Britain's oldest car company unveils a worthy successor to the Cobra. J ohn Simister reports
At Brooklands, in a modern industrial park close to the one-time epicentre of British motor sport, Britain's oldest car company (founded in 1901) is building Britain's newest sports car. AC's new Ace, after a long and painful gestation period, is on sale. And to show how serious AC's intentions are, the Ace has just made its US debut at the Detroit Auto Show.

The American dimension is important. AC is best known for its earth-shaking Cobra, a US-inspired development of the Fifties model which was resurrected in 1984 by the AC company's present owner, Brian Angliss. And it is Angliss who has masterminded AC's move to modernity, with Cobra production now making way for the Nineties equivalent of the original Ace.

This newcomer is hand-built, with aluminium body panels over a Chromweld stainless-steel substructure, so it will never rust. The Ace remains faithful to old-fashioned Ford V8 power. As with the Cobra, the 5.0-litre engine is borrowed from the fastest version of Ford USA's Mustang, and while no fire-breathing monster, it is a strong, simple motor that delivers a healthy 260bhp and 320lb ft of torque. Buyers have a choice of manual or automatic transmission, and so far half have chosen the latter.

That gives a clue as to the Ace's role. It is much less raw and violent than a TVR, with a quieter exhaust and a more subtle demeanour. Think of it as a less complex alternative to a Mercedes-Benz SL (cheaper than all except the SL280 at £56,250), or as a more exclusive, and expensive, rival to a Jaguar XJ-S. But to stand comparison with these cars, the Ace needs to have been thoroughly honed.

Small, specialist car-makers have a fine line to tread. What is a bespoke foible to one buyer could be an unacceptable quality shortcoming to another. And, here and there, the Ace falls off. There is little wrong with the exterior finish, indeed the paintwork is flawless, but the cabin has neither the industrially designed slickness of an SL nor the courageous curves and inspired detailing of a TVR. Naturally, there is a smattering of proprietary switches and handles, Ford mainly, but the same goes for most specialist cars. Tidily trimmed leather abounds, and the low-set driving position is first-class, except for the lack of a rest for the left foot. The hood, as you would expect, is powered by electric motors and, as with the SL, there is an optionalhard top.

The steering is light at low speeds, but perhaps too light to marry with the Ace's visual muscle. The engine pulls authoritatively from low speeds, and a gentle clutch and smooth, solid gearchange make seamless progress easy. A long accelerator pedal travel helps to avoid jerks, too, but also hides the engine's ultimate abilities for at the further reaches of the pedal's movement, the V8's voice will deepen and the Ace will hurtle away: 60mph is claimed to come up 5.9 seconds after a maximum-effort standing start.

On twisting roads, the Ace is wieldy and responsive, despite its considerable girth. The steering becomes firmer at speed, though still short of the feel desirable in a sporting car, and handling is friendly enough to encourage ready use of the tyres' considerable grip. There are no anti-roll bars in the suspension, but despite this, the body stays almost flat during fast cornering. The lack of these bars, an engineering purist's dream, helps towards the mostly supple and civilised ride, as does the stiff structure which is free of the shudder usual in open cars. But it is a pity that the suspension doesn't allow bigger wheel movements, because the car copes badly at high speeds on undulating roads.

This minor snag apart, AC's Ace shows every sign of thorough development and impressive ability. It has a pedigree, too, beyond sharing a marque name with a collection of charismatic ancestors. Its chassis is the work of Len Bailey, who designed the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40 in the Sixties, and the body design comes from the IAD studio in Worthing, which also styled the Mazda MX-5.

It has taken Brian Angliss a decade to get the Ace into production. He and the Ford Motor Company jointly owned AC for some of this time, and disagreements were frequent. Now, under Angliss's sole ownership, and with Ford re-cast in the role of willing parts supplier and technical collaborator, the Ace finally has a future. It deserves to be a rosy one.

SPECIFICATIONS AC Ace, £56,250. Engine: 4,942cc, V8 cylinders, 260bhp at 5,250rpm. Five-speed gearbox. Top speed 140mph, 0-60 in 5.9 seconds. Fuel consumption: 20-25mpg.

Comparisons Jaguar XJ-S 4.0 Convertible, £45,100. An all-new XJ-S is about a year away, but until then the old-style open Jaguar continues with its mix of smoothness, comfort, agility and charm. The 5.0-litre V12 version is yet faster and smoother, and costs a shade more than the Ace.

Mercedes-Benz SL500, £75,890. From its cast magnesium seat frames to its automatically erecting roll-over bar, the V8-powered SL is as densely engineered as a car can be. It is also fast, as fast as a manual Ace, despite being automatic-only. You pay forall this, of course, although the six-cylinder SL280 and 320 straddle the Ace's price point. The ultimate rational sports car.

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