We admit it – we nearly got it wrong. But can you blame us? We've seen dozens – nay, hundreds of Shelby Cobra homages and outright knockoffs over the years, and while many of them have offered road-bludgeoning performance, precious few have been high-quality efforts, and fewer still brought something new to the table. So when images of the Iconic AC Roadster first hit our inboxes along with blustery talk of 800+ horsepower and a massive price tag, we didn't pay much attention. Here was yet another Cobra replica whose biggest innovation appeared to be a set of awkward looking head- and taillamps. Why bother?
And then we drove it. And oddly, just as importantly, we took a peek beneath its skin, only to realize that the car's familiar shape is something of a Trojan horse whose familiar striping job masks a shocking amount of cutting-edge technology.
Continue reading to find out what changed our minds.
Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL
First off, make what you will of the controversial lighting design, but on the whole, allow us to say that pictures fail to do the Iconic AC Roadster justice. Its profile may be overly familiar, but peeling back the carbon fiber skin on the prototype we drove reveals a stunning assembly of custom CNC-milled parts, clever engineering solutions and the sort of high quality finishes that you almost never see in a production car. From the super-sanitary steel chassis with carbon-fiber tub, to the purpose-built steering box, to the pushrod-actuated inboard shocks, this, friends, is a machinist's pornucopia. Intakes in the belly pan suck air from the high pressure area behind the front wheels and neatly vent out near the rear wheels to help cool the brakes. The work-of-art suspension control arms are rifle-drilled so that brake fluid can run inside of them. Special aeronautics-grade 12-point fasteners are everywhere, and in addition to looking cooler than your typical bolt or screwhead, they're designed to maximize surface area for the even distribution of torquing force.
With the possible exception of the Aston Martin One-77, we can't recall the last time we saw a production-intent car with metalwork this impressive. It might have been the Ford GT40 – and we're not talking about the 2005-2006 Blue Oval supercar, we're thinking of the even better looking 2002 'GT40 Concept' that inspired the production model. That car kept us up at night. There's a reason for this comingling of feelings, of course – the folks behind the Iconic AC Roadster were also responsible for a fair bit of work on Ford's Camilo Pardo-designed GT40 showcar, along with 2005's Shelby GR-1 coupe concept.
Open the dainty looking door, climb over the sill (taking care not to accidentally brand your calves on the massive side pipes), cinch yourself down in the racing bucket with the five-point harness, and take stock of your surroundings. You look out over a small windshield that itself stands proud of a buckboard-simple instrument panel save some surprisingly snazzy gauge faces and a large central information screen (more on this later).
On second thought, you probably haven't so much as entertained opening the driver's door yet, as you're still gawking slack-jawed at what's under the clamshell hood. We can't blame you. A myriad of clever details may threaten to spirit your eyes away from the engine, but don't let them – the Ford SVO-sourced 7.0-liter overhead-valve V8 is worth savoring. Specially assembled for Iconic by famed NASCAR engine builder Ernie Elliot, there's plenty to look at. A simple crate motor wouldn't suit the spirit of the project, so Iconic has designed its own cross-ram fuel injectors, bespoke intakes and specified their own state of tune to realize 825 horsepower and 660 pound-feet of torque. We know guys who pull horse trailers that would give their firstborns for a heavy-duty truck with that kind of power. Slotting that much brute force in a 2,400-pound chassis is clearly a recipe for the diabolical.
And it is. Even though our time with the AC Roadster was brief and hemmed-in on a vast autocross course at Ford's Dearborn Proving Grounds, it's clear that this is a vicious, blunt force trauma piece of kit. Iconic says that the 0-60 sprint should take less than three seconds, and top speed is pegged at over 200 mph – impressive for a car that appears to have the cD of a school bus with its windows open. We didn't really get to open the Roadster's taps all the way during our drive, and to be honest, we'd be hesitant to do so without more familiarization. This car would still be preposterously quick with half the power, and there are no electronic bacon-saving devices – no traction or stability control and no anti-lock supervision for the 14-inch carbon-ceramic Brembos. Hell, not only aren't power steering or brakes on the spec sheet, there isn't even a vestigial roof. It's just you, 825 horsepower and a hellaciously wide set of meats crammed into a 98-inch wheelbase.
