The AC ME3000

Nearly two years have passed since AC Cars Ltd. first revealed their mid-engined, Ford 3-litre V6-powered, two-seater sports car and still the car hasn’t reached the production stage. To find out the current situation with the car we visited the Thames Ditton factory of this company, which is 21 years older than the title whose Jubilee this magazine is celebrating this month. There we talked to Derek Hurlock, the Managing Director, and were sent out for a brief drive in one of the two mobile prototypes. If the ME3000’s gestation period has seemed particularly protracted it should be remembered that work had begun only recently on adapting the bought-in Maxi-engined Diablo design of Peter Bohanna and Robin Stables when the lashed-up, Ford-engined prototype appeared on the 1973 Motor Show stand. Any other company would have had its future projects well and truly under wraps at that stage, and the similarly long gestation period before announcement would have passed quietly and secretly; AC chose to reveal all in the interests of keeping the company name exposed while no longer selling cars (the Frua-bodied 428 had been dropped because of body supply problems, fortuitously in the light of later world problems). Although more development work remains to be done before the sales launch—even the crash-test programme has yet to begin—Hurlock hopes to have accurate, pre-production ME3000s on this year’s Motor Show stand and estimates that the first customers should receive their cars early next year. An eventual 40 per week production target is aimed for.

Though the basic concept hasn’t changed since 1973 there have been many detailed modifications made and several more will come before production starts. The well-used prototype tried does not truly represent the final product; the facia is to be changed, the seats lowered, a new roof panel adopted to increase head-room and improve vision, and the nose altered to “make the car less banana-shaped”, as Keith Judd, the Assistant Sales Manager, put it. Aluminium bodies for the Ace, fixed-head derivatives and Cobras (a reminder of whose Tojeiro parentage was given by Vincent Davison, who worked on the Ace prototypes with John Tojeiro and was working on a new prototype ME3000 steel perimeter platform chassis during our visit), and steel for the Frua 428s make the use of glass-fibre sound alien to AC. In fact they’ve had an active glass-fibre shop for years now, bodying those controversial, Steyr-Puch-engined, three-wheeled invalid carriages which have provided the company with bread and butter and financed the new model since car production stopped. The ME3000’s double-skinned bodies are moulded in conventional fashion, unlike Lotus’s advanced injection moulding, but even on these prototypes the finish is excellent. The bodies bolt to the platform chassis, which have massive box-section side-members to assist the side-intrusion members in the doors with crash protection. Wishbone/coil-spring suspension is hung on to the bolt-on subframes at both ends.

As is now well known, this AC’s Ford V6 engine is mounted transversely amidships and connects with the five-speed gearbox by a triplex chain, the supply and design of which has just been changed from American Morse to British Renolds. It has an automatic hydraulic tensioner and Hurlock foresees no problems in service; changing it should be relatively simple in any case. The gearbox is of AC design using Hewland gears (semi-straight-cut racing ones on the test car so very noisy—production gears will be fully helical) and Ford synchromesh, the size of which is about to be increased to prevent problems like the almost total lack of synchromesh on the test car’s second gear.

This new AC has an excellent detail specification, including a rigid, removable roof panel which stows above the spare Wolferace alloy wheel under the front “bonnet”, electric windows, electric retractable headlamps, a rollover bar, tinted glass and through-flow ventilation. There is a deep boot with its own lid in the tail. On practicality it is the equal of Lancia’s Beta Monte Carlo.

You sit deep into the ME3000, within the high sills. The driving position is good, legroom ample, and major switch-gear readily to hand on Triumph-type steering-column stalks. Forward visibility will benefit from lowering the seat, three-quarter rear vision is poor, as we’ve come to expect from mid-engined cars, and the high-back vinyl seats are very comfortable, though they left us wet and sticky on this particularly hot day. After the relatively short distance we drove the car it would be both unwise and unfair to draw too many categoric conclusions from this unfinalised specification. It promises to hold the road superbly on its fat 205/60 section tyres and the handling at our moderate speeds felt precise, with little roll, though a slightly cross-pitching, undulating surface caused some steering deflection. The steering would benefit from a bit more feel, has a sensible ratio, is light at speed, but heavy when manoeuvring. Ride, fairly harsh at low speeds, grows good with speed. All-disc brakes are excellent in feel, progression and performance (helped by anti-dive geometry), agreeing with their best-ever road-car read-out on the Girling computer.

AC’s choice of the lusty Ford V6, characterised by its wide spread of torque, flexibility and reliability seems a sensible move; it is good for pottering when road conditions and the law demand it, yet will move this under-17-cwt. car with alacrity when asked, particularly when the splendid gear ratios are used properly. The test car’s gear-change was easy, though not especially pleasant, on the move, but 1st and reverse were sometimes almost impossible to engage from rest, a cure for which is in hand. Less than 4,000 r.p.m. is demanded at 100 m.p.h. in 5th gear, which will stretch the car to 135 m.p.h. plus. If the economy of the similarly-engined, but considerably bigger and heavier Scimitar is anything to go by, this AC should be capable of amazingly low consumption figures.

“Late developer, but shows great promise”, sums up the AC. It will be good to see the name AC back on the roads, carried on a sports car using the modern layout pioneered in contemporary racing, followed by most exotic road-car manufacturers and shunned by British Leyland. With this and the forthcoming new Lotus, likely to be pitched against each other at around £5,000, the fading British sports-car scene is beginning to look a lot brighter. We look forward avidly to trying the Broadspeed turbocharged ME3000 which AC intend to offer as an option. Watch out, Porsche Turbo!—C.R.