The AC Shelby Cobra is one of the most iconic sports cars of the post-war era. When it comes down to sheer automotive power and anger, there is no substitute for the Shelby Cobra. The Cobra 427 top speed was 164mph and it could leap from 0 to 60 in a heart-stopping 3.8 seconds. It was the fastest car America had ever seen at the time and left the Chevrolet Corvette in its dust.
The Cobra struck the public eye in the 1960s. This was the time when the notion that cars could be more than just large heavy vehicles- they could be fast and fun! And boy did the Cobra tick the fun box, provided you could tame the mighty beast!
Carroll Shelby managed to combine the two main American automotive interest groups, hot rods and sports cars, and produce one outstanding ride. In total, only around 1000 cars were ever produced.
The Vision of the Cobra
The legend of the AC Shelby Cobra began as a vision of the now late Carroll Shelby.
The legendary car racers vision was to produce an affordable sports car that combined a lightweight European chassis with the torque and power of an American V8 engine in the front. It may not sound like a great feat, but nobody before Shelby had done this in such explosive success.
Even before he started professional racing, Carroll Shelby dreamed of making a sports car with his signature.
The Early Beginnings of the Shelby Cobra
The story of the AC Shelby Cobra begins in the UK.
The British car manufacturer, AC Cars Ltd of Thames Ditton in England, had been producing race-winning sports cars for decades. The AC Ace Bristol won the GT class at Sebring from 1957 until 1959.
Not long after that, their engine supplier, Bristol ended the production of their 6 cylinder engines that AC was using. AC Cars needed a replacement engine to give them that winning boost. At the same time, Ford had just developed a new lightweight, small, thin-wall casting V8.
Carroll Shelby saw the potential in the light and simple British roadster. His vision was to take the same AC Ace chassis and equip it with a big American V8 engine. This was his chance to fulfil his dream of building cars.
He quickly contacted the British company and they were interested in supplying Shelby with the chassis. His next move was to convince Ford to give him $25,000 and a few of the V8 engines. He managed to convince Ford by promising a car that would blow away Chevrolet Corvettes on the racetrack.
Dreaming of a Cobra
The name ‘Cobra’ came to Carroll Shelby’s mind during a dream one night. Waking up to the name, he wrote it down and liked what he wrote in the morning. Shelby stated ‘a car makes a name. You can call it anything you want if it’s an exceptional vehicle”.
The Shelby Cobra makes its way to the US
It was in 1962 that the first AC chassis came to the US with most of the modifications already made for mounting the 3.6 L V8.
While waiting for the chassis the displacement of the 3.6L small-block V8 increased to 4.3 L.
In just 8 hours upon receiving the chassis, Shelby’s team equipped the car with the V8 engine and a 4-speed Borg-Warner transmission. They immediately began road testing. The Ford V8 more than doubled the output of the Bristol engine with no increase in weight of the car.
Source: September 1962 Road and Track Magazine
The first Cobra prototype built by Shelby was named the CSX2000. Painted with a coat of yellow, the first-ever Shelby Cobra hit the New York Autoshow together with Ford.
The car was to be sold with limited production at a price of $5995- a fraction of what they would cost now to get your hands on one. Recently (2017) the original CSX2000 sold for US$13.75 million.
After a successful Autoshow presentation, orders for the Shelby Cobra started to come in. A month later the first journalists started testing the car and the reviews were spectacular. The Shelby Cobra was ready for production.
Initial Production of the Shelby Cobra
The production of the “original” Shelby Cobra ran from 1962-1967.
The Mark I was produced from 1962-1963, the Mark II from 1963-1965, and the infamous Mark III from 1965-1967.
Later “continuation” models, limited production Mark IV, V, and IV were made as late as 2017 by companies with official AC licensing.
The first AC Shelby Cobra, the CSX 2001, and a small number of other Mark I Cobras were made on the East Coast of the US. They were assembled in Pennsylvania by Ed Hugus, who was also a former race car driver and the first Shelby Cobra dealer. Shelby, however, finished most of the cars in his workshop in Los Angeles by installing the engine and gearbox of cars that AC exported.
The start of the production was not as smooth as expected. There were a few changes before the production started.
The inboard brakes were moved outboard to reduce costs and the fuel tank filler was moved from the rear fender to the centre of the trunk lid. The trunk lid had to be modified to fit these changes.
AC exported finished and painted cars to Shelby who then installed the engine and the gearbox. They also corrected any bodywork damage that occurred during the shipping process.
The Mark I Shelby Cobra had the 4.3 or the 4.7 L V8 powertrain. While the Mark II Cobra only sported the 289 cubic inch 4.7L V8.
The Mark II also featured extensive design changes to the front to accommodate a better steering system while still using the same transverse leaf spring suspension.
Shelby had bigger plans for the Mark 3 Shelby Cobra as he realized there was space for more power and better handling. The infamous Mark 3 Cobra 427 with the 7.0 L was born.
Shelby Cobra 427
Out of all the model years, the 427 Shelby Cobra is still the crown jewel. It was Carroll Shelby’s dream to build the ultimate classic muscle car.
