The Cobra And The Cheetah: A Muscle Car Tale (Part One)

the cobra and the cheetah a muscle car tale part one

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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2 of 31 comments
  • Itsgotvtakyo Itsgotvtakyo on Sep 08, 2010

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

  • 2ronnies1cup 2ronnies1cup on Jun 25, 2011

    "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.

  • DungBeetle62 "Mark III would make its branding as exclusive as possible... " Meanwhile, 40 years on down the road every single Lincoln product was "MK _____"
  • FreedMike It is kind of refreshing to see an off-roader that is focused on the basics of off-roading, versus convincing its’ owner that he’s the real-life incarnation of the Punisher, and the owner of the largest penis in human history.
  • FreedMike I’m for pretty much anything that goes fast. The more, the merrier.
  • ToolGuy 16.9 gallon fuel tank (~15 usable in the real world) combined with abysmal fuel economy means the range of your girlfriend's EV will look pretty good by comparison. 😉
  • ToolGuy Cadillac should make a list of everyone who gets excited by this announcement, and never listen to those people again.