distinction, and driven home again - even if that race was the Le Mans 24 Hours.' - AC Heritage, Simon Taylor & Peter Burn.
An influential and widely imitated design, the AC Ace (and its Cobra derivative) could trace its origins back to a one-off sports-racer built by chassis engineer John Tojeiro for Cliff Davis in 1952. The success of Davis' Tojeiro sports-racer prompted AC Cars to acquire the rights to the design, which was put into production in 1954 as the Ace. The Davis car's pretty Ferrari 166-inspired barchetta bodywork was retained, as was Tojeiro's twin-tube ladder frame chassis and Cooper-influenced all-independent suspension, but the power unit was AC's own venerable, 2.0-litre, long-stroke six. Designed by AC co-founder John Weller, this overhead-camshaft engine had originated in 1919. Nevertheless, in tuned form the Ace enjoyed great success in production sports car racing. Only 223 cars were delivered with the 2.0-litre AC engine compared with 463 Bristol-engined cars and a further 37 Ford-powered examples. Also crucially it is only the AC engined version such as this car, which is eligible for the Mille Miglia.
The historic car offered here, chassis number 'AE 01', is the first Ace built by AC Cars and is believed to be that displayed in chassis form at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1953 beside the Tojeiro-built prototype. The first Ace was road tested by Motor magazine (1st December 1954 edition, copy on file) and also for a national newspaper by future Formula 1 World Champion, Mike Hawthorn, who described it as 'beefy'. He also amusingly referred to the acceleration as 'like a rent owing tenant'!
Registered 'UPJ 75', 'AE 01' was soon cutting its teeth in competition, commencing on 29th May 1954 at Silverstone with AC's Managing Director, Derek Hurlock, at the wheel. Hazel Dunham then drove the car at Goodwood, and in the Alpine Rally in July, with Hurlock back behind the wheel for the London Rally in September. He next drove 'AE 01' in the 1955 RAC Rally (held in March). In April, John Gott took over for the Tulip Rally, finishing 1st in class and 11th overall, and defeating no fewer than ten arch-rival Triumph TR2s in the process. At the time John Gott (who went onto lead the BMC works rally team), used to write detailed reports in Autosport, in which there is reference to his run in the Tulip in AE 01. Copies are on file.
There were a few more competitive outings for 'AE 01' whilst retained by AC Cars in various hands including those of famed Ace driver and tuner Ken Rudd, before the car was sold to Paul Fletcher, whose first event, at Goodwood on 10th June 1958, resulted in a win. Fletcher enjoyed considerable success with 'AE 01', adding another win and a 2nd place at Goodwood, and a 3rd place finish at Mallory Park before the season's end.
The Ace was then sold to Bob Staples who would become one of the stars of the thriving national production 'marque' sportscar racing scene with it. Staples first race with his new acquisition was at the Boxing Day meeting at Brands Hatch on 26th December 1958. Staples had commenced racing in 1957 with a tuned Ford Consul, graduating to a brace of Triumph TR2s and then a Lotus Eleven before purchasing the Ace.
In a memoir on file, Bob recalls: 'The AC is used daily for work and has proved successful in racing with a second place and fastest lap in the large sports car class at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day behind a Bristol-engined Frazer Nash.
'In this event I was very pleased to share the front row of the grid with Colin Chapman, Mike Costin and Jim Clark in their Lotus Elites. This was followed by a class win by over 10 seconds at Brands Hatch on March 1st...' At the BARC's Goodwood meeting on 14th March he was excluded from the results following a spin while in 2nd place, but had the satisfaction of lapping faster than any AC had before at the Sussex circuit.
Also on file are copies of correspondence between Bob Staples and AC Cars relating to his racing activities with 'AE 01' and their assistance with them. This most comprehensive history file also contains copies of Staples' racing notes showing lap times, tyre pressures, weather conditions, results achieved during the 1958/59 seasons, etc; numerous copies of race reports describing the car's successes; and a copy of the 1960 Whit Monday Goodwood programme cover showing 'AE 01' leading the field in the March 1959 event. By this time, AC-engined Aces were considered un-competitive, but Staples' car was very successful and as fast as many of the Bristol-engined versions. In a letter on file he says: 'The car went like the proverbial bomb, and I could give most AC Bristols a run for their money'.
Motor Sport magazine featured Staples' Ace on the cover of its April 1959 edition (copy on file) and towards the end of that year he advertised it for sale in Autosport's December edition, describing it as fitted with 'every possible speed and suspension modification'.
One of its subsequent owners advertised the Ace for sale in November 1968, the last time that it has been offered on the open market; it was purchased by the current vendor early in 1969 and has been a much-loved family member ever since. Fifty years ago, the then 14-year-old Ace was just another old sports car (the term 'collectors car' had yet to be invented) and despite its historical significance was used for all manner of everyday duties: transporting children, carrying shopping, travelling to work in summer, etc. In fact, the owner very nearly didn't buy the Ace because it was 'an early one', and when the seller mentioned it had been raced and rallied that was almost enough for him to walk away!
When purchased, the AC clearly needed some work, so the first rebuild took place around 1970/1971. Everything was stripped out, the paintwork taken back to bare alloy, and the car re-sprayed. A new wiring loom was installed and various new components purchased, while the engine was rebuilt with new pistons, liners, valves, etc. Most of the chromium brightwork was re-plated and new shock absorbers fitted, as was a new stainless steel exhaust system. The chromework, amazingly, is still almost as good as new, and the shock absorbers and stainless exhaust are also still on the car. Apart from its periodic rebuilds, 'AE 01' has been used regularly and fairly continuously in the 49 years of the vendor's ownership. While other cars came and went, the Ace survived.
