It was a sports car done the Amer­i­can way

Lethbridge Herald - - WHEELS & DEALS - Malcolm Gunn WHEEL­BASE ME­DIA

The Cobra needs about as much in­tro­duc­tion as Car­roll Shelby, the man who presided over the car’s birth. He was a suc­cess­ful rac­ing driver who had com­peted on road cour­ses in North Amer­ica and Europe back in the 1940s and ’50s.

But, at 38 years of age, heart problems forced him to quit rac­ing in 1961. Down but far from out, the col­or­ful Texan was de­ter­mined to stay in the game as a team owner by build­ing his own V-8pow­ered ma­chine that would ri­val the best the world had to of­fer.

That idea wasn’t novel. Oth­ers had tried stuff­ing big mo­tors into light­weight Euro­pean ma­chin­ery with lit­tle to show for their ef­forts but dis­ap­point­ment and debt. For Shelby, the dif­fer­ence amounted to solid fi­nan­cial back­ing and tech­ni­cal sup­port from the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany.

Af­ter first be­ing re­jected by Gen­eral Mo­tors, Shelby en­ticed Ford to sup­ply its light­weight 221-cu­bic-inch V-8 engine. The all-new mo­tor was shipped to AC Cars of Eng­land, a low-vol­ume au­tomaker founded in 1930 that gen­er­ated the bulk of its mea­ger prof­its con­struct­ing wheel­chairs. The com­pany also made a few hun­dred of its six­cylin­der-pow­ered AC Ace sports car, it­self a knock­off of Fer­rari’s 166 Barchetta. Shelby was cer­tain the Ace would make the ideal plat­form upon which to build his dream.

As it turned out, Shelby’s tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter. AC was in des­per­ate need of new busi­ness to stay afloat and Shelby/Ford was em­bark­ing on a ma­jor rac­ing pro­gram and was look­ing for all the help it could get.

The first test run of a Ford V-8 stuffed in­side the AC Ace took place in Eng­land in late De­cem­ber of 1961 and proved promis­ing. Ford agreed to un­der­write the en­tire project and sup­ply enough tech­ni­cal re­sources to en­sure a suc­cess­ful launch.

Shelby es­tab­lished his as­sem­bly plant in a dingy Venice, Calif., ware­house, joined by sev­eral Ford en­gi­neers who made nu­mer­ous im­prove­ments to the car’s ba­sic struc­ture to make it more re­li­able and road­wor­thy.

Fit­ted with an up­dated 260horse­power 260-cu­bic-inch V-8 and chris­tened the AC Cobra, this alu­minum-bod­ied Bri­tish-Amer­i­can up­start caused a sen­sa­tion when first shown to the pub­lic at the 1962 New York Auto Show. The Cobra also cre­ated great anx­i­ety among Corvette own­ers when it com­peted against them in its maiden race at the twisty River­side, Calif., road course. Shelby’s vir­tu­ally bone-stock road­ster was eas­ily lead­ing the field be­fore equip­ment fail­ure knocked it out of con­tention.

The fol­low­ing year, pro­duc­tion switched to the 289-cu­bic-inch V-8 that cranked out 271 horses. Race wins be­gan go­ing Shelby’s way but sales of Co­bras built for the street were less than spec­tac­u­lar. At $6,000 a copy, most prospec­tive buy­ers thought the car, which lacked roll-up win­dows, com­fort­able seats or sound dead­en­ing, was just too spar­tan for their tastes.

Still, for the few sports-car purists who could af­ford it, the Cobra was magic. Zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) flashed by in less than five sec­onds and the car’s top speed ex­ceeded 160 mph (255 km/h). Through­out 1963 and ’64, the Cobra rac­ing pro­gram con­tin­ued to rack up the wins while “civil­ian” cars trick­led out of the Venice shop.

As quick as the Cobra was, it needed to be bet­ter for in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. Both Ford and Shelby were itch­ing to beat their arch-ri­val Fer­rari, but needed a more po­tent weapon. The an­swer was to shoe­horn the po­tent 425-horse­power 427-cu­bic-inch V-8 in­side a much-mod­i­fied Cobra body and chas­sis.

The 427 Cobra that launched in 1965 was an ab­so­lute brute of a car and cost just $1,000 more than the 289 ver­sion. How­ever, the 2,600-pound (1,200kilo­gram) road­ster’s claim to fame was its abil­ity to hit 100 mph (160 km/h) and re­turn to a dead stop in 14 sec­onds.

In to­tal, Shelby’s shop turned out about 1,000 260/289/427 Co­bras between 1962 and 1967, and those re­main­ing are now highly prized col­lec­tor cars. The Cobra has also be­come a much copied de­sign, with many man­u­fac­tur­ers mak­ing metal and fi­bre­glass replica kits that are pop­u­lar with hob­by­ists.

The AC Cobra’s seem­ingly undy­ing pop­u­lar­ity trans­formed Car­roll Shelby into a mod­ern day folk hero while putting Ford solidly on the in­ter­na­tional stage as a com­pany to be taken se­ri­ously. The fact that his con­tin­u­a­tion se­ries of au­then­tic Co­bras is still sell­ing five years af­ter his death in 2012 is proof of their leg­endary sta­tus.

By all ac­counts, the alu­minum-bod­ied 427 Cobra was a to­tal beast to drive, but tough to beat. A lack of aero­dy­nam­ics even­tu­ally put an end to the Cobra’s com­pe­ti­tion ca­reer.

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