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Carroll Shelby's Cobra
The man who created a motoring legend recalls the Cobra story – by Carroll Shelby
“Over the years I have read various versions of how the Cobra was supposedly created. Not all of them were right.
At the start we had no idea that we were creating a legend. Even after all this time, I am still surprised by the continuing popularity of the Cobra. I had a great bunch of guys working with me on the development of the car. We started small with more people joining us as time went on.
Right from the start it was just me and my idea of a light, small, affordable racecar. To me, an affordable racecar meant using a stock American V8 engine. I guess the idea for the Cobra developed from thoughts I had when I was racing.
My friend Ed Wilkens and I built a flathead Ford special that we raced. Guys around Dallas then started to put the flathead into MG’s, which seemed a pretty good mating. When the Chevrolet V8 engine came out, I could see that it wasn’t much bigger than the standard engine they had been putting into MGs (these were the MG TC). This all happened when I was racing.
In 1957 or 1958 I got General Motors interested in a project when I was living in Europe and got them to send three stripped down Corvettes to Italy to get the project going. That didn’t go anywhere because the car was too heavy and the guys in charge of the Corvette didn’t want me putting a lightweight body on the Corvette chassis.
When I was forced to quit racing in 1960 I decided to create my own all-American sportscar. I moved to California in 1961. There I heard that Ford were due to launch a new small-block V8 engine. I got a friend Mike Jones to design me a tube-type frame that would work with the engine. I had decided I wanted a car about the same size as an Austin Healey. Trouble was, when I did some projections and worked out the cost of the chassis and body I knew we would never be able to build it. My only other alternative was to talk with the people at the AC Car Company I had met in England. I called them to see if they would be interested in adapting the AC Bristol chassis and they said yes. So when I went to see Ford about the engine, we already had a chassis in England that we could use.
289 V8 small block with exotic induction
After that I spent about six weeks at AC in England, where we made the first modifications to the AC Bristol chassis so that it could accommodate the engine and handle much more power than before. We had a 221 cu.in. Ford V8 at AC at the time, which had the same engine mounts, steering etc as the 260 cu.in. engine we were going to use. I had to return to California before the first prototype chassis was finished, but, as arranged, AC shipped over the first prototype chassis and body - number CSX-2000. CSX meant Carroll Shelby Export.
In California, we had the first 260 cu in Ford V8 engine ready to slot in to the prototype. It only took about 8 hours to fit. We painted the name “Shelby” on the front. Dean Moon and I were the first to drive the prototype. Soon after that we came up with the Cobra name. The car became known as the Shelby Cobra or, to give credit to everyone, the Shelby AC Cobra, powered by Ford. Often it was just Cobra.
At that stage we were working towards making production cars to help finance the racing. A lot of the early testing was done to prepare for racing, but at the same time we were testing out the basic production model. During this time we re-engineered a lot of the car. We over-engineered it so it could cope with the power. We told AC what modifications to make. They were our sub-contractors.
The 260 engine was replaced by a 289 cu in Ford V8 engine during 1963. In fact the last race with the 260 engine was the first race win we had, which was in February 1963 at Riverside. We first raced with the 289 engine in March 1963 at the Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, where we had two wins. This was the first year we entered the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
Winning at Riverside
In mid-1963 we started to build a new racecar – the King Cobra. It was based on a Cooper Monaco chassis which was modified to take the 289 engine. There was a lot of additional work which was needed on the chassis to make it fit for racing. Our experiences with the race Cobras and King Cobras was that the cars were not aerodynamic enough to attain the high speeds which were required to win on particular circuits.
In October 1963 we started to design the Cobra Daytona Coupe. Under the rules at that time we were allowed to change the body of the car provided the same running gear was used. We were also allowed to strengthen the chassis, which we did. As a result, the Coupe had certain similarities to the roadster racecar, but could attain much higher speeds on the fast circuits such as Le Mans and Spa in Belgium.
the ideal garage collection - at Sebring 1965
It was the Cobra Daytona Coupe which produced all the real publicity for the Cobra. It was the Coupe which won the major races. 1964 was a great year for us. The Cobra Daytona Coupe won the GT class in the 12-hour endurance race at Sebring in March 1964. It beat the Ferraris. Just after that race I held a press conference and announced that we were going to race the Cobra in Europe in the FIA World Championship. We didn’t win the Championship in 1964 but we won the GT class at Le Mans, the GT class in the Tourists Trophy at Goodwood and the Ilford Films Trophy at Brands Hatch. In the US we won our class in the US Road Racing Championship.
Cobras and Daytona Coupe's at Goodwood in the 60's.....
...and at Goodwood again in 2003
In 1965 Shelby American came back to Europe and won the FIA World Championship with the Cobra Daytona Coupe. We beat the Ferraris again.
During 1964 we had also put together the first 427 Cobra. We had a Ford 427 cu. in. NASCAR engine in the race shop and someone had the idea of trying to put it into the Cobra roadster body. The prototype led to a 427 racecar and then to the Cobra 427 production model. In fact the whole of the chassis had to be redesigned to take the bigger engine and the increase in power. The body had to be re-shaped as well to take the increase in size of the car and the tyres.
The 427 production Cobras looked similar to the 289 but much more aggressive and potent. In fact the supply of 427 engines was limited so that the majority of the 427 production Cobras actually had a less powerful 428 engine. In practice, the difference in power made almost no difference.
The factory Cobra racing effort came to an end in 1966. However, Shelby Cobras are raced to this day in national and international events and continue to win championships. Shelby American remains the FIA recognised homologated manufacturer of the Shelby Cobra.”
Story: Carroll Shelby & Andy Kirk
Photos: David Friedman & John Colley