1956 AC Aceca – Peter Hoskin

by Peter Hoskin

In UK most schoolboys (and lots of grown men) made a Mecca of the annual British Motor Show held at Earls Court. I was one and made a visit in about 1955 and amongst the many stands visited I went to the AC Stand which had its current production of the 2 litre Saloon (never given a name), the Ace and the Aceca. The stand was being run by a Mr. Wright who was Sales, Marketing, Testing, Spares and general factotum at AC Cars Ltd. He recognised my drooling and invited me to visit the works at Thames Ditton. Next time I was in town I arranged for a visit and the same gentleman gave me a tour of production and also the maintenance area. There was a great atmosphere of business and also pride. The Ace and Aceca were taking up the full production capacity although the 2 Litre Saloon was still being produced, but only to order. Mr Wright then took me for a spin in the next car waiting test which was an Ace. I was too young for a licence but my cup was full to the brim!

Some years later during which time I had owned an MG PA, Aston Martin International, Swift and HRG and had completed my formal Navy training as an Engineer Officer I decided it was time to buy an ACE. In 1963 I found a well used AC engined example in London which I bought and took down to Portsmouth were my ship was under refit. The crew was living ashore and I was billeted at HMS Daedalus in Lee-on Solent, an excellent centre for motoring out to the many Hampshire pubs and also weekends in London. The ship was undergoing an unplanned rushed refit as it had been destined for scrap but problems at the Suez Canal meant the RN needed to have a fifth aircraft carrier in the system to make up for the time taken to go around the Cape of Good Hope to reach operations in the Far East. Thus the engineering staff was fully stretched overseeing the work and preparing for a year away. The ship was due to sail on the 23 December and sea trials showed a lot of work still to be done so everyone was busy but the Captain gave 4 days pre-embarkation leave to all, in two watches. Hence I had my own departmental work together with that of my friend who took first leave.

About a month prior I had taken the Ace to AC Motors for an overhaul of the engine and any other work found necessary. When my chum returned I was able to leave for Thames Ditton, pick up the car and drive towards Cornwall where I intended to put it into a state of preservation in readiness for my return in a years time. I did not reach home! I was running in at a strict 50mph as per instructions and stopped for a bowl of soup on the Dorset/Somerset border. My next recollection was waking up covered in plaster and bandages in Taunton hospital 2 days later! It transpired that an approaching full cattle lorry had seen me approaching at a steady rate when suddenly I swerved to his side of the road and ended up under him. He and the cattle were unharmed but it took 2 hours to extract me. Luckily a passing nurse was able to stem the leaking blood until I was moved to hospital. I emerged 4 months later able to walk with crutches but the car was a write off, although the engine is still in use in a pre-war AC.

It was not for some years that I felt able to return to ACs. In the meantime I had married and we had two children. We were living in a service house in Scotland where I was overseeing the building of a new class of Royal Navy frigate. The nature of the job and not living in our own home meant I had a little more free time so I started a search and found an Aceca for sale in Wales in 1976. A lady had been given it by her husband as a pretty toy! She did not really take to it and was pleased to sell to me so I picked it up and drove back to Helensburgh on the Clyde. An interesting journey as the car had done little miles in the previous 10 years but had experienced a hard life prior to that. I changed the engine oil enroute and also reset the brakes, the water pump was leaking so frequent refreshment stops were needed. On arrival in Scotland my wife had arranged a surprise welcome party which was a very brave act of faith as communications were not so easy then! I used the car in Scotland and did some work like brake system, king pins, electrics etc. Just before completion of the ship the family moved down to our operating base at Plymouth and I had to go into digs in Glasgow with the AC as my only transport. As it was winter and no garage the AC was exposed to the ice and snow and the salt used to keep the roads open. The weekend prior to the ship departing the shipyard I drove the AC down to Plymouth and immediately caught the return night train to Glasgow. When I caught up with the car three weeks later the engine area, chassis and the interior were festooned with a white fern like growth, the result of salt allowing electrolytic action between the aluminium and steel!