It is at this point that we need to address footwear – not the car's, yours. If you've got flat, wide feet like your author's size 10s, the extremely narrow, slightly offset pedal box is likely to be a problem. For the record, the Roadster rolls on 275/35 18-inch front and 325/30 19-inch rear Goodyear Eagle F1 run-flats.
As you'd expect of a car with this much power, the clutch is seriously heavy but quite progressive. Fittingly, the six-speed Tremec manual (with its own custom bellhousing – natch) requires a firm hand but finds the gears faithfully.
To reinforce the Iconic's "manly man" credentials, brakes go without vacuum assist and require big effort as a result. Those accustomed to vintage Cobras and/or race cars will probably not have an issue accounting for the footwell's tight confines and unservoed binders, but for those used to driving modern automobiles, the three pedals are clustered so close together that it's frighteningly easy to grab part of the accelerator as you bear down hard on the brakes. Ask us how we know. Officials we spoke with are aware of the design issue and admit that they are looking to implement a fix before the car goes into production next year.
Negotiate the pedal situation, however, and you're unlikely to have any other qualms with the Roadster's performance. The soundtrack is intoxicatingly belligerent, the seats supportive, the thrust relentless, and the unassisted steering racecar quick. As we were unfamiliar with both car and course, we were glad that Iconic had pro shoe Terry Borcheller on hand to show us the right way to whip through the cones and take us out on Ford's big oval at speed. Borcheller, a Grand-Am Daytona Prototype champ and winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona 24 (twice) and 12 Hours of Sebring, has been one of Iconic's main test drivers and knows the car's performance envelope about as well as anyone. It goes without saying that in his hands, the car's performance eclipses just about anything we can think of. Having a power-to-weight ratio that humbles the Bugatti Veyron will do that sort of thing.
But hang on – didn't we allude to the car having some surprisingly high technology underneath? Indeed we did – and here's where things get a little weird. Despite shying away from any sort of skill-enhancing electronic driver's aids, the AC Roadster still packs a ton of Silicon Valley firepower in the form of VEEDIMS – Virtual Electrical Electronic Devise Interface Management System. Cumbersome acronym aside, VEEDIMS can best be thought of as an electronics architecture that streamlines a vehicle's various wiring harnesses and hydraulic systems into a single power and data Ethernet cable.
Not only does this mean that just about everything is by-wire in this car – from the gauges to the buttons on the dashboard to the motorized gas door – it also means that remote diagnostics and repairs can be effected wirelessly through the internet. On a cutaway model, officials showed us how it's possible to access the vehicle's data logging system to not only check on potential problems and maintenance needs, but also to examine trackday data. As a party trick, it's possible to replay laps on the car's systems in real time, complete with the color-changing needles dancing along on the fussy-faced gauges. Just about everything is accessible from the screen on the dashboard or the owner's smart phone, and the car functions as a wireless hotspot, too.
Between all of the custom machined parts, the high-dollar engine and the VEEDIMS technology, it becomes quite clear why Iconic plans to ask nearly $500,000 for each AC Roadster – this, even though they plan to switch from a carbon fiber body to less costly aluminum. And despite the prodigious price tag, there's so much high-quality work here that we suspect Iconic will still lose money on each example it builds at its Livonia, Michigan facility – even if the company finds homes for all 100 examples they're hoping to sell beginning next year.
When we mention this thought to Iconic's officials, they don't blanche – but they don't object, either. In fact, they seem remarkably unconcerned either way. That may be because VEEDIMS alone has the potential to yield big money through deals with OEMs both within and beyond the car industry. Of course, we like to think it's because those holding the purse strings recognize that sometimes, it's necessary to lose money to bring a work of art into the world. And that's precisely what the AC Roadster is – a barking mad bit of rolling sculpture that bridges both the past and future of the performance automobile.
Still, we can't help but suspect that others will make the same mistake we almost did and judge this car by its cover, or worse, view it as some sort of anachronistic carbon-fiber record player on account of its decades-old form factor. Iconic admits they're toying with the idea of an altogether more modern coupe bodystyle for their next project, and we can't help but feel that a unique 21st century design might be the way to go. One thing's for sure – we won't be so quick to dismiss Iconic the next time they hit our inbox.
Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL