The first car from what eventually became AC was presented at the Crystal Palace motor show in 1903; it was a 20 HP touring car and was displayed under the Weller name. The Weller Brothers of West Norwood, London, planned to produce an advanced 20 hp (15 kW) car. However, their financial backer and business manager John Portwine, a butcher, thought the car would be too expensive to produce and encouraged Weller to design and produce a little delivery three-wheeler. Weller did so, called it the Auto-Carrier, and a new company was founded and named Autocars and Accessories; production started in 1904. The vehicle caught on quickly and was a financial success. In 1907, a passenger version appeared, called the A.C. Sociable. It had a seat in place of the cargo box. The A.C. Sociable was described in a review of the 1912 Motor Cycle and Cycle Car Show as "one of the most popular cycle cars on the road, both for pleasure and business", and A.C. displayed eight vehicles on their stand, six for pleasure and two for business. The single rear wheel contained a two-speed hub, and the single-cylinder engine was mounted just in front of it, with rear chain drive.
The company became Auto Carriers Ltd. in 1911 and moved to Ferry Works, Thames Ditton, Surrey—at this time they also began using the famed "AC" roundel logo. Their first four-wheeled car was produced in 1913; it was a sporty little two-seater with a gearbox on the rear axle. Only a few were built before production was interrupted by the First World War.
During the Great War, the Ferry Works factory produced shells and fuses for the war effort, although at least one vehicle was designed and built for the War Office. At the end of the First World War, AC Cars started making motor vehicles again, designing and building many successful cars at Ferry Works, as well as expanding into an old balloon factory on Thames Ditton High Street.
After the war, John Weller started on the design of a new overhead-cam 6-cylinder engine. The first versions of this design were running by 1919. The Weller engine would be produced until 1963. In 1921, Selwyn Edge (who had been with Napier) bought shares in the company and was appointed governing director. He did not get along with Weller or Portwine, who resigned less than a year later. In 1922, the name changed again to AC Cars Ltd.
In customary fashion Edge sought publicity for the company through motoring competition. In 1921 Sammy Davis joined A.C. as a driver, competing in the Junior Car Club 200-mile (320 km) race, for cars up to 1,500 c.c., at Brooklands. In 1923 and 1924 J.A. Joyce won the Brighton Speed Trials driving an A.C. In May 1924, at Montlhéry, near Paris, T. G. Gillett broke the continuous 24-hour record in a 2-litre A.C., fitted with special streamlined bodywork, covering a distance of 1,949.3 miles. In 1926 the Honourable Victor Bruce, an AC employee, won the Monte Carlo Rally in his 2-litre AC. In 1927, Victor Bruce, with his wife Mildred (The Hon Mrs Victor Bruce), assisted by J.A. Joyce, set a 10-day endurance record at Montlhéry, driving an AC Six.
Selwyn Edge bought the company outright for £135,000 in 1927 and re-registered it as AC (Acedes) Ltd but sales, which had been falling, continued to decline. The company was caught by the crash of 1929 and went into voluntary liquidation. Production ceased for a time, and the company was sold to the Hurlock family who ran a successful haulage business. They wanted the High Street factory only as a warehouse (Ferry Works was not acquired), but allowed the service side of AC to continue.
A single car was made for William Hurlock in 1930. He liked it and agreed to restart very limited production, mainly using components left over from previous models. An agreement was reached with Standard to supply new chassis, the ancient three-speed transaxle was replaced by a modern four-speed gearbox (built in unit with the engine), and by 1932 a new range of cars was finally launched. Production continued on this small scale, averaging less than 100 vehicles per year, until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The final pre-war car was delivered in June 1940, after which the factory was fully involved with war production.
