Were Ford Shelby Cobras Built Using AC Ace Or AC Bristol Bodies?

Greg Zyla
A Reader Writes: Hi Greg, I wanted to talk about a few things related to the Shelby Cobra and AC bodies.
Shelby bought more than AC bodies from AC Cars—he bought the entire car minus the engine and driveline. The model Shelby bought was an AC Ace, not an AC Bristol. I'm not aware he ever received an AC Bristol to configure into a Cobra. I own an AC Bristol while a Shelby Cobra is my dream car.
AC Bristols were not nearly as fast as Corvettes but it would be wrong to say Bristols were underpowered as the AC Bristols were very successful in their class in SCCA road races from 1957 to 1961.
I read your automotive articles every week and enjoy them. Keep up the good work. Best regards, Al Isselhard, Wolcott, NY.
The Author Responds: Al, I want to thank you for your letter as there is so much misinformation online and even in printed magazines about how the Shelby Cobra came to be, and how it all started I’m sometimes flabbergasted. For my readers to know, Al took the time both via email and on the phone with me for over 30-minutes explaining what really happened, so thanks for the updates and critical information.
Al is correct those early Ford Shelby Cobras were indeed the Bristol Ace bodies. Bristol Cars was a manufacturer known for its hand-built luxury cars headquartered in Bristol, England. And you are also correct that although underpowered compared to an A/ or B/Production V8 Corvette, the AC Ace Bristols were indeed very competitive sports cars.
The AC Ace 2-seater sports car debuted in 1953 with a hand formed aluminum lightweight body, tube frame sports car and eventually dominated the E/Production class in road racing. Isselhard noted that original AC Ace roadster was available only with AC's own 1991cc 6-cylinder engine originally built in the late 1920's. In 1956 AC Cars began installing the 1971cc Bristol 6-cylinder engine into their Ace and Aceca models so these cars were then available with either engine. The Bristol engine was a much better performer and based on a pre-WWII BMW design.
When Bristol ceased building its 6-cylinder engine in 1961, AC Cars owner, Charles Hurlock, was approached by Carroll Shelby to use a Ford V8 in its AC Ace Bristol car, producing the prototype Shelby Cobra in 1962. Production of the Ace ended the same year and the Shelby Cobra with the AC's Ace body and chassis was born.
During a follow-up phone discussion with Isselhard, he noted, “In 1961 Bristol did away with the Bristol engine that AC Cars had used in their Ace and Aceca models. A total 463 Ace Bristols were made and 169 Aceca Bristols were built. A friend of the Hurlocks, Ken Rudd, had experimented with 2553cc (2.6 liter) Ford Zephyr six-cylinder engines and suggested replacing the Bristol engines with the Ford 2.6 engine. An AC was taken off the assembly line and the 2.6 Ford engine was fitted. The change was an immediate success and the decision was made to make this a permanent change. Data seems to indicate a total of 37 Ace cars were made with the 2.6 Ford engine while eight Aceca coupes had the 2.6-liter engine—the last of these in 1963. By now Shelby had entered the picture.”
Isselhard also explained that between 1959 and 1963, AC Cars Ltd. also made a coupe called the AC Greyhound and over this period of time the car came with the AC, Bristol and Ford engines. AC also made a beautiful car called the AC Frua built with a V8 Ford 428 engine and manufactured from 1965-73. About 81 cars were built and 49 were coupes.
As for the Cobra, somewhere along the way, all of the nomenclature just plain morphed into what many Cobra enthusiasts considered an AC Cobra, minus the Ace notation and clearly incorrect. In reality, Cobras utilized the complete AC Cars Ltd. tube chassis and aluminum bodied car, less drive train. Most Shelby enthusiasts agree that the AC Ace is many times called an AC Bristol Cobra or even Ford Cobra, but it is always correct to say a Shelby Cobra to be 100-percent correct.
In 1963, AC built and sent 61 total Cobra body/chassis cars and shipped them to Shelby in the U.S. where the engines and transmissions were installed. The initial Cobra Mark 1 models were fitted with either a 260 or 289-inch Ford V8 engines. By 1965, Shelby installed 427 Ford V8 engines between the frame rails resulting in the fastest Shelby Cobras ever built. The result found Shelby Cobras tearing up the SCCA races and beating the Corvettes handily.
In summary, the Shelby Cobra utilizes the AC Ace roadster sports car body and chassis, built by AC Cars Ltd. of Surrey, England. As for the aforementioned real AC Cars Ltd. built sports car, I again spoke with AC Ace Bristol owner Isselhard via email and the absolute correct nomenclature wording for the original roadster sports car is AC “Ace” Bristol and Aceca Bristol for the coupe. The Carroll Shelby creation here in the states is known as the Shelby Cobra. Regardless of the wording, both the AC Ace Bristol and the Shelby Cobra sure made an impression on sports car owners worldwide.
Today, if an original Shelby Cobra with its hand-formed aluminum body and tube frame Ace DNA is auctioned off, it goes for seven figures no problem.
And how high in seven figures? Shelby's original 1965 427 Cobra just sold at Mecum's Kissimmee auction in Florida, January 15, 2021, for an astounding $5.4 MILLION.
Thanks for your help and knowledge Al, and for clearing up all the mass confusion where this AC Ace Bristol and Shelby Cobra saga begins and ends. Good luck with your AC Bristols as Al owns both a roadster and a coupe.
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