By on September 7, 2010

The Shelby 427 Cobra is a curious car. There are few vehicles that more worthily deserve the description iconic. The originals are so historically significant and rare that each is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (and in the case of the six Daytona Coupes, millions), yet stylistically identical replicas are ubiquitous. Chances are, if you see a Cobra, it’s probably not real baby seal. Over the decades thousands of replica Cobras have been produced to varying degrees of fidelity by a variety of kit car and turnkey manufacturers. When Carroll Shelby realized that he couldn’t sue the replicar makers into submission, he decided to make his own “continuation series” Cobra replicas (in your choice of carbon fiber, fiberglass or original aluminum bodies). He’s also come to a licensing agreement with Superformance, who make superb Cobra and Daytona Coupe reproductions. I’m a big supporter of the idea of intellectual property, and Ol’ Shel is entitled to make a living off his name and accomplishments, but Carroll Shelby’s proprietary attitude towards the Cobra borders on the absurd.

While his own racing success and the original Cobras’ performance and track success were the basis of the Shelby legend, I think it’s fair to argue that had there not been so many replicas made, that legend would be less renowned. The only reason why the general public knows about the car is because of the replicas. In the 1960s and 1970s, the chances of seeing a Cobra off of a racetrack were close to nil. Serious car enthusiasts knew about Cobras and of course the six Daytona Coupes took on a Bugatti like aura among collectors and buffs, but to the general public it was just another ’60s hot rod. If people outside the car world knew about the name Shelby, it was because of Ford Motor Company. Without the “Cobras” built by replica makers, most people would have thought that Shelby was just some kind of Mustang.

Mr. Shelby’s business relationship with Superformance is more of a marriage of convenience than an acknowledgment of how others have helped grow his legend. He gets a piece of the action from the leading maker of Cobra replicas and they get to say that their cars are authorized and licensed. While Shelby backed off from suing the Shelby American Automobile Club, the fact that he would even think of suing he biggest fans shows that he just doesn’t get it.

While Shelby’s company indeed assembled the original Cobras and he does own the name and the hooded snake logo, the idea of him suing replica makers was a bit absurd. The essence of most replicas is in the exterior styling, a fact to which the many Lambo and Ferrari bodied Pontiac Fieros, or faux Mercedes SSKs like the Excalibur attest. Some companies and craftsmen try to make exact mechanical copies, others cobble together components from more mundane production cars. Still, no matter what running gear they use underneath, they generally try to make the body look authentic. The guy who is driving a “Cobra” that is mechanically a Fox body Mustang doesn’t care as long as people recognize it as a Cobra. The resto-mod muscle cars may look like 1970 Challengers, but under the hood there’s a modern HEMI, there’s a modern front suspension and steering on a custom crossmember mounted to a new welded in subframe, and there’s a tub and non-factory multilink rear suspension setup too. They want modern mechanicals, but it has to have the right styling.

Shelby, much as he litigates to protect his legacy, had little to do with the styling of the Cobra roadster. The original Cobra was a small British roadster (in this case, the A.C. Ace.) powered by an American V8 (in this case the 289 Ford). If you showed most Americans an Ace, they’d think it was a 289 Cobra. Though some might notice the Ace’s smaller fender flares, it’s hard to argue that fender flares should be the basis of lawsuits.

Not only did Carroll Shelby have almost nothing to do with how the Cobra looked, he also, at least as far as how I heard the story, had little to do with the final engineering of the 427 versions.

This could be an urban legend, but it had the ring of Detroit truth and should be documented. On the Sunday following the Woodward Dream Cruise a few years ago, I stopped at one of the informal car shows that spontaneously take place in parking lots up and down Woodward. Maybe it was the safety wire ties twisted to the center-lock knock off wheel nuts on what looked to be real Halibrands, but there was definitely something about the car that said it wasn’t no replica. Indeed, the proud owner said it was a genuine side oiler 427 Cobra. While I was schmoozing with him, a nice old geezer ambled over. The guy was wearing blue jeans, a white dress shirt and suspenders. I almost could swear there was a machinist’s guide and some calipers in his shirt pocket. It was the uniform of an old school Detroit machinist. He had spent his career working in Ford’s fabrication shop in the Dearborn complex and proceeded to tell the Cobra owner the story of his car.

