By Alex Gabbard
By 1963, Cobra roadsters were racing in all sorts of events, but top speed in such events as Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans proved lacking in the open car. A slicker coupe was needed to challenge Ferrari, even though the Bolton/Sanderson 7th overall at Le Mans that year (2,591.8 miles averaging 107.99 mph for the race in winning the 5-liter class) showed the chassis, drive line, and 289 engine had the stamina for such grueling long distance races.
The Pete Brock designed Daytona Coupe showed the way to winning international races against Ferrari, and a total of six chassis were readied at Shelby American for coupe bodies. All but the first were built and fitted by Carrozzeria Grand Sport of Modena, Italy (Ferrari’s home town). These new Cobras were built to conform to FIA regulations that stated that a car’s body shape could be changed as long as the chassis, driveline, and engine remained as homologated. The new Cobra coupe, named the Daytona Coupe for its first appearance in the Daytona Continental 2000Km, predecessor of the 24-Hour, proved to have two benefits; it was about 20 mph faster than the roadster with the same power and, surprisingly, used less fuel per lap. They raced in either Guardsman Blue or Viking Blue livery with white stripes, blue and white being America’s colors in international racing.
The next year, Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant won the GT Over 3‑liter class of Sicily’s infamous Targa Florio enduro in a roadster while the Jo Schlesser/Dickie Attwood team won the same class in Germany=s Nurburgring 1000Km. Highlight of the 1964 season was the great French classic, the 24‑Hours of Le Mans. In the much acclaimed Ferrari-Ford battle, the Daytona Coupe performed magnificently in the hands of Gurney and Bob Bondurant when they finished 4th overall (2,778.39 miles averaging 115.77 mph in CSX2299, Viking blue) and led the GT class ahead of Ferrari’s latest coupe, the GTO, by 79 miles.
The season proved to be a much vaunted showdown between the Shelby team and Scuderia Ferrari to the last race of the season. Cobra was favored to win at the cathedral of Italian motor racing, the fast but decaying and haunted Autodoro Nazionale at Monza, northeast of Milan, but politics saved the championship for Enzo that year on his home turf. Enzo got Monza concealed to preserve his point lead to take another World Manufacturers Championship..
The next season, 1965, raised the hype, Cobra or Ferrari. All six Daytona coupes were complete, and four of them ran the European races that year scoring nine wins, eight seconds, three thirds, and one fourth. Even though Ferrari took the first three places at Le Mans, the last for years to come as the Ford GT-40s ruled for the next four years, the Shelby team nailed the red machines to the wall as predicted. Carroll Shelby’s Cobra works won America’s only World Manufacturers Championship that year and proved the Ford powered Cobra to be the world’s most formidable production sports car.
All of the Mk I (260 powered) and Mk II (289 powered) Cobras were transverse leaf spring cars (655 built) and scored USRRC, ARRC, SCCA championships during 1963 and ’64 while 289 powered “Dragonsnake” Cobras scored an NHRA World Champion in 1966.
But that’s not the end of the Daytona Coupe story. Their achievements have been well documented over the years, particularly by the Shelby American Automobile Club, but one aspect of their achievements has not become as widely recognized. The cars evoke visions of blistering European road races against Ferraris and Porsches, not blasting down the Bonneville Salt Flats in world land speed records attempts. They did that, too!
The year 1965 was a big one for Carroll Shelby and his team. After bringing the FIA World Championship Daytona Coupes to California, there was time left for another go. Craig Breedlove and Bobby Tatro took one of the coupes to Bonneville and smashed the International Class C speed records. That class for cars powered by 183-to-305 cubic inch engines was a natural for the Coupes. The Cobra they used for the November runs was the car that had been on tour around the country (CSX-2287, the first Daytona Coupe built). It received little more than a fresh 289 engine. Breedlove and Tatro drove the car for 12 hours and set 16 national and 7 international records. After 3 hours, Tatro had set the new mark at 159.98 mph. After 200 miles, he had reached an average of 161.65 mph. Then Breedlove set the fastest speed of 165.59 mph. Overall, the car ran 1,801 miles in 12 hours to average 150.09 mph, including pit stops, another astounding accomplishment in the Cobra saga.
This Daytona Coupe ran pump gas and Goodyear Blue Streak tires as used in road racing. It proved the Cobra coupe concept at speeds that set the bar as the fastest car of its type flat out, in a car whose aerodynamics penned by Pete Brock was first proclaimed by a noted aircraft designer to be a brick incapable of the high speeds the cars repeatedly displayed.
Answering that assertion, SAAC records tell that Brock protested to Shelby saying, “Have I ever let you down?
Ol’ Shel allowed, “Nope,” and the big gamble continued.
“In less than 90 days a bulbous aluminum shape patched with plexiglass windows was pushed onto a low, single-axle trailer and hauled across the coastal plain to Riverside. It had neither hoop or airfoil nor ducktail spoiler. Brock did not want the drag of the spoiler and [Phil] Remington drew the line at having his men build anything as silly as an upside-down airplane wing for the back of a car….
“Brutal would be too strong a word to describe the shape, but sleek would also be wrong. As it idled raucously on the pit apron the unpainted skin trembled and sparkled. [Ken] Miles slipped carefully into the tiny door and positioned himself in the tight seat. The rumble rose quickly to a roar as the car gathered speed and climbed out of the pits and over the bridge toward Turn Two. Ken Miles knew Cobras as well as anyone, and he knew Riverside cold. As he warmed the car the crew walked across the paddock to the back straight and brought out the watches. As the silver coupe twitched out of Turn Eight and exploded down the long straight the clocks began running: one hundred sixty-five, first time out. Suddenly dozens of teeth were exposed behind a row of grins.
“Tony Hogg [editor of Road & Track] joined Miles for a few laps at speed in the new coupe. He described the experience in Road & Track as ‘… shatteringly noisy.’ He expanded with, ‘The car must be driven with considerable elan.’
“Pete Brock’s intuition about how cars behave on the ground had been right. The coupe was still about 10 mph slower that Ferrari’s GTO but the Cobra’s remarkable acceleration out of the corners would give it an advantage for lap times. It could win.”
Ten days after the Cobra runs, Breedlove climbed into his “Spirit of America – Sonic 1” jet car and shot Bonneville’s black line at 600.6 mph to set the out-right World Land Speed record, a new high in human achievement. The next year, Shelby took the GT-40s to Europe and trounced everything.