It was a sports car done the American way
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.