Carroll Shelby poses with his new 1964 production Cobra and his new Cobra race car– Venice, California. “It’s a massive motor in a tiny, lightweight car.” –Shelby explaining in a nutshell, the secret to the Cobra’s performance.
When Carroll Shelby decided to leave auto racing in 1960 due to a hereditary and life-threatening heart condition– he never looked back. Shelby dominated the racing circuit in the 50s, and wasn’t done yet. Knowing that racing was longer an option, he fixed his squinty gaze at becoming a legend under the hood, as well as behind the wheel. Shelby was going to build his own cars, and made it his personal mission to knock Enzo Ferrari off his high horse– who’s imperious, dictator style flat-out rubbed the tough Texan the wrong way. Ford knew they would also benefit greatly from an alliance with Shelby, as they were regularly getting their clock cleaned on the racetrack, and had no answer for Chevrolet’s Corvette in the showroom wars either. Ford soon became part of the rivalry with Enzo, as two unsuccessful buyout attempts of Ferrari during the 60s dealt a humiliating blow to Henry Ford II, and the only place left to settle it was on the racetrack.
Carroll Shelby is shown below with the three Cobra roadsters that would win the 1963 USRRC Manufacturer’s Championship. Venice, California, 1963.
The AC Cobra started out as a Ford small block 260 cubic inch V-8 (later 289) wrapped in a tight & light handbuilt British sportscar. It quickly morphed into a beast with a 7.0L 427 aluminum block under the hood, creating an incredible power-to-weight ratio that was just plain sick. Some silly fans actually prefer the earlier, more dainty Cobras– feeling that the flared bodies, fat tires and aggressive stance of the later 427’s comes across visually as too brutish and crass. Well sorry folks, I’m all about the 427 Cobra. An AC Cobra coupe’s top speed was clocked at 185 mph on the M1 raceway back in 1964– an impressive feat for sure, and years before the super-exotics.
The original Shelby Cobra was far from perfect– lets just say there were issues with stuffing an engine that massive in a chassis so small. So four Santa Monica hot-rodders tore the cars apart and rebuilt them to withstand the strain and demands from the ground up– all under the watchful eye of Shelby in his own workshop. Ford, Shelby and his team of craftsmen succeeded in creating a car that became all at once– the most loved, feared and copied sportscar in all of American auto history.
Carroll Shelby looks on as his crack squad of hot-rodders obsess over every detail as one of the first Cobras is prepped at the first Dean Moon Shop– Santa Fe Springs, California in February of 1962.
First Shelby Cobra being built at Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, California.
A fleet of Shelby Cobra coupes being assembled and prepped.
“I’m not going to take this defeatist attitude and listen to all this crap any more from all these people who have nothing except doomsday to predict.” –Carroll Shelby
“Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine!” –Carroll Shelby after losing to Ferrari in ’64, and in ’65 it would be just as Shelby predicted. Don’t mess with Texas, baby.
Carroll Shelby at the wheel of a new Cobra production car– Venice, California, 1963. He loved to stick $100 bills to the inside of the windscreen and challenge the potential customer, sitting in the passenger seat, to grab the bill before the Cobra hit 100 mph.
I’m jealous… that must have been a great ride!
Amazing. And there’s no way you would’ve been able to snatch the Benjamin of my windscreen…
The original shop was right down the street from me. If you can, check an amazing doc called “The Cobra Ferrari Wars. It’s a great split screen piece that tells the story at the same time from both sides. Awesome pictures you found Kudos.
The Cobra Ferrari Wars is amazing– based on the book of the same name. They actually changed the name for the second pressing to– The Snake and the Stallion…. oops.
Another great post JP. I’m always impressed by how consistently entertaining and informative your posts are.
a 13 year old Dana thought it perfectly reasonable for her dad to mortgage the house for the $300k or so it might have taken to get a Cobra at that time. I like the cut of her jib.
