Prototype 1963 AC MA 200 roadster review

By: Myles Kornbeat

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From the archives: This prototype AC Roadster was almost consigned to the scrap heap of history by the advent of the Shelby Cobra. But here she is...

Imagine being born with every advantage of a winner: supportive parents, an athletic body, and the heart of a champion. But there is also a curse. Your big brother is already a champion and he never bothered to step aside. In the automotive world, this is AC’s MA 200.

First published in Unique Cars #319, Jan 2011

In the early 1960s, AC Cars needed a new roadster to replace its ageing Ace. Prototype MA 200 showed a promising direction for the company, but fate intervened. The Ace received an unexpected reprieve as the Cobra, and MA 200 went from the next big thing to a mysterious footnote in history.

| Read next: Shelby AC Cobra review

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Here’s what we do know. The MA 200 spent its early years in the same den as Carroll Shelby’s Cobras, with Shelby and MA 200 physically so close that if this were a game of Cluedo, they would both be suspects. Though partnered with Shelby on the Cobra, AC wasn’t interested in his help on MA 200. Recently Shelby was asked about this prototype, and he simply replied, "I’ve never heard of it".

| Read next: Carroll Shelby - the man behind the legend

MA 200’s existence created some conspiracy theories. It had the same 289 Ford V8 engine as the Cobra, but a longer wheelbase, proper wind-up windows, and a full convertible top – features more popular with the American public than the bare-bones Cobra. Was MA 200 meant to be a Cobra replacement? Was AC trying to hamstring Shelby and build complete cars on its own? There were no witnesses to support this, but that did not stop Road & Track from publishing a spy shot of the MA 200 in 1964, incorrectly identifying it as the "New Cobra".

ac-roadster-onroad.jpgPretty car – if it were red, you might mistake the MA 200 for a Ferrari at first glance

The real answer to MA 200’s existence seems to be much less sinister. A published conversation with AC Chairman, Derick Hurlock, noted that MA 200 started life as a replacement for the ageing Ace. 

Engineer Z.T. Marzewski was designing a new flat-six engine and was allowed to develop the car for that new powerplant (the first two letters of his last name are the MA in MA 200.) It was nothing like AC had ever built before, with inboard rear disc brakes, inboard suspension, and a square tubular steel chassis over a modern-style aluminum body. 

| Read next: 1967 Shelby 427 S/C Cobra roadster sells for $4.14M at Mecum

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Meanwhile, AC was developing its relationship with Carroll Shelby and Ford.  Before Ford would put its marketing machine to work on any of AC’s cars, it had to make sure it was a winner. Ford had AC enter the 1963 Le Mans using Ford’s V8 but racing under the AC name. When one of the cars finished a respectable seventh overall, Ford gave AC one of the race car’s left-over, hand-built High Performance 289 V8s as a reward. AC dropped this V8 into MA 200, thus replacing the flat-six with a less expensive and more powerful engine.

As development continued on MA 200, production began to heat up on the Cobra. The Ace, which was reaching the end of its life cycle, was reborn with the American-installed Ford V8. AC had its hands full with orders for a car it already knew how to build, so investing in MA 200 no longer made sense. Just as simple economics gave MA 200 a V8, it also made this roadster an orphan.

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While the Cobras went off to burn up the tracks of the world, MA 200’s only accolades were schoolyard envy. In late 1963 it became Hurlock’s personal transport and he used to ferry his daughter to school in it.

The idea of producing MA 200 was likely never far from Hurlock’s mind, though. Cobra production never reached its full potential, and it was known that he wanted to build a more sophisticated car. The Ace/Cobra was too Spartan, but MA 200’s complicated chassis was too expensive to build. This helps explain the 1965 AC Frua, a car with the sleek lines and creature comforts of MA 200, built on a chassis based on the Mk III Cobra.

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Hurlock held on to MA 200 until 1968 when he sold it to Dr Rodger Field. But Dr Field would make one modification that would add to the mystique of AC’s lonely roadster: he replaced the MA 200’s original 289 racer V8.

Engines still did not have any collectable value at that time, so there was no thought to discarding one of the first HiPo 289 V8s (that also happened to be hand-built by Ford.) The new powerplant was a Ford 302 V8. This was a rebuilt engine that carried its own significance.  It is unclear if Field even knew what fateful engine he had installed, but with his passing in 1983, the information was buried with him.

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No one really paid much attention to the new engine as the car spent several decades passing between new owners.  Even Hurlock didn’t identify MA 200’s replacement engine when he was reunited with the car at a late-’80s AC gathering.

Then in the summer of 2006 Mark Gold, a South Florida-based attorney, was scanning the internet for a rare toy to enjoy. Searching England for a Cobra, he came across a cryptic ad for an AC V8 Prototype. The broker was selling the car from an estate and didn’t have many particulars, but the pictures and speculation were enough for Gold to quickly put together an agreeable price. "I stole it," he says with a devilish grin. 

ac-roadster-engine-bay.jpgThumping 289 Ford V8

Gold’s gaze then grows longer, suggesting that he invested close to the car’s real value bringing it back to life.