Apparently the concept of putting the big block 427 in the Cobra was the result of a three martini lunch involving Carroll Shelby and Henry Ford II. General Motors’ top brass was at best ambivalent about racing, but Hank the Deuce wanted to win and win big in the worst way. In hindsight looking at the Lotus Indy cars, the GT40, the Shelby Cobras, and Shelby and Boss Mustangs, the automotive world was the better for Ford’s involvement and investment and racing. Ford and Shelby figured that a big block powered Cobra would dominate the competition in racing and be faster on the street than any Corvette.

There is more to engineering a proper race car than shoehorning the biggest engine that will fit inside the bulkheads. Cast iron big block V8 engines are heavy and the A.C. Ace was originally designed for a four cylinder engine, not to handle 400+ horsepower. The original 427 Cobra mule was an abortion. It had inadequate brakes, dangerous handling and overheated badly. The mule was shipped from California to Dearborn, where the old guy with the suspenders worked with Ford’s engineers (and presumably some Kar Kraft people too) reengineering it into a competitive sports car.

The irony is that while it was Shelby who gave the Mustang credibility by making the GT350 and GT500 more Shelby than Ford, the most iconic Shelby of all, the 427 Cobra, may have been more Ford than Shelby.

The rest is history. The actual cobra is one of nature’s most deadly predators. When a predator has no competition, it dominates that ecosystem. In terms of raw speed and visceral visual appeal, there was nothing like the Cobra. Or was there?

Part two coming soon…

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31 Comments on “The Cobra And The Cheetah: A Muscle Car Tale (Part One)...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    When I see a Cobra, I’ve always thought; “Rich man’s weekend toy.”  Basically the same thing I think when I see the Viper (another car that has a few of Shelby’s fingerprints on it.)  One of the higher ups here at central office rides his motorcylce to work almost daily and on his office wall he has one of those 2ft by 4th posters of a Cobra (a tad ironcally with a waving American Flag as the backdrop.)  I always thought this was appropriate because if he had one he’d be able to drive it the same days he rides his motorcycle.

    • 0 avatar

      While researching and writing the post, I went off on a tangent about the Sunbeam Tiger, often called “the poor man’s Cobra”, and found out that Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles had a hand in the development of the Tiger.
      I don’t want to deprive Mr. Shelby of his rightful due. He’s got the resume to back up his reputation.

      I don’t think that Shelby has any particular loyalty to Ford. He worked with Sunbeam while he was building Cobras. He worked with Chrysler. I’m not so sure he’s fond of the suits at any of the car companies. About 5 years ago, when Ford was showing either the Cobra or the GTR concept (based on the 427 Cobra and Shelby Daytona Coupes respectively) at the NAIAS, Shelby was sitting in the section of the Ford display where they have tables and chairs set up for interviews and he was talking to an old friend, longtime Detroit car dealer Hoot McInerny. Shelby told McInerny, “Hoot, I’ve worked with a lot of people in this town, but if I was ever in trouble and could call only one person in Detroit, it’d be you.”

    • 0 avatar

      Isn’t really Carrol Shelby the poor man’s Bob Lutz? Same braggart chutzpah, same conniving business sense, same corporate bullshit spin…

  • avatar

    The actual cobra is one of nature’s most deadly predators. When a predator has no competition, it dominates that ecosystem. In terms of raw speed and visceral visual appeal, there was nothing like the Cobra. Or was there?

    And yet a chunky little ferret beats it more times than not.

    • 0 avatar

      Or at least a mongoose will.
      Hence the name of the famous DeTomaso model …

    • 0 avatar

      I think mongoose is what was meant by a ‘chunky little ferret’. They are, after all, related.

