CARROLL SHELBY GOES MID-ENGINE | THE COOPER “KING COBRA” YEARS

Although Carroll Shelby’s Cobra was handily beating all comers in SCCA A/Production competition, he knew that it was not equipped to matchup with the advanced, lightweight mid-engined race cars that were set to dominate in the new upcoming ’63 Fall Series.  With little time, his answer was to try and repeat history by bolting proven American horsepower into a willing and able European mid-engined sportscar.

So he headed off to Europe and came back with two engine-less Cooper Monacos– and set out to retrofit the very capable racers with his signature formula of good ol’ fashioned Texas testosterone.  His crew had just one month, a welder, and a pile of old Cobra parts to turn the Coopers into Shelby’s new lean & mean King Cobra. Get ‘er done.

There are two stories here, intertwined.  There’s the story of Shelby and his attempt to dominate racing through sheer power and will with the King Cobra– and the story of his driver, Dave MacDonald, who through his love of the sport became a legend, and how his fate was forever changed when he made the difficult decision to leave Shelby and race for Mickey Thompson and Chevy at the ’64 Indy 500.

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Carroll Shelby (left in his signature striped coveralls) and Phil Hill at the 12 Hours of Sebring, 1963. Shelby entered four Cobras, driven by Dan Gurney and Phil Hill, two of which have new rack-and-pinion steering.  Hill succeeds in setting the fastest GT lap, but Shelby-American ultimately came up short, and Ferrari took the win.

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Carroll Shelby (left) and Dave MacDonald (seated) with the short-lived Cooper Monaco (King Cobra) project, 1963.  Oh, it was fast alright– that wasn’t the problem.  The King Cobra was powered by a “full race” 289 ci Ford engine and Huffaker four-speed transaxles (later swapped out for Colottis) that sat atop the beefed-up Cooper chassis and suspension.  The car handled horribly– there wasn’t enough rubber or weight to handle the hulking horsepower.

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The Shelby-American crew working on the Lang Cooper “King Cobra” driven by Dave MacDonald at the newly constructed Phoenix International Raceway, 1964.  The car’s engine had blown after qualifying the previous day, and a replacement engine was brought in from LA and quickly wrenched the morning of the race.  MacDonald got in only three laps on the new engine before being fitted on the grid, 30 seconds before the flag fell. –image by Dave Friedman via

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Dave MacDonald takes the checkered flag for the “King Cobra” Lang Cooper’s first ever win, at Phoenix International Raceway– nearly lapping the entire 29 car field, and also setting a new course lap record of 1 minute and 44.4 seconds, in 1964. –image by Dave Friedman  via

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Racing legend Dave MacDonald in the winning  Lang Cooper (Shelby’s “King Cobra”) at Phoenix International Raceway, 1964.  –image by Dave Friedman via

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“In the mid ’60s, when Dave MacDonald was reaching his zenith as a team driver for Shelby American, he was also working as a mechanic in the race shop. His three closest friends were Wally Peat, Joe Freitas and Craig Lang. The first two were denizens of the Texan’s speed factory in Venice. Freitas was an aspiring Corvette racer who was hoping to snare a Cobra ride. Craig was a successful club racer from Hawaii where he ran a 356 Porsche and then a Lotus 11 Clubman he called the “Squirrel Cage.”

Craig’s part-time crew in the islands included an enthusiastic fan named Al Dowd, who was then running the Coast Guard’s motor pool in Honolulu. When Dowd retired from the Coast Guard he moved to California and went to work for Shelby. His mechanical talents were good but he was even better at organization and so became the race team’s manager. Once firmly installed, he called Craig and told him about the race team and that he’d be missing the adventure of his life if he didn’t come over and join the fun. When the young racer arrived he found instant camaraderie with Peat, MacDonald and Freitas. What set the four apart from most of the team was their loyalty to Chevrolet. At that time most of the hot racing engines in California-built specials were Chevrolet; the best was from Traco engineering, just a few miles from Shelby’s facility. Much to the annoyance of Shelby they’d park their Corvettes together in front of the shop and enjoyed rankling the Texan just because they could. MacDonald’s driving talent was evident from the beginning, so much so that Lang and Freitas put their own ambitions aside to concentrate on helping MacDonald’s career. When the opportunity came to move up from the Cobra roadsters to the 289 V8 powered Cooper-Monacos which the press dubbed the “King Cobras,” Lang offered to back MacDonald in one of the team cars provided it could be painted in his own colors, bright orange. Shelby realized this was a good way to add another car to the team without spending more money, so he agreed. When the car arrived and was being prepared, most of the Shelby crew were more than willing to help this small circle of team-mates because MacDonald was their personal champion within the Texan’s Ford-controlled operation.”

