An Encounter with a Willment Cobra
The Deputy Editor tries a famous racing Cobra in restored form
"It was a terrific drive, indeed an inspired drive . . . the sight of that great thundering Cobra charging round Brands Hatch and gobbling up the Jaguar's lead was electrifying."
This was how D.S. J. described Jack Sears' drive to victory in the Ilford Trophy Race which supported the 1964 British Grand Prix. Sears won the race from Jackie Stewart's lightweight Jaguar E-type after being black-flagged for starting from the wrong grid position. His drive to make up the time lost in the pits remains one of the classic stories in British motor racing. No less memorable than the "black flag incident" itself was the Sears mount, the bright red, white striped, Shelby American Cobra entered under the banner of Race Tuned by Willment. The Sears/Willment Cobra pairing whipped up the adrenalin of many a British spectator during that 1964 season, a stirring sight as it roared from success to success. Today Jack Sears remembers the big Cobra with genuine fondness. "That particular car and myself were good friends. We never went off the road and never crashed and only once had mechanical trouble. It was a 'fun' motor car."
Much to Jack Sears' pleasure, this car, with which most people continue to associate him at the expense of all the other machinery driven in an illustrious career, is very much alive and well, most beautifully restored in Willment colours by its current owner, Nigel Hulme. Sears was able to renew acquaintanceship with it, non-competitively, at Silverstone last year and recently Hulme enabled me to fulfil a long-standing promise to drive this immaculate Cobra, both on the road and at Goodwood, a circuit so familiar to this "big-banger" in its youth.
"Shelby American Cobra" was the name under which the model was homologated by the FM, an unfair disregard for AC's contribution, especially so in my subject's case, for 39 PH was built and prepared at the Thames Ditton factory for the 1963 Le Mans 24 hours. Carroll Shelby's organisation provided it with a fairly low powered engine, AC entered it, the Sunday Times (in better times) sponsored it and Ninian Sanderson/Peter Bolton drove it, the team being managed by Stirling Moss. They finished seventh overall at an average speed of 108 m.p.h. behind no less than six Ferraris, all led home by the Scarfiotti/Bandini 250p.
After Le Mans 39 PH, chassis number CSX 2131, and its sister car, CSX 2130, driven to an eleventh hour retirement at the Sarthe by Hugus/Jopp, were passed over to Willment, who had Jeff Uren as Team Manager, to be prepared for the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood on August 29th. But the cars were destined not to run, turned down at scrutineering for having too little clearance between the steering arms and wheels. This would suggest that Willment had fitted wider wheels since Le Mans.
Practice for that TT provided Jack Sears with his first taste of Cobra Motoring and 39 PH, an experience which he remembers vividly. "I had Coombs pushing me on one side to drive his lightweight E-type in the TT and Willment on the other to drive the Cobra. I chased round in the E-type and it was superb. Then I tried the Cobra and was shattered by its performance — much quicker in a straight line than the E-type or 250GT0. But I was shattered by its handling too because it went anywhere. It reminded me of the vintage cars like the TT Sunbeam I raced in the early '50s: you aimed it at the apex and somehow bounced it round the corner. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and drove the E-type." It was a wise choice, for he finished fourth overall, whilst the Cobra didn't start.
Yet the Cobra's power had excited Sears and when Willment offered him a drive in 39 PH for the 1964 British season he accepted, sure that he could sort out the handling. This he did to a certain extent, Willment, at the instigation of Sears and team-mate Bob Olthoff, the South African who drove CSX 2130, painted white with red stripes, in the 1964 season, experimenting with shock-absorbers, spring rates and camber angles. They were far from creating a silk purse, however, and Sears admits that in those days he was "just pleased to have a drive, so I used to get into any car and drive it and cover up for its deficiencies. This is basically what I did with the Cobra, and tamed it. It was a predictable kind of car with lots of power and I could drive it on the throttle. I loved it — it was terrific."
It seems to have been a case of Sears' mind over matter, borne out by his comments to D.S.J. after that famous Ilford Trophy race: "I was very cross [at being black-flagged — C.R.]; in fact I was so cross I forgot how badly the Cobra had been handling."