The car made the trip to the US a few months later. From the outside MA 200 looked like it needed barely more than a new coat of paint, but under its skin, the roadster was on life support. It was time for a complete restoration.

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"This car needed to have major work done 25 years ago," Jason Wenig declared as if it was obvious. Wenig owns the Creative Workshop in Daina Beach, Florida, and by the time he got his hands on MA 200, it was falling apart to the touch. MA 200 was never built with long-term ownership in mind. The aluminum body was perfect for keeping weight down and fighting rust from outside elements, but the chassis was steel and there were no preparations to stop the galvanic reaction of the two metals that results in corrosion. 

ac-roadster-dash.jpgThat gorgeous steering wheel will be very familiar to a lot of Mustang owners

Everywhere the chassis touched the aluminum body the decay had reached a critical point. Along the bottom few inches of the car, the paint had become integral in keeping the panels together.  Moisture had also gotten into the steel frame and some form of corrosion had been found on half the chassis. So, how could a one-of-a-kind car be restored when most parts did not come off the shelf and no one even bothered to write down a colour code? "The disassembly process is like a crime scene," says Wenig, describing the meticulous documentation a car like MA 200 gets.  "Every part is photographed and tagged because it is impossible to get this original environment back. When you break a bolt, it is gone forever."

Creative Workshop staff had to wear new hats as automotive archeologists. Gold received original documents, blueprints and pictures shortly after he purchased the AC prototype. The whole team would pour over these materials, using jeweller’s loops to get every last detail. What they discovered was Marzewski had an unfortunate tendency to utilise rare parts.

ac-roadster-gauges.jpgClassic analogue gauges

He probably didn’t know it at the time, but MA 200’s Ford transmission was an uncommon unit used only in a handful of 1962 Ford Fairlanes. The taillights were borrowed from a rare Ford Taunus 15M coupe. The Porsche 356 fog lights were a very specific and seldom-used type. "You’re looking at the last pair of these Porsche fog lights on the planet." Wenig may have exaggerated their rarity but it was still one of the most expensive items on the car. Possibly the worst news for the Creative Workshop team was the AC factory pictures that showed the original radiator came from a 3.8 Jaguar E-Type with an aluminum dash. Early in the E-Type’s lifecycle Jaguar switched to a 4.2-litre engine and new radiator.

"Of all the things to rot on a car the radiator is usually the first to go," said Wenig. "So we were looking for an extremely short production run part, one of the most volatile parts, for a sought-after and valuable car."

ac-roadster-shifter.jpgBent shifter is a Cobra clue

The original pieces also provided a challenge for the restoration team. "The bumpers were the most expensive and time-consuming item on the car," said Wenig. These were hand-formed aluminum units that over the years were improperly repaired using fibreglass and spray paint. To get the correct units back, the team had to fix the rest of the body, create a template fitting the original 1/8-inch gap, and then hammer and polish new aluminum pieces. "Between the cost of the bumpers and fog lamps, you could have bought a nice new car."

The final piece of the puzzle was the engine. The 302 V8 that was pulled out of the car carried an odd serial number. As it turned out, Field’s restored engine was actually an enlarged 289 Ford V8 that was originally used in the start of Ford’s GT40 program. As a result, the MA 200, which never saw a track day in its life, had carried the hearts of two champions.

ac-roadster-build.jpgExpensive restoration painstaking but worth it

As significant as the second engine was, it was decided that it would not be used in the restored roadster. MA 200 was being rebuilt to the condition of the day in 1963 when Hurlock first hung a licence plate on it. That meant MA 200 needed its HiPo 289 V8. The engine was long gone according to Gold, but he was still able to hunt down the next best thing. 

The original engine had a production order number 1664, signifying that it was the 1664th HiPo 289 produced. Gold was able to find order number 1445, which meant the two engines only had 218 blocks produced between them and were likely cast on the same day.

ac-roadster-build-2.jpgBox-section chassis and inboard brakes

After three years of specialised work, AC’s MA 200 was back to the condition that Hurlock experienced in the 1960s. It was back from the brink and ready to show off. "This car is all high-po engine and low weight," says Wenig. "It is unbelievably powerful and fast."

AC never took MA 200 to a major car show or had a public viewing, so it wasn’t until 47 years later, at the 2010 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, that MA 200 made its world debut and won its class. 

ac-roadster-prize.jpgOwner Gold with concours spoils of his patient resto

Carroll Shelby was a last minute addition to the Concours’ panel but he never saw MA 200. Just as in the ’60s, he was close but never saw the roadster that was ready to take his Cobra’s place.

1963 AC MA 200

Engine 289ci (4.7-litre) Ford V8, OHV, 16v, four-barrel carburettor
Power 202kW (271hp) @ 6000rpm
Torque 423Nm (312ft lb)
Transmission 4-speed manual
Brakes discs (inboard at rear)
Price prototype, never sold

 

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