Rarely have I been quite so ready for any given car, as for this AC which I attended an auction for in July – armed with the clear intention of buying. But it did not work out that way.
Three years ago I wrote about this very, very rare car in an article ending with these words:
For a few hundred thousand (ED: Danish Kroner, corresponding to about 20.000 British Pounds) you could be driving an AC. In a few years time, you can then grin all the way to the bank while listening to the V6-rumble.
Then this summer in June, I received an email from my car mentor and ViaRETRO’s expatriate on the British Isles, Anders – one such car was on sale at an auction in July: The specific car was number 7 out of the approximately hundred cars built, it was a totally restored and it was yellow. The price estimate for such a rarity: Between 9,000 and 12,000 pounds.
Aha. The price increases I had foreseen on this thoroughbred of an forgotten AC had apparently not occurred. It really WAS the forgotten AC. So here the possibility presented itself three years later – I was still in with a chance of driving an AC for the estimated couple of hundred thousand Danish Kroner (including Danish import tax). That despite a 3000ME being one of the rarest cars in the automotive world. I got rather excited.
And then I thought more about it – feelings alone don’t cut it, after all. Wasn’t an AC 3000ME the car I should have? For driving, of course, not just for standing around? Not just that: Wasn’t it an AC that should join my Reliant Scimitar GTE to become my second keeper amongst my stable of classic cars? EVERYTHING fitted the bill almost perfectly: My first midengined car, the first with retractable headlights, a real AC – yet still no more exotic, than offering reasonable hope that it should be possible to keep it running on a regular budget. The more I thought about it, the more right it felt. After a week, the idea got stuck and had evolved into a plan: I was going to England to bid on the AC!
And so it was: I booked everything for a trip, planned to allow me a full preview day to inspect it thoroughly: This was after all going to be the most expensive car I had ever acquired. Unless it went seriously under estimate, of course. I did not expect that at all, as I clearly recall my own reactions after the tip from Anders – I found the estimate of 9-12 thousand pounds somewhat low.
On the other hand it can and does happen at auctions, and from time to time something nice actually does sell for a low price. And yes, of course I was hoping for that. But the most important question before the price could be properly assessed at all, was actually the true condition of the car, and there were indeed some very big questions. Before the journey, I read the description from the auction house Brightwells over and over againt, trying to decode what was a mix of very positive signs and the exact opposite.
As mentioned before, the car was completely restored, and that by a very thorough man. Documented history was present from its build in 1978: The first owner’s son had crashed the car, and when the second owner bought it in 1984, it needed the results of that crash put right. The smashed bodywork was basically just cut away and a brand new front from AC was ordered and grafted on instead. Along the way the project snowballed into overdrive, and in the end the owner not only refurbished the car, but actually fully reengineered it from front to rear and improved it wherever he could, including modifying the Essex engine. That was the story from the auction house, at least. Which ended on a tragically sad note: The owner finally got the car back on the road in 2006 only to pass away two years later. But at the end of the description in the catalogue the tricky part was mentioned: The car had been laid up since 2008 and had acquired some paint damage during storage, and the description said “it would suit the car with a repaint so that the appearance could live up to the rest of the car”.
This was indeed an issue which could help keep the price down, especially since it is more expensive to paint a fiberglass car. However assessing the damage was vital and I knew I had to see the car in real life, rather than just bidding blindly over the phone. An easier solved issue – I thought – was the missing original Wolfrace rims: I’d just have to find some new ones to replace the all too modern Compomotive split wheels. But guess what: A 3000ME came with wheels of different width at the front and rear – and the AC 3000ME is the only car in the world that uses Wolfrace wheels in these sizes!
Well, time approached, and my excitement increased. So far no one else than Anders and I had discovered this great car, we thought – so maybe I could really get it for a bargain price? Hmmm, then it suddenly appeared on the AC 3000ME forum, the world’s leading resource on the model, where I had registered myself in order to investigate. Suddenly all members now knew that “my car” was up for auction and the online chat took off. But apparantly nobody had actually seen this AC in real life since the owner did not drive it much.
While scouring the 3000ME forum for all relevant information, I found the last three AC 3000ME sold at auctions: While two in 2016 went for 20,000 and 22,000 pounds, the last one went way short of that with a hammer price of 14,000 pounds. All of these were in much better condition than “mine” (as I was beginning to think), so its price was quite difficult to estimate, but I was hoping for the best.