Great post, even better ride I’m sure! X
Fantastic post! I remember hearing the $100 bill story when I was a kid…
Great post/photos and story. Carrol Shelby was just on the Speed Channel about a month ago – as one of his cars was being auctioned at the Barret Jackson Auto Auction in Palm Beach, FL. He looked pretty good.
Without doubt the greatest of American sports cars. I’ve got a signed Daytona Cobra Coupe model sitting on my desk. Shelby will sign anything.
If I could go back in time I’d do a lot of things, ahem, but one would be to give my then-21 year old father $7000 so he could buy that 427 Shelby Cobra a fellow sailor was selling.
i’ve loved cobras since i was a teenager. a couple of months ago i just bought a 70 cougar. watching this video makes me wanna drop a 428 in there and get a 600hp snorting monster. those cobras are the most perfect sports car ever built.
It’s almost a let down when I see what I think is an original Shelby Cobra only to read the plates: “fake” or “repli” or “my orig”.
I’ve seen one authentic in the past 10 years. I think.
The DVD is great, I have the Cobra/Ferrari Wars (first pressing I guess).
If you have the spare coin for the real deal, there is one coming for auction this Friday.
$6m, give or take. A rounding error in certain bank accounts, I suppose.
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The Cobra is certainly an entertaining vehicle and a sixties automotive icon; and Carroll Shelby is indeed a colorful character, but the Cobra mystique has grown to become more myth than reality.
In the World Sportscar Championship, the Cobra ever only won a single race. This occurred in New York State at the 1963 Bridgehampton 500 km race when Dan Gurney took the checkered flag in a 289 Roadster.
Due to an FIA ruling that the Ferrari 250LM had to race as a prototype, the Cobras won the 1965 World Championship for productions sportscars; However they did so without ever winning a single race. To add insult to injury, the Roadsters were often beaten by Porsche 904’s, powered by 120 cubic inch 4-cylinder engines. Indeed, 904’s even trounced the Cobra Daytona Coupes at Monza, Spa and Nurburgring that year.
Neither the 427 Roadster nor the Daytona Coupe ever brought home an overall victory in international competition. The best the 427 could muster was a third at Bridgehampton in 1965. That is one reason many collectors prefer the “dainty” 289. The Daytona Coupe that was clocked at 185 mph on the M1 was also 289-powered. The 427 never brought home the bacon.
Shelby did indeed have a hand in beating Ferrari in 1966, but only as one of many players supporting Ford with its victorious GT40 Mk II; a vehicle that bore neither Shelby nor Cobra badging.
AC (Shelby) Cobra, by F. Wilson McComb, is an excellent and even-handed book about the Cobra. I was a huge fan of the car before reading it and I still am. But reading things like, “the 289 was a lousy engine, though 250K of development work would have made it a world beater”, brought the whole thing into perspective. I highly recommend to any real fans of the car and the man.
Thank you so much for this blog. I’m now a total addict. I keep being amazed with the quality of the contents. If you dont mind me asking, I’m a vespa ryder from Europe. When can we expect your insight on the subject?
Very cool! A very young Shelby was one of Donald Healey’s drivers during the record breaking runs of 1954. Donald’s concept for the first Austin Healey was to take the cheapest, strongest and most reliable engine and put it in the lightest car they could. Sounds familiar!
Link to the record breaking run and glimpses of teenage Caroll Shelby,
I was very young, riding with my family from California to a vacation that went past Nevada. No speed limits in Nevada back then.
But I do remember crossing the Nevada border and my first sighting of a 427 Cobra in the left lane. We were doing (ahem) “freeway speeds” and the Cobra’s front end was doing that little sideways dance and off-cam “tchItta tchItta” sound that the tuned large bore V8’s tended to do at idle – and this at um, 65+.
Once we hit the border the guy in the Cobra opened it up and I thought the car had exploded. LOUD! The back end went a little sideways for a moment and it just went to the horizon like it had it’s own private carrier catapult.
(sigh) I think I’ll go buy a lottery ticket.
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