This Italian Themed Cobra Holds A 187mph Mojave Speed Record
Photos by TJ Grewal
Ted Taormina knows a thing or two about building cars that haul ass. After working on high-end Italian exotics for decades, Taormina decided to apply his go-fast knowledge on a more blunt force instrument: the AC Cobra.
When Ted, the founder of Taormina Imports, isn’t building customer cars he’s driving his own monstrous creations. So after building a few replica Cobras from the ground up, someone enticed him to top-speed-test his latest creation at The Fastest Mile In The West, the Mojave Magnum 1.5 mile salt flat run. The result was horrifying… for the competition.
Andrew Golseth: How did you wind up in this industry—where does your story with cars begin?
Ted Taormina: I’ve always had a thing for cars and go-karts since I was a kid. As I grew older, my dad told me that if I fixed his 1955 Chevy I could drive it. So, at the age of 14 I fixed it up and started driving it. That’s when I just fell in love with the mechanical side of cars and started to figure out how they work.
I bought my first car, a ’66 Oldsmobile. I got that thing running and drove it to school every day. Again, tinkering with it, trying to make it faster and louder, that was my goal in life. Later on, after I graduated from high school, I went on to a half basketball scholarship. I played basketball but I still tinkered with cars on the side.
At the age of 18, my uncle bought a V12 Ferrari, a 1972 GTC/4 that had carburetion problems. It had six Webers, so I tinkered with those for about a month and a half, redid the ignition system, and got his car running really good. Sylvester Stallone formerly owned that car.
AG: Tuning six Webers on a Ferrari V12 at 18?
TT: Yeah. (laughs) After that, my uncle wanted to get a scratch fixed on the car so he took it to this Ferrari/Lamborghini specialist in Gilroy named Al Burtoni. When my uncle dropped the car off he said, “Hey, let me know what it’s going to take to fix the car and also my nephew worked on the car. Can you double check all the stuff that he did to make sure it’s okay?”
Later on, Burtoni phoned my uncle and said, “Hey, whoever worked on this car did a really nice job. The car runs good and there’s only a handful of people that can make these run right.”
My uncle relayed the message to me and said, “Hey, I’m going up there to visit him and look at the car. Maybe you should come with me because he likes what you did.” I went up with my uncle to visit Burtoni’s shop and Al hired me on the spot.
At 18, I went up to this guy’s place and I saw about 30 Lamborghini Countaches, several Boxers, and 288 GTOs. Burtoni was buying cars in Italy and bringing them over, legalizing them for the United States, and selling them. We did all the EPA and DOT required installations for all of the grey market cars the US wasn’t getting.
There was no such thing as a USA spec Lamborghini Countach in the ‘80s. All 288 GTOs, which there were only 172 made for the world, were grey market cars. None of them were direct imports into the US.
That’s where Al Burtoni’s Milano Imports got its name. Being that I was working on these V12s and legalizing them and doing the emissions, I learned how to tune them, I learned how to get them to pass smog. I learned all the ins-and-outs of what makes a car a USA car versus a European car and, needless to say, I got smart real fast. I worked for Burtoni for 24 years.
Burtoni then founded Jota Americana. Basically, we built Jota Lamborghinis, which were faster versions of whatever Lamborghini model was hot at the time. We did one Countach and several Diablos for people all over the world—I think we built around 15 Jota Diablos.
We built our own camshafts. We welded our own cam lobes. We ground our own cams. We made our own ignition systems for the cars. We built our own clutches and exhaust systems. We did all of that in-house at Al Burtoni’s Milano Imports.
AG: That had to be incredible at such a young age.
TT: It was an amazing experience. I went back to the Lamborghini factories. I met Ferruccio Lamborghini. I met his son, Valentino Balboni, who I became friends with in 1990—we’ve been friends ever since. I knew more about V12s than I knew about V8s. Then Al Burtoni retired so I was looking for a good home to continue doing what I had learned. I had some of his clients that were still chasing me down, trying to get me to fix their cars, so I was working out of my house until I was able to find the location where I’m at now.
I had $2-to-$3 million worth of cars in my driveway at a time, working on these cars out of my home garage until I finally could open my own shop. I opened up this location in 2011 and I’ve been here ever since.
AG: After working on Italian exotics, how’d the Cobra get into the picture?
TT: The Cobra is something that I’ve always liked. When I was a kid, I was walking home from school and this Cobra comes roaring up next to me and I was just blown away by the sound, the look, the aggressive feel, and the presence it had. That was always my favorite car. I had all these Hot Wheels and models of Cobras.
By the time I got to work on them and drive them, they were far too expensive for me to afford, so I started looking into a really good replica, the best that money could buy, and I found Superformance. They’re authorized by Shelby to build their continuation cars. They’ll build you a continuation Daytona coupe, continuation GT40, a continuation Cobra, and they’re all to spec.
