A combination of British lightness and American muscle, the Shelby Cobra 427 pushed the envelope for sports cars in 1960s to become an icon.
Though Carroll Shelby’s name resounds among the muscle car faithful, perhaps his most iconic creation, the Shelby Cobra, with its light, British roadster body, bears little resemblance to the Camaros and Mustangs of the late 1960s. That is, until get behind the wheel, turn the key and hear its V8 heart rumble to life.
The Shelby Cobra was the brainchild of American motoring legend Carroll Shelby. Following an early retirement of racing due to a heart condition, Shelby pivoted, starting a racing school and seeking out opportunities to build race cars. This latter endeavor would take a fruitful turn when Shelby learned that British manufacturer AC Cars had lost their engine supplier for their AC Ace, forcing them to discontinue the car.
It turns out Shelby new a few things about British roadsters. His first amateur race was in an MG TC; a race he won. Shelby also set a land speed record on behalf of Austin-Healy and his 24 Hours of Le Mans win came driving for Aston Martin.
Shelby contacted AC with the idea of collaborating on a car that would combine the AC Ace’s chassis and body with a proper American V8 capable of going up against the likes of Ferrari at GT races like Le Mans and Sebring. AC liked the idea, and so, Shelby was off to find an engine supplier.
After first being rebuffed by GM, who didn’t want help create a competitor to their Corvette, Shelby found a receptive audience with Ford. Ford was eager to take on GM and Ferrari, and Shelby’s idea of a lightweight roadster with ample V8 power sounded like just the ticket. Ford agreed to supply Shelby with their 3.6L Winsor V8 for his new car.
By February of 1962, Ford’s small-block V8 had grown in displacement to 260 cu. inches. Thus, when it debuted at the New York Auto Show in April of ‘62, the first of the Shelby Cobras didn’t feature the 427cu. in. V8 that it later became known for but instead a smaller, and perhaps saner, 4.3L. Of the initial Mk I Cobras, 75 were built with the 260-cu. in. engine. Ford subsequently bore out the V8 to 289 cu. in. (4.7L), 51 of which made their way into Cobras.
In addition to the Ford V8, the Shelby Cobra Mk I featured a Borg-Warner manual transmission, outboard disc brakes for better cooling, and an independent rear suspension and transverse leaf springs rather than independent coil springs.
Starting in 1963, the Cobra saw significant upgrades. The Mk II Cobra now featured rack and pinion steering with a steering rack from the MGB and a steering column from the Volkswagen Beetle. In true Texas spirit, Shelby sought out a larger powerplant for the Cobra in the form of the Ford 390 cu. in. FE V8. Unfortunately, the resulting car wasn’t what Shelby had hoped for. After driving the car at Sebring, Ken Miles dubbed it “The Turd.”
Following the less than stellar showing of the Mk II, Shelby enlisted the help of Pete Brock (with whom he’d partnered on the Shelby School of High-Performance Racing). The goal was to get the Cobra into Ferrari-fighting shape and make it capable of the high speeds necessary to compete along the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. To that end, Brock redesigned the Cobra’s body with an emphasis on improving the car’s aerodynamics. This involved a new closed top, repositioning the windscreen, and a new rear ducktail spoiler for better down force. The result was a win in the GT class at the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This success didn’t mean Shelby had given up on the AC Ace body and chassis. But it would mean modifying it to accommodate an even larger FE V8. As a result, the Cobra’s frame tubing went from three inches to four, the radiator opening was enlarged for more air intake, and the fenders grew to allow for larger wheels and tires. The suspension was upgraded, too; ditching the transverse leaf springs for all new coil springs. Most significantly, the engine bay grew to make room for the massive new 427 cu. in. (7.0L) FE V8.
The standard 427 Shelby Cobra made a thundering 425 horsepower and 480 lb. ft. of torque. Pause and consider that the Cobra weighed in at just 2,355lbs. The combination of lightness and power Shelby had originally envisioned had been realized in the 427 Cobra. Those already intimidating numbers ticked higher in the racing version of the car to a full 485 horsepower and a top speed 185 mph. Equipped with the new engine, the Mk III Cobra could make 0-60 in just over 4 seconds and the quarter mile in 12.4 seconds at a speed of 106 mph.
Legend has it that Shelby would tape a $100 dollar bill to the dash of the Cobra and promised anyone who could reach the bill under hard acceleration could keep it. So the story goes, no one ever collected the $100 dollars, such was the mighty pull of the Cobra.
Concurrent with the development and construction of the Cobra, Shelby also collaborated with Ford on their GT40 racecar. Their rivalry with Ferrari and successes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans are the stuff of racing legend, charmingly immortalized in the film Ford vs. Ferrari. Shelby continued to work with Ford, lending his expertise to the GT350 Mustang. In his later years, Shelby teamed up with Chrysler to consult on their own “racecar for the street,” the evocatively named the Dodge Viper. (Shelby even drove a Viper as the pace car of the 1991 Indy 500.)
Less than a 1,000 Shelby Cobras were ever completed. The numbers break down to 655 of the early 289 Cobras and 343 of the 427 Cobras. Those low numbers would already make the Cobra an exceedingly rare collectors’ car, but the Cobra’s raw power made it unwieldy in the hand of inexperienced drivers, leading to numerous cars lost in crashes.
As a result of this rarity, many small builders began making Cobra replicas. Over the years, Shelby attempted to chase down such imitators with numerous lawsuits. In the end, ever the savvy business mind, Shelby decided to officially license replicas including those built by Shelby Automobile. While many third-party Cobra replicas go for between $50,000 and $200,000, those made by Shelby Automotive for the car’s 50th anniversary run upwards of $400,000.
Today, original Shelby Cobras typically list for between $1 and $2 million dollars, and the very first prototype, chassis number CSX2000 sold in 2016 for the hefty sum of $13.8 million. But that’s the price you pay for a piece of automotive history.
I read all of the old magazines when I was a teenager and remember the development of the AC Cobra. The one very impressive stat I remember about the DOC 427 (I think in Hot Rod magazine) was that it could go from zero to one hundred then back to zero in less than one quarter mile.