It could have been a success.
Scratch that. It should have been a success and become revered as one of the quintessential sports cars for the post-oil crisis world. Instead, its fate was to become a footnote to the page headed ‘also-rans’.
It’s the AC 3000 ME, and this is its story.
The devil rides in…
It begins at the 1972 Racing Car Show in London, for it was there that freelance designers and engineers Peter Bohanna and Robin Stables proudly showed a wedge-shaped sports car prototype of their own design and manufacture, the Diablo. Though produced on a shoestring budget, the Diablo was an attractive and well-engineered car. It ran, too, courtesy of a mid-mounted 1485cc Austin E series engine as seen in that doyen of performance cars, the Austin Maxi.
The Diablo was much admired by the press and public alike, but its debut would also be its swansong, for the project was purchased – lock, stock and ignition barrel – by one of Britain’s oldest car manufacturers, AC. Best known for the legendary Cobra, AC was producing two cars in 1972: the AC 428 (otherwise known as the AC Frua), which trickled out of its Thames Ditton works in tiny numbers, and the Invacar, a three-wheeled car designed for use by disabled people and built for the Department of Health and Social Security. Production of the 428 was soon to cease, and AC hoped that the Diablo, suitably modified, would be the right car to take the company forward.
AC’s engineers wasted no time in getting down to work. The overall shape of the Diablo was retained, but almost everything else about it was discarded. AC’s new car might resemble the Diablo, but it would be a very different car under the skin. Even the chassis was radically different.
Keen to build up interest in their new car, now known as the 3000 ME, AC displayed a non-running prototype on their stand at the 1973 London Motor Show. It looked the part with its low, muscular stance and retractable headlights. It promised to go well, too, with power being supplied by Ford’s well-proven 3.0-litre, 138bhp Essex V6 engine. Production was slated to commence in 1974, with the price expected to be somewhere in the region of £3,000 to £4,000.
Working on a dream
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that AC’s original time-scale was optimistic, especially for a small company that was intent on building many of the car’s components in-house. Even so, it’s likely that the ME would have been released in the mid-1970s had its manufacturer possessed greater resources.
Unfortunately for AC, two things happened in 1973 that made the task of getting their new car to market harder and more expensive. The first was the worldwide energy crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War. The second was the advent of the Motor Vehicle (Type Approval) Regulations. Introduced in 1973 and frequently amended in the years that followed, the type approval regulations added extra delay and expense to a vehicle’s journey from drawing board to highway. Having been introduced on a one-size-fits-all basis, the regulations had a proportionately greater impact on small, low-volume manufacturers than on larger, better-resourced car companies – as AC was about to find out.
Although the ME was unquestionably well built, it initially failed a test which had been added to the type approval process in 1975. The ME was duly re-engineered and passed the test with flying colours, but the expense incurred was not inconsiderable for a company of AC’s size. And the extra cost went hand in hand with another precious commodity: time. Launch date after launch date slipped past with no sign of the car.
What the world is waiting for?
The ME was well received when it was finally launched in 1978, but its lengthy gestation period meant that it now found itself competing against cars that it could have beaten to market, including the Porsche 924 and, in particular, the Lotus Esprit. In 1978, the Esprit was sailing along on the tide of interest resulting from its starring role in the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Even without that boost (or, for that matter, the reflected glory of Team Lotus’s Formula One successes), the nimble and handsome Esprit was formidable competition.
And the competition wasn’t the only issue. Thanks to delay, expense and rampant inflation, the launch price of the ME was rather higher than AC had predicted in 1973. Instead of £3,000 to £4,000, the ME came in at the much meatier figure of £11,032. But even that was far below what it needed to sell at if AC was to stand any chance of breaking even on the project.
Handle with care
After such a long lead-in to production, the motoring press was understandably keen to try out the ME in production trim. Peter Dron of Motor was first out of the blocks, conducting an impromptu road test in August, 1979 using a borrowed demonstrator. Dron liked the ME, but was so perturbed by the car’s handling that he raised his concerns directly with Keith Judd of AC. The company blamed the tyres, recalled the demonstrator and arranged for another example to be provided to Motor. This one handled well, but it would be far from the last time that the ME’s handling came in for criticism.
