Carroll Shelby, who died last week aged 89, was a giant in the automobile world. An accomplished racing driver in his own right – notably with UK marque Aston Martin in both Grands Prix and endurance racing – he can be credited with changing the way sports cars were viewed in America, in the rest of the world.
In an era dominated by typically large and lazy machines that were more boulevard cruiser than sports car Shelby shocked the establishment when – as importer of niche UK manufacturer AC Cars – he created one of the most legendary of all cars: the AC Cobra, also known as the Shelby Cobra.
Using as a basis the pretty and very capable AC Ace, Shelby came up with an idea that was, in its day, as original as it gets. Quite simply, he had AC build him an Ace chassis that would accept a 4.2litre Ford V8. The result was nothing short of sensational.
Of course, things weren’t quite that simple and there were further modifications needed, but with the Cobra came the promise of genuine high performance motoring, something that appealed to engine donors Ford in their battle with the Chevrolet Corvette.
The 427 – King Cobra
Many enthusiasts consider this early version – the Mark I – the most desirable of the Cobras, and with a rich competition history to go with it the car was guaranteed a strong following. On the road there was little to match it for outright performance.
Ford’s interest in the Cobra resulted in direct collaboration with AC and Shelby in order to produce the later models, the Mark II with a bigger 4.7 litre V8 and, ultimately, the mighty 427 Cobra with a 7.0 litre V8 power plant. With wider arches and a more beefed up body style, this is the model that is generally emulated by the many kit Cobras that are available on the market today.
Curiously, the Cobras competition prowess – a special coupe version had been produced to increase efficiency in airflow – angered none other than Enzo Ferrari who became frustrated at the Anglo-American cars ability to beat his specially built 250LM model. He had the Italian authorities re-classify some races in order that the Cobra was no longer eligible!
Speed Limits And 186mph
Consider that we are talking about the mid-1960’s – the 427 Cobra was introduced in 1965 – and the performance figures take some beating. The standard 427 gave over 420bhp and propelled the Cobra to over 160mph, with acceleration figures that were simply untouchable. The full on competition version was tuned for almost 500bhp and 185mph.
Indeed, racing driver Jack Sears decided to test the figures for himself in 1964 in a Cobra Coupe. He did so on the newly-opened M1 motorway. Legend has it the car hit 186mph. The tale that this incident prompted the imposition of a 70mph speed limit is not entirely true, but it certainly had an effect on the laws that followed.
Despite the success of the car and its popularity with owners the AC Cobra was not a money maker. In 1967 Ford and Shelby reluctantly pulled the plug, leaving AC to produce the 289 version in small numbers for another couple of years. The chassis was eventually used for the subsequent AC 428, a luxury cruiser with quite colossal performance, but AC struggled in the poor economic climate and the company was closed in the early 1980’s.
The Later Cobras
The Cobra lived on in Shelby’s ‘continuation’ cars that appeared in the 1980’s, while Autokraft in the UK had bought the tooling for the cars from AC and made its own versions. These were known as Autokraft MK IV thanks to Shelby owning the rights to the Cobra name. The appeal of the car lies in its enduring style and good looks, as well as fine handling.
Kit versions of the car have appeared in many different forms and with a variety of alternative engines, but for many the original is the only one to have. Cobras now fetch extremely high prices and are sought after by collectors, and in the world of classic cars are among the must-have models.
Carroll Shelby had a rich and eventful life as both a motor manufacturer and a racing driver, and enjoyed a lifelong association with Ford. He was responsible for the amazing Shelby Mustangs, another example of giving a car more power to make it go faster, and continued his involvement with cars – and the Cobra – until near the end of his life. With the modern car being a technical tour de force it is unlikely that his like will be seen again.