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
10 comments

Credit: uniquecarsandparts.com

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. 

Credit: SportscarDigest/Art Evans

1950 Fitch Model B, a.k.a. 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. 

Credit: briggscunningham.com

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. 

Credit: briggscunningham.com

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. 

Credit: H and H Classics

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. That first Tojeiro-Bristol Barchetta, shown here, was actually up for sale a few years ago in England.

Credit: Flickr/Denis De Mesmaeker

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.

Credit: Mooneyes

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.

Join the Conversation
Related

Leave a Reply

10 Comments on "6 Forgotten Sports Cars That Led to the Shelby Cobra"

avatar
Photo and Image Files
 
 
 
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mike Clarke
Mike Clarke

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Gross
Bruce Gross

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
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… Read more »
Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
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… Read more »
Kevin F York
Kevin F York

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

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

Allard is the significant one missing from the list

wpDiscuz