The Cobra Story: Part 1

Pretty girls and fast cars… or fast girls and pretty cars… May during her time as a model with a full comp 289 Cobra.

By Alex Gabbard

            The two‑seat British built roadster known variously at the AC Cobra, 289 Cobra, or Ford Cobra became the Greatest American Sports Car of it time proven in competition. It was an idea born from Carroll Shelby=s American and World Championship level sports car racing combined with his desire to build and market a car that would be faster than the contemporary Corvette, Jaguar, and Ferrari.

            Shelby retired from racing after becoming the SCCA National Driver Champion in 1956 and ’57, after co‑driving the Aston Martin DBR1 that won the 24‑Hours of Le Mans in 1959, after being an Aston Martin team driver that won the World Sports Car Championship that year; and after becoming the USAC National Road Racing Champion in 1960. But, he wasn=t through. He wanted to come back into racing as a builder, not a driver. His failing heart required a less rigorous lifestyle than eating nitroglycerine pills while racing.

            So, building on his acclaim as a champion driver and Ford=s interest in having a ATotal Performance@ sports car that could beat arch-rival Chevrolet=s Corvette, Shelby was in a good position. Ford had the engine, the new “thin wall casting 260”, but the Texan needed a car. When a friend mentioned that A.C. Cars, Ltd. announced that it would be dropping the famed Ace line of roadsters from production because its engine supplier, Bristol, would no longer be supplying engines, Shelby found the car. The deal was struck between Ford and Shelby, Shelby and A.C. Cars, and the Cobra was born with styling improvements from the Ace.

            When the first Cobra was shipped from AC Cars on February 2, 1962 and received later in Los Angeles, all it needed was an engine, transmission, and body paint. Shelby and Dean Moon of the “Moon Equipped” hot rod parts fame, (do you remember the “Moon Eyes”), spent less than eight hours fitting the second engine received from Ford, a HiPo 260 and a Borg‑Warner 4‑spd transmission. Once completed, Shelby and Moon roared off through the Sante Fe Springs oil fields near Moon’s shop. The car proved to be faster than Shelby had hoped for, and he no doubt began to see the reality of his earlier threat to Enzo Ferrari, “Someday I’ll blow your ass off”, taking shape.

            Once the word got out that Shelby had a hot new sports car, auto magazines lined up to test it. The first to get a shot at the car got a silver Cobra because there wasn’t time to paint it. Shelby and friends spent several dozen boxes of steel wool soap pads polishing the car’s aluminum body. Road & Track was next, and they got a yellow Cobra, in fact the same car but now painted. It so impressed R&T that the car made the cover. Sports Car Graphic tested the car, now painted red and proclaimed that, “Its acceleration…can only be described as explosive.”

            With such coverage, the Cobra suddenly became an established marque, even if there was only one car. Each magazine got a different color car, first silver, then yellow, red and so on as Shelby and Co. repainted the same car giving the impression that Shelby’s factory was turning out dozens of the cars.

            The Cobra generated great excitement, and Shelby was quick to promote special racing versions of the car that were said to be even faster than the impressive street cars. No other car so overwhelmed the sports car arena as the Cobra, and magazines heaped praise upon its stunning performance as both a docile street machine in traffic and a 150 mph bullet in a single package.

            When the second car was received from AC Cars during May, 1962, Shelby and Ford had already established a network of dealerships across the U.S. The third car became Shelby’s first racing Cobra, and his legendary, story‑book rise to success was about to take off like a rocket. Even though the Cobra/AC Cars chassis was an out‑dated leaf spring design from the early ’50s, the combination of light weight, engine power, and excellent weight distribution produced a sports-racing machine with superb handling that had been well proven by the Ace. Throughout production, Cobras were continually updated as improvements were brought from race tracks to the factory. Thus, few Cobras were built exactly alike. Intensive and thorough development of competition Cobras made them very sophisticated racing cars with a huge list of options available to any Cobra buyer. They were a true “roll your own” sports car for whatever interests, especially racing; Shelby’s main interest.

            He would soon nail Ferrari to the wall, win everything there was to win, and show the world that America and Ford V8 engines could humble the best of Europe’s high‑winders. Cobra number CSX2026 took the marque’s first win at Riverside in January, 1963. It also raced as a Shelby American team car in the Daytona Continental the next month and finished 4th overall. Then came Sebring with NASCAR’s famous stock car driver, Glen “Fireball” Roberts co‑driving. The car also won the USRRC at Watkins Glen.

            In the beginning, early 1963, there were four Shelby American team cars and 6 independents racing SCCA, USRRC, and FIA (international) races everywhere they could. And, because rules were different for different organizations, the cars had to be suitably prepared for each type of racing. In some cases, they even ran in different classes in back‑to‑back events by changing something on the car, say ‑ removing the windshield.

            The purpose of the Cobra was to win races, and Shelby offered independents everything his team cars had as well as limited factory backing. As Cobra production increased, Shelby American offered racing specials as factory built competition cars just like the team cars. There were several types; the “Sebring Cars” (3 built), the “Riverside Replica” (1 built), “Le Mans Cars” (2 built), “Le Mans Replica” (6 built), “FIA Roadsters” (5 built), “USRRC Roadsters” (12 built although 6 of these were built primarily for SCCA A/P racing), “Daytona Coupe” (6 built). In addition, there were 28 known independently prepared Cobra racing cars. Cobras were the hottest thing going, and they left their imprint forever emblazoned in the history of American and International racing.