      A film clip of this was recently on television just a day or two ago (PBS?). The mongoose would deftly and nonchalantly wait and dodge the cobra’s many strike attempts, patiently staying just out of reach. Eventually, it would see an opportunity to saunter in, clamp down one time, and walk off with its prize with little drama.

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder if Riki Tiki Tavi is still taught in schools. Kipling isn’t exactly PC these days. Plus it’s violent. And the mongoose is a metaphor for England and the cobra is a metaphor for indigenous people of color.
      Or maybe, it could just be a story about about a mongoose and a snake.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      7th Grade Language Arts, Chief Manuelito Middle School, Gallup, NM it is still taught as part of a small unit on Kipling.  The larger themes are left unexplored, except for the class that “Advanced/Pre-AP.”
      So at least one place in the ol’ USA it is still taught.

    • 0 avatar

      My son read Riki Tiki Tavi a couple of years ago when he was in middle school. But I don’t remember reading it when I was in school. Reading it with my son was the first time for me, I think. So maybe the story’s making a resurgence.

    • 0 avatar

      riki tiki tavi was one of my favorite stories as a boy.  i’ve read it to my daughter.  she always got a kick out of me doing the creepy Nag voice.  Never heard or thought of the England/Natives metaphor, but I wouldn’t put it past Kipling.

  • avatar

    The question of intellectual property is interesting in this case, because A.C. cribbed most of the styling from Italy and the Ferrari Barchetta. I think it’s an 166 Inter or 166MM. The “divine inspiration” is most noticable from the front:

    • 0 avatar

      And the 166 borrowed from Pinin Farina’s Cisitalia 202. I regard the look of the Ace/Cobra more to be general 1950s sports car styling than anything else. The 427 Cobra is the concept pumped up with steroids, but it’s the same styling language. You see it in the XK120-150 Jaguars and in the Austin Healeys. The current Bentley Continental is a modern take on the same theme.

      I suppose that Pininfarina should get the bulk of the credit. It was a groundbreaking design, but in retrospect it’s kind of transitional between the separate bodies and fenders of the pre WWII era, and the more streamlined unitary bodies we saw in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The fenders are integrated into the body but still have vestigal elements.

    • 0 avatar

      What wasnn’t Pininfarina behind in those days?

      Hadn’t thought of the Cisitalia connection before. On the other hand, it’s not really stealing if you are re-using your own styling elements. It isn’t the first time Pininfarina has done that either. Re the Austin “Farina” saloons/Peugeot 404 and the Alfa 164/Peugeot 405. The funniest farina theft must be the visual connections between the Peugeot 403 and the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. I’ve only heard that Farina was used as a “consultant” on the rolls-design, but I’ve never seen it confirmed.

    • 0 avatar

      The question of intellectual property is interesting in this case, because A.C. cribbed most of the styling from Italy and the Ferrari Barchetta. 

      Nothing wrong with stealing styling, is there? Unless you get a design patent, I don’t think intellectual property law protects styling.

    • 0 avatar

      No, I’m just sayin’… In this case, nobody really have any case for plagiarism. Or if somebody do, perhaps that would be Pininfarina? I just don’t like that pot Shelby calling the cattle black, that’s all…

    • 0 avatar

      Hacks copy, artists steal.*
      Around the time the first bustle back Cadillac Seville came out, Lincoln also made a bustle back Continental. and Chrysler did the same with the Imperial. When someone asked Bill Mitchell, head of GM styling, if he was being faddish (the Seville actually hit the market first, then the Imperial, then the Continental), he got indignant and said that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and that the bustle back Seville borrowed elements from the Hooper bodied Rolls-Royces. Inside GM, that Wayne Kady design was called the London Look.

