6 Forgotten Sports Cars That Led to the Shelby Cobra
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.
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.