Alternating currents

Arguments over its nationality swing back and forth, but 50 years on, the Cobra, with its Yankee muscle and British breeding, is still too big for one passport

Even now, few cars exercise such huge gravitational pull as a Cobra. This Anglo-American hybrid didn’t scream ‘zeitgeist’ when it rocketed into the public eye back in 1962. There was no great leap forward; no breaking of moulds or pushing envelopes here. To the naysayers it represented some sort of Darwinian fluke – it was a mongrel in their eyes – but in its own rough-hewn manner it worked, and worked rather well. Together, America’s newest sports car manufacturer and Britain’s oldest fashioned an icon.

Except as we all know by rote, little about the Cobra or the man who conceived it was ever straightforward: the legend is true in its generalities if perhaps a mite fanciful in its specifics. First of all there’s the nettlesome question over when is a Cobra a Shelby or an AC? The fabulous example pictured here was built by AC Cars in Thames Ditton, after all, but the model was established by Shelby American in Southern California.

Deciphering the actual and the apocryphal when it comes to the Cobra is no easy task. For all the sub-clauses, codicils, addenda and all, the Cobra wasn’t a huge success sales-wise, but considering it has latterly become the most replicated car on the planet you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Its legendary status merely mirrored that of the man who conceived it – Carroll Hall Shelby.

Here was a man who wasn’t born gagging on a silver spoon. Instead the Texan tried his hand at everything from driving dump trucks to chicken farming, the latter activity ending in insolvency after his lock was wiped out by Lumberneck Disease. Unbowed, he merely dusted himself down and discovered motor sport. From his irst tentative (and victorious) outing aboard a friend’s MG TC at Norman, Oklahoma in May 1952, his circuit career in sports cars took off with freight train-like momentum, peaking with that famous win at Le Mans in 1959 alongside Roy Salvadori in the works Aston Martin DBR1. Not that he was in a it state to capitalise, instead being forced to retire as a driver the following year on being diagnosed with angina pectoris.

No matter, there was always Plan B. On moving to California to act as a distributor for Goodyear competition tyres, this born wheeler-dealer set in motion a long-nurtured objective: he would become a car manufacturer.

Not for him rustling something up from scratch, though. Instead Shelby envisaged a large-displacement engine in a proprietary body/chassis. The marriage of 283cu in Chevy V8 power and a Big Healey was reputedly considered but BMC and General Motors were less than receptive to the proposal.

No matter, there was always AC Cars. While this venerable Surrey firm has latterly been airbrushed out of Cobra lore, being dismissed as a mere subcontractor in some quarters, the union of the big-hatted American and this profoundly British marque seems, with the benefit of hindsight, entirely natural. The delightful AC Ace had proven itself in competition time and again, initially with the prehistoric John Weller-conceived, in-house-made straight six and later with Bristol and 2.6-litre Ford units. Nor was success limited to Europe, the Ace-Bristol in particular inding glory trackside in the US where it claimed several SCCA titles from 1957-61.

However, the market for small series, hand-wrought sports cars ebbed as the 1950s progressed. Indeed, the Hurlock family-run concern did rather better out of contract work, the company manufacturing everything from firefighting equipment to carriages (both railway and invalid).

The Hurlocks were receptive to Shelby’s overture but outside forces would serve to propel the project forward at a giddying rate. And how. While Shelby claimed to have had little time for Enzo Ferrari, it was Henry Ford II whose nose was truly put out of joint by Il Commendatore.

In the early ’60s Enzo had supposedly been keen to sell a majority stake in his eponymous firm to Ford. It was he who irst made the approach, albeit by the very Cold War thriller method of sending a representative to doorstep the German consul in Milan. Word eventually reached Detroit and Ford’s general manager Lee Iacocca who had already laid down the groundwork for the Total Performance programme: Ford would triumph in everything, everywhere and bask in the relective glow – win on Sunday, sell on Monday and all that. By taking over Ferrari, or at least the majority shareholding, it could bypass the start-up process.

Except marathon negotiations between the sixty-something Italian autocrat and bottom line-minded Detroit suits ended in disarray. Enzo backed out of the deal. The snub would
enrage Ford II, leading ‘The Deuce’ to initiate what in time became the GT40 programme.

