The year was 1966, and Steve McQueen was on top of the world. He was the reigning “King of Cool” who had the rest of Hollywood’s leading men eating his dust. McQueen’s “hard knocks” path gave him an attitude and a lust for life that was flat-out unapologetic. So back In 1966, when Sports Illustrated wanted a Hollywood headliner to review the top new GT’s– Steve McQueen was the clear choice. Make that the only choice. Not Newman, or Garner, or… you get it.
When Henry Ford II’s quest to buy Ferrari back in 1963 was spitefully squelched by Enzo, the mandate was given to, “Kick Ferrari’s ass.” And not just anywhere– at Le Mans, the world stage of auto racing. The ass-kicking would finally come in the beautiful & brutish form of the iconic Ford GT40–America’s most incredible racecar ever.
Originally developed in England by Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd under the direction of Aston Martin’s former team manager, John Wyer, the GT40 failed at Le Mans in ’64 & ’65, as Ferrari finished 1-2-3 both years. With failure no longer an option for anyone who wished to remain employed by Ford, Carroll Shelby was tapped to give the GT40 the necessary bite to beat the Italians. Shelby’s success at Le Mans in his own Cobras, and again with the GT40, was not about technology, but by being crafty. He replaced the 289 c.i. GT40 engine with the same powerful, big block 427 c.i. V-8 that powered his Cobras. The lower revving, larger displacement V-8’s were more able to take the stress of long endurance races than the higher-revving, small displacement engines used by Ferrari.
Shelby not only ended Ferrari’s racing dominance, he exacted sweet revenge for Enzo’s snub– and garnered Ford a remarkable four-year winning streak from 1966 – 1969.
Two massive American automotive legends — Carroll Shelby and the iconic Ford GT40. Originally labeled GT, ’40’ was added due to its incredibly low 40-inch stance.
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.
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.
Carroll Shelby was undoubtedly the greatest single force behind American auto racing over the last 60+ years. From his legendary racing career, to reinventing the image of American road-racers in European competitive racing and beyond. In 1962, and with no official engineering background, Carroll Shelby created the legendary, stallion-slaying Cobra, which soon ended Ferrari’s all-out domination of the World’s Manufacturing Championship. For him, the recipe was simple and oft repeated– put a massive engine in a lightweight, nimble car.
In 1965, the Shelby Mustang GT350 made its production debut setting off a legendary battle for power and prestige between rival Detroit automakers– which would from that day on be known as the “Pony War”.
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 had mentioned awhile back that I have a new Saturday gig, and it’s not a bad one at that. Friends of mine started-up the Vulcan Motor Club in Chester, NJ (where I hang) and have also recently branched out to Long Island, NY. The club makes a lot more sense than sinking tons of your own dough into buying an exotic– when you join immediately there’s an arsenal of the latest high performance and luxury vehicles at your fingertips, with none of the ownership worries in terms of maintenance, upkeep, depreciation, etc. All you need to worry about is– which car will it be today?
Maybe I’m too “old school” for my own good, but my favorite ride in the fleet is a ’65 Shelby Cobra (replica) fitted with a snarling 565 hp 427 aluminum block V-8. For pure power, torque and thrill it’s the real deal, and a real driver’s car too. Paddle shifters are cool, but I’d rather feel big-block, 4-on-the-floor rumble any day of the week. There are several membership options and new Spring specials, with delivery and pick-up available within 60 miles.
So if this sounds like the rush you’ve been looking for– I can hook that up.