Texan Carroll Hall Shelby turned to the manufacture of race cars at the beginning of the sixties. Before that he had been a notable race driver, had driven the neat little Spyder for Porsche, won the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours for Aston Martin and was intimately familiar with the subtleties of race-car design and development. He was also familiar with the way European-built road cars outhandled practically anything built in the United States, although they were unable to get near the big V8s when it came to sheer power. Shelby developed the idea to combine the best of both worlds, matching an agile European chassis and suspension with an American V8. He turned to AC Cars at Thames Ditton, England, for the chassis, while the body was an extremely basic piece of folded sheet metal to form an open two-seater with a very long hood and a tiny cramped driver’s cockpit perched in front of a short, bobbed deck.
Shelby’s engines came from Ford. His proposition came at exactly the right moment, as Lee Iacocca was putting together the Total Performance Program. And they were planning to build their own sportscar anyway – the Mustang was due out in 1965, Better still, since Shelby was well aware that building race cars was not a sound financial proposition, his car was designed to be a street car as well. The prototype was built in the workshop Shelby shared with drag racer Dean Moon, and used the new 22ci smallblock V8.
Despite Shelby’s apparent concessions to Ford’s cost accountants, mass production was something never destined to be part of the Cobra story; each and every car was lovingly handbuilt and as improvements were made to the breed they were simply built into the next car along the line, so there are virtually no two Cobras the same. Furthermore, as the improvements became common knowledge many owners brought their cars back to the works to have them brought up to date. So although the first 75 Cobras were fitted with the 221 V8 bored out to 260ci, when Ford offered the engine as a 289 in their own lineup and Shelby adopted it, many of the existing Cobra owners brought their earlier cars back for a transplant.
It wasn’t until 1962 that the Cobra was first let loose on a racetrack; at Riverside that October Billy Krause built up a lead of a mile and a half over the rest of the field before breaking a stub axle on his red 289. It was an unhappy reason for retirement, but the potential of the car had been clearly established and over the next three years every race driver in America was faced with a simple choice: either experience snakebite – or suffer from it.
In 1965 the Cobras brought Ford (and the United States) its first World Manufacturers’ Championship, finally realizing Shelby’s ambition to ‘blow Ferrari’s ass off.’ To win the title his Cobras had done exactly that at Daytona, Sebring, Oulton Park, Nurburgring, Rossfeld, Rheims and, the ultimate insult, Monza -Ferrari’s home territory. The only reverse was at Le Mans, when the Cobras ran second to Ferrari. Shelby could probably have cracked even that had he used the big 7-liter engines, but quite apart from getting the tiny Cobras to handle an engine easily capable of giving them a top end well in excess of 250mph, Shelby was dubious about offending Ford, whose infant GT (later the GT 40) was already competing in that class and not doing terribly well.
At the dragstrip the Cobra was so invincible that eventually the rules were changed to keep it out, but privateer Cobras continue to hand out defeat to the also-rans on every oval racetrack in America. In November 1965 Craig Breedlove took a Cobra to Bonneville and grabbed 23 national and international records. Then there were the streetgoing Cobras, which have been a sportscar high-water mark ever since they were first built. Since the first one left the factory premises the Cobra is the car to which all aspiring sportscars must be compared, and all have been found to be lacking.
Eventually the 427ci engine Ford introduced in 1963 found its way under the Cobra hood and immediately gave snakebite new fangs. Out of the 1011 Cobras built by Shelby only 356 were these real scorchers. The 427, coil-sprung, alloy-bodied Cobras had a performance curve which was as good as vertical, going straight up like something out of the Apollo space program. A massive 485hp meant that the 427 was capable of an incredible 0-60 time of 4.3 seconds, although some versions could do it in 3.8. The 0-100 time was 8.6 seconds, 0-100 and stop again was managed in 14 seconds, standing quarters vanished in 12.2 seconds, and it had a top speed of 162mph.
The press were understandably enthusiastic: ‘it’s only fair to warn you that out of the 300 guys who switched to the 427 Cobra only two went back to women…’ was one comment.
In 1965, with the FIA GT Championship under his belt, Shelby withdrew the Cobras from competition. They were succeeded on the track by the Ford GT, but the project produced little in the way of results until it was passed over to Shelby. The car immediately and repeatedly fulfilled Shelby’s dream, leaving the red Ferraris in their dust as they won the 24 Heures du Mans in 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969.
But Ford were committed to Total Performance mainly as a sales tool, believing strongly in the adage race on Sunday, sell on Monday.’ In 1967 Cobra production ended because Ford wanted to concentrate on the GT cars since they were still a major boost to Mustang sales, while the Cobra had no production-line counterpart at Dearborn.
But word was already out that there would soon be a Federal ban on horsepower advertising, and an assortment of other regulations designed to remove performance cars from the streets. Soon Shelby asked Ford president Lee Iacocca to release him from the Total Performance Program and the days of legend were ended, although the Cobra now survives in more replica variants than possibly any other single automobile. However desirable those may be, current owners of the genuine article will already be aware of what Ford found out all those years ago: there’s nothing like the real thing, and the Cobra was it.