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Apparently there was still a market for the indulgence of a £58,000 two-seat roadster in the chastened wake of Black Monday and the subsequent belt-tightening of global high finance.
As oil prices rose and military worries stirred, those stepping over the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would have beheld the glimmering, finely honed shape of the R129 with dreamy bewilderment: was this really how the other half lived?
Mercedes-Benz estimated that 20,000 people each year would place an order for its latest SL, despite a price well above its predecessor’s – and they did.
It was a car that took ownership of the word ‘accomplished’ and brought the driver along with it.
As ever, it had few – if any – rivals, and even in a financially precarious world where shopfronts closed and political figures tumbled, the order books filled.
Fuelled by widespread speculation on the collector-car market, at one time waiting lists built up to four years against the UK’s 1200 annual allocation.
Far from feeling outlandish, the idea of a new sporting GT from Britain’s oldest-surviving automotive marque, AC, seemed perfectly timed.
It was also a neat way to expand the operations of Autokraft, which had been successfully producing the MkIV ‘Cobra’ under licence from Ford through most of the 1980s.
Autokraft owner and AC minority shareholder Brian Angliss wrestled with Ford over the prospects of the idea; it took four years and 15 court hearings to gain control of the AC name, then another three years and £5million, some out of Brian’s own pocket, for the Brooklands Ace to be brought to life, nearly two decades after AC’s previous new sports car.
Launched at the 1993 London motor show, the Brooklands wasn’t an entirely new sight.
The bodywork, which was first designed by International Automotive Design in Worthing and previewed in 1992 with a Ford ‘SHO’ V6 and four-wheel drive, had been reworked by Ghia, then the small Autokraft team in Dunton, and finally returned to IAD to accommodate a shift to V8 power.
That it came out as attractive as it did was the first sign of hope, and, despite the usual hallmarks of the cobbled-together British sports car – Fiesta doorhandles, Citroën CX mirrors, BMW 3 Series headlights – it had the look of something complete.
Using well-proven parts was a natural course for Autokraft to take, having built its business on assembling Ford components into its continuation Cobras, and the advantages were clear for extension to the Brooklands Ace.
Low tooling burdens, proven component reliability and an established spares network promised an ownership proposition beyond that of the determined enthusiast.
Rather than a Cobra alternative, it was clear that AC had its eyes on the do-it-all luxury sports car market the Mercedes SL had come to define.
“This is an everyday car like the SL, the pinnacle of usable sports cars,” said John Mitchell, technical wizard formerly of Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering arm and whom Brian Angliss had brought on board late in 1992.
“If we can get anywhere near it we’ve achieved something.
“But this car is still a classic British roadster.
Extracting the desired performance out of Ford’s 302cu in (4.9-litre) small-block V8 was a task not much more complicated than opening Ford USA’s Special Vehicle Operations catalogue and ticking the required boxes.
Leaning into the effortless GT theme, or perhaps more truthfully the inherent characteristics of this pushrod unit, revised inlet and exhaust manifolds made for a torque swell of 320lb ft at 3250rpm, and early models benefited from gas-flowed heads.
A Borg-Warner five-speed manual or a four-speed auto from Ford hooked up to a Salisbury limited-slip differential at the rear, both with gearing tall enough to convince doubters that this was a car built for high-speed touring.
On the road, however, its balance of priorities becomes blurred.
The V8 crackles into life with vicious intent, a satisfying act of power that suits the Brooklands’ low-slung exterior and driving position, but the controls are smooth and easily tamed.
Only the steering feels a little heavy, its direct action hinting at an eagerness to get going shared by the better half of the throttle pedal.
It launches forward on a roaring howl of Dearborn muscle, hurling itself with surprising speed towards the horizon. Or the nearest bump.
At more modest speeds, the Brooklands rides with the calm you’d expect of a grand-touring roadster decorated with rich paintwork, leather, suede and swoopy interior lines, but the limits of a compromise unresolved during its short development time become eye-wideningly clear when speed and cornering force meet challenging road surface and the end of its soft suspension’s travel.
The resulting thump is surprisingly contained, giving credit to the AC’s Cromweld stainless-steel monocoque with broad 9in sills, but the potential skip of the rear axle or its sway around the front can ask some pressing questions of the driver.
