My Car Quest

February 24, 2019

The Mid-Engine (Almost) AC Shelby

The Almost Superstar: How two Californians invented a car that almost made it into production….

by Wallace Wyss –

Ya gotta admit, in the performance car world, Carroll Shelby was an inspiration to many. Here’s the basic formula for his success, in a nutshell: Guy discovers car made in Europe. He discovers American car company that needs performance car. He takes engine from American company, jams it into the European car and gets them to produce the car.

Now with Shelby the car was the AC Bristol, a two seater with an aluminum body. The engine was the small block Ford. He cropped up on Ford’s radar just when Ford was starting a big Total Performance push. The rest is history (the AC Shelby Cobra).

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Now you look at the history of the Cobra, going back to its AC roots, you find AC bought the design from an independent specials builder. And AC kept doing that, because decades later AC officials go to another car show and see a mid-engined car built by independents, called the Diablo.

They buy the design and put it into production. By now it’s the ‘70s. Mid-engined is all the rage. AC introduces it as the AC 3000ME — a small 2-seat mid-engine sports car powered by a transversely mounted Ford Essex 3.0 liter V6.

The car was wedge-shaped with a fiberglass body. It had what you call a ‘bathtub’ steel chassis with substantial front/rear subframes and an integral roll bar. Suspension was independent double-wishbone suspension all around, and it boasted rack and pinion steering, and four-wheel disc brakes.

AC 3000 ME

AC 3000 ME

With a rearward bias of 40:60 weight distribution it delivered excellent handling. But was a slow seller, painfully slow, mostly due to the fact that they kept raising the price to get ahead of cost and eventually found themselves priced higher than the Lotus Turbo Esprit, a car that was more stylish and faster.

THE SHELBY EFFECT

One thing could save it. History could repeat itself if America could get interested. Then the Shelby Effect took effect. This time it was two guys. They had already got into the car field by importing Pantera parts (and whole Panteras) after Ford had dropped the Pantera like a hot potato.

One of the two, Barry Gale, was over in Europe and saw the AC and ordered one without a drive train. Once it arrived Stateside, he showed it to his partner, Steve Hitter.

Steve, well steeped in the Shelby Formula, thought the same: “We’ll just put an American engine in this and do like ‘ol Shelby did.”

The first engine they installed was a GM-sourced V6. But GM, you look at their history, they are not what you call welcoming to outside firms who want to sell them a ready made car even if it uses their engine. The cold shoulder is what they got.

Then they run across their hero Carroll Shelby. They sang their tune and something had a familiar ring, i.e.: AC chassis-American engine. By this time Shelby was tied in to Chrysler, trying to whip up enthusiasm for their little front drive cars.

Hey, he told his two biggest fans, he’d be willing to run it by Chrysler, and directed them to bring it over to his skunk works-style development shop in Santa Fe Springs. Once there, the car got a fuel injected turbocharged Chrysler 2.2 liter four cylinder.

Chrysler Shelby

Now about the styling. As it arrived from the UK, it was a nice shape but the detailing was all wrong, every detail distracting from its svelte shape. Steve Hitter, a graduate car designer, restyled it to look more modern, and it was even painted Chrysler colors. All hopes were pinned on the reaction of The Chairman, Lee Iacocca, when he made his next visit.

THE CHAIRMAN VISITS

Lee Iacocca dropped by on a scheduled visit, to see some front drive cars and Ol’ Shel rolled out the AC, and the end of the line of modified front drivers, hoping The Chairman would notice it, fall in love and green light it. (Just like in the movies, the prince notices the face in the crowd, yadda-yadda…). If Iacocca noticed, he didn’t say much, other than he was there to look at front drive cars and this prototype was rear wheel drive. And so it was. The Chairman had spoken.

Their mid-engined baby was banished from Chrysler, all because the Chairman had failed to see its charms. Shelby didn’t want to push uphill. AC gradually wound down their operations in England and sold off.

What happened to the prototype? It went into a deep slumber.

I predict that it will re-emerge into the limelight just as Pete Brock’s racing prototype, the 250K, a sports car built on a Triumph but spurned by Triumph, did. It is now worth vastly more than when Brock sold it off as he went into modifying Datsun 510 sedans.

What is the Gale-Hitter prototype worth?

AC 3000 ME

Well, that depends on how much you believe it was a Chrysler prototype. I think enough pictures exist with Shelby standing beside it to show it was at least under consideration on the Engineering side.

Now that the “Shorty Mustang”, a customized 1964 two seater Mustang built by independent designer Vince Gardner and sponsored by Ford in the Custom Car Caravan sold for over $500,000, there’s hope that this AC, a one-off, will be similarly recognized as the fruit of a road not taken…

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of SHELBY: The Man, the Cars, the Legend, available direct from the publisher at 715 381 9755.

 

 

AC 3000 ME

Summary
The Mid-Engine (Almost) AC Shelby
Article Name
The Mid-Engine (Almost) AC Shelby
Description
This proposed AC Shelby was turned down by Chrysler's Iacocca.
Author

Comments

  1. Vinnie Vidivicchi says:

    The GM Fiero was virtually the same product as commercialized by an army of bean counters.

  2. What a sensational albeit understated car the AC 3000 ME was… and looks great in just pretty much every color too…

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