      *Originally attributed to Pablo Picasso:
      “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

  • avatar

    Ronnie, the AC Ace engine was not a four cylinder. It was a six, and originally designed just after World War 1. When I went to Earls Court Car Show in 1958 as a kid with Dad, the AC was the best looking car there, and that one had the optional Bristol 2 litre engine with the weird lever operated valves making it look like a DOHC.
    That Bristol engine was a World War 2 loser’s reparation give away from BMW. Bristol only knew radial engines, poppet valve or sleeve valve. But they got the BMW design for free.
    On the other hand, so far as I can tell, Shelby had nothing to do with the styling, which AC paid Pininfarina for back in the early fifties. Ballooning the fenders for bigger wheels was a natural thing to do. Shelby just ordered a batch of cars from AC with the Ford lightweight V8. That’s why, in my mind, the original 260/289 car will always be the AC Cobra. Also, my memory seems to recall that the V8 with thinwall iron casting was no heavier than the old straight six, so you got the original lightweight chassis.
    The 427. was a properly engineered Ford product, as you say. Saw one in London when I went back for postgrad study about 1970. Not much doubt about the potency of that beast, then or now. Now that’s a Cobra 427 to me. Shelby? Not so much.
    Anyway, there’s been books on this subject for those who want to know the real story. I recommend finding one that doesn’t have a picture of Ol’ Shel on the dust cover, because if it has, it’s likely historical revisionism.

    • 0 avatar


      I was wondering what 4 cylinder he could have meant. I recalled the ancient AC engine, the Bristol/BMW328 engine and the use of a 2.6 liter Ford Zephyr 6-cylinder. I couldn’t think of a single 4 cylinder used in an Ace though.

    • 0 avatar

      “Bristol only knew radial engines, poppet valve or sleeve valve. But they got the BMW design for free.”

      I’d hardly call it free. Bristol had a number of their factories bombed and a great many of their workers killed and injured by BMW engined aircraft. All the reparations from BMW wouldn’t go part of the way to setting the ledger right.

  • avatar

    The only reason why the general public knows about the car is because of the replicas. In the 1960s and 1970s, the chances of seeing a Cobra off of a racetrack were close to nil. Serious car enthusiasts knew about Cobras and of course the six Daytona Coupes took on a Bugatti like aura among collectors and buffs, but to the general public it was just another ’60s hot rod.

    I don’t believe this sentiment to be quite correct, as I recall things. In the mid 60′s there was much more excitement about  European racing and the Indy 500 than there is today – and they were exciting times.

    You had the front engined Indy cars being challenged by those tiny English Lotus cars – you had Andy  Granatelli’s  turbine cars; everybody watched the Indy 500.

    Then you had the bold brash Americans challenging European sophistication at LeMans – our good ol’ boy big V8′s.  Cobra won Ford the company’s first international sports car racing titles, including the GT Class win in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 1965 FIA Sports Car GT World Championship. This was the first international racing championship ever won by an American team.

    Perhaps it was all the publicity by Ford, or perhaps because we only had 3 choices of TV networks to choose from, but the Cobra WAS a big deal to the general public.

    And yes, I saw a couple on the streets in those days.

    If people outside the car world knew about the name Shelby, it was because of Ford Motor Company. Without the “Cobras” built by replica makers, most people would have thought that Shelby was just some kind of Mustang.

    With all due respect – I think you have it exactly backwards.  Shelby was portrayed as a hero – a classic American hero – a good ol boy smarter than all them european engineers.  A chicken farmer who  built the classic American car:  A hotrod that beat everybody. 

    The Shelby Mustang was affordable magic. Cobras were too expensive and too impractical. Cost more than a Corvette and didn’t have a top. Mustangs were everywhere, but a Shelby Mustang was special. It put you in a car hotrodded by the guy with the magic hands.

    Later, of course, it all dissipated, and Shelby became viewed as more of a con-man; a name-for-hire (think Dodge Shelby GLH, et al) - a late Elvis ruined by money.  But  for a while in the 60′s he was up there with the astronauts as a symbol of the America that could do anything better than the rest of the world.  And it ain’t braggin if you can do it.