For the 1964 season 39 PH was stripped of its ugly, long-backed Le Mans hardtop, henceforth to run as an open car with the windscreen canted back to improve the aerodynamics. The Olthoff car almost always ran with the hardtop, reputedly that from 39 PH.
Sears' first race in 39 PH was the Sussex Trophy GT Race at the Goodwood International meeting on March 30th. "There was an embarrassing moment when it looked as though Willment's hulking great AC Cobra, driven by Jack Sears, was going to beat Graham Hill in a 1964 Ferrari GTO", said Motor Sport. Sears didn't get by and finished second overall and second in class to Hill, but it augured well.
Sears followed this with second overall and second in class to Jim Clark's Lotus 19 in the Oulton Park Trophy for Sports Cars on April 11th. On April 18th Sears again mixed the unwieldy Cobra with the sports/racing cars to finish third overall and second in class behind McLaren's Cooper-Climax and Clark's Lotus 30 at Aintree. Frank Gardner took over Willment's "Number One" Cobra for the Maidstone and Mid-Kent MC Silverstone meeting on April 25th and won both the Sports Racing/GT and GT cars/Prototypes races, his fastest lap being 1 min. 3.4 sec. round the Club circuit. In the supporting GT race at Silverstone's International Trophy Meeting on May 2nd Sears took third overall and third in class.
Disaster overtook 39 PH on its one continental sortie in 1964, to the Nurburgring 1,000 km. Sears was paired with Frank Gardner and the latter had an enormous accident in practice when the engine seized, the heavy Cobra turning turtle across a ditch, which saved Gardner from serious injury. The pair didn't race, but Olthoff/Hawkins finished 47th overall and third in class with the sister car after many problems.
Sears' car was repaired in time for that infamous Ilford Trophy race on July 11th. Olthoff had been fastest in practice in the other Willment car, but crashed it too badly to race. Stewart moved his E-type across to pole, so Sears moved the Cobra alongside Stewart from the second row. With 30 sec. to go the marshals decided that Sears was in the wrong position, but it was too late to move him. He was black-flagged on the second lap and brought temporarily into the pits as a time penalty. Then began "the most satisfying race I've ever done". The steering wheel used on the Cobra in the Ilford Trophy Race was subsequently presented to the Steering Wheel Club and is still displayed in the current Mayfair premises.
Sears' only retirement with 39 PH came at Snetterton on July 19th when the transmission seized as he lay second to Salvadori's Ferrari 275LM. He had better fortune at the Brands Hatch Bank Holiday meeting on August 3rd, in the Guards International Trophy after a terrific dice with Amon's Cobra. (Sears won the saloon car race with the Willment Galaxie, too.) This was followed by an overall win in the GT race at Croft on August 22nd.
A week later came the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood, in which Sears took 39 PH to fourth overall, sandwiched between Gurney's Daytona Cobra coupe and Olthoff's Willment sister car, sprayed on that occasion in the same colours as the Sears car, but complete with hardtop. Graham Hill's Ferrari 330p won, followed by Piper's 275LM.
That was Sears' last race in 39 PH. The marvellous season was recognised with a class win in the Autosport Championship. Later that year Sears had a couple of drives in the Willment Cobra coupe, winning at Snetterton and finishing fifth at Kyalami. This is the car now campaigned by Amschel Rothschild and often erroneously described as a Daytona Cobra. Though the unique Willment car's coupe body was modelled on Shelby's Daytona coupes, it was a very different animal in reality, a point Sears suggested I should clear up. Indeed in 1965 he drove the real Daytonas for Shelby. "The Willment version was every bit as good as the Daytona," Sears reflects. ."They handled significantly better than the roadsters because the stiffer, tauter bodies prevented the chassis flexing."
Both Willment Cobra roadsters were advertised for sale in the November 1964 issue of Motor Sport: "Top speed 165 m.p.h.; 0-100 m.p.h. in under 8 sec.; 350+ b.h.p.; four twin-choke Webers; racing carn; special gearbox and brakes; wide-rimmed Halibrand wheels with fat Goodyear racing tyres; £2,500 worth of development in each." By December's advertisement the quoted power had risen to "around 400 b. h.p.". The 165 m.p.h. referred to 39 PH's speed down Mulsanne on the 3.31:1 Le Mans final drive ratio.
