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Who says it needs to be a Cobra?

We go out and about in this 1956 AC Ace Bristol, as raced in the Reims 12 Hours in 1956. The car comes up for sale at Bonhams’ Monaco auction, this Friday May 13th.

The AC Ace has become synonymous with violence, courtesy of the Ford V8 Carroll Shelby managed to squeeze in the small British roadster. As the AC Cobra, it became one of the all-time greats in automotive history. But that was in the sixties. Before that, the AC Ace was a whole different thing.

Photo Dirk de Jager


AC, short for Autocars and Accessories, was in need of ‘something exciting’ come the fifties. That something happened to be residing with another engineer. AC’s Ernie Bailey was looking with envy to a project selfmade engineer John Tojeiro had undertaken for racing driver Cliff Davis. Tojeiro had created an almost exact copy of the Ferrari 166, powered by a 2-litre six-inline Bristol engine. Bailey considered the Tojeiro Bristol just the right thing for AC’s portfolio.

In October 1953, AC presented the Ace, with just slight modifications to the design: a big windscreen, slightly higher placed headlights and a more pronounced ‘moustache’ around the grille. And it carried AC’s own 2-litre six-cylinder engine. Tojeiro had to adjust the exhaust manifold of the AC engine, and in the process he managed to liberate another 5 hp.

The AC Ace was very much the star of the Earls Court motor show in 1953. John Tojeiro would receive a 5 pound royalty on the first 100 cars that were produced for his efforts. AC started production of the Ace in 1954.

Photo Dirk de Jager


It seems like the quest for more power in the Ace was an ongoing story for years on end. AC would go with the 2.6-litre Ford Zephyr engine later, before Shelby started asking for modifications for a V8. But first, there was the 2-litre Bristol six-inline to procure more power. The Bristol was a copy of the BMW 328-engine, with downdraft inlet ports and SU carburettors instead of Solex. The Bristol was an engine that lent itself to tuning, hence it was a popular choice to go racing.

Photo Dirk de Jager

In 1956, AC offered the Bristol engine for the first time in the Ace. It delivered up to 130 hp, 30 up from the AC engine in its best form (it started out with 80 hp). All of a sudden, the AC Ace was a 120 mph roadster, news that fell well with the racing circles. The car we have with us here is the sixth racing AC Ace Bristol built. It was originally built in left-hand drive configuration, as it was headed to the famous Equipe Nationale Belge, the Belgian national racing team Jacques Swaters led.

The yellow ribbon on the green coachwork gives just a modest indication of the car’s racing colours. As such, this is already a very delicate touch, especially compared to the all-yellow Ferraris we have come to associate with Equipe Nationale Belge and the Ecurie Francorchamps.

Photo Dirk de Jager

Reims 12 Hours

Chassis number BEX 135, one of 463 Bristol-engined AC Aces, raced for the first time at the Reims 12 Hours sports car race, where it finished eleventh overall. In the 2-litre engine class, it of course had no easy task in taking on the Ferrari 500 TR. Belgian Michel Ringoir, who raced the car at Reims with Scheid, would go on to buy the car from Swaters. He continued racing it through 1956, but sold it back to Swaters in 1957. The next owners were famous Belgian industrialists/gentlemen-racers Jean ‘Beurlys’ Blaton and his brother Armand ‘Blary’.

The Blaton brothers raced the Ac Ace locally in 1958, but had it lined up for Armand to race it at the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours together with André Pilette. In 1957 and 1958, AC Ace Bristols finished in the top ten at Le Mans. In 1959, a Bristol-powered AC Ace even scored a class win. Sadly not the Belgian entry though. Blaton drove the Belgian Ace on the Le Mans testday in 1959, but had to forfeit the race due to a business appointment.

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Photo Dirk de Jager

Better balance

The AC Ace Bristol makes it pedigree clear from the first moments behind the wheel. The deep grunt of the engine translates into an impressive torque flow, from the lowest revs on. This engine likes to pull. It has enough low-end grunt, you can stick to one gear for a long time. Whereas an AC Cobra is meant to scare you witless at first, the Bristol-engined AC Ace has a more sophisticated approach to it. Shall we say it? More gentlemanlike?

Photo Dirk de Jager

That impression goes out the window the minute you start pushing the engine a bit more. There is real power here. Just as is the case with the Cobra, the AC Ace Bristol is a car that demands a strong input. You need to show it where you want to go, without hesitation. In return, you will find it very rewarding to drive. The six-inline allows you to explore the chassis a bit more, something that is less easy in the V8 Cobra. That is all a case of too much engine, too little chassis. The AC Ace Bristol is a much more balanced proposition.

Photo Dirk de Jager

Drum brakes

The four-speed gearbox is long on throw, but precise in the movements, making for secure shifts. The 1956 Ac Ace still had drum brakes, so you need to calculate a bit of time when slowing down. But even though there is little feeling in the brake pedal, the performance is more than adequate.

The Bristol story ended in 1962, just as an American fellow came knocking on the door.

This AC Ace Bristol is auctioned through Bonhams at the Monaco sale, on May 13th. It carries an estimate of 350,000 to 450,000 euros.

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