  • avatar

    In terms of raw speed and visceral visual appeal, there was nothing like the Cobra. Or was there?
    Is part II related to the ZL1 Corvette?

  • avatar

    The Cobra is, to my mind, the pinnacle of sports cars.  Not because they are (or aren’t) the best in any mechanical sense, but because of what they represent.  Back in the day it was wild (289) or wilder (427).  As a boy, the closest I ever came to to the action was a trip to our local Ford dealership (the old man had a Cortina GT with a Weber carb–don’t ask me why); the dealer had a cutaway 427 SOHC racing engine on display.  What a beast.  I think this was 66 or 67.
    I remember building a Monogram (I think) GT 40 and a Cobra.  The Cobra had it all over the Le Mans winner.  Since the old man’s car had Webers,  I built the Cobra using the 289 option and 4 dual Webers with velocity stacks.  Then I’d dream.  Cruising around town in the four speed Cortina I could even kind of imagine that I was part of “the action.”  After all, I had a Weber under the hood, and I’d actually placed my hands on a 427.  Sure it was lame, but at 16, what was I supposed to do?

  • avatar

    i always loved the way to cobra looked. . .  and black.  always in black.

  • avatar

    Ferrari isn’t shy about defending its intellectual property rights.  Remember the Ferrari Daytona Don Johnson drove in Miami Vice?  It wasn’t a Ferrari, it was a replica built on a top of a 1980 Corvette chassis.  The replica builder, McBurnie Coachcraft was sued into oblivion by Ferrari.

  • avatar

    Ronnie please,
    It was a POS then, and it is a REAL pos now.
    Compared to any decent Cobra replicar an “original” Cobra is a pathetic, ill-handling, underpowered, underbraked, rattly, slow-ass, foot-baking turd.
    I’ve driven several of the “real deal”. They are absolute garbage by present standards. Garbage..
    By saying ‘garbage’ I’m being generous. Given a bit of cash and a month, anybody with a few IQ points will smoke an original ’427 Sideoiler’ with a mildly built and EFI force-inducted 302.
    “Musclecars” are sad and pathetically slow. Spare me the mythology, the ETs are available online…

    • 0 avatar

      First, in the context of a mid 60s hot rod the Cobra was very desirable.  To state that it’s not as good as whatever someone today might build, 50 years later is moronic.   The GT 40 was a great car, but in the context of today’s LMP, it’s good-bye Charlie.  Don’t be guilty of an anachronism.

    • 0 avatar

      Even by today’s standards I wouldn’t exactly call it slow and owning an early model 911 and a 427 replica guess which one gets asked about the most?  And it isn’t just men and women don’t care what it does to their hair when they go for another ride.  The 911 is just another one of those fancy sports cars to them. True, the Cobra is loud, windy, stiff riding, smelly (the exhaust is right next to you) and visceral and very appealing.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t get me wrong, in context, it was rather sporting. But even contemporary reviews complained about the build quality, the mid-rare feet, and the horrid build quality.

      Did I mention the build quality?

      From 289 to 427, the old buckets can’t hold a candle to what you can buy on any Chevy dealer’s lot.

      There is nothing wrong with liking slow-ish old cars. I have a fond spot for many, however I can admit to the reality of their sloth unlike the “musclecar” types. It is the simple denial of 40 years of progress that makes my head spin and projectile-vomit green pea soup.

      (Oh, and I’m not a 911 fan. Never have been, never will be. I favor real Porsches.)

  • avatar

    I’ve driven a handful of replicas and there’s really nothing that compares on a visceral level.

  • avatar

    “a classic American hero – a good ol boy smarter than all them european engineers. A chicken farmer who built the classic American car: A hotrod that beat everybody.”

    A chicken farmer backed by H. Ford II’s open checkbook…

    Given a huge budget and access to Ford’s engineering and design facilities really does wonders for a hot-rodder’s reputation.

    Still a jaw-droppingly wonderful car though.

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