It seems that there were no takers. at least for 39 PH (Olthoff eventually took the other car, 644 PGT, to South Africa, where it is believed to reside still). The Willment team ran the open car in a couple of races in 1965 and at the end of the season it was sold to a policeman, Jeremy Bagshaw. He raced it a little and eventually sold it to Ron Stern, from whom Nigel Hulme prised it in 1973. It was in pieces and without trim or interior panels, but otherwise surprisingly original and AC Cars were able to confirm its authenticity as the Le Mans and Willment car, CSX 2131.
So Hulme started a two-year rebuild using experience gained in rebuilding a Cobra Mk. II completed immediately before. He stripped it right down to the chassis, which was shot-blasted and restored by Brian Angliss (it was HuIme's later 7-litre Cobra which I featured in an article on Angliss's firm, then called Cobra Parts, in Motor Sport, June 1975). Angliss had to correct badly-repaired accident damage on the chassis' offside front corner, a relic of a Bagshaw crash at Crystal Palace. Where possible all parts on the car were cadmium-plated to stop rust. All the original Willment wishbones and brakes (Girling two-"pot" alloy calipers, stamped 1963, ventilated front discs and solid rear) were retained. Hulme was able to preserve all the original aluminium body except for the rear left-hand corner, cut out and replaced. The 14-gallon fuel tank leaked like a sieve, so a copy was made. All the connections exist to fit the original long-distance auxiliary tank, which Hulme has, but doesn't use. The passenger seat was missing and a new one made. The speedometer was missing too but all the other instruments were present and in good condition, including the swing-needle Rotunda 8,000 r.p.m. tachometer. Even the little knobs and levers were present and correct. An ordinary, one-piece, top-hinged boot-lid had been fitted at some stage; Hulme had a replica made of the original two-piece (hinged top and bottom) lid, believed to be on the Olthoff car in South Africa.
The full race Willment engine came with the car but in a bad state. Hulme had to sleeve the two rear cylinders, overbore the block from 4,727 c.c. to about 4,800 c.c. and fit a new crankshaft. As he wished the car to be usable on the road in restored form, the full-race camshaft was replaced by a high performance version, a 750CFM Holley "dual-pumper" carburetter replaced the four, twin-choke, downdraught Webers and the big-valve heads gave way to heads with slightly enlarged valves and standard-sized, polished ports, to match which new exhaust manifolds had to be fabricated. By luck, Stern had found the original four-pipe, tail-exiting, silenced Le Mans exhaust systems, still in good condition, which Hulme has fitted in place of the noisy, side exit pipes run by Sears. Stern found the original quick-lift jack, too, so rather prominent jacking points are fitted front and rear. Magnesium wheels are the original Willment Halibrands, 7 1/2" x 15" front, 9 1/2" x 15" rear, shod with Dunlop CR65 racers instead of the Goodyear Sports Car Specials used in Sears' day.
One or two modifications were made in the light of Hulme's later Cobra experience and stock of spares. The self-lubricating bushes mounting the wishbones to the base of the rear uprights were replaced with phosphor bronze bushes and grease nipples, nipping in the bud any possibility of the seizure of the bushes which had caused wishbone problems on the Shelby Cobras in the 1964 Targa Florio. They had been adequate for less arduous races with regular race preparation, but Hulme was looking for long-term reliability. The original gearbox has been replaced by the close-ratio Sebring gearbox with an aluminium casing and NHRA burst-proof bell-housing out of the Nick Granville-Smith racing Cobra. Attached to this is a Hurst "shifter", which has improved the gearchange considerably — a positive, closely-positioned gate in place of the rather nasty, wide gate with which Sears had to contend. The big, racing oil cooler was over-efficient for the car's less arduous life and has been replaced by a standard Cobra cooler and the differential oil cooler was removed for the same reason. Willment's cut-down handbrake lever gave way to a standard length item (non-fly-off on Cobras, unlike Aces) and a slightly smaller, though quite in keeping, wood-rimmed wheel made more room for Hulme's knees. The windscreen was re-canted to the standard position so that Hulme could use the Le Mans hardtop, traced by Stern, when required and the ugly demister vent in the scuttle, fitted for Le Mans, was covered in. The braced roll-over bar is that used by Sears and the flanks retain the number lights fitted for Le Mans. Wheel arch widths changed several times in Willment hands, the current arches being the final specification for the 1964 TT, when 39 PH acquired another air intake beneath the grille.
