With 501bhp and a ground-shaking soundtrack, subtle it’s not. Richard Heseltine lit the blue touchpaper and headed east…
It’s 6am. It’s dark. It’s cold — and yesterday’s briefing is momentarily forgotten. Where’s the door lock? There isn’t one. Naturally. Plip the fob and the door clicks open. Step two: clamber aboard and fire it up. Key in, press immobiliser button, turn on fuel pump, depress clutch. Er… button next to ignition is the horn. ‘Course it is. Must be the toggle switch marked ‘Ignition’, then. Flick it upwards and… Armageddon arrives early. Red bunny eyes widen, pupils dilate as 6.6 litres of barely silenced Roush-Ford V8 erupts into life. And then dies. A bit more gas this time. God, it’s loud. Parked in a natural amphitheatre, there’s the sudden realisation that half of South West London is now wide awake. Welcome to the deeply anti-social world of the Superformance Le Mans Coupe. Not a car for polite society.
You could call it a replica of the Shelby Daytona Cobra. You could call it an evocation (but only if you were really pretentious). It’s made in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and is a road car rather than a pure racer.
That the project leader behind this new strain is Peter Brock — the man who is credited with designing the ’60s icons — lends it kudos. As does the involvement of Bob Negstad, a man whose part in Shelby American lore has largely gone uncelebrated but who was responsible for GT40 and Cobra 427 suspension. Add in the development testing skills of Bob Olthoff, who won more races in Cobras during the Shelby era than any other driver, and the results deserve to be good.
So who better to prove it, one way or the other, than a man who helped the Daytona lay claim to the 1965 GT world title: Jack Sears. Charming and chatty on the phone, the double British saloon car champ was nonetheless a touch guarded about the idea for fear of upsetting his close friend Carroll Shelby, whose only involvement with the Le Mans Coupe thus far was to impound the first one to land in the US. But the lure of 501bhp proves too great, and it’s agreed that he will give us his impressions. Hence the early start for his Norfolk home.
You can understand his concerns. All too often lookalikes are just that — visual representations of iconic classics which offer little in the way of driver satisfaction. The Superformance takes its style cue from the original Daytona Coupe, but that’s about it. The six factory racers were essentially stopgaps. Hurriedly designed to front up to Ferrari’s 250GT0, results were instant: Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney took class honours at Le Mans in 1964, and Shelby narrowly missed out on that year’s GT crown after Enzo used his influence to have the final Monza round cancelled. For 1965 there was no works involvement from Maranello, and the Daytonas, by now run by Alan Mann, won the GT championship at a canter, with wins in all bar two races.
There’s very little commonality between the Le Mans Coupe and its inspiration. It’s larger, with a body made of an advanced variation of glass fibre called Vinylester whereas the originals were constructed of ally. The fit and finish is exemplary for a low-volume specialist sportscar. There are neither ripples nor shut-lines you could shove your fist through. It also has a spaceframe chassis with rose-jointed double wishbones at each end; the original Cobra featured a ladderframe and leaf springs.
Power, of course, is from the Blue Oval, if only in part. Based on a 351 cu in `Windsor’ V8, the Roush 402R unit is taken out to 6588cc, and fed by a mammoth four-barrel Holley carburettor. Producing 590lb ft of torque at 4900rpm, and boasting a power-to-weight ratio of 401bhp per tonne, the hypothetical top speed is 205mph.
News of which gladdens Mr Sears. Arriving at the rendezvous point in his ever-faithful Isuzu Trooper, ‘Gentleman Jack’ is precisely that. As the only man to have raced all three iterations of Cobra coupes, he’s manifestly enthusiastic at being able to drive a fourth, admittedly unofficially sanctioned, one. Walking around the car, he’s all smiles, the occasional utterance of “Hmm, yes” punctuated by “It certainly looks the part, doesn’t it?” He seems particularly intrigued by the exhaust arrangement, the side pipes being only functional in part. The outlets are there for show, as gasses are rerouted to the rear of the car. “How clever,” he says.
“It’s a bit bigger than the Daytona and, of course, we were on 15-inch [Hallibrand] wheels back then [the Le Mans Coupe has 18in rims and sticky low-profiles: 255/45 ZR18 front, 285/50 ZR18 rear]. I have to say that they have done a good job with updating the styling a bit. With those larger wheels, it could have looked awful.”
