There ain’t no substitute for cubic inches, as Richard Heseltine discovered on being let loose in the monstrous ‘Hairy Canary AC Cobra
There’s nothing like a little revenge for getting back at folks. Ask Carroll Shelby. The most famous big-hat-wearing chilli magnate in motor racing dreamed of kicking Enzo Ferrari into touch and did just that with the Cobra, conferring legitimacy on his Anglo-American hot rod in the process. It was legitimacy born of Ford’s Total Performance programme, the Blue Oval having been jilted at the altar by II Commendatore during a proposed takeover in the early 1960s. Ford wanted blood and turned to Shelby; the Texan was all too happy to take its coin and spill some.
Deciphering the actual and the apocryphal when it comes to Shelby and the Cobra isn’t an easy task amid the many conflicting stories and clashing egos. The lifespan of the Cobra was but five short years with production of just under 1000 cars. Nonetheless, due in part to Shelby’s showmanship (not to mention race results), the Cobra soon entered into legend, later becoming the most replicated car on the planet.
Some achievement for a man who, on leaving the US Air Force after WWII, had tried his hand at everything from driving dump trucks to chicken farming, the latter activity resulting in bankruptcy in the wake of Lumberneck Disease all but erasing his stock. Fortunately Shelby had discovered motor racing and, from his first tentative outing in an MG TC at Norman, Oklahoma in May 1952, he swiftly became one of America’s standout road racers, peaking with that famous win in the ’59 Le Mans 24 Hours for Aston Martin (with Roy Salvadori). Not that he was in a fit state to capitalise, being forced to retire as a driver in 1960 on being diagnosed with angina pectoris.
Luckily there was a back-up plan. On moving to California to act as a distributor for Goodyear racing tyres, Shelby set into motion his long-nurtured aspiration to become a car manufacturer. Not for him creating a car from scratch — instead he opted for shoehorning a large displacement engine into a European-built chassis. Touring the many constructors, the union of Austin-Healey body/chassis and 283cu in Chevrolet V8 power was apparently considered but BMC, Donald Healey and General Motors were all apathetic to the idea.
Enter AC Cars. While it would later be airbrushed out of the Cobra story, dismissed as a mere ‘subcontractor’ in many US publications, the union of the brash American and this tiny British marque seems entirely natural in hindsight. The Thames Ditton firm’s delectable AC Ace had proven itself in competition, initially with the John Weller-conceived in-house straight-six and later Bristol and 2.6-litre Ford power. Success wasn’t limited to Europe, the Ace-Bristol dominating in US national SCCA categories from 1957 to ’61, despite being routinely bumped up a class at the end of every other season to give rivals a fighting chance.
Shelby had witnessed this success first hand but was also aware that the British minnow was struggling, the market for small-volume handbuilt sportscars having dwindled during the 1950s. The Hurlock family-run firm survived by manufacturing fire-fighting equipment and carriages (railway and invalid).
So AC was receptive to the idea, while Ford had just ushered in the Total Performance programme, one of its principals being Dave Evans, a man well known to Shelby. The upshot was that a couple of 221cu in (3.6-litre) Ford V8s were dispatched to Shelby’s office, rented from hot rodding legend Dean Moon. Meanwhile AC’s chief engineer, Alan Turner, set to modifying the Ace’s frame to accommodate the new unit, adding among other things an extra 3in crossmember to the chassis fore of the diff and redesigning the rear suspension tower to permit the relocation of the brakes to an inboard position (also necessitated by the decision to use a Salisbury 4HU diff). The first car, referred to in the Surrey factory as the AC Ace-Cobra, was tested and ready for shipment by February 1962. Then the engine was whipped out as news filtered through that on the other side of the Atlantic was Ford’s new 260 cu in (4.2-litre) V8, all set to become standard equipment.
Shelby, in the interim, had been busy buying a race shop from Scarab founder Lance Reventlow, who was battling the IRS. In doing so he inherited legendary fabricator Phil Remington. And it was he who built the second Cobra and the first to be campaigned. Driver Billy Krause turned up at Riverside in October 1962 and proceeded to build up a mile and a half lead over the chasing Corvettes before dropping out with hub-carrier failure. The Cobra had arrived.
And how. By the time the 1963 Sebring 12 Hours had rolled by, the Cobra had been given an upgrade to 289cu in (4.7-litre) power and gained MGB-sourced rack-and-pinion steering (features soon lifted for MkII road cars). Six were entered, best result being a lowly 11th overall and eighth in class. Nonetheless, Shelby American steamrollered its way to the USRRC series title by the end of the year, prompting an all-out attack on Europe for 1964 (see page 79) and unleashing the less lovely 7-litre Cobra 427 that same year. In tandem it was teaching a similar trick to a different pony in the form of the Mustang GT350 and spearheading Ford’s big push with the GT40.
In total 32 ‘leaf-sprung’ factory competition cars were built along with a further 31 Independent Competition Cars sold to privateers. The ‘Hairy Canary’ belonged in the latter group and was the first with rack-and-pinion steering and the 289cu in motor.
The first owner was Dick Neil. In 1963 this Datsun agent attempted to drive his previous Cobra ‘260’ from his Massachusetts home to the West Coast but broke down in Syracuse, New York and had to truck it the rest of the way to Los Angeles. At this juncture Carroll Shelby offered to take the car in trade for a new 289, chassis number CSX 2151, that he promised would be the first of the ‘1964 model year’. The car was actually delivered in street trim in Vineyard Green with tan upholstery. It was only after moving to Hawaii that the car was upgraded for competition — Neil was going racing.
