Featured: 6 Forgotten Sports Cars That Led to the Shelby Cobra

6 Forgotten Sports Cars That Led to the Shelby Cobra

By Aaron Miller
September 28, 2015

You’re unlikely to find anyone to take a stance against the Shelby Cobra being one of the most important cars in American motoring history, regardless of where the car’s chassis came from.

Still, Shelby didn’t derive the idea of dropping a V8 in a small roadster out of the (guardsman) blue. As an accomplished racer in his own right, he traveled the world, drove in the most legendary races, and saw the best the world had to offer in the realm of sports car engineering. Although built with vastly varying budgets, most of the cars below are essentially home-made concoctions built by men who would establish themselves as legends in automotive history.

They’re all byproducts of a golden era for garagistas, and in their own unique ways, they set the stage for Shelby to create his masterpiece.

1950 Fitch Model B, the “Fitch Bitch”

John Fitch was a race car driver-slash engineer who, among many other things, invented the Fitch Barrier system—those sand-filled barrels you see near overpasses that are designed to dissipate energy in a crash. In 1950, he picked up a Fiat 1100, swapped the original four banger for a 60 hp Ford flathead V8, then took things a step further and threw on the Crosley body that you see here. Fitch led an amazing life, including shooting down a Messerschmitt 262 with his P-51 Mustang; Art Evans wrote a fantastic pictorial history of him after his passing in 2012. It’s well worth a read.

1951 Cunningham C2-R

The Cunningham C2-R was part of Briggs Cunningham’s foray as a true manufacturer and came with its share of faults in terms of engineering—it tipped the scales at an obese 3400 pounds. It held promise, though, as an American roadster with a Chrysler V8 under the hood. Cunningham had previously tinkered with mixing and matching body, chassis, and engine combinations, and it’s no coincidence that he extended an offer to a friend and fellow racer with a similar cars-are-LEGOs past—one John Finch—to join the team.

It’s here for two very symmetrical reasons: those now classic racing stripes going down the front. As the legend goes, the stripes are an ode to the traditionally blue rail frames, that on a full bodied car like the C2-R, are obviously out of sight. Cunningham used these stripes on all sorts of cars in the 1950s and ‘60s, from Corvettes to E-Types. Of course, once Shelby began racing the Cobras, he inverted them, using Chevrolet White stripes over Guardsman Blue, and the rest is history.

1952 Cunningham C4-R

The C4-R took the promise that the C2-R held, and delivered in spades. It was very nearly 1,000 pounds lighter than the C2-R, and its performance in races responded accordingly. After a couple of years of disappointment, the only thing between the C4-R and outright victory at Le Mans was a little thing called the C-Type Jaguar, which was revolutionary in its own right. Ultimately, the C4-R proved the big engine, small roadster theory that seems so obvious today.

1953 Tojiero-Bristol

In the 1950s, John Tojiero built legendary chassis for teams like Lister and Ecurie Ecosse, and a gentleman racer by the name of Cliff Davis bought a Tojeiro, tossed in a Bristol straight six (essentially a pre-War BMW 328), and commissioned an aluminum-skinned body to mimic the Le Mans-winning Ferrari 166MM. The car was a blinding success on the race track, and Davis introduced Tojeiro to AC Cars, with the intent of producing them. Ultimately, Tojeiro sold the chassis design to AC, forming the basis of the Ace. In the end, he made £5 per chassis…for the first hundred chassis.

1953 AC Ace

Ok, so the Ace isn’t exactly forgotten, but today it lives on mostly for its Cobra offspring. When Tojeiro’s chassis was mated to a new, less overtly Ferrari-like body, the visual basis for the Cobra was almost complete. At first, the Ace was saddled with a 100 hp straight six designed just after the first World War, in 1919. Within a few years, it received a newer, slightly more powerful straight six but it still wasn’t enough. In Carroll’s own words, “I thought it was stupid to have a 1918 [sic] taxicab engine in what Europeans like to call a performance car, when a little American V-8 could do the job better.”

Combined with the C4-R’s proof of theory and Tojeiro’s fine chassis—and of course, 289 cubic inches of help from FoMoCo, the Ace is the end of the line.

Honorable Mention: Every Dean Moon Hot Rod and Drag Racer

It’s hard to overstate Dean’s importance on the American enthusiast scene. His Mooneyes speed shop undertook some of the most noteworthy engine swaps of all time, including shoving a Ford 429 into the Lincoln Futura Concept that George Barris turned into the original television Batmobile. Because Shelby’s LAX-adjacent facility wasn’t yet done, the very first Cobra, CSX2000 was completed at Mooneyes, in the same garage space at which you’re looking.