My next appointment was to Canberra to work with the Royal Australian Navy and the AC stayed, in a state of preservation, at our home near Bath. In 1983 I left the RN and joined the RAN and returned to UK to sell our house, settle our affairs and plan our move to Australia. I was undecided about the Aceca as I was considering the purchase of AC ‘s current production, the AC 3000ME – a very different fibreglass mid engined coupé. I again visited AC Cars where the same Mr Wright was delighted to demonstrate the latest off the production line. In fact the company was going through yet another financial crisis and this might have been the final build. I found the car a little too small for motoring in Australia so opted to bring out the Aceca and I also brought a Bristol 411 with the intention of passing it on to finance a major rebuild of the AC. The sea trip out for both cars was dramatic as they were put into individual containers and boxed in to permit the rest of the space to be used for what I suspect was our furniture. Who ever did it did not understand sea movement nor car suspension as both arrived having been battered against the 4 by 4 frame of the platform. The Bristol had in fact caused a total collapse of the furniture onto the car!

The Aceca was rather worn and not likely to pass the ACT pit inspection and we all had a new life to learn and I a new job to manage so the car was put onto blocks. I contemplated handing the car to some one more experienced in car restoration but decided not to as an open cheque book was not an option and besides, I am a professional engineer and my naval education included 450 hours of craft training!

When I retired I rolled up my sleeves and started to dismantle the car. We were running our house as a Bed & Breakfast at that time but as we had both been working the B&B operation had had to take a back seat. In retirement, I took it on as a full time task and built up the marketing etc. to increase ‘bums in beds’. The garden had been rather neglected so needed to be resurrected to match our B & B image. All this, plus other commitments gave little time for my restoration project and progress was slow. I did not set myself a target which was just as well. I had decided I wanted to concentrate on originality and refurbish the existing items wherever possible. As an example I had the leather cleaned and reworked rather than renewed.

I won’t try to give a detailed blow by blow description of the rebuild but will concentrate on one or two major challenges.

Crud removal. Everything I touched required removal of masses of crud. I had been required to pay for steam clean at exit from UK and again at entry to Australia but it soon became clear neither operation had taken place. There were pockets in various chassis areas totally topped up with hard grease/crud. The car has many grease points and they had been used liberally. Perhaps this is why the chassis was in better state than I expected.

Body removal. My plan was to take the bare chassis to be shot blasted and the body to be glass bead cleaned. However the shot blaster would not do the chassis with the body still attached and was not happy to touch the very soft aluminium. The body is wrapped around the outriggers and I would have had to cut it in at least two places plus the unwrapping. Friends in the Owners Club have restored Acecas with and without removal of the body with the consensus being in favour of the former. However I had little storage place for a separated body and was concerned it might become distorted so I resolved to do all the paint stripping of body and chassis myself.

Crankshaft. The crankshaft main journals were 30 thou. under standard and scored so I took it down to ‘cranky’ in Melbourne to have it built up to standard as I had brought a new set of shell bearings from UK. Before starting he had it crack tested which showed a 11/2 inch crack in one web! Not good news and he left me to find the solution. Perhaps the crack had been present all its life? Could it be repaired? Can I get a replacement? Should I have one made? Leaving it was not an option and I started to search for a replacement. The engine is rare so hens teeth come to mind. I found four crankshafts, three in Australia but they were all from a previous mark of the engine, and unsuitable. The fourth was in USA and almost of standard size, we agreed a price subject to a satisfactory crack test which the seller was happy to have done. Regretfully he rang the very next day to say sale was off as he was also selling a complete engine and its purchaser would not take the engine without the spare crankshaft! Back to the drawing board. I had located a person who carries out laser welding of crankshafts and was confident he could repair the crack as well as build up the journals. He does a lot of work for dragsters. His order of cost made it an expensive operation and would I have confidence in the result? I decided against it. I would have to have one made and had three sources. One from a UK supplier, one from ‘cranky’ who machines special crankshafts for the Ford V8 Supercars and finally a cast shaft from a team in Adelaide who had previously cast a shaft for this engine and still had the pattern. UK source was the most expensive plus the transport and import costs, but the other two were on a par. I decided upon the machined unit, especially as it would be sized to accept modern shells for both main and big ends (the big-ends were white metal). The crankcase was line bored and the final assembly balanced so I am now confident I have a very durable ‘bottom end’.

