By on April 1, 2012

50 years ago, the Shelby Cobra made its debut at the New York Auto Show, spawning a rich legacy of American motorsport success, and rampant kit car clones. 

Jamie Kitman’s piece in the New York Times examines the Cobra’s genesis as one of the best examples of Anglo-American collaboration. The 1962 New York Auto Show saw the debut of the MKI Shelby Cobra, using the British AC Ace as a starting point. Out went the wimpy inline six, and in went a 260 c.i.d Ford V8, with a 289 c.i.d V8 following shortly after. Upgrades, both cosmetic and mechanical followed in the later years, – the 427-powered MKIII cars, with their big-block engines and flared bodywork, are the most well-loved, and often the basis for the ubiquitous kit cars that still survive to this day.

While motorsports greats like Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Bob Bondurant helped propel the Cobra to motorsports success, Carroll Shelby’s marketing acumen was an even greater force for popularizing the car. The Cobra had a number of “product placement” gigs in Elvis films (such as Viva Las Vegas) and pop songs. It didn’t hurt that some of NASA astronauts also drove Shelby Cobras, helping put them front and center in the public’s eye.

Cobra production ended in 1967, with Carroll Shelby turning his attention to Shelby Mustangs and the Ford GT40 program. But the Cobra managed to survive in the hearts and minds of the public, and over the years, replicas, from third parties as well as Shelby American, have popped up in various forms. Some have been authorized by Carroll Shelby, while others have been the subject of frequent, well-publicized litigation.

The Shelby Cobra has managed to endure the test of time in a way that few cars have. Its shape, like that of the Citroen DS or the Datsun 240Z is at once a product of its time, but also avoids looking dated. A thriving kit-car industry (and a nearly endless supply of donor Mustangs) has ensured that new Cobras (regardless of provenance) hit the streets every year. Here’s to another 50 years of this audacious, belligerent trans-continental hybrid.

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23 Comments on “Happy 50th Birthday, Shelby Cobra...”


  • avatar
    Strippo

    Gulf colors. Must watch Le Mans.

  • avatar

    I think the coolest Cobras are the copper and bronze bodied ones that David Kirkham has fabricated. Kirkham Motorsports also supplies Shelby American with their aluminum Cobra bodies, made in a former MiG factory in Poland.

    If you’re interested in metalworking, Kirkham has a series of YouTube videos on shaping and forming metal.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    Ah, the Cobra. Instead of an illustrious legacy of racing dominance, I think of thee as a grey-hair-mobile. Built to be driven loudly, yet very slowly. Poor thing has been knocked-off so many times, I regard every one as the worst copy, powered by the most pathetic and cheapest version of a Ford V8. Whenever I see one driving, I want to power up my phone camera, in hopes of posting up another “Cobra crashes at Cars & Coffee” video on Youtube.

    Seriously, I wouldn’t be caught dead in this thing. The Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe on the other hand….

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Gordon

      “Seriously, I wouldn’t be caught dead in this thing. The Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe on the other hand….”

      Unfortunate choice of words…Peter Brock was killed in a Daytona Cobra (replica)

  • avatar
    Neb

    Ha! You beat me, Ron. For some reason the first thing I thought of when reading this is “hey, aren’t these built in a ex-MiG factory now?”

    I’ve always wondered what driving one of these things was like. Given this old Bill Cosby bit, it sounds, uh, terrifying: (search Bill Cosby 200 MPH on youtube to see what I’m talking about.)

  • avatar
    Shipwright

    Back in ’07 I was trying to buy my current ride which was proving a little difficult. So while I was waiting I made a list of alternate “Mid-Life Rides” on the off chance that I couldn’t get a GT500. At the top of the list was a re-production, big block cobra with a Jaguar independant rear end and manual transmission. I got my Shelby but I sometimes wonder if I should have just gone and buy (or build) a Cobra. If I did I wonder if I would still be alive today. These cars, even when powered with 302’s, can be very lethal.

  • avatar

    There were two ’64 289 Cobras at the Eyes On Design show last year along with a genuine AC Ace.
    You can see the Cobras here:
    http://www.carsindepth.com/?p=8666
    AC Ace here:
    http://www.carsindepth.com/?p=2781

  • avatar
    skor

    The 427 wasn’t really a A.C chassis nor was it designed by Shelby, since that was really beyond his resources. The car was almost entirely done in house by Ford.

