Not just the States… France fell for the ‘Cobra’ too
It’s easy to be dazzled by the Cobra legend – demure British sports car transformed by Texan Carroll Shelby into a tyre-shredding tearaway tearing up circuits across the USA. Motivated by seven bellowing litres of big-block Ford V8, the Shelby Cobra stormed to multiple victories on its home ground and electrified spectators for whom it was the very definition of an all-American hero.
But it also found customers in Europe where a steady run of cars found themselves. There’s a world of difference between those thundering 427s and the small-block 289 Cobra like the one above, based on the simple Ace two-seater that AC had been making in Thames Ditton outside London since 1954.
The Ace might have ended its run in the early Sixties had Shelby not wanted a sports car he could sell – and race – in America which combined the best of British manners with some raw horsepower. Ford’s new lightweight V8 went neatly under the Ace bonnet, already modified to swallow a six-cylinder Ford 2.6, and with a tougher differential installed to handle the torque jump and a slight relocation of the steering box, both sides of the Atlantic had sired a new baby.
For, long before the multi-national assembly schemes we know today, the Cobra was assembled in both countries. Rolling shells, complete, painted and trimmed, went to the Shelby plant in Los Angeles to receive their motive power, gaining CSX chassis numbers, while engines and gearboxes arrived in Britain from Shelby to be fitted here. These were labelled COB for Britain, right-hand drive, or COX, signifying eXport, left-hand drive. British-made cars were branded simply as AC Cobra while Cobras built up in the USA carried that magic Shelby name.
Early cars had a 4.2 Windsor block, but once production settled on a 4.9-litre unit the recipe was set – as well as a never-ending debate about whether it’s a British or an American creation. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other: it was a co-production, though over the years Shelby development undoubtedly strengthened its Stateside accent.
By 1964 the 289 was running out of steam on the race track, prompting Shelby to engineer a new coil-sprung chassis with chunkier main tubes to handle the heftier 7-litre engine, but many feel that the slim haunches of a well-sorted 289 are a nicer package to handle, particularly once the 1962 MkII appeared with its rack and pinion steering. Later on AC yielded the Cobra name exclusively to Shelby, marketing a small-block coil-sprung car as the 289 Sports. But size isn’t everything; in today’s conditions the big engine won’t get you to the hills any faster.
Supplied to French AC agent Chardonnet in 1963, the 289 pictured here was one the first three left-hand-drive COX-numbered cars to go to Europe. It has lived in France all its life and has never raced.
Despite the punchy racetrack image of the 427, a 289 is a more comfortable car to drive across Europe than its big brother. It’s a purer car. And there’s nothing wrong with purity.