They do a beautiful job with the cars. I bought my first Superformance Cobra in 2003. I built it with a big block 460 engine and one of my Lamborghini customers fell in love with it—they bought it from me so I bought another one and then a dealership bought that one.
So, then I started buying two at a time and just by building them and making them fast and giving it my personal touch, I started building these Cobras the way I liked and people keep buying them. Over the years, I’ve probably built over 55 Cobras.
“The Italian Job” was supposed to get a Ferrari V12 but I ended up putting a V8 in it because my engine builder had a customer back out of a deal for a 700-horsepower 427. I said, “You know what? I’ll put that in this car and finish it a little bit faster,” and that’s what I ended up doing.
AG: Did you build it with the intention of setting a record?
TT: No. (laughs) When I was almost done with it, someone called me up and said, “Hey, this guy has got the Cobra record right now at the Mojave 1.5-mile, 178 miles per hour. You should try to beat that record.” I thought, well shoot, I’ve done that on the street. So, I took it out to Mojave and did 187 mph.
AG: Is that the fastest you’ve taken it up to?
TT: No. (laughs) I’ve had it over 200 miles an hour in the two-mile run—204mph, to be exact. So It’s a fiberglass Superformance body with a custom 700-horsepower 427 with some added aero, that’s really it.
AG: You made the aero bits in-house?
TT: Yep, all fabricated and made in-house. I took an aerodynamics class about driving cars at high speed, it was all pretty much focused at speeds between 150 and 250 miles an hour. They teach the types of things that take place at that speed, what you need to be aware of, and what keeps the car stable, things like that.
I learned a lot of the aerodynamic basics through that and coupled with being around Ferraris and Lamborghinis my whole life, I noticed the modifications manufacturers made that they test extensively in wind tunnels. I followed their suit.
If you look at the rear diffuser on the back of “The Italian Job” Cobra, it’s very similar to what you would see on an F12 Ferrari, a Tour de France car. It’s very similar to what you’d see on a Scuderia car. They have an under-car spoiler and then the diffuser in the back keeps you straight and the spoiler keeps you down.
I actually ran it with no windshield. I put special canards up front and a diffuser underneath the rear of the car. I also sealed off the whole underside of the car with aluminum panels, that’s what keeps the car stable at speed—otherwise it would be all over the place.
AG: What’s 200 miles per hour like in an open-top car?
TT: You know, it’s hair-raising. (laughs) I drove a Lamborghini Countach in 1992 out at the Bonneville Salt Flats so I got familiar with what it took to go fast. I drove other cars subcontracted through Al Burtoni back in the day. He’s probably got over 20 records at the Bonneville Salt Flats for over 300 miles an hour.
AG: So, what’s the next project?
TT: I actually just recently sold “The Italian Job” Cobra at Barrett Jackson, so I’m just getting started on the next project. I’m putting a Ferrari V12 in a Cobra. Years ago in 1991, one of Al Burtoni’s friends was legendary driver Phil Hill, who raced for Shelby and Ferrari. Phil Hill asked Burtoni to build him a Cobra replica with a Ferrari V12 in it. In ‘92, we put a 1972 GTC/4 engine in a Classic Recreations Cobra.
We did that for Phil Hill because he was often asked, “What did you like better, the Cobra or the Ferrari?” Phil always said he liked the handling and lightweight Ferrari and the sound and rev of a Ferrari V12 but liked the looks of the Cobra. So, we build him a V12 powered Cobra in ‘92.
A few years back, the Hill family, which I had met as a young 20-year-old, said, “You know, you should do that again. Build a ‘Cobrarri’.” So, that’s what I’m doing next, I’m building a “Cobrarri” again.
AG: “Cobrarri” sounds too good.
TT: (laughs) I think it’ll be a good idea because I have the clientele that would be interested in something like this. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to build another Cobrarri.
It’ll have all the ground effects that “The Italian Job” had, but it’ll have a Ferrari V12, and it’ll have Ferrari accents everywhere. It’ll get Ferrari brakes, the cool Ferrari gated shifter in the center console, it’ll just have a lot of Ferrari characteristics to it.
AG: Are you going with an older Colombo V12 or a more modern unit?
TT: I’m going to be using a 2008 Ferrari 599 V12, 630-horsepower. I thought about the fuel injection and being that the intake manifold on a 599 is so big, I decided that I’m going to make my own intake manifold and run six Webers down the middle like the old school cars, but it’ll be today’s engine. I think a high revving 630-horsepower carbureted V12 is going to be pretty cool.
AG: Are you doing the Italian colors on that one?
TT: No, it won’t be the Italian colors but it’ll definitely be Ferrari-esque. I’m thinking all black with red accents like the old Ferrari 250 Testarossa scheme. It’ll have the little hump behind the roll bar, grilles on the sides, and the under-car graphics.
AG: We’d definitely love to see that one when you’re done with it.
TT: Keep your eyes out for the new “Cobrarri.”