Production of cars restarted in 1947 with the 2-Litre using the 1991 cc engine from the 16, and also a large contract with the government to produce the fibreglass-bodied, single seat, Thundersley Invacar Type 57 invalid carriages with BSA engines. The 2-Litre used an updated version of the pre-war underslung chassis fitted with the AC straight-six and traditional ash-framed and aluminium-panelled saloon or convertible coachwork. The invalid carriages continued to be built until 1976 and were an important source of revenue to the company. They also built an aluminum-bodied three-wheeled microcar, the Petite. They also produced "Bag Boy" golf carts (with independent suspension to the two wheels!). In 1949, AC Cars also produced four trains, each consisting three power cars and four coaches, for the Southend Pier Railway in Essex. These remained in use until 1976.
In 1953, the firm began production of the AC Ace, based on a lightweight chassis designed by John Tojeiro and Hand built Aluminium Body designed and built by Eric George Gray with the venerable Weller-designed 2-Litre engine. Soon after, car dealer and racing driver Ken Rudd fitted his own competition Ace with a pre-war BMW-designed, Bristol-produced 135 bhp (101 kW) six-cylinder engine. This combination was put into production as the AC Ace-Bristol in 1957. In this form, the car raced at Le Mans in 1957 and 1958.
For 1954, a new aluminum-bodied closed coupe was unveiled at Earls Court, the AC Aceca. It was only slightly heavier than the convertible Ace, and because of better aerodynamics was actually slightly faster (128 mph (206 km/h) top speed). Only 328 Acecas were produced, and they were equipped with either of the Ace's engines. There was a demand from some customers for a larger four-seater car, for whom AC produced the Greyhound. This was built on a stretched Ace chassis with coil suspension all around and a 2.2-litre Bristol engine.
In 1961, Bristol stopped producing their own engines—and once again, Ken Rudd came to the rescue, suggesting that AC use a 6-cylinder engine from the Ford Zephyr. These engines when fitted with the Raymond Mays twelve-port alloy head and Weber carburetors could be made to produce a safe 170 bhp (127 kW) and a 125 mph (201 km/h) top speed. The AC Ace 2.6 (as it is latterly known today) is for many people the prettiest Ace of all—and undoubtedly the rarest, with only 37 such cars built. To fit the Zephyr engine, AC had to modify the frame, relocate the steering box and completely change the nose of the car. These changes are often mistakenly attributed to Carroll Shelby.
Today, Acecas are popular at historic racing events. Arch McNeill, a factory Morgan racer from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s told fellow Texan and Aceca owner Glenn Barnett that "the Morgan team spent two years campaigning to beat the factory AC Acecas and finally did in the late 1950s". Though more valuable than comparable AC or Shelby replicas, the Aceca is still a bargain when compared to a Shelby CSX Cobra, while maintaining similar performance.
The company also ventured briefly into railway rolling stock business, building five four-wheel railbuses for British Rail in 1958.
In 1962, AC was approached by Carroll Shelby to use a small block Ford V8 engine in the Ace chassis, producing the AC Cobra. Shelby needed a car that could compete with the Chevrolet Corvette in US sports car racing. The resulting Cobra was a very powerful roadster, and it is commonly blamed for the introduction of the 70 mph (110 km/h) limit on British motorways. While this was a major factor in the decision, after a coupe version was caught doing 196 mph (315 km/h) during a test run, a then-recent spate of accidents under foggy conditions also helped the introduction of the limit.
At the end of the 1964 racing season, the Cobra was being outclassed in sports car racing by Ferrari. Carroll Shelby decided he needed a bigger engine. A big block Ford FE series 390 V8 was installed in a Cobra and the result was scary—the car was virtually undrivable. It was decided that a completely new chassis was needed. With the combined help of Ford’s computers and the experience of the AC engineers, the new MKIII was born with 4-inch (100 mm) main tubes instead of 3-inch (76 mm) for the chassis, huge cross-braced shock towers and coil springs all around. This, along with a bigger 427 ci version of the FE, made the new AC Cobra MKIII an absolutely unbeatable 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) racing car. Specifically, the engine that was installed in the car was Ford's famed 427 FE NASCAR "Side-Oiler" V8, a power-house engine developing 425 bhp (317 kW) in its mildest street version. Unfortunately, the car missed homologation for the 1965 season and was not raced by the Shelby team. However, it was raced successfully by many privateers and went on to win races all the way into the 1970s. The AC 427 Cobra, although a commercial failure when in production, has now become one of the most sought-after and replicated automobiles ever.
