25 Nov 2014

A snakey tale

There can be very few cars which have had such an interesting history with so many twists and turns as the AC Cobra.It started life as the AC Ace-a very British tweed jacket and flat cap sports car made by a small independent car manufacturer,AC Cars in Thames Ditton,Surrey,UK. I remember cycling one day in the summer school holidays to the AC factory when I was 11 years old-they had not invented helicopter parents then and there were hardly any cars on the road either.It was about an hour's ride from my home.I arrived expecting to see a yard full of beautiful sports cars but what I found was a small factory turning out British government invalid cars designed for use by amputees.

Now I am sure that the amputees- it was close to the end of the second world war so there were many of them-were very grateful to this device for giving them mobility but to me it was like something from a horror fairground ride.A small crude fibreglass bodied single seater powered by a motorcycle engine.The AC invalid car was actually banned from British roads in the early 1970's as it was deemed too dangerous.How sad that a war hero who lost a limb in climbing out of an exploding Spitfire could have perished in Brixton High Street under a London bus a few years later in an invalid car.

Now it should be pointed out that in no way were AC involved in the design of this horror-they merely built them under contract but there could not be a greater contrast than between the AC built invalid car and the Cobra.If you had to design the world's most dangerous car you could pass on the Pinto,the Corvair and even the Trabant for inspiration.You would go straight to the AC built invalid car.With a high centre of gravity,a very narrow track and short wheelbase,a thin light fibreglass body with zero crash resistance which was highly susceptible to cross winds -indeed even a fast moving truck could blow it off course-with very crude steering,narrow tyres,basic brakes,a crude transmission and a temperamental motorcycle engine and minimal performance it was disaster in blue fibreglass.
I cannot include a photo of the invalid car as those I have found are subject to copyright.

But I digress .The AC Ace was originally powered by an AC engine but this was soon replaced by a 6 cylinder Bristol engine -which was a BMW pre war design-then to give it more herbs they put in a 6 cylinder Ford Zephyr engine in 1961.The top photo below shows an AC Ace-photographed at this year's Le Mans Classic.

Then Carroll Shelby discovered the Ace and squeezed in a Ford V8 and as they say the rest is history.In fact the first Cobra was quite an elegant car but soon the tyres got wider and the wheel arches grew and it became a bulbous device -a far cry from the very elegant lines of the Ace.The AC Cars company disappeared in the 1980's and then was resurrected and if I remember correctly was even partly owned by Ford for a while and then it disappeared again and was resurrected again....
There were continuation runs of genuine Cobras and a whole industry making replicas had started up.The lines between a genuine Cobra and a replica and a continuation became very blurred.It is such an easy car to replicate-a simple chassis,a Ford V8,a Jaguar rear end and in the cheaper replicas a fibreglass body or in the better examples such as this one seen at this year's Le Mans Classic an aluminium body.

I went to the Le Mans 24 hours in 1999 in a friend's Cobra replica.I have to find the photos.It was an experience.We just made the cross channel ferry out of Portsmouth after having to investigate a noisy wheel bearing soon after we departed.Despite its huge size it had no weather protection-a rain jacket was mandatory and the worst aspect was that the boot (trunk) was totally filled with an enormous spare wheel and tyre with absolutely no space for luggage.And there was no space behind the seats.So I had a small rucksack filled with camera gear (and I carried a lot more gear in those days) and my clothing and soap bag on the floor between my legs and the seat.Talk about uncomfortable.
Both photos Leica X1.The top one is a big crop so is not the usual standard.

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