A Cobra in all but name
Twenty years ago endurance racing was in its heyday, and the Grand Touring category was graced by such machines as the Ferrari GTO (the ultimate in classics today), lightweight E-types and Porsche 904s. Onto this scene came a newcomer, Carroll Shelby’s 4.7-litre AC Cobra, even then a somewhat crude machine which proved fearsomely fast… so fast, in fact, that it led the Daytona 2,000 kilometre GT race overall for seven hours, driven by Dave Macdonald and Bob Holbert, then succumbing to an overheated differential. The date, February 1964.
At the end of that year the Shelby Cobras were placed third overall in the World Sports Car Championship having been fourth overall at Daytona and fourth overall at Le Mans, where Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant campaigned a coupe version, and these cars continued to give good account of themselves in the next couple of seasons, winning the GT category outright in 1965.
The Shelby Cobras were not merely scoring a lot of points, they were also marking a watershed in motor racing history, signalling out the era when drivers raced in shirt sleeves and could be seen, easily, hard at work on the Targa Florio circuit or at Goodwood. They did not handle awfully well on fast circuits like Spa, but they were great favourites with the crowds and they made a lot of noise…when the big V8 engines bellowed, you could feel for the driver as he wrestled to keep the car pointing in the right direction!
Not surprisingly there have been a great many imitators over the past ten years or so, replicas abounding in America, for instance, and bearing a fair resemblance to the originals. But at Brooklands, inside the boundaries of the banked track, Autokraft are in the business manufacturing the real thing, genuine AC badged sports cars that have everything except the Cobra name… that’s the property of the Ford Motor Company and they’re keeping a tight hold on it.
The Autokraft AC MkIV could not be described as a replica since Brian Angliss has negotiated with AC for the right to produce the cars, and has all the original jigs and dies to do the job; he even has some of the original craftsmen on his production line, which is turning out two cars each week. They have aluminium bodies, just as the originals did, but have been carefully modified and improved in such a way as to meet present-day legislation.
The chassis is still made up of four-inch diameter steel tubes in ladder frame style, but the dimensions have been altered to add six inches to the length of the cockpit and four inches to the width, the windscreen having moved forward three inches, so that the interior is suitable for people… well, Dan Gurney’s size (heaven knows how he drove the original car). Each body, made of 16 gauge aluminium rather than the lighter 18 gauge of the original, takes around 200 hours to make, and the standard of trim and finish can only be described as concours. Wilton carpet and Connolly hide are used in the cockpit, leaving no doubt that this is a connoisseur’s car.
To meet international construction and use regulations the bumper bars, which look very original, are mounted on the telescopic struts in order to meet the 5 mph impact test. The steering column is collapsible, again to meet impact requirements, and a dual hydraulic system is used for the brakes, serving 11.63 in ventilated front discs and 10.75 in solid rear discs. The Mark IV, which Angliss describes as an evolution, “what the AC would be today, if it had remained in production”, has such refinements as plastic mouldings inside the wheel arches to protect the aluminium, also lining the boot for the same reason, and a decent amount of heat and noise insulation material on the front bulkhead.
Angliss’ Autokraft company has specialised for a number of years in supplying off-the-shelf parts for AC Cobras, even to the replica firms, and specialised increasingly in restoring and repairing these machines. It was only a small step, or so it seemed, for Autokraft to go into manufacturing, but the path was bumpier than it looked at first. Having negotiated the name with AC, Angliss then made a dozen cars early in 1982 and shipped these to Chicago, where the agent was willing… but lacked the all-important type approval. It took protracted negotiations with Ford (helped by the fact that Walter Hayes is a friend and former neighbour of Angliss) to get the formal go-ahead, and since then Ford have been very helpful to the whole project. The American manufacturer has ordered a series of cars which will be featured in dealers’ showrooms, with a price tag of $39,950 (about £30,000), and has given tangible assistance in engineering terms by developing the suspension, which is now fully adjustable with castor adjustment, Rose jointed on the top links, and stiffened.
Most of the cars that leave the Weybridge factory will be rolling chassis, leaving the power unit to the customer’s choice (so long as it’s a Ford, naturally). The recommended unit is the Boss Ford, the 302 cubic inch (4,984 cc) V8 which can develop anything from 200 bhp in standard trim to 400 bhp for the road, more still for circuit use. Power is transmitted by a Borg Warner T5 5-speed gearbox and a Salisbury rear axle which has a limited slip differential, and the independent suspensions at the front and rear are by unequal length wishbones and concentric coil/spring damper units.
