If not for our knowledge of the magical cable snaking through it, the Iconic AC Roadster might produce a ho-hum response as just another Cobra continuation, replica, or wannabe. We've certainly experienced enough attempts to recapture that glory.
But this time, it's the things you can't see under the hand-formed body panels that distinguish the Roadster. For example, besides the aforementioned cable, the 800 hp under your right toe adds an unmistakable measure of distinction. And there are the gorgeous hand-made aluminum components. The dry-sump oil reservoir, for one, looks as though it could recharge Iron Man. Every screw and bolt (including the wheel nuts, for which a special socket was created) has a maximum-contact, 12-point head. Unions in the fuel, oil, and water lines are made snug by shell clamps. Brake lines wend through the hollow space inside suspension links. Air from the front wheel wells vents through the floor pan to help reduce drag. The details were considered and preordained.
"What's happened to manufacturing quality?" computer guy and Iconic Motors founder Claudio Ballard asked business partner Keith Delucia during the Roadster's planning, which started in 2005. "Let's get rid of the cost factor for a minute."
Delucia says that with the Roadster, they set out to achieve the appeal and finish quality of a Veyron or an Enzo, to create an American supercar that's assembled in Detroit -- well, the suburb of Livonia -- after engines are built in Georgia, parts are milled from blocks of aluminum in Vermont, and body panels are rolled and hammered in tiny (not to be mistaken for tinny) Kimball, Michigan.
Long a Cobra lover, Ballard decided that replicating it would produce the perfect test bed for his new technology. This brings us to the snaking cable, for which he was named 2010 inventor of the year by the U.S. Business and Industry Council. It's called VEEDIMS for Virtual Electrical Electronic Device Interface Management System.
VEEDIMS delivers electric power and digital data on the same cable throughout the car. A network of small electronic modules serves individual locations: dashboard, engine, headlamps. Oh, and the patented, automatic gas cap. That's right: a button on the dash causes the fuel filler door to drop down and recede along a track beneath the fender arch. Meanwhile, further below, the gas cap unfastens itself and pops open. How has mankind been able to struggle along until now without such a device?
Another VEEDIMS attribute is remote diagnostics. The modules are programmed to retain every event in the Roadster's history, and the data can be accessed and analyzed from afar, software patches being sent if necessary.
The VEEDIMS patent was awarded in June. Far beyond Iconic Motors, the obvious potential is for replacing the conventional automotive wiring harness in mass-produced vehicles, lessening weight, complexity, and failure risk. Boats, airplanes, and oil rigs could benefit as well.
Delucia says Shelby American demurred when it was approached about doing this project, so Iconic turned to AC Cars for a licensed branding exercise honoring the original Cobra's 50th anniversary. The first production Roadster is promised for delivery in late February of 2011 as a 2012 model. While the official price is yet to be disclosed, the result is a car that will sell for "close to that $500,000 range," he said. The company intends to produce 100 units.
Based on our experience, the owner of this approximately 2400-pound car is going to have an incomparable blast. Despite its diminutive stature and stance, the Roadster is a big, hairy beast. The engine, an aluminum, overhead-valve, 7.0-liter V-8 from Ford's SVO division, is built by Ernie Elliott of NASCAR renown. The Iconic team designed its own intakes and tuned the powerplant to produce the claimed 800 hp and 660 lb-ft of torque.
The V-8 awakens with a gruff rumble, but pressing the accelerator starts a thunderous eruption that's accented by notes of Icelandic and Indonesian volcanoes and hints of Greenlandic glacial bodies crumbling into the sea. Iconic claims a 0-to-60 dash below 3.0 seconds and a top speed beyond 200 mph. We were bottled up on an autocross course at Ford's Dearborn proving grounds, so we can attest to neither figure nor to the 8000 rpm redline. But while the power did indeed seem as vast as a trillion-dollar spending bill, it's as tractable as a local bridge project.
We were able to goose the Roadster through the cones without getting all sloppy, at one high point grabbing third gear in the six-speed Tremec manual transmission. The chassis -- steel tubing with a carbon-fiber tub for the passenger compartment and aluminum honeycombs at strategic points -- stayed nice and flat. On the skidpad portion of the course, the Roadster understeered most predictably. But even with the tires'Little Rhody-sized contact area -- P275/35 ZR18 front and P325/30 ZR19 rear -- the discerning right foot could add about 1500 rpm to bring the rear end around. Within the brutality, deftness is possible.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that we did ride shotgun on a relatively languid 125-mph lap around the proving grounds' oval; aside from the underhood perturbations, the cockpit stayed serene enough for high tea.
Additional solid substance is provided by the Brembo brakes with 14-inch carbon-ceramic rotors; by the front- and rear-control-arm suspension with pushrod-actuated, horizontally mounted coils and dampers in front, vertically mounted in rear; and by the rack-and-pinion steering gear of which the rack, the pinion, and the housing are all purpose built.
Although the cockpit is rather bare except for the leather trim, an unexpected wow factor comes from gauges with needles that change color. Glowing green at lower revs, they turn yellow in the middle and red above redline.
More than a test bed for VEEDIMS, the Iconic AC Roadster encompasses bouquets of original ideas while also highlighting precision and quality. And it emphasizes the driver. Yes, you, maybe a passenger, 800 hp, and a chassis worthy of a major racing series. Can you keep it straight on the exit of a turn? There's no electronic intervention if you can't.
Comparisons to Tesla are implied. It's like the Hoover Dam versus a backyard weir, like Smokin' Joe Frazier the heavyweight versus Bill Shoemaker the jockey.
Even factoring in the price difference, we'll take computer guy Claudio Ballard over computer guy Elon Musk.