It was produced in two versions: a street model with a tamer motor, optional dual carburetors, a glove box, and exhaust running under the car, and a competition version with a stripped interior, no glove box, different instrument layout and revised suspension. The competition version also had a more powerful motor with only one carburetor, side exhausts, a roll bar and wider fenders to accommodate racing tires. At the end in 1966, Shelby was left with 31 unsold competition cars; he decided to sell them to the general public under the name of Cobra 427 S/C or Semi-Competition. Today these S/C cars are the most sought after models and can sell in excess of 1.5 million dollars.
Carroll Shelby sold the Cobra name to Ford in 1965 and went on to develop the famed racing Ford GT40.
Meanwhile, AC went on producing a milder version of the 427 MK III Cobra for the European market fitted with the small block Ford motor. The car was called the AC 289 and 27 were produced.
At the same time, the company realized they needed a grand tourer model that could appeal to wealthy customers. AC contacted the famed Italian coach builder Pietro Frua to design an appealing GT body that could be fitted on a MKIII Cobra chassis stretched by 6 inches (150 mm). The new car was shown at the 1965 Turin show. A few early models were fitted with the famed 427 Ford FE motors. In 1967 the long-stroked 428 motor became available and the car was known as the AC Frua. Built out of steel rather than AC's usual aluminum, the Frua is heavier than a Cobra at slightly under 3,000 lb (1,400 kg). That said, it is still a light and very fast automobile built on a racing chassis. The car was never fully developed and the cost of sending chassis from England to Italy and back for final assembly made it so expensive that only a few were produced. Production ended in 1973 after only 80 cars (29 convertibles and 51 coupes) were finished.
In 1970, a special version of the coupé was built. It was based on an extended bodyshell that Frua built for Monteverdi which was supposed to become the second Monteverdi 375/L. After the alliance of Monteverdi and Frua split off in Summer 1969, that bodyshell remained in the Frua works in Turin. A year or so later Frua changed some details on front and rear, including some semi-hidden headlamps which had been seen on the Iso Lele and the Iso Grifo, second series, before. The car was called AC 429; it remained a one-off.
The 1970s were not a good period for luxury car manufacturers and Derek Hurlock went searching for a totally new smaller car. Mid-engined designs were in fashion at the time and in 1972 the Diablo, a prototype with an Austin Maxi engine and transaxle, was built by privateers Peter Bohanna and Robin Stables. In much the same way as they had taken up the Tojeiro prototype and turned it into the Ace, AC acquired the rights and at the 1973 London Motor Show showed their own version, the mid-engined ME3000 with the 3.0-litre Ford Essex V6 engine installed transversely over a bespoke AC-designed gearbox. Development was virtually complete in 1976 when new Type Approval regulations were introduced. A prototype failed the 30 mph (48 km/h) crash test, and the chassis had to be redesigned. On the second attempt, the car passed with flying colours. This was a huge achievement for a tiny firm—Vauxhall had to make several attempts before the contemporary Chevette passed. For AC, such delays meant that the first production cars (now renamed 3000ME) were not delivered until 1979, by which time they were in direct competition with the Lotus Esprit. Although comfortable, brisk, nicely built and practical, AC's ambitions of selling 250 cars per year were a distant memory. After just 71 cars were sold, Hurlock called a halt to production as his health was suffering and the company was struggling in the teeth of a recession. In 1984, production stopped at Thames Ditton and the car and the AC name were licensed to a new company registered as AC (Scotland) plc run by David McDonald in a new factory in Hillington, Glasgow. Here, 30 cars were built, including a development car tested with Alfa Romeo's 2.5-litre V6 engine and a nearly complete Mark 2 prototype of the same. Regardless (or possibly because) of these developments, AC Scotland called in the receivers in 1985. After selling the historic High Street works for redevelopment, AC themselves soldiered on as a service operation in the "21st Century" works on Summer Road until the Hurlock family finally sold their holdings in 1986 to William West. After some complex machinations the company was split between property interests and the car brand; the former was renamed and the latter was acquired by Brian Angliss.