Yet when kept in its comfort zone – where it delivers in most senses of the word – the AC is a delight of chassis and steering feel blended into a cruiser with the feeling of something special – even if, in places, its handmade finish is closer to that of TVR than Aston Martin.
Still, there’s no shortage of drama, most of it not nail-biting, and there is some engineering glitter dotted about, from a basically sweet-handling chassis balance to a remarkable lack of cabin backdraught, even without a wind deflector.
You sit taller in the 500SL.
It almost demands it, such is the strength of its engineering superiority complex.
But then it’s difficult to deny, when you behold the quality of its build, the neatness of its design and the intimidating technical specification.
It was conceived under a new guard of engineers on the firm’s board, in true Mercedes tradition.
Nearly 10 years of development, 20 proposals – it was the design of Johann Tomforde, later to champion the Smart car, that was chosen – and 118 prototypes led to the final, highly polished R129’s debut at Geneva in 1989.
There, the automated cycles of its pushbutton electric roof made a point to crowds all week as it went up and down repeatedly – a system that, together with the gyroscopic pop-up roll-bar, cost more to develop than the entire Brooklands project.
It was the tip of a development iceberg that had been led by Dr Wolfgang Peter and Werner Breitschwerdt, technical aces who had already proven worthy of their legendary mid-century predecessors with the 1981 W201 and 1986 W124 saloons.
The R129 was an extension of this new school, adopting their best features, including the multi-link ‘Staengele’ rear axle, into a chassis with a whopping 30% more torsional rigidity than its R107 predecessor.
You get the feeling that Mercedes’ engineers deployed their extraordinarily thick-gauge steel with satisfaction, not hesitation, and indeed the 400kg additional weight over the Brooklands Ace is, in all practical performance terms, rendered negligible by a V8 that carries the same pervading spirit of overwhelming technical might.
Sitting above the familiar M103 12-valve ‘six’, and its 24-valve, 220bhp sister, in the range, the M119 V8 was a double-overhead-cam, 32-valve marvel of forged internals and vibration-damped smoothness that, with electromagnetic inlet-valve cam control shared with the junior straight-sixes, could just as happily rev to 6000rpm as it could tick over with a murmur at idle.
Of course, most Mercedes customers had little interest in the technicalities of all of this.
By 1989 the brand was explanation enough to make clear that the range-topping 500SL (until the V12 600SL arrived in 1993) would command the road with imperious ability, making executive saloon owners feel second-rate and sports car drivers impotent.
Its crisp lines, long bonnet and a bluff tail (designer Johann suggested that its look was meant to discourage anyone from overtaking) all have a balance that manages to assert confidence with measured dignity.
And so it drives. There’s only a faint rustling from the V8 as the 500SL rolls into its stride on a light to medium throttle, normally starting in the second ratio of its four-speed auto ’box.
It makes positive, semi-slurred changes in typical Mercedes fashion, occasionally hanging on to gears for a touch longer than the most relaxed drivers might want.
And, while it rides more firmly than the AC, it has a comforting stability and consistency with which it covers different sections of road.
Little more than the odd muffled thump shared between its myriad suspension bushes alludes to the work going on underneath, and the light action of its power-assisted and oddly large steering wheel makes it effortless to place.
The finest German leather, vinyl and walnut trim might not charm with quite the same warmth as the AC’s interior décor, but a rational simplicity and feeling of security make the R129 an uncannily relaxing place to be, almost regardless of speed.
And that speed is never an issue, although it is an inevitable by-product of hearing the V8 at full volume.
Leaning into the long-travel pedal can stir a gratifying rumble, while a sudden push has the auto ’box promptly serving up a howling powerband from 4000rpm.
Automatic upshifts at 6000rpm seem only to be a formality, given that there is still hardly any audible strain on the engine at this point, and indeed there is a novel facility that occasionally unlocks another 300rpm.
The chassis and brakes keep pace dutifully, rarely ever straying from a display of impeccable poise, and isolate the occupants from the great realities of their work.
Its limits can eventually be found, but there are few rewards in doing so, even with this early car’s lack of automatic slip regulation (a primitive form of stability control), beyond a rather unpleasant dose of steering feedback and the final, committed grasps of grip.