Between 1994 and 1999, a complete 'last nut and bolt' body-off restoration was undertaken, including a professional interior re-trim. The Ace was stripped to bare metal, the body was taken off the chassis, poor areas of aluminium were cut out and replaced, and the body was carefully replaced. The chassis was stripped, re-painted, and all necessary parts, bushes etc replaced. It was then re-sprayed in cellulose after many of the inner body panels had been replaced, while at the same time, the engine was rebuilt and all components either renewed or refurbished (details on file). Subsequent works have included suspension bushing (2001); engine work with new pistons and liners (2003); leaf springs reset and re-tempered, radiator refurbished (2010); engine fully rebuilt by AC specialist Rod Briggs, carburettors and distributor fully refurbished (2013); new Michelin X tyres and new windscreen glass fitted (2015); new battery fitted, cylinder head tested and work done following No.1 cylinder leak (2017). In addition, in 2017 the correct wood-rim steering wheel was repaired and fitted having been off the car for at least 30 years.
As the first proper (AC-built) Ace, and with substantial international rallying and UK circuit racing history, all in the 1950s, it is inevitable that 'AE 01' should incorporate a number of departures from the original standard specification. The most obvious of these modifications is the addition of bonnet and side vents. The former can be seen in photographs from as early as 1955. The side vents were added sometime before June 1958 when the car commenced its major circuit-racing career (see Goodwood photograph of Paul Fletcher). The inner wheelarch panels are rounded, unlike the normal standard 'square cut' variety. Also, a quick-release panel within the main panel is fitted to allow better access to the front suspension.
The rear of the car was modified to a shorter boot and rectangular rear light cluster, as per 'later' cars. It is not clear when or why the boot modification was carried out, but a rear-view photograph from Autosport in May 1959 shows the short boot with a single rear light unit, while in the 16th October 1959 edition the Ace is shown with the rectangular lights.
The chassis plate shows that engine number 'UMB 2058H' was installed originally. It is believed for racing purposes an updated engine, 'CL 2235' was fitted (equating to late 1955/early 1956) which in turn was modified to 'CLB' specification (see letter on file from AC Cars). When bought in 1969, the engine had a special camshaft with an exaggerated profile, which regularly broke valve springs so was replaced. There is evidence on file of similar problems experienced by Bob Staples when racing.
The suspension's transverse spring arrangement is quite different, in that the original mounting points in the centre of the main carriers have been removed, and new mountings further out on the carriers installed. This is often referred to as a 'Cooper Spring' arrangement. The overall effect is to give shorter spring travel, making the suspension stiffer. It is likely this was carried out for the circuit race programme (ie in the late 1950s).
The car was fitted with front disc brakes during its competition period. These, of course, became an option and then standard on the Ace from 1957. The wire wheels are 56-spoke type, as fitted from 1957 also. They too would have been part of the competition upgrades.
The full width curved screen is a one-off; it is not a Cobra or normal Ace curved windscreen. The screen is wider and shallower, and the side arms are fabricated specifically to give a much more angled mounting than the standard straight arms.
This was no doubt done to improve the aerodynamics for circuit racing. It is interesting to see that of the many racing photographs, some show this screen fitted while many others show a racing-type fly screen. This is accounted for by the differing regulations for the production sports car events entered.
The car has been fitted with a closing/lockable glove compartment, at least since the late 1960s (early cars had an open version). From a security and practical point of view the later design is preferable, so has been retained.
Some other, more minor, modifications have been made since the Ace was purchased in 1969; these include a cartridge-type spin-on oil filter; halogen headlights (the original P700s are among the spares); a battery/ignition cut out switch; and K&N carburettor air filters (much more efficient). During the full rebuild of 1994-1999, captive fittings were fitted wherever possible, e.g. for wiring loom clips, ancillary electrical fittings and so on, facilitating speedy removal and replacement.
In addition to the parts mentioned above, the car comes with the original racing radiator shroud, still showing its pale blue livery, and the high-lift racing camshaft fitted by Paul Fletcher, while the various other spare parts include a specially manufactured spare windscreen since this car's is unique.
As well as the aforementioned documentation, the exceptionally comprehensive and detailed history file contains copious correspondence between the vendor and various suppliers and other AC enthusiasts; a vast quantity of MoT certificates dating back to 1969; and numerous invoices on file for the more recent restoration (close inspection recommended). Amongst the correspondence are original letters from Betty Haig, talking about the car's early history, with whom the owner was in touch at that time.
More recently AE 01 was a feature car in Stephen Bayley's book Cars (etc....), published in 2008. AE 01 has been recently MOT'd to April 2019. Covering only 1,000-1,500 miles annually, the Ace has, arguably, been almost 'over maintained', with at least 2-3 on-ramp inspections in recent years for routine cleaning, greasing, etc of the underside. The vendor has always liked his cars to be pretty much as good underneath as they are on top, and the Ace is no exception, as an under bonnet inspection will verify. Having said that, 'AE 01' is no 'trailer queen' but a very honest car, as well as an historic one representing a unique opportunity for the discerning collector.