AC 16/80: styled for the hills

| 15 Nov 2022
Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

It’s remarkable to think that British customers during the inter-war years would often take a newly purchased sports car straight from the showroom and enter it for a trial.

There seemed to be no concerns about subjecting an expensive SS100, Frazer Nash or AC to some spirited green-lane motoring, never mind a rough section over a Cornish mine.

Other than Brooklands and Shelsley Walsh, there were few permanent motorsport venues in the UK at the time, so classic trials were by far the most active competitive events for wealthy enthusiasts.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

AC Cars produced 28 ‘slab-tank’ 16/80s between 1935 and ’39

The challenges of Simms, Darracott or Beggar’s Roost were more talked about than The Fork or Railway Straight.

As well as the rewarding road miles around the country, often through the night, huge local crowds turned out for the more dramatic special sections.

As a result, a distinctive English body style became almost universal, with a slab petrol tank plus twin spare wheels mounted behind the tub, and none were more elegant than AC’s short-chassis Competition Sports, better known as the 16/80.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC 16/80’s sweeping shape was styled by Freddie March

Although somewhat overshadowed by its more flamboyant, faster and cheaper rival from Coventry, the elegant 2-litre from Thames Ditton had a loyal clientele of discerning buyers looking for a less flashy machine.

With styling input from Freddie March, the Duke of Richmond, the 16/80 cleverly utilised the best components from outside specialists around its trusted 2-litre straight-six.

In spirit, it had parallels with the fabulous Brough Superior motorcycles and, unusually, both SS Cars and AC shared the same chassis, supplied by Rubery Owen.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The larger, sportier carburettors give the AC impressive pace

Marketed as ‘The Outstanding Cars of their Class’, just 42 16/80s were handbuilt in the workshops of AC Cars between 1935 and ’39, of which 28 were ‘slab-tank’ designs.

The second built was chassis L358 pictured here, now freshly restored. Finished in British Racing Green with matching leather, it had a colourful early life as the factory demonstrator.

Rather than be a polished attraction at AC’s Park Lane showroom, the new car was immediately loaned to customer WE Kendrick to compete on The Motor Cycling Club’s Exeter Trial, staged just after the Christmas holidays.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC’s interior has been well-preserved by its previous owners

The green beauty drove through the night to the West Country on 27-28 December, where it stormed some of the toughest sections, including the legendary Simms Hill, to win a coveted Gold Medal on an impressive debut.

The Hurlock brothers, who had acquired AC in 1930, clearly saw these events and rallies as the ideal marketing route for their new sports model.

So, in March 1936, DPD 40, was entered on the RAC Rally with the rapid Margaret Allan at the wheel; she went on to win a First Class award.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The trim and instruments are original items, to preserve DPD’s period charm

Next, The Autocar’s HS Linfield put the 16/80 through a gruelling testing schedule.

A visit to Brooklands had the AC clocking 84.11mph over the quarter-mile, and a 20mph average up the famous Test Hill.

The Hurlocks also agreed to Linfield taking their demonstrator on the Land’s End Trial, the toughest of the MCC events, where DPD 40 collected another Gold.

For over a year, the 16/80 was a regular feature in magazines including an enthusiastic report in the July 1936 issue of Motor Sport after another trip to the West Country, with the road tester concluding that it was: ‘An exhilarating tonic when we tried it in a weekend of hard driving.’

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC and its first owner, Cecil Day, charging on at the Land’s End Trial

In early 1937, with 7800 miles on it, DPD 40 was advertised in The Autocar for £330 (the new price was then £445), with a factory guarantee.

Amazingly, just before the car was sold it was loaned to Vivian Selby for another RAC Rally entry in March.

Fresh from a successful event, the 16/80 was put through a thorough service before its delivery to Cecil Day, a keen trials and rally competitor.

The new owner greatly enjoyed his acquisition and immediately entered the Land’s End Trial that Easter, before heading to Scotland in May for the Edinburgh Trial and the 950-mile Coronation Scottish Rally.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The Days with their impressive trophy haul in 1938

With his petite wife looking almost lost in the passenger seat, Day rarely missed a trial or rally right up to the last Land’s End before the war in 1939.

The much-campaigned 16/80 survived hostilities and remained very original through the post-war years, other than the leather being painted black and the bonnet side being opened out for sportier carburettor trumpets.

In 1985, it made a dramatic return to the hills when purchased by David Hescroff to enter Vintage Sports-Car Club trials.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

‘Rather than be a polished attraction at AC’s Park Lane showroom, the car was loaned to a customer to compete on the Exeter Trial’

The black-painted seats were cleaned and treated to reveal the original leather, including the Deco-style sunburst panels on the doors.

Running in the Standard class, the handsome AC again picked up awards, its sporty exhaust rasp regularly judged the best-sounding on VSCC events.

