Snake bite

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As we rumbled along Vickers Drive, away from the apparently recession-proof bustle of Brooklands industrial Park, the passage of fresh February air across the cockpit of a 1992 AC Cobra threatened to blow away the magic.

The spell had been cast by the astonishing quality of the fabrication work witnessed at AC Cars Ltd, and the potent legend that surrounds its most famous son, the Cobra.

It’s now nearly 30 years since the Cobra and its Daytona coupe sibling sped to the World GT Championship title. Today, the authenticity of even the most genuine of Cobras is diluted by the enormous number of fakes and/or replicas that abound. Even our demonstrator, fresh from the factory in a lightweight trim that would have demanded £94,842 from a UK buyer (£80,623 ex-VAT for export), was accosted by a knowledgeable motor trader who enquired: “What sort of Rover V8 runs in that?”

We winced for the current Cobra’s pride, for it is every bit as enjoyable as the original (I have driven a 289 on the road and two racing examples) and rather better made. . . as well it should be, when the price for the exquisite endeavours of AC’s skilful 60-strong workforce is nudging towards six figures.

Such craftsmanship is not the deceitful claim of some typically glossy brochure, but is deeply rooted in AC’s employees. The enormous premises (65,000 sq ft) have been home to AC Cars and Autokraft since 1988. Autokraft proprietor Brian Angliss also acquired total ownership of AC Cars Ltd in 1992, purchasing the remaining interests of Ford Motor Co.

I was staggered.

The whole set-up cries out to be occupied by a major international trading company rather than a specialist car constructor, particularly one so firmly lodged at the expensive end of the scale.

For a start, the capacious main factory floor is packed with up to 170 historic motorcycles, many of them restored to a standard I have not seen in 30 years of enthusiasm for two wheelers. Scotts, Rudges and Velocettes stand mute alongside some super MV Augustas and Nortons. Yet even this array of polished metal and seductively painted frames and tanks (which can be viewed on public days, or by prior arrangement see postscript) is overshadowed by the aeronautical restoration work.

There is a completed Hurricane, but the real rarity is not just one but a pair of Hawker Tempests, presently being reassembled spar by spar, panel by panel. Any car but the Cobra would be overshadowed by such neighbours.

The 16-gauge aluminium panels draped over the four-inch steel tubes of the main chassis members and the high standards of trim made this one of the most eagerly awaited test drives for a long while.

It did not disappoint.

The creation of a Cobra to meet current worldwide emissions standards sounds like a recipe for emasculation. One wonders whether it’s simply a question of providing a saleable product whilst the latest version of the AC Ace (which will use Ford’s Cosworth honed 24v V6) edges closer to scheduled availability? The Ace comes on stream this summer.

That idea is quickly dismissed. Your first serious depression of the long travel throttle tells you that the lightweight-spec Cobra has every right to its name. The company’s own performance claims (obtained by the same electronically monitored methods as MOTOR SPORT uses for its own road tests and features) backs up that impression. Are you sitting comfortably…? From rest to 62 mph (100 kph), it averaged 4.35s over two runs. 0-100 mph? Can you spare around 10 seconds of your time, sir? (10.06, to be pedantic.)

No horsepower figure is actually quoted for J955 SPH, but the performance certainly felt on a par with the 345 bhp claimed for the fuel-injected, catalysed ‘Lightweight’. The demonstrator was beautifully carburated. I use the phrase more because of the car’s manners than for its impressive polished chrome decor. Only the sharp drop in rpm whilst repeatedly turning around during our photographic shoot betrayed that this was a not a fuel-injected version of the current Ford 5.0 V8 (101.6×76.2mm).

As with any original Cobra that has not been viciously modified, this one drove and rode with an easy charm that contradicts your expectations from the moment that the clutch is fully home. I used a conservative 6000 rpm in first and second. This brought home the long-legged performance potential generated via a Borg Warner five-speed gearbox (T50D, a relative of the T5 that graced the old Sierra Cosworth) and its 3.31:1 final drive. The Cobra whipped to 45 mph in first gear, 70 mph in second. In top, non-standard 15-inch wheels, shod with Pirelli P7s, aided acceleration rather than cruising, but the plumper 275/55 VR rears and the 225/65 (rather than the usual 225/60) fronts enhanced the handling. This still allowed us to lope along at 70 mph, little more than 2000 rpm in the overdriven (0.68:1) fifth.