Which is why I wasn’t particularly happy when “my” AC suddenly appeared on Bring-a-Trailer, one of the world’s biggest sites for just this kind of spicy delights. The response in the comments was as usual enormous, but none of them seemed to be serious bidders. Nonetheless it was somewhat of a blow to my high hopes, as millions of readers now knew about “my” AC.
But the trip was already ordered, so I could only hope for the best and proceeded as planned. Upon arrival I registered as a bidder with bank details and everything, terribly serious. However, when I got the catalog in hand, I had yet another shock: The estimate price had changed from the 9,000-12,000 mentioned online to 12,000-15,000 pounds. Hm? Well, it isn’t about the estimate but about the hammer price, which would of course be determined the very next day. And I hadn’t even seen the car yet. So with my catalog in hand I headed over to the other hall where most cars were lined up – and finally there it was, the yellow wedge.
To keep it short: I was not disappointed! I do not remember when or where I’d ever seen one before, but I was quite excited. No, an AC 3000ME is not traditionally beautiful – but experienced in full three-dimensional form with the light playing on the yellow curvy-wedgy surfaces, it was striking if nothing else. Far, far better looking than I had been hoping for. We are afterall really talking about a sort of design fusion between a Lancia Stratos and Triumph TR7. As I saw it, my dreams really made sense – this could very well be my “keeper classic” number two.
But what about that paint? Well, at ten feet away, it actually looked good, and my first though was that I’d be able to live with it. But upon closer inspection and thorough examination, it turned out to have all the problems that a fiberglass car can possible have. Plus a few which I have never seen before: The paint simply fell of in large flakes! There was clearly something wrong with the base. Not only were there bubbles in the paint, but below the paint there were some sort of dark cracks, which did not appear to be the familiar stress cracks. I took close-ups photos and sent them to an expert at a Danish racing car manufacturer, who concluded that there was contamination in the glassfibre gelcoat. A repair would be expensive, very expensive.
Armed with this information, I shared my newfound knowledge with the many punters constantly around “my” AC. And they agreed: It would be expensive. And I repeated it many times. But that was the only obvious fault on the car, I had to admit. Owner number two had obviously been thorough: He seems to have been decidedly manic about replacing brackets and screws for stainless steel, and as seen from above most of the details resembled something from a practically new car. The cockpit had also been attended to and displayed none of the loose dangling parts and wires that are so typical of a British low-production car. Well, one fault developed over the weekend: Some stupid pig stole the specially made gear knob on the first preview day! Just how low can you sink?
The big joker question was also answered: I fit perfectly in the AC. The cabin turned out to be considerably more spacious than you would imagine of a small mid-engined car, and I got extremely comfortable and was soon dreaming of driving it home from the auction house via small B-roads. I had not quite planned it that way, though: Anders had beforehand made arrangements with a transportation company to trailer it to a mechanic, who would check it through after its nine years of hibernation. And only THEN would I be driving it home to Denmark under its own power. Because I was very determined that it should be driven home.
As mentioned, the auction catalogue described the extensive documentation on the car, so I obviously wanted to check this too: The engine was supposed to be rebuilt and upgraded, and I could see that it was fitted with nice Swaymar parts, tailor-made stainless steel exhaust manifolds and pipes and in general many new parts all around it as well. It looked good, and also sounded good when started. An underlying strange sound, said some experts, could come from the generator’s bearings – but it could also be something else. And after each start it dripped a little coolant – probably not a big deal.
However, I could also read from the owner’s letters to suppliers (the majority of which were handwritten), that after the rebuild it had overheated requiring machining of the cylinderheads and new valvegear. Overheated? It was fitted with a sparkling new giant aluminium radiator, so this had me wondering somewhat. I also did not understand where the absolutely absurd amount of receipts on the purchase of stainless steel fittings belonged – surely there weren’t that many in an AC 3000ME? But I quickly determined why the amount of documentation was so huge: Around a third of the paperwork was in fact merely queries on various parts or services, not on the parts themselves – but the owner had kept both. Which is of course fine – only one is more important than the other.