Once inside, Sears is equally enamoured. The crackle-black dash is home to white-on-black Stewart-Warner gauges fitted with chrome surrounds, countersunk in line with Single Vehicle Approval regulations. Secondary instruments are sited in the centre console. There’s little in the way of elbow room, but the great man is unperturbed: “That doesn’t worry me. There’s certainly more room than I remember [the wheelbase is 3in longer and you’re not sitting on a chassis rail as with the original]. You have to remember that the Cobras were racing cars. Comfort never really entered into things. You just got on with the job. In here, it’s quite civilised, isn’t it?”
He fires it up. A dust storm swirls around the Kamm tail as Sears gently flexes the throttle: “If you think this is noisy, you should have sat in the Daytona. The side-mounted exhausts there were for real and, of course, there was no sound deadening. It also used to get very hot, but for some reason that never really bothered me. Here, you have got air-conditioning.” Trickling though a village, Sears has his first reservations: “The clutch is a bit on the heavy side, but I’m used to driving older cars so that isn’t much of an issue. The throttle, though, is a bit too stiff which makes it difficult to get a clean start: it isn’t easy to modulate the take-off point. It isn’t altogether happy being driven slowly, is it? It seems reluctant to pull below 2000rpm.”
But once we’re clear of trigger-happy Gatsos, into the derestricted zone, Sears plants the throttle. Revs rise, as does your pulse. If the factory performance stats are to believed, the Le Mans Coupe can top 60mph in 3.9sec, and the ton a whisker over 4sec later. If anything, this seems almost pessimistic. Acceleration is as visceral as it is loud.
“It gets up and goes,” says Sears unnecessarily. “It’s certainly faster than the old Daytona Cobra, as it should be. This must have 150, maybe 200bhp more than we had with the old 4.7-litre engine. The chassis seems up to coping with the loads and I like the gear change [it uses a six-speed Tremec T56 unit] which is meaty. Back then, we had to make do with four speeds when the 250GTO had five. Of course, the Cobra had so much torque it didn’t really matter that much. This does, too. Acceleration really is instant.”
On to some altogether more testing back roads, and Sears is clearly enjoying himself: “I like the steering. It loads up well [like the Ford GT, it uses a Focus rack]. The ride quality is better than I expected. With those wide tyres it does tend to follow the contours of the road a bit, but any performance car would do the same. You can feel the back end move around a bit, but it’s very controllable. The brakes [325mm/305mm ventilated discs front/rear] are excellent: very, very reassuring. It really is quite something.”
The last statement trails away. Smiling beatifically, the Cobra tamer gets on with the job and the next five minutes is spent in silence. As silent as anything this loud can be. The look of relish is writ wide. Once stationary, the huge fans kick in and a still-smiling Sears considers his verdict. It’s a stupid question, but is it anything like the old Daytona?
“I would have to say no. This is a very different animal. At the recent Cobra gathering over at the Haynes Museum I took out a Daytona and the old Willment Coupe. I suppose that because I drove them so recently the memories are fresh, which makes the comparison that much easier. This is a fun car. I imagine it would be great for driving across Europe. It is comfortable enough and there’s plenty of luggage space, so it’s up to the task. Opening it up on the autobahn would be enormous fun. It’s a very impressive machine.”
Indeed it is. Two days and 500 adrenaline-charged miles in this car teaches you to re-evaluate your prejudices against replicas, clones, ‘fakes’ — call them what you will. Expecting unresolved dynamics and bits to fall off, it soon becomes clear that the inelegantly named Superformance is a proper car. Really it is. One that’s searingly fast, with the genuine polish and heightened levels of charisma that many more exalted exotics would kill for. Every sortie becomes an adventure.
At 288,000 it’s not exactly cheap, but there isn’t any production car that’s anywhere near as fast for the same money. And seeing as only 10 or so are likely to be imported here each year (there is the option of right-hand drive), there’s also the added edge of exclusivity, should that matter.
There are no air-bags, no ABS, no traction control — and it’s all the better for that. Just lose the cup-holders.