Installing the big-block 7 L Ford engine seemed like an insane thing to do for such a small and light chassis. And it was exactly that, insane.
With 450 horsepower and 600 Nm of torque, the original Cobra chassis needed a fair amount of rework to handle all this power. The new chassis was designed together with Ford in Detroit. It featured stronger main chassis tubes and an all-around coil spring suspension.
The new chassis also sported wider fenders and a bigger front radiator opening. This gave the Shelby Cobra that iconic muscle car look.
The Mark III Cobra missed the homologation deadline for the 1965 racing season which meant only 56 racing cars of the planned 100 cars were manufactured. Out of those 56, 31 “competition” models were detuned and transformed into street use vehicles. They were branded the S/C model for semi competition.
The S/C 427 Shelby Cobra remains one of the most sought after Cobras to this day. A good example can sell for at least 1,5 million US dollars.
To put things into perspective, the 427 Cobra is fast even by today’s standards. The 0-60 mph time was just over 4 seconds and 100 mph sprint took just over 10 seconds.
One of the most common stories you hear about the 427 Shelby Cobra is the 100$ dashboard trick that Carroll liked to pull off. He put a 100$ bill on the dashboard and told everyone they could keep it if they reached for it while he floored the 427’s gas pedal. Nobody got the 100$. Ever.
It was the most brutal and fastest American car in every aspect for many years.
Later Versions and Packages
During its run at the Shelby American Inc., the Cobra was available in three packages. The “Dragon snake” offered the drag package which won several NHRA National events.
They only made two examples of the Slalom snake. Both of the cars had white exterior paint with red racing stripes and red leather interior.
The last package was called the “Super Snake”. It was the “Cobra to End All Cobras”.
They were essentially a race-spec Shelby Cobras with street-legal mufflers, a windshield, and bumpers. The rear end, brakes, and headers remained the same as that of a Cobra meant for racing.
It also had the Twin Paxton Superchargers. The first “Super Snake” Shelby Cobra the, CSX3015 S/C was the original “Cobra to End All Cobras” and remained the personal car of Carroll Shelby for many years. It was sold and auctioned off in 2007 for a staggering $5 million (+2.8 million commission) US Dollars.
When Ford and Shelby stopped importing and manufacturing the Mark III Shelby Cobra, AC Cars kept producing the Cobra for the European market. It was called the AC 289 Sports. It featured the coil spring suspension and the narrow fender chassis. Power was delivered by the small-block Ford 289 cubic inch V8 engine. They stopped production and sales in 1969.
There were also several so-called continuation cars made by companies with Ford or AC Cars licensing. The most notable was the Autokraft Mark IV Cobra with the 4.95 L Ford V8 and an independent suspension. There were also later modifications of the “Cobra-style” cars made by several companies marketed as the Mark V and Mark VI. All of them were made in small numbers.
Driving and Performance of the Cobra
None of the AC Shelby Cobras were weak cars, to say the least. When you combine such a small and light chassis with even a small block V8 you are bound to get the experience of a lifetime. Keep in mind this was still the era of no electronic assist systems keeping you on the road.
As mentioned before, the stronger model, the Cobra 427 reached 60 mph in just 4 seconds. Figures like that were outstanding in 1965, and they still are. Many of the 427 owners could not handle the brutal acceleration which is why many of them ended up wrecked.
These cars were especially unpredictable in the rain. Only a skilled driver can control such raw power in slippery conditions. But the raw power output and the brutal acceleration were the key selling points of the Cobra. The buyers got exactly what they wanted, a true driver’s car.
Interior and Exterior
Luxury and comfort do not come into the Shelby Cobra recipe. So do not expect them. This is an extreme sports car and not many unnecessary things were installed.
The driver had all the instruments needed to monitor the car and that was it. Everything else in the interior was low weight and geared towards performance.
The seats were thin and sat low, the suspension was stiff which didn’t make this the most comfortable car either.
The majority of Shelby Cobras were roadsters. They were equipped with a piece of canvas and plexiglass side windows in case there was any rain. There was no regular convertible roof. Driving in the rain was both dangerous due to the strength of the car and also unpleasant due to bad protection.
This might all sound like a bad thing, but in reality, it was not. The point of the Cobra was no fancy equipment, it was the performance and the brutal sound of the V8 roaring directly at your face. This was and still is the magic of the Shelby Cobra.
The shape of the Shelby Cobra might be one of the most recognizable on the planet. From the side, it looks low, flat, and curvy at the same time. The only thing protruding from the silhouette of the car is the windshield, the driver, and the roll bar behind the driver. With the introduction of the Mark III chassis, the Cobra got its wide fenders which make it look like a proper muscle car.
The American Dream Lives On
The original Cobra 427, produced between 1965 and 1967, is one of the most sought after and consequently expensive classic cars. There are few of them on the market (a total of only 348 were produced), so it is no wonder that prices exceed one million US dollars.
Today, the American Shelby lives on. In 2014, they announced that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Cobra 427, they would produce a limited series of 50 cars, whose body colour would be black and the interior red with gold accessories. They were sold out within 48 hours.