The Mk IV we took away for a day was bound for Johannesburg immediately afterwards, the customer having specified a 350 bhp version of the Ford engine. Brian Angliss was bemoaning the fact that it didn’t have as much top-end power as it should, but the brute force of the acceleration from rest left little to the imagination.
The doors, very small and light, allow restricted access to the cockpit, and the first thing you realise is that the pedals are offset to the left (in a left-hand drive model), as dictated by the enormous bellhousing and transmission cover. The pedal box has been extended in the course of updating, which seems just as well, since you have to shoe-horn yourself in.
The steering wheel is fully adjustable for the height and reach, and we chose the full up-and-out position to gain thigh clearance.
To suit all the power, Angliss fitted the strongest clutch available and this turned out to be immensely heavy, feeling like the brake pedal. The throttle was rather stiff and heavy too, and we felt that all three pedals could really have done with servo assistance!
Modernised though it may be in a few respects, the Mk IV is still a brutal car. Huge, aluminised silencers are positioned underneath, below the doors, and they only slightly alleviate the rumble of the engine which turns heads hundreds of yards away as the AC accelerates up the High Street.
The wind howls in from all directions, weather protection consisting of nothing more than a tonneau and sidescreens, and on a cold day in March there were probably many better ways of getting from Brooklands to the Chobham test track, or any other A to B journey you can think of. The first four ratios are very closely spaced indeed, fourth being ideal for pottering along at 40 mph, and fifth is a much higher gear for the open road.
On a derestricted road, or more particularly on a track, the AC takes on a completely different identity. When you get Chance to keep the throttle pressed down for more than a couple of seconds the car rockets up the road in a blare of sound, leaving twin lines on the tarmac…weaving lines, from left to right and back again, interrupted by the first gearchange, illustrating how much power there is to put through the massive Goodyear Eagle tyres. For the record, they are 215 section at the front and 255 section at the rear, mountedon Hallibrand centre-lock 15 inch wheels, 7½ inches wide at the front and 9½ inches wide at the rear.
“You should have been able to get wheelspin in third gear as well”, Angliss told us later. That wasn’t really on, the way car was set up, but it would have been of fairly academic interest because it would have called for unusual dexterity to keep the car pointing straight ahead at upwards of 70mph. People like Sir John Whitmore and Richard Attwood were rather good at that and they’re welcome!
We had expected the steering to be rather more direct than it was, and this revealed that a lower geared rack is now fitted with
3¼ turns from lock to lock, rather than the original 2¾ turns. Even the new specification sounds all right, and the steering certainly isn’t particularly heavy,
yet our choice would still be the heavier and more direct ratio, for as the tail lashes under acceleration the driver has to work away pretty hard at the steering wheel to keep pace with events.
The brakes felt very strong indeed, though the pedal travel increased a little when they got really hot. The speedometer was disconnected so we had nothing to calibrate to bring you a set of searing acceleration figures, though an American magazine has recorded 4.3 sec to 60 mph with a 300 bhp engine, which is a full second quicker than a Porsche Turbo.
Within the limits of adhesion the AC felt safe enough on the test track, understeering a little with power applied, and to round the day off we took it onto the steering pad to see what vices could be found . . . and it was very reassuring. Understeer builds up gradually until the front wheels are sliding, and increasing the power progressively brings the tail round until the whole car is drifting in a nicely balanced fashion. You can apply too much power and spin the whole thing round, but it would take a very foolish driver to do this by mistake, a spin being the more likely outcome of lifting off too abruptly with a lot of cornering force applied.
Modern-day cars are a lot more sophisticated in terms of comfort, ride and handling and no amount of tinkering could make the AC anything but a period piece. The ride is very firm indeed, though there’s no hint of bottoming on broken surfaces, and the whole car fits together as a superb
throwback to the Sixties, the era of raw, rugged power and to hell with Nader!
If you wanted one today you’d have to join a long queue behind Americans, Germans, and a whole lot of other nationalities (there is even one being built for Japan), and as it lacks British Type Approval, getting it registered would be something for the customer to negotiate. To be honest, if we could afford a car like that, we’d ship it out to a nice warm climate and keep it there for holiday motoring. It is nice to know that one company is keeping the heritage of Brooklands alive, and helping Britain’s balance of payments. — M.L.C.