Why the Shelby Daytona Coupe is The World’s Best Car Design
The Shelby Daytona Coupe is the best American car ever built. Maybe even the best in the world. I can say this with a fair measure of confidence as this is my 100th car design article for this publication! That’s just over eight years of articles evaluating the automotive design landscape, historically important cars, and why certain cars are exceptional and others forgettable. Which brings us to the beautiful, muscular, and commanding presence of the Shelby Daytona Coupe, a collaboration of grit, conceptual fortitude, and the courage of one of the most exceptional American car designers the world has or will ever know.
Numerous books, articles, and essays have been written about this car, but I am going to focus on the moment when conviction, risk, and talent converged almost serendipitously in Venice, California. A moment so perfectly timed and wedged into the fast-paced, high stress world of motorsports, that the unsuspecting Daytona Coupe would evolve, conquer numerous racetracks, and eventually become ensconced as an icon of motorsports history.
Pete Brock had an uncanny understanding of his own aesthetic. His designs were fresh, balanced, and captivating, and while he had plenty of reason to do so, he never swaggered over his skills. Even in his earliest work, he captured the eye of GM when he developed what would become yet another icon of American sports car history, the 1963 Corvette, all before his 21st birthday. Brock’s designs combined racing simplicity, purity of form, and muscular expressions unlike any other designs of that period. Now recognized as one of the most important American car designers, Brock’s career represents commitment not only to his skills and prolific capacities, but he also remains one of the very few designers who confidently expressed “American Design” at a time when European car designs were heralded as the pinnacle of design excellence.
After his stint at GM, Brock headed to California where, in 1961, he would become the first paid employee of Shelby American. Timing and talent favored the young Brock, as Shelby grew to trust Brock’s instincts and skills working on a wide range of projects. With the Cobra building presence as a formidable track car, Shelby desperately needed a car that could surpass the 150 mph top speed of the open roadster at full tilt on the Le Mans Mulsanne straight. The Ferrari 250 GTO, a fastback coupe capable of achieving 185 mph, was their target. Brock began working on a design influenced by 1930s era German aerodynamics race car studies. Though these earlier ideas were influenced by chassis designs of that time, Brock carefully applied the theories to modern race car proportions while integrating new chassis engineering of the nascent Daytona Coupe.
The resultant Daytona Coupe design was innovative, radical, and unlike anything before. The visual outcome was so unusual that even Shelby doubted the car would be able to achieve the theoretical top speeds they needed. With the clock ticking and doubts looming, Shelby called on a local Convair aerodynamicist to evaluate the design. Though hesitations were shared regarding the length of the rear and other details, there wasn’t enough time to change and still meet the race day debut. Shelby put his faith in Brock and the team moved forward. The outcome is now history with GT class wins in 1964 and 1965 at Sebring and Le Mans, as well as capturing the World Sportscar Championship in 1965 and setting no less than 25 land speed records at Bonneville.
The Daytona Coupe was a winner for the time, but it further stands as a critically important example of design conviction when unencumbered by politics or institutional rationale. Although the Daytona needed to be a purely functional piece of machinery, it captured both innovation and beauty. After the success of the Daytona, Brock would go on to do groundbreaking work with his own racing team, become a pioneer of Japanese racing in the U.S., build the largest hang-gliding company in the world, and consult on some of the most exciting projects in the world of motorsports. But even with these post-Shelby accolades, the Daytona Coupe remains today the finest example of state-of-the-art race car engineering fused with a visually captivating design.
Though just a handful of original examples exist, each one of them is unique. The Daytona Coupe is an immediately captivating object of power, presence, and desire. The long hood, wide stance, and impressive fastback roofline are a masterclass in form and functional harmony. Rarely does a car perform perfectly in both categories, but Brock knew the Daytona had to be both visually captivating and still win races. Compared to the Ferrari 250 GTO, designed only a few years earlier, the advances in Brock’s design are clear.
With the engine placed further back and more centered in the chassis, the cowl height is taller on the Daytona and the body rides higher than the low-slung GTO. The front wheel opening is pulled back for better air flow along the side of the car, and the front fender line crowns aft of the wheel center, the opposite of the GTO. The front of each car is radically different as well with the Daytona fascia blunted into a large grille opening, a bold challenge to race car designs that favored small frontal mass and lower hood profiles.
But the most notable change in the design language is aft of the windscreen. Because of the packaging, the driver sits a bit tall in the seat, raising the roof to a larger surface area that trails back into the rear window at a far less dramatic angle than the GTO. The bob-tailed design further exaggerates the truncated tail section, but as tests would show, the Kamm-back tail panel would serve as a pushing surface to aid in top speed stability. And while there are visual precedents that likely influenced the tirelessly curious Brock in his designs (the 1957 Costin Zagato Maserati and 1961 Alfa Romeo Coda Tronca being the primary influences that come to mind), Brock’s genius was his courageous synthesis of conceptual energy and aerodynamic intuition that struck at precisely the right moment. Unfettered by rumination and corporate drudgery, Shelby American put their faith in Brock’s design, the build team, and the engineering needed to get the job done. The Daytona Coupe hit the target of courageous risk and creative fortitude unlike any other design could have done at that moment. It was the perfect car at the perfect time.
Moments of conceptual precision are rare in any field. Even more so as technology and digital tools can today deliver impressive iterations in a matter of seconds while teams of people carefully evaluate how to eliminate risk, rather than challenge those risks head on. Shelby, Brock, and the build team at Shelby American not only took that risk, they submitted it to the most grueling form of critique, the unforgiving landscape of high performance racing. The Daytona Coupe achieved the pinnacle of creative excellence more than half a century ago with a team of exceptional builders and visionaries. For that unique confluence of excellence, the Daytona Coupe is, and will always be, the best in the world.