Even those who know very little about cars recognise the AC Ace Bristol. Such is the power of the AC Cobra in pop-culture that even the most disinterested can see the lineage between the V8 monster adapted by Caroll Shelby and the plucky Auto Carriers Ace.
However, what most don’t appreciate is that the Ace itself was the descendant of another car. In the mid-1950s an engineer with a name only recognised in the racing paddock began working on a design idea in his back garden – where it seems most groundbreaking British motorsport designs of the 50s and 60s were spawned.
John Tojeiro was born in Estoril in 1923 but moved to England in 1924 when his Portugese father died and his English mother settled the family in Swanage. After a difficult start at school, John began to buy scrap motorcycles and recommission them, using his natural eye and knowledge gained from an apprenticeship in the Fleet Air Arm to recommission and improve the chassis for his own use.
In many ways John Tojeiro became a constructor more by chance than intent. In the early 1950s he began building a chassis for a “special” intending to race it himself. Before he completed it, someone came looking to buy. Somewhat surprised but not necessarily in a position to decline supplementary income, Tojeiro accepted the offer and so set about building himself another chassis for his own racing ambitions. Soon into the build another customer came knocking… This happened over 30 times and ironically Tojeiro never got around to racing one of his own cars.
The connection to the Ace came in the mid 1950s when a car dealer and talented club racing driver named Cliff Davies commissioned the now established designer of sports racing “specials” to build him a car with a two-litre six-cylinder Bristol engine. Tojeiro obliged and as per Davies’ requests instructed Panelcraft to fit a body closely resembling the Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta. When the car was ready Davies registered the car as LOY 500.
With Davies at the wheel, LOY 500 was a force to be reckoned with. Tojeiro’s chassis design was remarkably advanced for the time and superior to the established manufacturers of the time in terms of stiffness and super lightweight.
Around the same time AC cars needed a car to display for the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show. Tojeiro was working for a chap called Ernie Bailey, director of Buckland Bodyworks who supplied AC cars. After Bailey’s recommendation Tojeiro borrowed LOY 500 and drove down to AC Works at Thames Ditton. AC were impressed with the design and were attracted by its proven race record. AC made Tojeiro an offer to produce the chassis with very similar bodywork for a £5 royalty per car. Tojeiro, who only ever intended to build cars for himself took the offer. AC took the chassis design, reproduced it with subtle changes to the bodywork and in 1953 launched the AC Ace from which of course spawned the thunderous AC Cobra.
In the autumn of 1961 Texan race car designer Carroll Shelby approached Derek Hurlock of AC Cars with the idea of fitting a “proper engine”. To shoehorn in the big V8 AC simply lengthened Tojeiro’s chassis by 5 inches, fitted disc brakes all round and strengthened the rear axle and diff. Such was the devastating power of the small-block V8 that when Autocar reviewed the Cobra they declared it the fastest road car ever tested. In fact, this American-engined British sportscar held the Guiness Book of Records time for 0-100-0 mph for 10 years.
It is a real testament to Tojeiro’s design that the Ace was able to handle the power of such a muscular American V8 engine. The chassis was never intended to handle such power and since then the Cobra become and iconic car, subject of thousands of recreations and replicas.
At The Classic Motor Hub we currently have a cracking example of a 1957 AC Ace Bristol for sale. From launch the Ace was available with AC’s own 1991cc straight-six but those buying the cars for racing found this engine a little gutless and so from February 1956 the Ace was available with the much more sought after Bristol engine. AC supplied only 446 Bristol-powered Aces, with only the later cars available with disc-brakes.
On the road the genius of Tojeiro’s chassis is instantly felt through the steering and road-holding. In a time before static weight distribution and cross-weight percentages were easily measurable, let along fully understood Tojeiro created a car that is beautifully balanced, stiff enough to handle the powerful 6 (and later 8) cylinder engines yet supple enough to absorb rough British B-roads and fast post-war race tracks.
In period the neutral balance of the chassis design made the AC Ace Bristol an incredibly competitive car, notably winning the 2 litre GT class at Le Mans and finishing an astonishing 7th overall – just behind the 3.0 litre Astons and Ferraris. This competition pedigree is clear to see in our road car and is eligible for a wide variety of historic motor racing events.
Today, ownership of this AC Ace represents an chance to engage in one of motorsport’s great stories a basic car design that through serendipity rather than design went from John Tojeiro back garden tinkering to iconic cult-status.
Words and photos by William Stoneham