But in many ways the Cobra represented the Blue Oval’s opening salvo in sports car racing. One of the Total Performance scheme’s key players was Dave Evans, a man well known to Shelby. The upshot was that a couple of 221cu in (3.6-litre) Ford V8s were dispatched to Shelby’s office, which he rented from hot rodding legend Dean Moon. Meanwhile, back in Surrey AC’s chief engineer Alan Turner set about modifying the Ace’s frame to accommodate the new, larger powerplant, adding among other things an extra 3in crossmember to the chassis fore of the diff and redesigning the rear suspension tower to permit the relocation of the brakes to an inboard position (also necessitated by the decision to use a Salisbury 4HU diff). The first car, referred to in Thames Ditton at least as the AC Ace-Cobra, was tested and ready for shipment by February 1962. Then the engine was whipped out as news iltered through from the other side of the Atlantic about Ford’s new 260cu in (4.2-litre) small-block V8.

Shelby, meanwhile, had been busy acquiring a race shop from Scarab founder Lance Reventlow, who at that time was battling the Inland Revenue Service. In doing so, Shelby inherited the services of legendary fabricator Phil Remington. And it was ‘Rem’ who built the second Cobra and the irst to be campaigned.

Former Maserati 450S tamer Billy Krause debuted the car at Riverside in October 1962 and proceeded to build up a mile-and-a-half lead over the pursuing Chevrolet Corvettes before hub carrier failure ended play. The Cobra had laid down a marker.

By the time the March ’63 Sebring 12 Hours rolled around, it had been given an upgrade to 289cu in (4.7-litre) power and gained MGB-sourced rack and pinion steering (features subsequently adopted for the MkII road car). Six Cobras were entered, the best result being a lowly 11th place overall and eighth in class.

Nonetheless, Shelby American steamrollered its way to that year’s USRRC (US Road Racing Championship) crown for Class A production cars. With Ford backing, it then set about an allout attack on Europe for ’64 and unleashed the less lovely 7-litre ‘big block’ 427 version that same year. In tandem, Shelby was also engaged in turning Ford’s ‘Pony Car’ into a stud, the Mustang GT350 being one of the few muscle cars that actually lived up to its billing.

In order to compete in the World Manufacturers’ Championship, there was the small matter of meeting the homologation build requirements. In total, 32 ‘leafsprung’ factory-built competition cars were built along with a further 31 independent competition cars which were sold to privateers. Rarest of the breed, however, were the five works FIA Cobras which, quite aside from having four gurgling Weber 48IDA carbs in place of the standard four-barrel Holley item, featured bodies made of thinner-gauge aluminium, with lared wheelarches and cut-back doors (as necessitated by the arch extensions). They also had abbreviated boot-lids so they could be opened with the works hardtops in situ. The car pictured features the FIA-spec bodywork but it has a unique twist all of its own. The fact that it’s configured in right-hand drive is a bit of a giveaway. It was originally built for gentleman driver Bruce Ropner who had tried obtaining a car directly from Shelby American only to ind that none were available. “Shortly after the Cobra came out I read an article about it and decided I wanted one,” he recalls. “I then wrote to Carroll Shelby who replied with a very nice letter; he told me to get in touch with AC Cars and he would contact them accordingly.”

Chassis COB6008 (US cars have the CSX prefix) was built with a special single-seat cockpit with the passenger side blanked with an aluminium tonneau cover. The windscreen could also be replaced with a smaller aero screen. “My father had owned a Jaguar D-type with a similar arrangement. I must admit to being a bit of a copycat in that respect.”

There was, however, one slight problem. While the body was shaped like the works FIA-spec cars, AC was unable to source the desired 8¼in-wide centre-lock Halibrand wheels. On collecting the car in 1964, Ropner was obliged to drive it home the 230 miles to North Yorkshire on narrow wire wheels which appeared somewhat inset. The Cobra, registered TWU2, was then dispatched to former Ecurie Ecosse mechanic Wilkie Wilkinson in Bourne. He added wider BRM magnesium wheels – 6¼in x 15in at the front, 8¼in x 15in at the back – along with beefier brakes and four Weber 48IDA carbs. While he was at it, Wilkinson cut two rows of louvres into the bonnet to dissipate under-bonnet heat.

“Wilkie had looked after my father’s cars and he certainly breathed on the engine. It didn’t lack for horsepower.” Ropner picked up the car on a cold wintry day, fat Dunlop R5 race-patterned tyres proving less than ideal on frosty asphalt.

“I spun it on sheet ice on the A1. I couldn’t have been doing more than 30mph at the time,” he laughs. His pirouette was witnessed by a policeman who, fortunately, was more concerned with the driver’s wellbeing than with finding a reason to charge him. “He was very nice and jokey about the whole thing but declined my offer to swap cars.”