“It’s a muscle car, really, a cruiser,” says Thomas Howarth, keeper of this 1990 500SL, who also owns a number of other modern classic Mercedes-Benz models.
“The quality is amazing,” he adds, “so most of the original parts have lasted.”
“It’s important to find one that’s complete, though,” he tells us.
“Finding the correct ‘binlid’ alloys in good condition to replace the Monobloc AMG-style wheels that were on it when I got it was pretty difficult.”
Apart from a prodigious thirst – “It’s a weekend car, so I’m not counting,” he smiles – the ownership experience is relatively stress-free.
The vision of a distinctive British sports car with off-the-shelf serviceability that AC’s Angliss had for the Brooklands Ace was realised only in part, and today it’s a car that needs an owner as devoted as Patrick Moynihan.
“Lots of the parts are stamped with Ford’s neat model and year numbering system,” he says, pointing under the vast clamshell bonnet.
“But others are completely unknown. I only discovered that the top balljoints were from a Jaguar 420 because I had some on my shelf.”
But life has been exciting with the Brooklands Ace, and probably more so than it would have been with the new V8 Jag he’d ordered 20 years ago then cancelled. “I’ve never looked back,” he grins.
By the time Patrick bought his 1997 Ace, in 2000, the model was already being consigned to history.
With just 46 produced between 1993 and 1996, the original run had been a financial calamity that left AC reeling over the collapsed prospects of selling 300 to 400 cars a year at £50,000 each to break even.
After going into receivership, another valiant stab at the market in 1997 had produced only another 12 cars.
That both TVR and Aston Martin came back fighting just as the AC-Autokraft concern made a hopeful play for a fleeting gap in the market must have been partly to blame for its demise.
Left dumbstruck between historic British marques of greater renown and a wave of junior sports cars from Germany that were prepared to settle any argument beneath the SL’s sphere of domination, there was no quarter left for the Brooklands Ace.
Meanwhile, Mercedes was twisting itself into a volume car-maker for an increasingly computer-controlled world.
The fourth in the SL lineage became a comforting constant, despite almost countless minor improvements, two facelifts and, in 1998, even a whole new range of twin-spark, three-valve-per-cylinder V6s and V8s.
It bowed out in 2001 with a lasting dignity afforded to few cars outside the SL dynasty and ushered in a very new-millennium successor.
Even now, 22 years on, the R129’s supreme refinement, commanding image and irreproachable performance have remained just as effective at delivering its trademark feeling of on-top-of-the-world calm.
The Brooklands Ace is the more exclusive car today, if not by choice.
Solid, thoughtfully built and brimming with charisma, it is a fine, albeit flawed, British roadster-GT that feels entirely at home cruising through England’s countryside of soft hues and crumbling brickwork.
As its V8 snarls from beneath an expanse of dark green bodywork, there is a powerful allure to the AC… but from the driver’s seat of the SL, it’s just another pleasant curiosity to look upon with detached appreciation.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: The Old Red Lion in Litchborough
- Sold/number built 1989-2001/213,089
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank, 32-valve, 4973cc V8, electronic fuel injection
- Max power 326bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 332lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link axle, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs, with servo and ABS
- Length 14ft 7in (4470mm)
- Width 5ft 11⅓in (1812mm)
- Height 4ft 3⅓in (1303mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2515mm)
- Weight 4167lb (1892kg)
- 0-60mph 5.9 secs
- Top speed 157mph
- Mpg 20
- Price new £58,045
- Price now £15-35,000*
AC Brooklands Ace
- Sold/number built 1993-’97 & 1997-2000/58
- Construction Cromweld stainless-steel monocoque with aluminium panels
- Engine all-iron, ohv, 16-valve 4942cc V8, electronic fuel injection
- Max power 260bhp @ 5250rpm
- Max torque 320lb ft @ 3250rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual (optional four-speed auto), RWD
- Suspension independent, by unequal-length wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo and ABS
- Length 14ft 6in (4420mm)
- Width 6ft 1⅝in (1870mm)
- Height 4ft 3¼in (1300mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 5½in (2472mm)
- Weight 3175lb (1440kg)
- 0-60mph 5.9 secs
- Top speed 144mph
- Mpg 23
- Price new £49,995
- Price now £20-40,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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