The prevalence of specials and ever-tougher sections eventually persuaded Hescroff to retire DPD 40 in 1995. After 30 years of rewarding ownership he decided to sell it to his friend Nigel Phillips, who had passengered him on its trialling return.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The greyhound mascot leaps from the front of the AC 16/80’s long bonnet

A trained pattern-maker, Phillips started his career at British Aerospace in Hertfordshire, but the chance to move back to his home county of Dorset for a job in the classic car business came with a dream role at Rod Jolley’s coachbuilding firm in the New Forest.

“It was great work that I really enjoyed for eight years,” says Phillips.

“I’d owned an MG Midget and an MGB, but coachbuilding really fired my interest in pre-war cars.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

Art Deco-style doorhandles on the AC 16/80

“David had worked with Rod, and he was the catalyst for my passion for ACs,” continues Phillips.

“We did a road trip to Angoulême in his ex-Betty Haig 16/80 [C&SC, December 2016], which confirmed to me how special these cars are, particularly one with great history.

“There was no way I could afford one then, but David was wonderfully generous and those formative years shaped my desire to own a 16/80 one day.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

Originality is key in the AC’s well-kept cabin

The ex-works demonstrator held a special appeal to Phillips.

“It was the first production short-chassis model, and was very active in trials and rallies before WW2,” he explains.

“David bought it in 1985 and immediately entered it for the VSCC Lakeland Trial.

“We had a memorable trip driving to the Lakes and back. The tyres were so hard that nothing happened when we let the air out.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

Geared at 20mph per 1000rpm, the AC is a comfortable cruiser at 70mph

“Going up the spectacular Drumhouse section we crushed a brake pipe, which made coming down the steep slate-mine track a real challenge,” recalls Phillips.

“A local enthusiast, Malcolm Storey, kindly offered to help fix the car in his garage but the repair had limited effect.

“The next day it snowed, but we managed to make it back to Dorset on the motorway without any brakes.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The ENV ’box features a short remote lever

New priorities in life with a family and starting his own business led Phillips to step back from his old-car hobby, but in 2014 that long-held desire to own a pre-war sports car was rekindled: “By then I was in a lucky position to be able to buy, but it had to be English and a serviceable proposition.

“I’d considered various options including Frazer Nash, Lagonda and Alvis. I’d looked at a few before David suggested DPD.

“After a tough trials life with the VSCC, it had been sitting at the back of his garage.

“The car was very original but the engine was shot and needed a replacement block. I loved the idea, but had to be sensible about what I was taking on.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

A slab petrol tank and two spare wheels mounted behind the tub gave many inter-war cars a distinct shape

A deal was done and DPD was trailered back to Phillips’ garage, where he spent several weeks pondering how to tackle the project: “I wanted the car to be reliable, but not a showpiece.

“It was important to preserve the AC’s originality and character.

“My plan was to restore it mechanically, but just to clean and polish its cosmetic features. My friend Adrian Cox was a great help.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

A number of specialists helped to restore this classic AC 16/80

The car was carefully stripped down to the chassis and the restoration began, with Phillips doing the majority of work himself other than the engine, gearbox, panelwork and paint.

The first stage was the chassis, which proved straight with good spring shackles and kingpins despite its life of trials, but all the wheels were rebuilt.

The ‘six’ was a major undertaking by Brooklands EngineCraft, built around a new aluminium block matched to the rebuilt original cylinder head.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

Living in Dorset, Nigel Phillips is spoilt for choice when it comes to scenic drives

The crankshaft was reground and there were new pistons, liners and valves.

To improve power, Phillips used a semi-fast-road camshaft and a set of larger SU carbs from an Alvis: “The bonnet was modified in the ’50s, which was part of its history and I didn’t want to change it.”

The gearbox rebuild was done by Paul Kitcher.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

With the greyhound mascot ahead, the AC perfectly suits the scenic roads of the Purbeck Hills

With the mechanicals under way, Phillips switched to the bodywork: “I repaired the ash frame, but was determined to keep the original body with repairs to vulnerable areas where required, including the rear of the wings, the running boards and the panel under the spare wheels.

“It’s easy to lose the delicacy of the lines by reskinning, but working with Rod Jolley had given me an eye for detail.”

For the repaint, Phillips chose Townsend & Hall Coachworks: “It had to be cellulose, but I was apprehensive about the finish. In the end, I decided to let it age naturally rather than create a used look.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

DPD 40 became a regular in the pages of magazines when new

The wonderfully original interior was less of a challenge, because previous owner Hescroff had carefully preserved it.

The distinctive flecked green carpet was tricky, but Trimmings By Design was able to recreate the ornate edging.

