From the archives with Doug Nye

The shape of things to go

Today it is regarded as a prime racing icon, but the Shelby Daytona Coupé was at first unwanted and unloved

I am happy to report that my team won the Goodwood Revival cricket match (again), which for me is all that really matters, but that sunny September weekend also drew disappointment as I missed meeting Peter Brock – for me something of a hero as the then 24-year-old tyre-mounter and graphic designer who conceived the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupé, in the winter of 1963-64.  

I have always admired the ‘Coops’ – and to have played a role in reuniting all six original cars for their 50th anniversary at Goodwood was an absolute pleasure. Although I missed seeing Peter there, his subsequent overview for me of the Daytonas’ early development is a gem…

He recalls: “The Daytona’s design was highly controversial at the time, with most of the crew within Shelby American against even building it. Our chief engineer Phil Remington had advised Carroll (Shelby) not to do it, while our chief test driver/engineer Ken Miles was in favour. This put Shelby (who was not technically astute) in the middle of a dilemma. Remington was the most brilliant racer/fabricator in our world and all of us had the deepest respect for his opinion. His only failing was his lack of knowledge of European racing history… Like most of our crew of dry-lakes racin’ hot rodders and Indy car builders they knew almost nothing about road racing prior to the time they were hired by Shelby. Some were so embarrassed that they were working on ‘those effete little sporty cars’, they wouldn’t even tell their friends! 

“This attitude changed from ’62 through ’63 as they built the first Snakes for Carroll and won the SCCA’s United States Road Racing Championship. It was an entirely new world for them, but as their success led to real media coverage they became a pretty proud group and began to understand the world was larger than the Indy 500. 

“My design of the Daytona originally incorporated a driver-adjustable rear wing to off-set the lift that I envisioned we would experience with the Daytona’s long, flat, tapered roofline. Phil Remington thought my whole design was ‘wrong’ as it didn’t look like any other fast ‘European sports GT’ (Ferrari), which according to the common wisdom of the time was supposedly ideally shaped like a teardrop with ‘fast-back’ roof lines that tapered to a point at the rear. 

“As a result of this diversity of opinion, a technical impasse occurred in the shop as Remington refused to build my wing stating that it ‘would take him 3-4 days to do the job’ and he didn’t want to waste his time ‘on a dumb project that had no future’ (meaning Carroll’s whole plan to race in Europe).

“Phil Remington was the most skilled fabricator in the shop and he wouldn’t assign the work to anyone else either… as they were all working on ‘more important projects’ like our team’s Cobra roadsters and new ‘King Cobras’ (Cooper Monacos). Shelby finally agreed with Rem, stating that we would test the Coupé sans wing and make a decision [whether to include the wing on the car] after we tested. 

“We tested on Feb 1, 1964, at Riverside with Ken Miles driving (the car had been built to Ken’s dimensions like a hand-tailored suit). He broke the lap record by 3.5sec and top speed (even with short-course gearing for Riverside) improved by some 20mph…

“At this point Shelby made it very clear to Rem and all in the shop that the Coupé was now the team’s priority and that we were going to Daytona. With the Coupé’s design now proven I went back to Rem and asked him to build the wing. ‘Why?’ He countered, ‘…we broke the lap record and the top speed will be competitive with anything we’ll run against in Europe. Besides… we don’t have the extra 3-4 days to make it if we’re going to Daytona.’ I explained that deleting the wing would be like deleting the rear control surfaces on an airplane, but the prevailing thought (Remington/Shelby) was ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The entire car had been built from first drawing to test at Riverside in 90 days.

“Ken didn’t want to create any more internal dissent so he just advised me to be patient and we’d win that battle later. For some strange reason (perhaps Ken’s going against Rem), Shelby decided not to let Ken drive the Coupé at Daytona. He was furious and almost quit, but knowing Shelby’s was still the place to be, he sucked it up and accepted Carroll’s ‘promotion’ to team manager for the ’64 season. 

“When Bob Holbert got in the Coupé at Daytona for the first time, he immediately broke the lap record. He said to Ken and Shelby that he could easily outrun the works Ferrari GTOs, so there was little point in keeping the high existing redline. Then Dave MacDonald went out and, even with the revs down by 500rpm, broke Holbert’s record. The rev limit was further slightly reduced until our times were equal to the Ferraris and we then made our first fuel calculations for the race. The Coupé was 20 per cent-plus more fuel-efficient than our Cobra roadsters! 