Wiring. I had brought a new loom from UK in 1983. I labelled all the terminals of the old loom and removed it plus a few extra wires that had been fitted over the life of the car. I stretched the two looms alongside each other and matched the terminals and labelled accordingly. Comparison with the wiring diagram showed discrepancies in the cable colouring and also the diagram missed out items like the overdrive unit, interior light, radio etc. There were also things I did not like for instance some users like the fuel pump did not come off a fused supply. These were easy to overcome and the installation was straight forward. I fitted extra relays where necessary and also LED reversing light and extra brake light. The original car had a single speed windscreen wiper but later models had two speed units and I had asked for the loom to be for the two speed version. I obtained a two speed wiper ex Armstrong-Siddeley and a switch. The switch has 13 terminals and the wiper 5 with 5 cables so it was an interesting exercise to work out which terminal to use; understanding the self parking circuit was a challenge.

Colour. The original factory records showed this car as green but the word was crossed out and blue added. The car was a very pretty light blue but still had green upholstery which did not seem correct. I suspect the original purchaser had the colour changed to blue during production, I found evidence of green when stripping. I liked the blue, also favoured the light green of a friend’s Aceca but then saw another friend’s Aceca in dark green which I liked even more and so used a Jaguar dark BRG.

Modifications. I have said that I wished to maintain originality but did fit seat belts. Also, the original prototype Ace as designed by John Tojeiro had rack and pinion steering but BMC (or was it Leyland by then) would not sell the Morris rack to AC. Instead they offered the company old stock of a Bishops Cam box – perfectly good in an A55 or whatever but the layout in the AC incorporated many ball joints and was sometimes criticised. An owner recently talked to John Tojeiro and he upgraded his original drawings to accommodate a modern rack and pinion box and these were accredited by the Owners Club as being an update of the original fit and not a modification. The owner sold kits for the Ace and Aceca according to which engine is fitted. I decided to do this. Both modifications were assessed by a Transport Accredited Engineer and were not difficult to fit. I also upgraded the clutch to a diaphragm type with a ball race based thrust block. Nearly my undoing as the new unit required a different length of throw. A friend was assembling the engine in Mittagong and I had the gearbox here. I took measurements from the bell housing face and he from the crankcase face and fitted an adaptor to suit. When we fitted the engine it went in very smoothly and all seemed well but when it came to test it was a different story. The engine started on first push of the starter and I felt very proud but when it came to move the vehicle the clutch would not disengage to allow engagement of any gear! When I had finished swearing I went through the system (hydraulic actuation) and adjusted what I could to increase the throw – I understand the diaphragm clutch requires very small movement – and I managed to get it to disengage and did a road test but found that as soon as it was warm I could only engage a gear by stopping the engine, engaging the gear and starting the engine with clutch depressed, and then moving off. The movement required was very small but I was not happy so out came the engine again and I and good friend far more experienced in automotive engineering re-made the measurements and calculations and agreed it needed a further 3.5 mm length on the adaptor. I did this and we re-installed the engine and this time tried it with the rear wheels off the deck before completing the fit out. It worked fine, but of course it was cold. I re-assembled everything and a test run proved our work to be successful. Another friend machined a fitting to go onto the clutch pushrod to give a better fit with the clutch lever to further improve its operation.

People often ask where I get spares from. Apart from crankshafts this has not been too difficult as the AC Owners Club has one member who ran the factory spares and when AC left Thames Ditton he offered to use his experience to supply Members. Also the Members are only too happy to share their experiences. In addition, local friends provided a good knowledge of Australian suppliers. I also made use of Holden and Europa that supply the classic car industry. I used e-bay on a couple of occasions.

None of this great project would have been possible without the help and encouragement from friends, both locally and from the AC Owners Club. I have deliberately not named anyone as over a ten year period I would be sure to leave out someone. But I thank them all. I was particularly gratified when the Club honoured our achievement by awarding three annual awards at the recent Club Dinner.