    • 0 avatar

      Skor,

      A few years ago, on the Sunday after the Woodward Dream Cruise, I stopped by the informal car show at Northwood, the shopping center at 13 Mile Rd. and Woodward. There was a 427 Cobra and something about it, I think it was the wire safety ties on the knock off wheels, that said to me that it was real. It turned out to be a genuine ’60s vintage 427 side oiler. While I was talking to the owner, an older man walked up wearing that old Detroit machinists’ “uniform”, blue jeans, a white shirt, suspenders and a notepad in his shirt pocket. He had worked in Ford’s Dearborn fab shop and told us that the 427 Cobra was the result of a multiple martini lunch involving Carroll Shelby and Henry Ford II and that after they shoehorned the 427 into the original Cobra, it was an abortion. It couldn’t handle or brake and was subsequently shipped to Dearborn where Ford (and Kar Kraft, my guess) engineered it into a proper sports car.

      At least that’s the story that I heard.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    The original Shelby Cobra is probably one of the best examples where the legend is a whole lot better than the reality. From what I can gather, they were twitchy, masochistic, uncomfortable handfuls that anyone (including professional race car drivers) would tire of quickly if used for anything even remotely resembling street-legal transportation. It’s quite similiar to the myths surrounding production cars that got detuned race-only engines like the 426 Hemi, Boss 429 or 302 engine. The myriad ownership headaches simply don’t come near outweighing the momentary thrills.

    Likewise, it’s always been rather baffling as to why Carroll Shelby would even think about litigating the imitators out of business, for it’s those very kitcar copies that have managed to sustain (even grow exponentially) the Cobra’s popularity for all these years.

    OTOH, a Shelby Cobra, real or not, sure is fun to look at and dream about. In fact, a fair argument could be made that, if not for all the Cobra kitcars, there might never have been a production Viper.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      Actually they aren’t all that bad for a longer trip other than no trunk space. The problem with a lot of these stories is the fact that there is a wide range of quality in the replicas and some aren’t set up as well. Plus the fact that a lot of the people bolt them together and drive them without checking corner weights or brake balance and you have a lot of soiled pants. With a decent set of Goodyear Billboard or Avon tires they are rewarding for smooth dirvers and twitchy for twitchy drivers. Think of a high powered Miata that is slightly higher strung.

      Oh, they don’t like rain any more than any other leaky british roadster.

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked the 289s better. They actually have some semblance of proportion and balance.

    There are probably like 8 people on the planet capable of driving a 427 quickly, which suggests the vast majority of owners are kinda missing the point.

    Funny aside: most civilian 427 Cobras didn’t come with 427s, they came with 428s. The 427 (which was really 425ci) was a high-strung racing motor, whereas the 428 was a more typical long-stroke big block.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      Yup, the Ford 427 was not very streetable, but was the terror of the tracks back in the day. Even the 428 was capable of stupid fast performance in such a lightweight car, and was probably more than most of the owners could handle.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      THe 289 FIA is the better proportioned body to me. More like a bantam weight boxer than a lineman.

  • avatar
    PaulVincent

    Let’s not forget Bill Cosby’s efforts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/200_M.P.H.

  • avatar
    TAP

    I prefer the slab-sided bodies.
    A high school buddy had a Griffith 289, I guess mostly forgotten now and deservedly so. Was ugly and didn’t hold together.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I always thought it was a shame that Ford never built upon the basics of the Cobra and created a competitor to the Vette.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      Because there was no money in sports cars. The Vette was a money loser for GM for a long time. Ford only backed Shelby and his Cobra because they wanted to win at racing. When the GT40 program took off, Shelby’s Cobra was dropped.

  • avatar
    DJTragicMike

    Shelby was a world class jerkoff who got way too much credit for the Cobra. His racing success is nice but I’m not a fan.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      True. Henry the Deuce was also a “world class jerkoff”. Enzo didn’t think much of either one, and let them know it…..in no uncertain terms. Henry II and Carol S. both had monstrous egos, and could never let an insult pass. Thus was born the Cobra.


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