Lifestyle

Classic Cobra


Carroll Shelby's concept was simple enough. Take the attractive, lightweight, well-proven Ace roadster built by AC Cars and turn it into a world-beating production racer by the simple expedient of replacing its aging six-cylinder engines with a powerful and reliable American engine.

At least that was the plan. In practice the Ford's greater power exceeded the AC chassis' design limits. It needed bigger tires to put the power down, which also increased cornering forces and exacerbated the shortcomings of the Ace's simple transverse leaf spring suspension. Better brakes were needed and introduced even more stress.

The Cobra

By April of 1963, as the Cobra was demonstrating its speed and improving its reliability in FIA competition at Daytona and Sebring, Shelby moved to the next phase—the Le Mans 24-hour race. Two cars were built and were the most highly developed of all the early Cobras.

The Cobra entered by AC Cars finished 7th overall, 3rd in the GT category, and won the 4-liter to 5-liter class. This success resulted in the construction of six more Cobras designated as Le Mans versions by AC and Shelby, among the first Cobras built with rack-and-pinion steering.

The first of these, S/N CSX2136, proudly offered here by RM Auctions, was delivered to Shelby American in June of 1963 and competed in the remaining races of the 1963 SCCA/US Road Racing Championship season. In addition to its Le Mans features, it got the Webers as supplied on the Le Mans cars, Halibrand wheels, front wheelwell spats and wider rear flares, Koni shocks, brake cooling scoops, front and rear sway bars, engine oil and differential coolers, driveshaft hoop, electric fuel pump, and a fuel pressure gauge in the dashboard to replace the standard Cobra clock.

Ed Leslie acquired S/N CSX2136 from the Shelby Team on January 30, 1964, and made a mockery of the competition in the SCCA's A Production class, winning his class in seven of eleven SCCA races in 1964, including the ARRC finale at Riverside.

Carefully restored by experts in the Shelby Cobra marque, S/N CSX2136 is presented as it was raced in 1963 by the Shelby American team in its team livery.

The SCM Analysis

This car sold for $1,650,000 at RM Amelia Island Auction March 11, 2006.

No sports car in the history of America's love affair with fast cars has captured the fantasies of the general public like the Cobra.

Perhaps it's because the whole concept is so quintessentially American in its cheerful underdog image. Part of our national mythology revolves round a hard-working, ordinary guy faced with a challenge. He uses his native ingenuity to assemble something from bits found around the backyard, then goes out and shows the world. It's America's self-told story, repeated in hundreds of variations and thousands of fantasies throughout our culture.

The 289 Cobra in itself is not a very special car. John Tojeiro designed the basic automobile as a one-off racing special in 1953, with a very simple tubular ladder chassis and a body modeled after a Ferrari Barchetta. AC Cars turned it into a production sports car and had been building it unchanged for about eight years when Carroll Shelby came knocking. The suspension was antique, with transverse leaf springs front and rear. The engine and transmission Shelby dropped into the car were as exotic as corn dogs at a state fair.

Though it was a pretty package, even in its time it was very retro (maybe "classic" is a nicer term). By the time the Cobra arrived, Corvette had the Sting Ray, and the Italians were abandoning front engines in favor of mid-engine layouts.

As noted, the American psyche takes great pleasure in responding to precision handling and fancy footwork with a large hammer, and the Cobra instantly became an icon. In its way, the Cobra was Indiana Jones' handgun in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Carroll Shelby was an archetype like Harrison Ford's character—laconic and smiling, but steely-eyed.

In time, the Cobra became the most replicated car in history, but in its day the car was not a commercial success. From the beginning, the purpose of the Cobra was to win races, not to go to the grocery store, and that severely limited the market. Shelby talked about selling a thousand per year, but in the end, only 651 Series I Cobras were built. Shelby made his money selling GT 350s.

The six Le Mans replicas are an important subset of the racing Cobras. With the exception of not getting the aluminum hardtop (one did) and Halibrand wheels instead of Dunlop, these were built to the exact specification of the 1963 Le Mans cars, with bulbous fenders, hood scoop, fender side vents, big brakes, and Webers.

The first three were kept by Shelby as team cars for the 1963 season, and the second three were sold to serious racers. At the end of the season the team cars were sold to "quasi-factory" individuals to be raced in 1964, and Shelby had five 1964 cars built to the same specification for official factory racing. Collectively these eleven cars have become known as the "USRRC Cobras." Together they dominated SCCA A Production and USRRC racing in 1964.

In one of the ironies that seem to follow the racing car business, Shelby himself forced the Le Mans cars from their throne. At the end of 1964, the Mark II was introduced. With a stronger chassis, coil spring suspension, and the 427 engine, it was the future. The SCCA went along and made the 427 the A Production car for 1965, moving the Mark I (289) down to B Production.

The Corvette troops got their revenge when the legal B Production Cobra was reduced to almost showroom-stock specification, and the USRRC-specification cars had way too many modifications to qualify. Though a well-driven USRRC Cobra was probably an easy match for the 427s, SCCA made no provision for them to run in A Production, so the eleven USRRC Cobras became instant museum pieces.

The market for FIA Cobras has been extremely strong in the past three or four years, with prices roughly doubling. Within the category of "FIA specification" there is a definite hierarchy of values, mostly related to race history and how many issues exist with the provenance. At the bottom level are the 1963 cars, probably because their "team history" was strictly U.S. racing.

The middle tier is the 1964 USRRC factory cars, and the top seems to be the 1964 cars with international FIA history. This is understandable; even with the same specification, cars that only competed in American club racing don't have the cachet of the Targa Florio or Nürburgring.

The current range for serious racing Cobras seems to be $1.3 million to $2.2 million, and the subject car hit just below the middle of that range. As a 1963 car with only U.S. (and mostly privateer) history, I'd say it was fairly bought.

Years Produced: 1963–64

Number Produced: 6 ('Le Mans') 11 (total FIA Spec), 651 Series I

Original List Price: $2,700 (to Shelby less engine & transmission)

SCM Valuation: $300,000–$1,650,000 (at time of print)

Tune-up Cost: $400

Distributor Caps: $20

Chassis Location: Tag in engine compartment, bonnet latch, inside door.

Club Info: Shelby American Automobile Club, PO Box 788, Sharon CT 06069

Web Site: http://www.saac.com

Alternatives: 1963 Corvette Grand Sport, 1964–65 Ferrari 250LM, 1950–53 Jaguar C-type

Investment Grade: A


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