One final detail needed completion before this resurrected Cobra took to the road: the car came to Hulme without the famous registration number and log book. Kingston Motor Taxation Office staff were most helpful, 39 PH was found not to have been re-issued, and furnished with the required proof of the car's true identity they restored the number to its rightful bearer.
Hulme ran the car in at Goodwood. The rear tyres were scrubbed out in no time at all. Examination revealed that the rear geometry was all wrong because the original wishbones, now attached to straightened pick-up points, had actually been made up to fit the bent pick-ups! So the wishbones had to be modified to suit. Even then handling remained poor: Hulme had fitted a transverse leaf spring giving 1 degree positive camber to the front wheels (suspension is by transverse leaf spring front and rear — Cobras didn't adopt coil springs until May 1965) on AC's advice. A reversion to the Willment spring giving 1 degree of negative camber transformed matters.
Since its rebuild, 39 PH has given Hulme four years of utterly reliable service and remains as immaculate as ever. The demands on it are hardly as exacting as in its Willment days, but it still gives a good account of itself in occasional sprints, Goodwood test days and at the Brighton Speed Trials, where this year, as always, it clocked about 25 seconds for the standing start kilometre and crossed the line at 130 m.p.h. and 6,500 r.p.m. on its 3.77:1 final drive ratio. Last year Hulme and father Dennis drove the car on a pilgrimage to Le Mans for the 24 hours; it averaged 18 m.p.g. and never missed a beat. This famous Cobra is kept at the Holmes' Surrey home alongside machinery like Hulme Senior's ex-Tony Wingrove Porsche RSR, very satisfactorily converted for road use, a mint Jaguar 3.8 Mk. 2 and the ex-Phil Scragg Lola T70, which Hulme Junior is restoring. The RSR and the T70 replace the famous Lola-Aston, which the Holmes restored and sold recently.
I can think of few motoring experiences which have given me so much pleasure as a blast in the countryside around Glorious Goodwood on a hot, sunny day in this mighty, open Cobra, the big Ford V8 emasculated perhaps but still staggeringly powerful on the open road. The big Dunlops bounced from bump to bump, the wing tips shimmied as the body refused to let the chassis be boss, but followed every move of the high-geared, positive steering. "Bags of power but no roadholding," they used to say of Cobras, but this certainly wasn't the case on those fat tyres on those dry, Sussex roads. The engine rumbled docilely in a patch of traffic, but yelped the back tyres as the throttle was floored through the gears, with a mighty roar from the exhausts and a relentless thrust in the back. Left in top gear, acceleration remained astonishing. I have driven faster cars on the road, but most of them have been much more sophisticated than the simple, big-engined Cobra. I love the precision whirring of a V12 Ferrari for instance, the velvet smoothness as the needle races round the tachometer, yet the basic brutishness of this ex-Willment Cobra appealed just as much in a totally different way. It was very vintage in some of its feel, just as D.S. J. had warned me, but it was not uncontrollable and unpredictable as he had also warned.
This pleasurable experience continued around the Goodwood circuit. In smaller measure than Jack Sears can claim, and with less power to contend with, I felt that I had tamed the brute and the result was real fun. No doubt I would be telling a tale of sheer fright had the full race engine been fitted. So the brakes were not exceptional by current racing standards, but they weren't lacking either. It turned into the corners well, but the front end rather than the tail (which I'd expected) felt a little unstable on the exits. Ageing Goodwood's bumps did surprisingly little to upset the chassis, but it was essential to come off the brakes before turning into a corner, the correct procedure, I know, but not always possible in race traffic. In Sears' day it must have been a bit of a handful out of the chicane, as it didn't like this point on the circuit with Hulme-sized power. Squirting down towards Woodcote at 6,000 r.p.m. plus in top was the height of exhilaration.
It is all too easy to dismiss Cobras as over-engined, crude brutes, but this famous old car left me with new respect. And what a delightful car to own in its present guise: all that history, shattering performance even though de-tuned and an open road car into the bargain. No wonder jack Sears wishes it was his. — C.R.