The Cobra Ferrari Wars

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman
the cobra ferrari wars

In the mid-fifties, Carroll Shelby started tearing-up his local racing circuits. Within a few years, the young driver dominated every major road race in the United States: Sebring, Daytona and more. When Sir David Brown caught wind of Shelby's prowess, he figured that the good-looking Texan's charisma would help sell Brown's hand-made British supercars stateside. Brown whisked Shelby off to Europe to drive for his fledgling Aston Martin racing team. In 1959, Shelby drove a DBR1/300 to victory at Le Mans. More importantly, Aston beat Ferrari and Shelby met Enzo. A rivalry was born.

After his Le Mans win, Shelby revealed that he had a hereditary heart condition and shockingly retired from racing. Back in the States, he tried his hand selling tires and establishing a performance racing school. But in his heart of hearts, Carroll wanted to return to Europe with an American car and beat the Hell out of Enzo Ferrari's mob. He even had a plan: stuff a muscular American V8 into a nimble British roadster. The long tall Texan envisioned a hairy-chested mule clobbering Enzo's prancing thoroughbreds.

Luckily, Ford was getting ass whooped both on the track (and in the showroom) by Chevrolet and the Corvette. The Blue Oval needed a halo vehicle. The company agreed to give the famous race car driver a new, lightweight all-aluminum V8, originally designed to power Canadian pickup trucks. Shelby turned to A.C. Cars in Britain for the frame and chassis. The Cobra was born. Or, more precisely, still-born. The first Cobra wasn't slow, but the mechanicals were garbage; the axle snapped during the car's first race and the engine wasn't nearly powerful enough to take on Maranello.

Enter a bunch of young, square-jawed Santa Monica hot rodders. A complete teardown, redesign and engine implant commenced. The resulting car is generally acknowledged to be the fastest (and coolest) muscle car of all time. The Cobra was so accelerative that Carroll would stick a $100 bill on the dash. If potential customers could grab it before the Cobra hit 100 mph, they could keep it. They couldn't. The 289 Cobra could do 0-100-0 in 15 seconds flat. The 427, in less than 13– which still counts as absurdly, violently fast more than 40 years later.

That Cobra's extreme performance and relatively nimble handling helped Shelby's team dominate practically every American race during the 1963 season. With high hopes and a quick car, they headed for Europe to do battle in Enzo's backyard– only to be crushed by Ferrari at Le Mans. On the three-mile Mulsanne Straight, the convertible Cobras –- with hard tops bolted on –- topped-out at 150mph. The Ferraris went 180. If Carroll Shelby was going to show Enzo what-for, he needed a proper coupe.

In Spirit Level Films "The Cobra/Ferrari Wars," documentary filmmaker Richard Symons offers a riveting account of the simmering rivalry between the American chicken farmer's motley gang of West Coast thrill-seekers, and Europe's blue-blooded racers. Interlacing vintage racing footage and latter day interviews with most of the key players, the film chronicles a seminal moment in American automotive history: the development of Carroll Shelby's Daytona Coupe. It's a classic story of American blood and guts.

Shelby recalls how he tasked a 23-year-old engineer named Pete Brock with designing the Coupe's body. Brock started with the windscreen, holding it in place with duct tape and wood. He then built the car's shell around it and the driver. Everyone agreed that the resulting Coupe was funny-looking– in a not-so-funny-kinda way. Brock assured them it would work. Or rather, fly. Even so, Shelby brought in an aerodynamics specialist who took one look and balked. Faced with a looming deadline and no Plan B, Carroll decided to trust his unknown engineer.

With Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney behind the wheel, the Shelby Daytona Coupe hit an astonishing 196 mph on the Mulsanne Straight, and earned Shelby's band of brothers a first place finish in the GT class at the 1964 Le Mans. On his own terms, in his own way, the lanky Texan had beaten the imperious Italian. And then he did it again, in '65. And again, helping Hank Ford II's boys build the GT40 to punish Enzo for a last-minute walkout on a Blue Oval buyout. Four straight years of GT40 dominance in LeMans helped seal Carroll's reputation for all time.

Shelby's victory is all the more poignant when compared to today's motorsports; complete with computer-aided design, manufacture and telemetry; PR flacks, chefs and personal fitness trainers. Back in Shelby's day, victory was achieved by personal determination, imagination and grit. While these characteristics will always be vital ingredients in motor racing, it's hard to imagine a time when they seemed so pure, so unadulterated by the cold-blooded demands of big business. Symon's film captures the last time a bunch of buddies got together in a small garage to take on the world's best, and won.

[Spirit Level Films provided a DVD of The Cobra Ferrari Wars for review.]

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