Featured: How The Cobra Thundered into History

How The Cobra Thundered into History

By Alan Franklin
April 6, 2013

It’s been speculated that CSX2000, the very first AC Cobra ever built, could be the most valuable car on Earth, reckoned to be worth somewhere north of $25,000,000. It currently resides at the Shelby Museum in Las Vegas, who have no plans of ever selling it, keeping its true value purely in the realm of conjecture.

What makes an old pile of chassis tubes, aluminum panels, suspension bits and engine components worth as much as a Rembrandt or a slightly used fighter jet? That’s a difficult question to answer succinctly, but to put it in a word, it’d be “history”.

AC, a long-established maker of very traditional British sports cars, had been building a car called the Ace for several years but was facing the imminent end of its engine supply. Ace, a pre-WWII, BMW-designed six cylinder, was built by fellow English sports car marque Bristol, but unfortunately Bristol had recently announced that they would discontinue production of said motor in favor of existing Chrysler V8s. At that time, Carroll Shelby approached AC with an interesting business proposal, which would help the company’s problem. Shelby’s plan required AC to build modified Aces, designed to accommodate American V8 power, which was just like the plan Bristol was moving ahead with on their own. AC agreed to Shelby’s proposal, so Shelby began hunting for a potential engine. He first shopped around Chevrolet, who turned down a partnership for fear of any competition with the Corvette—coincidentally, this was the very reason Ford enthusiastically agreed with Shelby’s plan. Ford wanted to bring down some heat on the ‘Vette, which was beginning to show a lot of promise in various forms of sports car racing.

Some time later, in February 1962, the first modified AC Ace (sans drivetrain) was air freighted from England to Los Angeles, where Shelby and his friend Dean Moon immediately set about installing a Ford 260 V8. They finished in less than eight hours, after which they hooned around LA streets looking for Corvettes to beat up on. Though they encountered no ‘Vettes, they knew that the car’s days as the preeminent  American production racer were over, because the Frankenstein they had brought to life only a few hours earlier was an absolute rocket, and it would soon prove itself to be nearly untouchable on the track. Shelby called the new Anglo-American beast “Cobra”, a name which had come to him in a dream.

Before it was priceless, CSX2000 was merely a press beater and promo car. Shelby had the car repainted a different color each time it was lent out for magazine testing, which was a creative way of dealing with teething problems on AC’s end of production. The press absolutely loved the car, particularly its acceleration, which was in a completely different realm to anything they had ever tested before—it accellerated to 60 MPH in approximately five seconds flat. Though sales never really took off, largely due in part to both continued supply issues and high price, the Cobra was well on its way to becoming racing royalty.

Cobras dominated the US Road Racing Championship series for three years, with only one lost race during that time. In international FIA racing, however, the Cobra was somewhat less successful. This lack of success was largely due to racing on tracks that had higher sustained speeds, where the Cobra’s antiquated aerodynamics hindered it from reaching a good speed on straights, especially Le Mans’ famously long Mulsanne. Shelby responded to this shortcoming with the development of 1964’s Cobra Coupe, which did a certifiably insane 186 MPH on Britain’s M1 motorway during shakedown for that year’s Le Mans 24-hour race. Incidentally, this legendary run is said to have heavily influenced England’s introduction of the 70 MPH national speed limit on previously unrestricted roads. At Le Mans, the Cobra would go on to finish first in GT class and fourth overall, beating Ferrari in the process. Limited public sales or not, the Cobra had delivered a knockout punch to the most famous name in racing and had given Ford an invaluable marketing tool.

With a constantly growing laundry list of successes in both SCCA A-production racing as well as in numerous other FIA events, the Cobra’s reputation as world beater was already safe when it won the 1965 12 Heures De Reims, securing the World GT Championship in the process—again besting Ferrari. This time wrestling from Maranello’s grips a title it had previously won for more than a decade straight. The Cobra had made its mark, and in the process made Shelby an American racing hero.

Thousands and thousands of replica Cobras later (some of them costing well into six figures and easily shaming the build quality of originals), the Cobra’s legend is set to continue as a part of American sports car DNA for decades to come. Here’s praying I’m not around to witness the first electric one with a digital big block soundtrack piped through those massive hallmark shin burners.

Photo Sources: Hemmings, The Mot’Art Journal, Fav Cars, moytroy.net, Flickr, Indian Drives, MotoriginalAutoblog

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Zippy Gordon
Zippy Gordon
10 years ago

Great article, Alan! I love to see the Americans get their place in the sun, and Mr. Shelby deserves a large patch of it!

Inigo Loy Colmenar
Inigo Loy Colmenar
10 years ago

This is the kind of hybrid that I like!

Matthew Kolabinski
Matthew Kolabinski
10 years ago

Carroll Shelby, rest in peace. Your contributions to motoring will never be forgotten. You were a legend within your own time. You are missed and will be missed. It is your spirit we miss most, Carroll, and hope that your soul lives on in driving and motorsport, forever.

Wonderful article!

I was inspired by the Cobra early in life as my first shop teacher had a replica of his own. He’d bring it in, during the summer months, and dare us to rub our grubby fingers over it. His DD, mind you, was a 5.0L swapped Volvo. The madness that was the AC Cobra has been pretty much alleviated by the current nanny-state but it lives on, here and there – in the first generation Vipers, at the tuner shops like Hennessey and in the modding community.