In 1982 Brian Angliss was running Autokraft, a Cobra restoration shop, parts supplier and replica manufacturer. To further such pursuits, he acquired some of the tooling from Thames Ditton and created the MKIV; the car had US-spec 5 mph (8.0 km/h) bumpers, a US-regulations compliant motor, and a larger interior with modern switchgear. About 480 cars were produced in his factory at Brooklands. He also produced a lightweight model which was more in tune with the original Cobra spirit, though it could not be exported to the US owing to federal regulations.
Early cars were sold as the Autokraft MKIV, but eventually Angliss acquired the rights to use the AC name. Derek Hurlock had been strongly protective of the name, but Angliss' high standards of craftsmanship won him over. When the Hurlock family finally sold up in 1986 Angliss fully acquired the AC trademark rights and set up a new AC company as a joint venture with Ford, who had also recently bought Aston Martin. A big conflict followed over the future direction for AC, but Angliss eventually won his independence as well as Ford's continuing and essential cooperation as an engine and parts supplier.
Also interested in aircraft, Angliss restored a Hawker Hurricane XIIB at Brooklands as well as acquiring two ex–Indian Air Force Hawker Tempest IIs as future projects. The Hurricane was registered as G-HURR and was destroyed in a fatal accident at the Shoreham air show in 2007.
Angliss looked for a new car to complement and perhaps replace the MKIV. At the 1993 London Motor Show, he introduced a new vehicle that he named the AC Ace. It was a modern automobile with a stainless steel chassis and an aluminum body, but was expensive to develop and build. The costs hit Angliss hard and he sold his large motor bike collection, vintage Bentley and other assets to try to make ends meet. The receivers were called in by 1996 after approximately 50 "new" Aces had been built.
In March 1996, largely due to the cost of developing the new Ace, Angliss' company went into receivership and was eventually sold to Pride Automotive in December 1996, who continued car production in Weybridge, Surrey under the name of AC Car Group Ltd. The AC trademarks and intellectual property were transferred to Acedes Holdings, LLC. Both the Cobra Mk IV and the Ace were made, and soon a 'CRS' version of the Mk IV was announced with a carbon fibre body shell, a 212 S/C version with Lotus twin turbo V8 power, as well as the AC Superblower with a supercharger Ford V8. Two or three closed Aceca coupe versions of the Ace were also made.
In 2003, Carroll Shelby International and AC Motor Holdings, Ltd. announced production of an authentic Shelby/AC Cobra, with the production vehicle arriving at dealers in July 2004. Initially, available models included Shelby AC 427 S/C Cobra and Shelby AC 289 FIA Cobra, which would be branded as the CSX 1000 and CSX 7500 Series, respectively. In February 2004, the first handcrafted aluminum body shell was built.
Due to rising costs in the UK, AC relocated to Malta in 2005 and started production of the carbon-fibre-bodied AC MkV. Due to problems with the factory building, production ceased in 2007.
In 2007, AC announced a joint venture with Brooklands Motor Company (the spiritual successor of Autokraft) in Weybridge, Surrey, UK and confirmed plans for the continuation of the traditional AC designed tubular chassis and aluminium-bodied models.
In April 2009, a joint venture in Germany was announced to manufacture the new AC MKVI. Following a supply deal with GM, the AC MKVI had a novel spaceframe chassis, 6.2 litre V8 engine and 6-speed manual transmission, and new Corvette brakes, retaining the original shape in lightweight composite material with the moulds taken from an original AC MKIII body. The car went into series production in July 2012 after two years of intense prototyping and development.
In 2010, AC announced a joint venture with the USA-based company Iconic which resulted in the design of the ultimate "Cobra": the "Iconic AC Roadster".
Acedes Holdings, LLC is the current owner of AC Cars.
At the Geneva Motor Show in 2012, AC Cars showed three different models: the AC MK VI, AC MK II, and AC 378 GT Zagato.