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Twan Smit
Twan Smit
3 years ago

Forgetting this one: Siata 208 spider by motto 1952/53, with Fiat ottovu engine, only 25 built, but most of them ended up in US and were raced with there as well.

Mike Clarke
Mike Clarke(@mclarke327)
5 years ago

There is a list of cars that were V8 powered like The Allard, Lister, Bocar, Scarab. then there were all the converted race cars Ferrari’s , Maserati’s ……. But the common thread in all of them was the 327 GM V8 This power plant packed a huge amount of HP and cost little. It was the life of the idea that became Cobra.

Lee Raskin
Lee Raskin(@fb_1067031593309900)
5 years ago

Believe that S.H. Arnolt’s Bertone – designed Arnolt-Bristol, with the 1991 cc Bristol BS1 MKII engine (1954), raced and won its class at Sebring (1955-1961) –was a definite ‘nose-to-tail’ fore-runner to Carroll Shelby’s Ford Cobra.

Lee Raskin
Lee Raskin(@fb_1067031593309900)
5 years ago

Believe that S.H. ‘Wacky’ Arnolt’s Bertone-designed Arnolt-Bristol (1954) would also be a nose-to-tail ‘fore-runner’ to the Carroll Shelby Ford Cobra. A-B’s with a 1991cc Bristol BS-1, MK-II engine raced and were class winners at Sebring during 1955-1961. Photo: A-B #38 driven by legendary men’s clothing designer, John Weitz at 1957 Sebring 12 Hours Endurance Race. Lee Raskin A-B Racing Team archives.

Jon Ulrich
Jon Ulrich(@jolrechhotmail)
6 years ago

I seem to recall Bob Carnes’ Chevy powered Bocar in the late 50’s and early 60’s not to mention Max Balchowsky’s remarkable Old Yeller sports racing car using a big Buick V8 (I think).

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay(@christophergay)
6 years ago
Reply to  Jon Ulrich

I’ve seen Ol’ Yeller race many times! Oh man, that was a while ago. Good call! Good times.

Bruce Gross
Bruce Gross(@bgross)
6 years ago

The Mabee Special out of Midland Texas was built in 1952 as a European car killer for Carroll Shelby to drive…Chrysler Hemi powered…..look it up.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago
Reply to  Bruce Gross

A good call but a few corrections to your post are needed ;

The Mabee Special was not built for Carol Shelby in 1952 but in fact was initially created with no one in particular in mind . Once the car was finished the Mabee’s then picked Carol in 1953 as their driver .. later having 2nd thoughts thinking that Shelby needed to be in a more world class car and series .. therefore Carol never set foot in the car never mind drove it with the car then seeing action from 54 onwards under a variety of owners and drivers including Bonneville , SCCA races etc .

But like I said .. good call overall !

FYI; Jalopy Journal as well as TRJ have a treasure trove of articles on the car including the new owners and their recent restoration efforts

But errr … Allard still had em all beat to the punch with their magnificent J2 by a few years ! Ahhh .. back in the day when innovation ruled the roost ‘cross the pond as it did once here as well … sigh …….. innovation … a lost art indeed .. succumbing to the powers of technology , over homogenization , a preoccupation with the theater of safety as well as pretense and style being preferred over content and substance .. sigh ….

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago

Forgotten ? Cunnighams ? John Fitch’s mulato monsters ? The bonkers Bristols ? Not to mention every home built / hot rod garage created monster many of which showed Ferraris / Maseratis etc its tail lights on more than a few occasions [ look up ‘ The Eliminator ‘ a CA legend and Ferrari killer ] Forgotten ? Not hardly . More like revered and remembered by all serious Gear/PetrolHeads across the planet . Especially the home built one offs that embarrassed the heck out of the EuroSnob crowd back in the day

And then of course there’s the grand daddy [ production wise ] of them all that y’all somehow managed to somehow forget ……. that being …


Sheesh ! How on earth did y’all manage to forget … Allard !

Kevin F York
Kevin F York(@fb_10153639757883537)
6 years ago

One mustn’t forget the Scaglietti Corvette!! http://www.michaelmccafferty.com/mmmvette.htm

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago
Reply to  Kevin F York

Allard is the significant one missing from the list