Happy 50th Birthday, Shelby Cobra

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
happy 50th birthday shelby cobra

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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  • MRF 95 T-Bird MRF 95 T-Bird on Apr 01, 2012

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

    • Skor Skor on Apr 01, 2012

      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.

  • DJTragicMike DJTragicMike on Apr 02, 2012

    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.

    • Skor Skor on Apr 02, 2012

      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.

  • Jeff S I haven't seen one of these since the 90s. Good find.
  • William Piper Ditch the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance for starters….Mitzu has probably benefited less than the other two partners and it has shackled any brand creativity moving forward.
  • Tassos I knew a woman in the area, a journalist (at least she claimed to be a reporter of some kind) who owned one of these tiny pickups with a manual transmission. SHe was only 40 at the time, but she must have been hard of hearing, because she would routinely forget to shift and we would go at fairly high speeds in very low gear, which made a huge racket, which did not seem to bother her (hence my deafness hypothesis). Either that, or she was a lousy driver. Oh well, another very forgettable, silly car from the 80s (and if my first and LAST VW, a 1975 Dasher wagon, was any indication, a very unreliable one too!)
  • Tassos Now as for the Z specifically, Car and Driver had a comparison test of the new Z400, a car that looks good on paper, with plenty of HP etc, but, despite the fact that the cars that win in those tests are usually brand new models that are more up to date than their aging rivals, the Z finished DEAD LAST in the test, to my ovbious surprise.
  • Arthur Dailey Sorry but compare that spartan interior to the Marks that Corey is writing about. 'A cigarette lighter'. Every Mark had 4 cigarette lighters and ashtrays. And these came standard with 'a 3.4-liter, 182-horsepower straight-six in the engine compartment and a five-speed manual transmission'. Those do not tick off many of the luxury boxes aspired to by 'the greatest generation'.Not sure about the 7 series but one of My Old Man's associates showed up once with a brand new 5 series circa 1977 and they gave him such a bad time that he traded it for a Fleetwood within a week.