            The first 75 were HiPo 260 powered, and in just their second year of existence, the Cobra won the 1963 USRRC Championship and humiliated the Corvette crowd that had become accustomed to dominating production class racing. It was just the beginning. Competition Cobras were offered for $7,220.00, about double the price of a Corvette, and if you had to have more, there was more; engines became the HiPo 289 during 1964. The Stage III Shelby American team car replica with the full spec IV‑R engine with four IDA 48 Webers went for $9,500. This was the car that blew away Ferraris, Jaguars, and Corvettes alike. They were identical to the team cars that won the SCCA A/Production Championship and the Drivers Championship. These cars were personally tested by Ken Miles, the top Shelby American team driver, at Riverside and guaranteed to equal the best lap time of the team cars ‑ the GT lap record ‑ and complied with SCCA and FIA Class III GT regulations.

            The specials like the Le Mans cars and replicas, the FIA roadsters and especially the Daytona Coupes, won many international GT races and came within a whisker of beating Ferrari in 1964 for the FIA World Manufacturers Championship, the first time any American sports car had been so competitive. Cobra would likely have taken that title if Enzo had not brought his considerable influence to bear on FIA officials to cancel the last race of the season, Monza. The hallowed and haunted Autodromo Nazionale at Monza dated to 1922 and was hallowed because it was Ferrari’s home track and haunted because more top drivers had been killed there than any other circuit, taking a number of spectators with them.

            Prior to the emergence of the Ford GT threat to European road racing, Ford and Shelby  campaigned Cobras in Europe. On the high speed endurance circuits like Le Mans where the cars raced perhaps 3,000 miles for 24 hours, aerodynamics was seen to be important, and open roadsters were not well suited for the task. Pete Brock at Shelby American designed a beautiful coupe body for the leaf spring chassis. Under FIA rules, a coupe body could be raced on a conventional Cobra even though they were not a regular production item offered to the public as long as the chassis and drive line remained unchanged.

            The Daytona Coupe remains the most exotic of the Cobra line and was built for the sole purpose of ending Ferrari’s stranglehold of GT World Championships. The coupe bodies allowed the 380 hp Cobra a 20 mph increase in top speed and an unanticipated increase in fuel economy. With the proven reliability of the basic car, they more than matched the best that Ferrari could muster.

            In a sly twist, Ferrari’s 250 GTO did not actually qualify for FIA Grand Touring class racing because only 40 were built while Shelby met the letter and spirit of the regulations by building more than the required 100. The way Ferrari got around the GT homologation rules was by saying the GTO was nothing more than a re‑bodied 250 SWB (Short Wheel Base) Berlinetta which it clearly was not.

            By 1964, Cobra roadsters and coupes were racing in all sorts of international events. Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant won the GT Over 3‑liter class of Sicily’s grueling Targa Florio enduro while the Jo Schlesser/Dickie Attwood team won the same class in Germany= s Nurburgring 1000Km. In the great French classic, the 24‑Hours of Le Mans, the Daytona Coupe performed magnificently in hands of Gurney and Bob Bondurant when they finished 4th overall and led the GT class ahead of a GTO. No Cobras placed at Spa where the GTO took a 1‑2‑3‑4 sweep, and suddenly Ferrari was back in the season-long points race. The red machines then placed 3‑4 in the Riems 12‑Hour without a Cobra placing again. Then, Gurney showed the Cobra’s mettle by taking a 1st GT finish at Goodwood and finishing 3rd overall in the RAC Tourist Trophy in a Cobra 3‑4‑5 sweep ahead of the nearest GTO. Ken Miles looked really impressive in the Bridgehampton Double 500 finishing 3rd overall to lead the GT class, but it was to no avail. Enzo Ferrari saw the future and maneuvered politically to save another FIA World GT title for himself. A loss in the final race, Monza, was avoided when he had it canceled, a maneuver that saddened the Ferraristis who proclaimed such a final showdown would prove the red machines superior.

            During 1965, there was no stopping Shelby’s well prepared machines. All six coupes were complete and raced under the Guardsman Blue team color with twin white “Le Mans” stripes running the length of their bodies. Four Daytona Coupes ran the European races that year and scored nine wins, eight seconds, three thirds, and one fourth. Ferrari was nailed to the wall as predicted. Carroll Shelby’s Cobra works won America’s only World Manufacturers Championship that year.

            The Ford powered Cobra proved to be the world’s most formidable production sports car. All of them were independent suspension leaf spring cars (655 were built) and scored USRRC championships in 1963 and ’64; the 1965 FIA World GT Championship; the 1964 ARRC A/Production national title; and the SCCA A/Production national championship in both 1964 and ’65. Add to that the drag racing titles and records set by 289 powered “Dragonsnake” roasters (1966 NHRA World Champion), and what you have is proof that the little Cobra was indeed “the greatest American sports car!” of its time.