The British sports car with a Scottish connection
by David Milloy
Built by the same manufacturer as the legendary Cobra sports car, the AC 3000ME began life as a one-off prototype created by Peter Bohanna, an industrial designer, and Robin Stables, a development engineer. Having met whilst working at Lola Cars, the two embarked upon an ambitious project: they would design and build a sports car from the ground up.
The resulting car, the Bohanna-Stables Diablo, was an attractive two seat coupé with a mid-mounted BLMC E-series engine mated to a five-speed gearbox, both acquired from an Austin Maxi development car that had been consigned to a scrapyard. The Diablo’s impressive specification included all-round independent suspension and disc brakes, rack and pinion steering, and simple but clever pop-up headlamps.
Bohanna and Stables showed the car at the 1973 Racing Car Show at Olympia in London with the intention of putting it into production themselves. However, it caught the attention of Keith Judd of AC Cars, and both the car and its designers were soon ensconced at AC’s Thames Ditton premises.
AC initially contemplated using the 1750cc version of the E-series to power the production version of the Diablo but were unable to persuade BLMC to supply engines. A Ford engine was therefore chosen, the 3.0 litre V6 Essex unit. This was paired with a 5-speed gearbox of AC’s own design. The engine wasn’t, however, the only part of the Diablo that was changed for production. Indeed, by the time that AC had finished with the Diablo, only its basic shape remained.
A non-running prototype was shown on the AC stand at the 1973 British Motor Show. It attracted much interest from press and public alike, not least because AC said that it would go into production in 1974 and have a price tag of between £3400 and £3800.
Alas, that isn’t what happened. Instead, the 3000ME was the victim of a series of unfortunate events, the first of which was the global energy crisis that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with disastrous effects on the market for powerful, thirsty cars.
Further calamity struck when a prototype 3000ME narrowly failed the steering wheel movement test required under the new Type Approval Regulations. The front part of the 3000ME’s chassis was redesigned and the ME duly passed the test with ease. Valuable time and money had, however, been lost.
That was bad but worse soon followed. AC had long been one of the leading manufacturers of the three-wheeled cars that the UK government supplied to people with impaired mobility, and had increasingly come to rely on the revenue thus generated. That income stream was lost when, in 1976, the government decided to replace the three-wheelers with a new state benefit. For AC, it was a hammer blow.
By the time the 3000ME was finally launched at the 1978 British Motor Show, the effect of inflation and development costs meant that the 3000ME went on sale at three times the price originally envisaged. Moreover, it now faced tough competition from the Lotus Esprit, Lancia Beta Montecarlo, and Porsche 924, none of which had existed in 1973. Deliveries started in 1979 but sales were pitifully slow.
When the motoring press finally got their hands on the 3000ME, they liked its looks, its build quality, and the way it felt and sounded like a smaller-engined, more comfortable Ford GT40. On the negative side, its performance was unexceptional and it lacked rear grip. Derek Hurlock, AC’s Managing Director, retorted that the ME handled perfectly well, any handling issues being due to motoring journalists’ lack of driving skill!
AC never did address the ME’s handling issues, but Silverstone-based Rooster Turbos, who offered a turbo conversion for the ME, found that a slight change to its rear suspension geometry worked wonders.
Its makers had originally planned to build 20 MEs a week, but annual sales barely exceeded that number. Shorn of revenue, AC began to contract. The company’s iconic High Street works in Thames Ditton was sold, with operations being shifted to new premises on the edge of town.
Hopes that the ME might yet have its day in the sun revived in 1981, when the Italian styling house Ghia mated a 3000ME chassis to a spectacular new body. The resulting AC-Ghia 3000ME was the star of the 1981 Geneva Motor Show, and for a brief time it seemed that Ford, who owned Ghia, might put it into production. Alas, their interest came to nothing. Around the same time, two American businessmen acquired the rights to sell the 3000ME in the USA. They imported a 3000ME minus running gear to the USA, lightly modified the styling, and, with the aid of American motorsport and sports car legend Carroll Shelby, equipped it with a four-cylinder turbocharged Chrysler engine. They had hoped to persuade Chrysler to back the project but producing a mid-engined sports car did not fit in with the company’s plans.
In 1984, a new company, A C (Scotland) PLC, acquired the right to build and sell the 3000ME under licence, and production was shifted to Hillington on the outskirts of Glasgow. Its new makers had great plans for the ME, including the creation of a mark 2 version powered by the 2.5 litre Alfa Romeo Busso V6. Moreover, the new company included some gifted and experienced personnel in its ranks, including Brian Spicer (whose CV included a spell as Jensen Motors’ chief engineer and who went on to found the S&S Services Subaru dealership in Ayrshire) and Aubrey Woods, who had worked with both Matra and BRM. With more money, the project might have succeeded, but instead it lasted a little over a year before A C (Scotland) went into receivership.
That wasn’t quite the end of the road for the ME, however, as Aubrey Woods and former Ford development engineer John Parsons led a project to produce a new 3000ME-based car, the Ecosse Signature, in Hertfordshire. Two prototypes were built, one of which was tested by Performance Car magazine in 1988. Powered by a 2.0 litre turbocharged Fiat engine, the Signature wowed the testers with its performance and handling. Yet again, however, a lack of funds was the project’s undoing, and this time it really was the end for the 3000ME.
In total, 109 3000MEs, including running prototypes, were built: 79 at Thames Ditton, 30 at Hillington. As the DVLA does not list the 3000ME as a model on its database, it’s not possible to state how many examples are still licensed for use on UK roads. However, it is understood that 84 examples remain in the UK, including the Alfa-powered AC 2500ME developed at Hillington and the two Ecosse Signature prototypes. A further 18 examples are known to exist outwith the UK, including the AC-Ghia prototype, the Chrysler engined car, and a chassis used as the basis of the Lincoln Quicksilver concept car.
You might think that such a rare, attractive, and historically significant car (the last AC to be built at Thames Ditton) would command a high price, but at the time of writing a very presentable 3000ME could be yours for less than the price of a good example of that other Essex V6-powered car, the Ford Capri 3.0. Tempting, isn’t it?
Note: a version of the above article appears in David Milloy’s book, Lesser Spotted Classics, featuring bespoke illustrations by Russell Wallis. Lesser Spotted Classics can be purchased online from amazon.co.uk.