Cobra: taking the fight to Ferrari

Like the Ace-Bristols before it. the Cobra swiftly became an indomitable force in SCCA production racing, with Bob Johnson becoming the ‘A Production’ champion in 1963 and ’64. But Carroll Shelby had bigger fish to fry, securing the services of Dan Gurney, the tragic Dave MacDonald and Skip Hudson for a bid at international glory in ’63. Of the three drivers entered in February’s Daytona Continental, only MacDonald finished, fourth behind Pedro Rodriguez and Roger Penske in Ferrari 250GTOs and Dr Dick Thompson in a Corvette. And this was a theme that would shadow the Cobra: trading paint with Chevys at home while baiting Maranello products at international events.

What the Cobra initially lacked was reliability, hence the conservative approach at Le Mans that year. Shelby commissioned AC Cars to build and enter two cars, supplying the effort with engines tuned to a modest 300bhp. The Peter Jopp/Ed Hugus entry retired in the 11th hour with the Peter Bolton/Ninian Sanderson car rumbling home in seventh place. Behind six Ferraris.

Nonetheless. Shelby’s first full season as a manufacturer netted three national titles. But it was clear that the roadster which topped out at 165mph due to its less-than-slippery outline was at a disadvantage against more streamlined. purpose-designed GTs: for a serious onslaught on the European circuits top speed was everything. A 7-litre variation arrived in time for the 1964 Sebring 12 Hours but the 427 model wasn’t a serious consideration for Europe.

Enter the Daytona coupes. Former hot rodder and GM stylist Peter Brock set to reclothing the existing (stiffened) chassis with help from Phil Remington, with AC Cars building a run of fat-arched ‘FIA’ 289 roadsters to act as back-up for a full-on Euro attack in ’64.

And it would prove to be an epic year. At home Shelby American won all nine rounds that counted for the USRRC manufacturers’ award, but Europe proved an altogether tougher gig. At the Targa Florio the Cobras suffered suspension problems, with Dan Gurney and the hugely impressive Jerry Grant steering their battered roadster to eighth overall and second (to a GTO) in class. Next up was the 500Km de Francorchamps, by which time only one of the coupes had been completed. Despite Phil Hill claiming the GT lap record, chronic fuel starvation blunted his challenge and the roadsters finished sixth, eighth and 11th. Next up was the ADAC 1000Km with the coupe being prepared for Le Mans, success at the Nürburgring rested on the open cars. Only the Jo Schlesser/Richard Attwood car finished, a lowly 20th.

Three Cobra coupes and a lone roadster (one of two reserves allowed in) lined up for Le Mans, including AC’s own super-sleek fastback which crashed spectacularly. But the Gurney/Bob Bondurant Daytona finished fourth and claimed GT honours. At the Reims 12 Hours the two Daytona entries retired with gearbox problems. But at the Freiburg hillclimb Bondurant was mighty, winning the over 3-litre class in his open car, while in the RAC Tourist Trophy at Goodwood Gurney’s coupe finished third, heading home two roadsters. During the same weekend more points were accrued at the Sierra-Montana hillclimb, where Bondurant took the class spoils once again.

These results saw Shelby American back into contention for the GT title, but Ferrari ended up ahead on the Tour de France. Yet if the American crew could win at the Monza finale it would come out on top. The event was cancelled, pressure on the organisers having been brought to bear from one E Ferrari Esq…

In ’65 Shelby would have his revenge. With no factory involvement in GTs from Maranello, these Anglo-American monsters, now run by Alan Mann, cruised to the title with wins in all bar two races.