In March 1980, Autocar was the first magazine to conduct a full road test of the ME. The Autocar reviewer observed that the ME was an attractive, well finished and practical car with brisk (0-60 in 8.5 seconds, 120mph) rather than rapid performance. Reservations, however, were once more expressed about its handling.
The issue with the ME’s handling was a simple one: it lacked rear grip and was susceptible to lift-off oversteer even at relatively modest speeds. When Mel Nichols of Car magazine, who had many positive things to say about both the car and its manufacturer, suggested to AC that wider rear wheels, anti-roll bars or revised rear suspension geometry would do much to tame the ME’s unruly rear end, his views were politely dismissed. The problem, said AC, lay not with the ME but with the journalists’ lack of driving ability!
Money’s too tight to mention
AC’s initial projections had been for a production run of 20 cars a week. However, the price of the ME, the lack of a dealer network (by 1981, the ME was only available directly from the factory) and the prevailing economic climate combined to thwart those ambitions.
There was little that AC could do about the price. The government contract for the Invacar had ended in 1977 and the company’s other engineering operations were having to support a car manufacturing division that was losing money. After years of trading at a profit, AC made a loss in both 1979 and 1980. Against that background and with annual inflation in double figures, the price of the ME was only ever going to head in one direction.
In spite of AC’s best efforts, ME sales remained brutally low. By the early 1980s, the company began to downsize. The main Thames Ditton factory was sold, workforce numbers were cut and car production ceased. Only 76 MEs had been built.
Tinseltown in the rain
That wasn’t the end for the ME, though. A deal struck in 1984 between AC and Scottish entrepreneur David MacDonald saw production of the ME move to Hillington, near Glasgow.
MacDonald’s plans for the ME were nothing if not ambitious: a mark 2 version would be developed and production would reach 400 cars a year. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way, and only 30 cars were built in Scotland before MacDonald’s company folded in 1985. Given more time and money, MacDonald’s experiments with an Alfa Romeo V6 engine and the mark 2 prototype (which was near completion when his company folded) might have given the ME a new lease of life.
As it was, the ME very nearly made a comeback with a new name, new shape and new engine. After production in Scotland came to a halt, Aubrey Woods, the former Technical Director of BRM, and John Parsons purchased the remnants of David MacDonald’s company. At their base in Hertfordshire, the two men completed work on the prototype mark 2 ME, replacing its Alfa Romeo V6 with a turbocharged Fiat twin-cam. They gave the car a new name, too: the Ecosse Signature. In 1988, Woods and Parsons showed the Ecosse at the British Motor Show in the hope of attracting sufficient funding to put it into production. Alas, their hopes came to naught and the Ecosse project faded into obscurity.
And that, finally, was that.
AC 3000 – The bitterest pill
Looking back, there wasn’t much wrong with the ME. It was a good car which, with a little work, could have been a great one.
Its relative lack of straight-line performance was easily rectifiable. More power – up to around 180bhp – could be coaxed from the Essex V6 without too much ado. And if that wasn’t enough, Silverstone-based Robin Rew produced a turbocharger kit that took power up to around 200bhp.
Likewise, the ME’s handling issues could have been addressed without major expense. Fitting wider rear tyres was one option, and Robin Rew, who competed in hill climbs in an ME, found that making a slight change to the rear suspension geometry markedly improved rear grip and stability.
In short, the car wasn’t the problem. Instead, the problem was one which has long been the bane of low-volume manufacturers: money. Or, rather, the lack of it. It’s reasonable, I think, to assume that the ME’s lot would have been rather different had it been produced in less inflationary times or by a company with greater financial resources, such as Ford.
Why do I mention Ford? Because in 1981 the Ford-owned design house, Ghia, presented a re-bodied ME that took the Geneva Motor Show by storm. For a time, it seemed that it just might be put into production. Had that happened, then the ME, backed by Ford and wearing an ultra-svelte new set of clothes, would surely have been a success.
Could have. Would have. Should have. Wasn’t.
Sometimes ability just isn’t enough, and close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.