“So, that set the strategy for the race… Run with the Ferraris until they pitted and we’d gain a lap each time they did so. The Daytona led the race for hours until a pit fire (long story – not important here). After the race I again suggested we build the wing before Sebring. There had been little sign of aero-lift and neither Bob nor Dave were that concerned. Cockpit heat was more of a problem. [But] the reason there was no lift was that all Daytona’s high speeds were on the high banks, so G-force countered the lift…

“Again Rem pointed out that the wing ‘wasn’t needed’. We then went to Sebring, won there, and finally got Ford’s attention. (Its GT40 programme was not progressing well at that point in Slough.) Ford agreed to back Shelby’s plan to run in Europe and the decision was made to build another five Coupés!

“Next was test day at Le Mans. As you may remember, both GT40s crashed due to aero instability. Jo Schlesser (one of the Ford pilots) got in the Daytona the next morning and set a new GT lap record. It didn’t matter who got in, it was fast, predictable and easy to drive. 

“Schlesser said he had several more seconds in hand and could probably set the overall record but it was beginning to rain and he suggested it would be wiser not to risk the car as it had to
be at Spa (for the 500Kms race) the following weekend.  

“When we arrived in Belgium, Phil Hill had never driven the car but climbed in and broke the lap record. But he soon pitted and told us that the car was so evil handling (lift at the back-end) that if he continued at the same pace he’d almost certainly lose it and crash once the tyres went off! Now, finally, Phil Remington understood what I’d been talking about. 

“It took a really fast circuit with serious elevation changes to unload the chassis and cause the instability. Our team was so small at that time we had few resources. All we had for spares were a few basic mechanical parts but nothing really to do any fabrication or serious bodywork. We had one small Snap-On toolbox with some basic tools and a single piece of aluminium sheet about the size of an open newspaper. Nothing wide enough to make a real spoiler. Rem looked at the GTOs’ rear spoilers and decided Ferrari must know what they were doing so decided to copy them.  

“He had to cut the sheet of aluminium into four pieces so he could screw them together (we didn’t even have a pop-rivet gun) to make a panel wide enough to fit across the rear of the coupé. He bent a 90-degree flat on the bottom of the ‘single sheet’ and screwed it to the back of the Coupé. It had the rigidity of a stiff piece of cardboard – nothing strong enough to withstand 180mph airflow. To give it some strength he took two pieces of welding rod, put joggles in each end and attached those to the ends of our new ‘rear spoiler’ by drilling holes in the body and the aluminium sheet and using the rod to brace the spoiler so it could withstand some pressure. 

“Phil Hill, of course, watched all this with some reservations, and while I held Phil (my hero) in complete awe I noticed he trusted Rem’s skill. ‘OK, try that,’ said Remington, ‘…and let us know what you think.’ Phil climbed in and incrementally increased his speed as he made his way around the circuit. He pitted on the second lap, got out and excitedly told Rem that the car had been ‘transformed’. It now had so much downforce on the rear, it was locking its front brakes into La Source hairpin. Rem then took his pencil and scribed a line across the top of the spoiler one inch below the top, trimmed it, and nodded to Phil that he should see if that made any difference. Phil took off out of the pit on full throttle down to Eau Rouge and up the Raidillon, never backing off… In two more laps he’d again reset the lap record over Mike Parkes’s best time.

“He again pitted, got out of the car and said, ‘Don’t touch a thing – it’s perfect!” 

“So, that’s how the size of the rear spoiler was developed for the Daytona Coupés. Later, when the Coupé returned to Paris to prepare for Le Mans, a more substantial ‘box-formed’ spoiler was fabricated and that dimension was used for all the rest of the Coupés. By then I had returned to the US so my input at this point was minimal, but I again asked Rem to build the wing, as I knew we’d be even faster if the driver had full control of downforce without the drag of a spoiler. The same attitude prevailed –‘No time to experiment, we need to keep things simple and since it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ It was hard to argue with him. He was the wisest racer in the game.”  

Phil Hill’s Spa drive was wrecked by what the Cobra guys recall as blatant sabotage, cotton waste dropped into the Daytona’s fuel tank overnight, but that – again – is another story. The Coupé was up and running, and with more experience – and more street-wise planning – Shelby’s finest would take Ferrari’s cherished GT Championship crown come 1965.

In truth, American 4.7-litre V8 versus Ferrari 3-litre V12 was always like bringing an artillery piece to a knife-fight – but it’s not size, it’s how well you wield it that really matters…