It’s a favorite among young and old, a car that leaves all who see it open-mouthed, and it still exudes style and brute force today, more than 50 years after it was first conceived: the Shelby Cobra, a product of an innovative racing driver with a taste for speed, and a genteel UK car maker looking for a lifeline.
The story begins in the 1950’s when one John Tojeiro – a small scale race car manufacturer and driver – built a very pretty two-seat sports car.
Tojeiro – like many of the characters involved in the Cobra’s gestation – had very little in the way of money, and soon accepted an offer from the management at AC Cars to use the design as a basis for its new sports convertible. The AC Ace, as it became, made its debut in 1953. By 1961 the Ace was in need of replacement; enter Carroll Shelby.
Shelby wrote to AC in September 1961, putting forward the idea of using the Ace as a basis for a more meaty car by putting a big Ford ‘Windsor’ V8 in the front. The AC boys loved the idea and – astonishingly – the first Cobra prototype ran at Silverstone in January 1962. It was fitted at the time with 221cu in Windsor, which to the delight of all involved dropped into the engine bay with no trouble at all!
Ford, meanwhile, were taking more than a passing interest in the project and were very keen to supply engines. The prototype made its way to the US – to Shelby’s place – where it was fitted with a more potent, updated 260cu in V8. It was duly tested at Riverside by Pete Brock, who would also design the famous Cobra logo, as well as the legendary Daytona Coupe versions of the Cobra.
In April 1962, the first Cobra was shown to the public; by July that same year, the first three production cars had been built. Take a moment to consider that – just 8 months from concept to production. The Cobra was a big hit; AC built around a dozen rolling chassis each week and sent them across the Atlantic to Shelby, who fitted the engine, which was soon upgraded to the 289cu version.This was to be the definitive Cobra, but Ford, Shelby and AC had more up their sleeve. The 427cu in engine – developed specifically for NASCAR – was a brute, and the intention to drop it into the Cobra was clear. However, the sheer power of the engine meant an all-new chassis. In fact, it was a complete redesign: the only parts carried over from the 289 to the 427 were the doors, the hood and boot lid.
The 427 was devised with competition in mind and, with its bulging wheel arches and more aggressive stance, is the one that adorned teenage petrol heads bedroom walls – and still does. In fact, in the UK, the car is still being built to this specification. There is something very pretty yet rather brutal about the 427 Cobra, yet it has a presence that no other car can project.
The irony of the story is that, while the 427 was intended to conquer Ferrari in racing, it was in fact not the success it was meant to be on the track. The 289 Cobra Daytona Coupe, designed by Brock, was the car that did the job.