The car was fitted with an engine that had previously resided in the back of the Lang Cooper: power output was purported to be 427bhp. Not surprisingly it proved a bit of a handful, yet Neil’s first outing in the Hawaiian Grand Prix on October 27 1963 resulted in third place in a novice race followed by first overall in the feature event, the field including two Shelby team cars for Ken Miles and Bob Holbert. Following an altercation with some scenery the car was then repaired and resprayed in yellow and the upholstery dyed black. The ‘Hairy Canary’ was barely two months old at this juncture.
Neil kicked off the ’64 season with a win at Kahuku on March 15 and took a brace of wins at Hawaii Raceway Park along with other podiums before the year was out. After a couple of races in January 1965 Neil returned to the mainland, driving the car at Portland, Edmonton and Kent Raceway before selling ol’ Hairy for $3500 to Gary Hauser.
Over the next decade Hauser tackled the occasional autocross event (as in the US definition, not the UK rough stuff) and hillclimbs, putting a rod through the block at Knox Mountain. The now white and ‘restyled’ (as in badly repaired) Cobra then passed to Ray Cooke, who drove the car in historics in his native British Columbia with a hotted-up 302 cu in small-block before it was delivered in decidedly used condition to Bill Connell, who deferred from restoring the car. In 2003 it arrived in the UK and the caring hands of serial Cobra owner Bill Bridges.
With the unquenchable passion of a true fan, Bridges and his cabal of corpse whisperers — Lawrence Kett, Steve Gilby, Kingsley Lewis and ‘Big Al’ Smith — returned the car to race-ready spec without opting for the ModSports approach inflicted on many Cobras in historics: no sleeving or additional triangulation to the chassis, or ally-block V8s that rev past 7500rpm. Much of the body is original while the engine is a genuine five-bolt small-block fed by Weber 48 IDAs, the gearbox a period BorgWarner T10. The attention to period detailing is a credit to Bridges, from the original passenger seat (complete with lap belt) to the paint. The body colour was matched from slivers of the original yellow found under all the cruddy white cellulose.
And does it sound good! Turn the kill switch to ‘on’, prime the fuel pump, engage ignition, press the starter button and Armageddon arrives early. Few engines sound better than a race-prepped Ford V8 — it gets you right in the solar plexus every time: at idle the whole car vibrates and the heady whiff of unburned fuel makes your eyes water.
Running a 3.7:1 diff ratio, initial acceleration is of the incendiary kind with an eardrum-bursting clamour as the revs leisurely build. Yet, for all the noise and sheer speed, the undiluted Cobra experience isn’t to be feared: show due respect and experiencing a properly-sorted Cobra is an act of deep joy and giddyingly addictive. Mess up, though, and it’ll turn the most hard-nosed weekend warrior into a subservient sycophant.
Even short shifting at 4500rpm the ‘Hairy Canary’ bellows and goes. And it doesn’t matter a jot what gear you’re in — pick-up is exemplary. The enduring small-block manages to sound unstretched just about anywhere. It isn’t a physical car either, although in comparison with Bill’s old Intermarque Cobra, which felt more like a steroidal Caterham, you’re aware of the car’s vintage. On leaf springs the ride gets a little jiggy over less smooth surfaces without ever threatening to fall over, while the steering is lighter than you remember. Same too for the brake pedal, although the all-round discs work a treat. Despite the width of Avon gumballs there’s no tramlining and turn-in is swift enough but with some corresponding roll — you can sense the weight transferring under hard cornering. Out of the slow-speed stuff the back threatens to sidestep but it remains pretty obedient— in Bridges’s hands the car always looks composed.
Despite the Cobra’s reputation as a devourer of the timid, the Canary inspires confidence even if there’s a lingering ripple of danger, largely because you feel so exposed (but then you are sitting on a chassis rail). We wouldn’t have it any other way.
More workmanlike than wizardly, there’s nothing remotely special about the Cobra’s make-up, no simple plan with complexity built in. Designed and constructed along antediluvian principles, it’s not rocket science but it works. Beautifully.
Desiré: The Hairy Canary and Me
Impressing all who witnessed her extraordinary performance at last year’s Goodwood Revival, Desiré Wilson discovered a new found admiration for Cobras after driving the ‘Hairy Canary’ in the TT. “It was definitely a high in my life,” says the former Monza 1000Km winner. “The ‘Canary’ was quite an eye-opener. I found that the car was very responsive. Then the throttle pedal broke in the chicane! We missed qualifying due to a possible piston problem and had the engine changed overnight. I had forgotten just how dedicated British race mechanics are.
“With just four laps in the car before the race started, my plan was to take it easy, being 21st on the grid out of a field of 28. I made a really good start: a gap opened up in front of me, I hit the throttle hard and the Cobra responded as we shrieked past four cars. The ‘Canary’ was really handling well, even on cold tyres. I was able to drive anywhere on the track, again passing another two cars on the first lap. The more l asked of the Canary, the more she gave me. She was great over the big bump in the kink which is worth a second a lap by itself. In just 25 minutes we went from 21st to seventh and it’s made me respect Cobras.”
TechSpec– AC-Shelby Cobra MkII
Cast-iron block 4727cc V8: pushrod overhead valves, fed by Weber 48 IDA carburetors; Bore & stroke 101.6 x 72.9mm; Max power 390bhp @ 5750rpm
Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed all-synchro ‘box
Type: tubular steel ladderframe; Wheelbase 7ft 6in, Track (f/r) 4ft 5.5in/4ft 5.7in, Height 47.2in, Width 68.7in, Length 165.4in, Weight 2030lb (road car)
Brakes: discs all-round; Steering rack and pinion