AC Cobra

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Pictures of AC Cobra cars photographed at car shows, musuems, and collector car auctions.

AC Cobra

From the book The Cobra Ferrari Wars by Michael L. Shoen

"But the people who said that the 289 (Cobra) wasn't a good handling car didn't know what they were talking about. Compared to what? That Cobra handled like a dream -- and was fast too." � Dan Gurney

While legions of motorsports enthusiasts continue to be thrilled by the epic Ford-Ferrari rivalry of the 1960s, few may recall that relations between Henry Ford II and Il Commendatore were initially far more cordial. In fact, in 1952, Ferrari presented Henry Ford II with a 212/225 Barchetta by Touring, modified to suit American tastes of the era with whitewall tires and exhausts exiting through the rear bodywork. There is even some speculation that this very car provided some of the design cues for the successful first-generation Ford Thunderbird models of 1955-1957. The relationship between Italy's home of the "Cavallino Rampante" and America's "Blue Oval" soured just one decade later, however, as a failed buyout of Ferrari by Ford sparked one of the most exciting motorsports duels ever to fire up the French countryside.

Henry Ford II attempted to buy Ferrari twice but was unsuccessful on both attempts. Initially welcomed by the Italian company, a deal was all but agreed upon until Enzo Ferrari called it off in 1963 after reaching an agreement with Fiat. This arrangement provided Ferrari with enough financial backing to continue with racing while still promising to preserve Ferrari's independence.

Henry Ford II did not take this rejection lightly, nor would he allow himself to be humiliated. The event sparked a great rivalry, with Henry deciding he would go to war with Ferrari to prove that Ford was not inferior to his Italian counterparts in any way. Pride, above all, was at stake. In order to accomplish his goal, Ford decided that there was no better place to compete and beat Ferrari than at the long distance races, and not just any long distance race, but the world-famous 24 Hour of Le Mans at the Sarthe circuit. Ferrari had seen great success at Le Mans, having won this esteemed race six times by the early 1960s. This was about to change, however, as Henry Ford II joined forces with Carroll Shelby in order to mount his now legendary assault on the racing team adorned with the Cavallino Rampante. Both men were determined to end Ferrari's long domination of international sports car racing. Shelby's grit, experience and strong connections in American racing circles were a perfect marriage with Ford's engineering department and financial clout. And so the Shelby-Ford onslaught began with the legendary 289 Cobra. As Carroll Shelby said, "We knew, plus or minus, what the capabilities of the Ferrari were, and we knew we would beat it."

Carroll Shelby had already initiated homologation paperwork with the FIA to make the Cobra eligible for international competition. As such, the first Cobras had to be turned into race cars - no small matter - which included installing roll bars, quick jack pickups, racing windshields, competition belts, cooling scoops, and a whole myriad of safety and reliability items. He had his sights set on the Championship.

After initial outings at Riverside and Nassau, the mechanical talents of Phil Remington were augmented by the skills of Ken Miles, who concentrated on chassis development by testing anti-roll bar sizes, Koni shock absorbers, and various suspension components. Through late 1962, the engineers and mechanics at Shelby were improving a sports car that was only getting faster and more competitive.

By January 1963, only five months after the first Cobras had arrived at Shelby's operations in Venice, the first racing Cobra completed 500 miles of tire testing at Riverside. Just one month later, the Shelby team entered two Cobras in the SCCA Divisional race on the same track. In only its third competitive appearance, the Cobras of MacDonald and Miles finished first and second. By June 1964 the Cobras of Shelby-American won the biggest race of all in Europe, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with the Cobra finishing a remarkable fourth overall and first in the GT class, defeating Enzo's Scuderia Ferrari.

The development of Carroll Shelby's 289 Cobra was, at its core, simple enough: take the attractive, lightweight, and well-proven AC Ace roadster and transform it into a successful production racer by replacing its aging six-cylinder Bristol engine with a powerful, deep-breathing American V8. The result was, in a word, spectacular. After modifying the chassis and overcoming initial teething problems, the 260 and 289 cubic inch V8-powered AC Cobras that followed proved to be brilliant, high performance sports cars of untold racing potential. After missing the FIA Manufacturer's World Championship by a hair in 1964, the Anglo-American hybrid wrestled the title away from Ferrari the following year, a tremendous achievement, then and now.

Advent of the 427

Win after win, however, ultimately indicated that the 289 hit a brick wall of reliability as its output neared 400 horsepower. With the yearly demands for increased horsepower continually required of sports car racing teams, the 289 Cobra's seemingly infinite sea of checkered flags may have been in danger. Once Chevrolet's new Grand Sport Corvettes hit the track at Nassau, the issue turned from a serious concern to an immediate emergency.

Looking once again to Ford, Shelby settled on the 427 cubic inch V8 after the NASCAR contingent at Ford successfully laid claim to the 390, his first choice. The 427 may have been reliable at 500 horsepower but it required a redesigned, wider chassis with coil springs all around. The resulting chassis was supposedly three times as strong as that of a standard 289. In fact, an initial attempt at using wire wheels was sidelined after the 427's massive torque tore them to pieces. Once again, Carroll Shelby's team resolved the matter in short order and had the most popular Shelby sports car of all time out on the track, albeit not in an FIA race; by the time FIA officials arrived in California for inspection in April, 1965, only 51 of the required 100 Cobra 427s had been built. Denied FIA homologation, Shelby ceased production of his FIA racecars, and began production of street cars thereafter.

Shelby, however, was still race-hungry and his Cobras were eligible for Production Competition in SCCA regional and national racing events. Beginning in 1964, 427-powered Cobras raced in SCCA's top class, the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC), repeatedly and consistently laying waste to their Corvette competition. Drivers such as Ed Lowther, Sam Feinstein, Hal Keck and the young Dick Smith continually found themselves occupying all three podium spots, adding to the continued desirability of all other Shelby street cars and to the lasting legacy of the 427 Cobra.

With a two-year production run beginning in January 1965, only 291 427 Cobras were ever sold in America for street use, of which 31 were S/C ("Semi Competition") cars built from unsold racing Cobras. Of these 291 Cobras, however, the vast majority were ultimately modified by their future owners to the desirable S/C specification, which included stripes, Halibrand Cobra 2 wheels, a hood scoop and a medium-rise intake manifold, to name but a few changes. What's more, about one-fourth of all street cars were converted for competition duty, and most of the less desirable 428-equipped Cobras were ultimately fitted with 427s. As such, original, unmolested 427 Cobras have become tremendously desirable to collectors and enthusiasts. All this, when Corvette production was in the thousands, with 90 examples rolling off the assembly line every day! Simply put, Carroll Shelby's hand-built 427 Cobra was the "supercar" of its day, a gorgeous, race-winning street-legal sports car with a take-no-prisoners attitude and unprecedented performance.

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