Ropner campaigned the car extensively in ’64, often in a straight line. “I took part in one of the early Sydney Allard Drag Festivals at Blackbushe and did well in the sports car class. I was second to Ken Wilson’s Lister-Jaguar and would have beaten him had I not had so much wheelspin off the line.” The Cobra would also have an unlikely role in the first major meeting at a new race track built on the grounds of the old Croft Aerodrome.

In 1963, Ropner along with friend Keith Schellenberg and business partner Frances Shand-Kydd (mother of the future Princess Diana), began construction of the track and in August ’64 the Daily Mirror Trophy was the banner event. Saloon and sports car star Jack Sears was due to drive the Willment Racing Cobra ‘39PH’, only for its engine to break a rocker and hole a piston in the run up. To learn the circuit, Sears accepted Ropner’s offer to take out his car for familiarisation laps. He also used it for qualifying – with road tyres – but, armed once again with 39PH, he was obliged to start at the back of the grid for the race proper as strictly speaking qualifying another car contravened the rules. ‘Gentleman Jack’ would tear through the field to win outright.

“The Cobra was a hairy car to drive,” Ropner adds. “It was a rocketship in a straight line but you needed to be careful on the corners. I remember one run in it where I left Hyde Park Corner at 3.40am one Sunday morning and drove it 220 miles up to my home in North Yorkshire. That was on the A1, which was single carriageway back then. I managed it in 2hr 18min, hitting 164mph downhill into the ‘Grantham Dip’. But I became more and more interested in drag racing and, along with Keith Schellenberg and another friend, I imported a proper dragster.” Ropner sold the Cobra to Schellenberg on November 28, 1965 – the same day that it was entered in the Angolan Grand Prix held on the roads of the African port of Luanda in the then Portuguese-controlled colony.

With a quality entry, which included Jo Schlesser in a big-block Ford France Cobra 427 and Denny Hulme in a Brabham-Climax BT8, the 300km race was won by pole-sitter David Piper aboard his Ferrari 365P2. In 12th place was Schellenberg who, for much of the running, had been vying for GT class honours with Ferrari 275GTB/C driver Aquilles de Brito. The Portuguese ultimately came out on top and finished in ninth place overall.

In December 1966 Schellenberg put the car up for sale at £1750. Re-registered 131YHN, it then sat at the back of Scorton Garage’s showroom in Yorkshire before it was acquired by dealer Brian Classic in 1984. The car subsequently passed to Michael Fisher, another dealer, who installed a roll hoop and worksstyle quick-lift jacking points. He also had it resprayed in Viking Blue to ape the Shelby team cars. The Cobra would become a familiar sight in historics with later owners Bill Wykeham and James Lindsay, its current custodian Kevin Kivlochan acquiring the car in 2003.

“I had been aware of the car for some time and over 11 months I tried to buy it off James,” he recalls. “Each time I approached him, two things happened: irstly, he would put the price up and secondly he would say ‘no’. However, I persevered and James told me that he had a list of 20 cars he wanted to own before he died, so I knew that he would one day sell the Cobra.

Then one Wednesday he called me and said that he would sell the car if I could pay in full by that Friday. Oh, and the price had gone up again! I said to James that I would come down straight away to view the car and do the deal. James then informed me that the car was on a boat to Macau to do the historics race which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Macau Grand Prix.

So we did the deal without me seeing the car, on the basis that James and his friend Bill Wykeham would race it and I would own the car once it arrived back at the docks in Southampton.

“About a week later, James called to say that he couldn’t go through with the deal; I had now paid him in full so he no longer felt that he was the owner of the car. He asked if I would do the race in Macau with Bill and naturally I agreed. My first real inspection of the car was in the pits in Macau, next to the smallest bundle of tools and spares that I had ever seen…” Kivlochan, a man steeped in Shelby lore (he’s raced six Cobras – five of them at Le Mans – and a Mustang GT350), has since campaigned the car extensively, with the likes of Derek Bell, Stefan Johansson and Richard Attwood sharing driving duties at the Goodwood Revival among other significant events. However by 2009, decades’ worth of racing miles had taken their toll, Kivlochan taking the decision to sensitively restore the old warhorse back to the same spec as it raced in Angola back in ’65.

The beauty of this Cobra – of any Cobra – is the sense of romance that comes with it; about someone taking on the world armed only with an idea, a ‘never say die’ attitude and more than a little chutzpah. There was something very ‘nick of time’ about how the Cobra came about. Everything was improvisational, with the thrill and risk the word implies. And while you can pick away at loose threads of the Carroll Shelby narrative – he was a persuasive showman with all that implies – his importance is understood by those who embrace his achievements and by those who seek to disparage them. The Cobra is his legacy, and what a legacy it is.

Richard Heseltine