The hood and tonneau were remade by JV Upholstery and the instruments were rebuilt, but the pitted chrome bezels and original faces were left untouched: “Too much rechroming and polishing would lose DPD’s character.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC 16/80’s ‘six’ required a new block

A key figure in the project was AC historian Rinsey Mills, says Phillips: “He offered constant encouragement and really helped with the little details. Rinsey also has a cache of parts, which he’d happily lend for reference.”

Because DPD was a works car and regularly entered for events during the 1930s, it was much photographed for magazine tests and on rallies and trials.

These images were a key reference during the restoration, but in 2019 Phillips made a remarkable discovery: “During a house rebuild in Trowbridge, young enthusiast Dan Marles found an album of old car photographs.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC’s Lucas headlights are handy for illuminating the road ahead while on an evening drive in Dorset

“After identifying the subject as an AC, he posted a note on the owners’ club forum asking if anyone knew about a car with the registration DPD 40,” Phillips explains.

“Rinsey spotted the post and we quickly made contact.

“As well as the album of wonderful pre-war photographs put together by first owner Cecil Day, the discovery led to the family, who had badges, plaques and cups won in DPD.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

DPD 40 is brimming with motorsport history

Early test drives proved frustrating, with reliability issues that were partly put down to poor-quality pattern parts.

Thanks to Peter Lander at Sigma Engineering the tuning is now perfect: “The flat-spot was a problem going up hills, but Peter sorted the starting and it now flies above 2500rpm, but still with plenty of torque.”

The first major trip was, appropriately, down to Devon with Hescroff to visit Mills and some of the locations where DPD competed in trials.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

This AC storms Noverton Hill for a CSMA trial in 1937

“Rinsey was impressed, I think, and had clearly enjoyed helping with the project, so it was a special moment,” says Phillips.

“We also went to the famous Simms Hill trial section, but it’s now a real car-breaker so I didn’t attempt to drive it.”

Owning a great British pre-war sports car is enhanced if you have rewarding roads on your doorstep.

Living in Dorset, Phillips is spoilt for choice and for our test run we head to the Isle of Purbeck.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The sunlight bounces off the open-top classic AC 16/80

Just following DPD 40 is a treat, as if we’ve slipped into a timewarp as its evocative shape scampers through thatched villages and up Whiteway Hill en route to Kimmeridge.

As we pass the seemingly endless estate walls of Lulworth Castle, the exhaust reverberates off the brickwork sounding very fruity.

The summer twilight makes driving an open car extra memorable, and Phillips generously allows me to take the wheel for the run home.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

Phillips stripped the AC 16/80 down to the chassis for a careful restoration

The rebuilt AC is a great credit to the owner’s work, particularly the way it performs.

The early ENV gearbox with its reversed gate and very low first is perfect for hill-starts on trials, but the wide ratio step requires practice to make a silent change.

However, the rest of the ’box is a treat to work. The short action has a lovely mechanical feel, and double-declutching down for tighter bends and hills is very satisfying.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC 16/80’s windscreen spotlight is a period item

The Bishop Cam steering is precise and nicely weighted. Hairpins keep your arms busy, but for faster routes you can relax your hands and guide it fluently through the turns.

The Bendix cable-operated drums pull the car up strongly, with good pedal feel.

Over the bumpiest sections, the steering kicks back and scuttle shake is evident, but when the route smooths out the ride is excellent, making it easy to appreciate how first owner Day covered so many miles to events.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

Driving Phillips’ charming AC 16/80 is a special experience on Dorset’s smooth roads

Phillips limits revs to 4000rpm, which is a busy 80mph, but at 70mph the cruising performance is perfectly comfortable.

Complementing the 16/80’s impeccable driving dynamics is this car’s special character.

Phillips has masterfully preserved its charming authenticity and, at night, with the big Lucas headlights spreading their beam through wooded Dorset roads, you can easily sense this AC’s rich history.

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The evening sun serves to highlight the classic AC’s purposeful tail

After three years, the completion of DPD has had Phillips yearning for another project.

“I’ll miss the winter evenings in the garage, working through the list of jobs, but now the plan is to fit a sump-guard and enter the Wessex Trial Light,” he says.

“My wife, Paula, came down to watch the event and is now keen to join me.”

Classic & Sports Car – AC 16/80: styled for the hills

The AC at a time control during the Coronation Scottish Rally in 1937, with Balmoral Castle in the background

Old photographs have inspired Phillips to revisit some of the pre-war events entered by first owner Day and recreate the historic images.

“There’s a wonderful shot of the Balmoral time control on the 1937 Coronation Scottish Rally that would be fun to match if we can get near the royal estate,” he says. “A road trip to Scotland is a must.”

The view down DPD’s long bonnet will be quite an experience, with the LeJeune mascot leaping ahead as it rasps through Glenshee on the Old Military Road.

Images: James Mann


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