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.