One thing in particular fascinated me and many others: The owner had logged the complete process, showing about 300 positions over the twenty-year period of the complete rebuild. I’ve never seen anything like it, all put down with dates and descriptions, but it’s actually a brilliant idea. And then there were the sketches: While taking the AC apart he had measured everything and produced handwritten sketches of the car’s construction in very fine detail. Some of them on old envelopes, others on real technical paper, others again on food paper. But it was all handsketched with immense precision including measurements and dimensions and notes. What use it actually was here and now is a good question, but it was an extremely nice touch.
As I got to know the car better a picture was forming: Although this in essence could appear to be a classic which was truly built to be driven and used, it was probably more a matter of being a car that had simply been rebuilt and reengineered – well, more than anything, because the owner could and because the owner wanted to. It can not be ruled out that the finished car was actually better than a factory-produced AC 3000ME in period – but there seemed to be no real evidence as to whether this actually was the case: The owner/builder had not even driven 2000 miles since he finished it – and during those miles, the engine overheated. Was the much modified engine even specified and/or put together correctly? Was the suspension and everything else modified, actually tested and proven to work? Impossible to answer, as naturally, the AC could not be tried and tested at the auction. And there was one more thing: When you looked at the car from below, it was clear than it had not been ideally stored, as it showed surface rust on shock absorbers and miscellaneous fitting as well.
With all of these facts at hand, I now had to establish a price. Namely a price I would be willing to bid up to. Which would hopefully be equal to – or maybe even more than – the price that the hammer would fall on! I crunched numbers, thought and guessed and evaluated back and forth, and finally came up with a number: The actual price that I was willing to pay for this specific AC 3000ME, with all its faults and unknowns. And so armed, I showed up on the auction date with my bidding number and this one number in my head. If other bidders topped that number – well, then I would have to return home empty-handed.
It was a totally new situation for me, this – and really rather strange buying at auction, as you can not influence the price yourself. Only upwards! There is no negotiation with the seller, no discussion, no haggling – it is just a question of raising your bidder’s number and then the show goes on. The first cars could be sold in just under a minute each, and I kept a close eye on trends. Not that it meant anything: The AC would be up as number thirty-something, and in reality it did not matter whether an MGB GT or something before it might have been sold cheaply or expensively – because it was quite another car.
As lot by lot went by, I became more and more excited. As the AC was only a few numbers away, I changed my seat to one on the second row in order to ensure my bidder number was not overlooked. As the AC actually came up, I felt my heart rate race, just like in the famous scene from Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans”-movie. And then, off it went: The auctioneer called bid starting at the minimum estimate of 12,000 pounds, but nobody raised their number. Not until he was down to 10,000. Good sign, I thought. But that was the only time I got to think so, as it all went very fast from there: Bids of 12, 14 and 16 were quickly reached, and there was still a lot of momentum from what I sensed was many different bidders, and my heart sank. By 19,000 I had long since given up, but the longest bidding duel of the day sent the AC to 22,000 pounds + commission. This made “my” dream AC, despite its obvious shortcomings, the second most expensive AC 3000ME sold at auction in recent times.
And I became – redeemed. In a some weird and special way – I think. What I initially thought was going to be the triumph and joy of a newly purchased super-rare Seventies midengine wedge design, turned into nothing. No cigar. No AC for me.
To be frank, my first reaction was pure panic: This long trip and no car! I frantically looked around to see what else I could purchase?!?! And there were actually a few others that cought my attention: Such as a fairly nice and straight TR7 V8 conversion which could be a super hillclimb car. Or a Peugeot 504 Coupé because – well, because I have always wanted a Peugeot 504 Coupé.
But no, I calmed myself – that would just be a panic reaction. I had come to the auction in the quest of acquiring nothing less than my very personal, well-considered, thoughtful and pervasive answer to the rather difficult question of which car would be my dream car on a budget of a quarter of a million Danish Kroner (including our high import taxes).
But I did not work out that way: The yellow AC 3000ME escaped me, and I have since thought long and hard about this fact. Maybe I am just not supposed to drive an 3000ME? Or more likely, maybe the condition of this one was not right for me? I clearly do not need another project car.
All of this transpired this past summer and my holidays were not that far away, so I regrouped (singlehandedly!) and came to the following: “Dann haben wir ander Methoden”, as the Germans say.
So dear readers – the last word is not yet written in this saga of my hot pursuit for the dream classic…