Many cars have been attributed with a Jekyll & Hyde character in automotive journalism’s book of lazy clichés, but the Cobra is the closest thing to a motorised schizophrenic that 1 have ever encountered. One look at its bulbous outline tells you that its function is breezy speed. I sampled one customer Cobra with the optional hardtop, and it proved to be unpleasantly claustrophobic, and obviously neither draught nor waterproof. Still, on a wet day that would be a better option than not using your Cobra.

The amiable eight-cylinder rumble up 2000 rpm (only TVRs provide a better ‘rolling thunder’ soundtrack), the comfortable embrace of leather seats, the outstanding ride on coil springs and Koni dampers. . . it all lulls you into thinking this is just a tame tourer. The boot is large enough to make the Cobra a suitable touring companion, although carrying around a full set of tonneau equipment and a full-size spare (front-wheel sizing) does rather diminish its practicality. Our advice would be to leave the hood at home. On the move, the AC is far more comfortable than a Morgan and less heated in the cockpit than a TVR Griffith.

Become a bit more ambitious with the throttle, however, and you discover that the Cobra’s venomous sting is intact.

From 2000 to 6000 rpm, approximately 2500 lb of Cobra is flung forward by up to 316.5 bhp per ton. The Pirellis and Salisbury limited slip differential restrain any wild hip-shakes once the initial take-off is completed, but the Cobra still quivers with vibrant energy under full throttle. It is one of the very few cars that has the overtaking abilities of a motorcycle, an asset made all the more accessible by the broad power band.

Legend has it that an extended Cobra is very hard to handle. l can still experience total recall of a transversely leaf sprung five-litre Cobra cantering as much sideways as forwards along the dry tarmac of what was known as Bottom Bend (nowadays Graham Hill Bend) at Brands Hatch. That experience has always tempered my approach to Cobra motoring, yet the examples I have tried since that ’70s assignment have done exactly what I asked of them, and more.

The current car remained composed, even when provoked on damp tarmac. The wooden-rimmed Nardi wheel, attached to rack and pinion steering, swung more easily through the 3.6 turns from lock to lock than anticipated. One expected 225 tyres to be harder to park without power assistance than was the case, and I was rewarded with excellent feedback as well as moderate loads on the move. Under open throttle provocation in the first three gears, there is always the possibility of unsticking the 275 Pirellis at the rear, yet they would carry on relaying precise messages about loads and surfaces. At the same time, the loyalty of the front wheels was assured beyond the bounds of public road reason.

That I enjoyed driving the Cobra may be evident. Any enthusiast would be alert to such pleasures. Fan though I am of the Lotus/ Caterham Seven, I have to say that I would crawl out of that four-cylinder cockpit to experience a genuine Cobra again. lf the AC was parked alongside the astonishing TVR Griffith (a third of the Cobra’s price when Rover powered), I might think about jumping ship once more, such is my regard for TVR performance and style. More likely, the traditional pull of the Cobra would keep me in its seat . . . but only just.

What is not so obvious is that I and the people who buy these aluminium panelled artefacts – gain almost as much pleasure from simply looking over the Cobra at rest. It is not beautiful in the manner of a 1960s V12 Ferrari, but it is immaculately constructed, painted and assembled. 

Old or new, the Cobra seems to attract the same price premium. It is motoring’s equivalent of the biggest, roughest diamond you can find, one you should collect yourself from its creators, savour. . . and never sell on.

J W

For more information regarding possible visits to AC Cars, contact Mary Jane Wilkinson, AC Cars Ltd, Vickers Drive, Brooklands Industrial Park, Weybridge, Surrey KT13 OYU (0932 336033).

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