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Dave MacDonald in the Cooper Monaco based “King Cobra” Carroll Shelby mid-engined racecar, 1963.

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“MacDonald, anxious to move up to more important events was being tempted with an Indy 500 ride by Corvette’s sub-rosa factory team headed by Mickey Thompson. As soon as the first Lang-Cooper was completed, MacDonald was torn by his loyalty to his friends and the Shelby team-ride but eventually agreed to race for Mickey at the Speedway. As a result of testing commitments at Indy with Thompson, Lang agreed to let Shelby take his Lang-Cooper car to the Kent, Washington USRRC for Bob Holbert to drive. Holbert lost it on the rain slick track and demolished the car. Shelby immediately called Cooper in England to purchase a replacement racer for Lang but was told there wasn’t a car available. “But,” said John Cooper, “we do have a new bare chassis I can send if you can build your own body.” Within days the new chassis was air-freighted to LA for Lang and Peat to build their new racer. They chose a talented California racer/fabricator named Don Edmunds to shape the new body. Since I had just completed the drawings for another Shelby racer to be built in Italy with DeTomaso, the drawings for this car were quickly modified to fit the Cooper’s chassis. The design included a radical idea at the time—a moveable rear wing. Edmunds, being an experienced circle track specialist, didn’t believe in the idea and convinced Lang and Peat to build the car as simply as possible to save weight and untested complexity. Just as the car was completed MacDonald had to leave for his ride at Indy.

Having seen the results of tests with Thompson’s radical rear-engined racer, Lang, Peat and Freitas begged MacDonald not to go to Indy, believing the car was dangerous. MacDonald was certain his cat-like reflexes could make the car successful and when he passed seven cars on the first lap it appeared he was on his way. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way and MacDonald was killed in a fiery crash on the second lap.”

–Peter Brock

Great color shot of Carroll Shelby’s Cooper-Monaco “King Cobras”

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Sadly, 1964 brought the tragic demise of Dave MacDonald (and Eddie Sachs) at the 1964 Indy 500– and the end of the short-lived King Cobra era.

The emergence of cutting-edge competition like McLaren and Lola, with monocoque chassis and advanced all-aluminum engines, took the venom out of the King Cobra’s bite. By the end of the ’64 racing season the writing was on the wall– it was all over.  Shelby unloaded them, spares and all.

But he wasn’t done. Shelby saw that the technology bar had forever been raised in competitive racing.  The game was changing, and he wasn’t going to be left in the dust. Soon Shelby would answer with his baddest bruiser ever– the GT40.

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The very fetching Edy Williams pictured above.  Insert blatant double entendre about headlights, curves, etc., here __________ .

8 thoughts on “CARROLL SHELBY GOES MID-ENGINE | THE COOPER “KING COBRA” YEARS

  1. Pingback: THE SNAKE & THE STALLION | HOW SHELBY KICKED FERRARI’S ASS « The Selvedge Yard

  2. Another trip down “happy memory” lane. My dad took me to a SCCA race in Norman, OK in about 1958. Carroll Shelby toyed with the competition.

    I secreted a transistor radio into 6th grade to listen to the Indy 500 broadcast in 64. The fiery crash that killed Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs delayed the race through Math class. Lloyd Ruby, from my hometown of Wichita Falls led for a few laps, but that thrill was tempered by the tragic deaths.

    Would love to see something about one of the smartest owner/drivers ever-Jim Hall and his amazing Chaparrals. Hall did more for ground effects and aerodynamics than just about anyone since Dr. Cam.

  3. For a great read on the GT40 and how it beat Ferrari, I would commend “Go Like Hell,” by AJ Baime. I thought I knew the story but found that I had just scratched the surface.

  4. Pingback: THE FORD MUSTANG GT350 | CARROLL SHELBY & THE AMERICAN PONY WAR « The Selvedge Yard

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