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CHAPTER XIV: SHELBY Cobra

Pictures by Giorgio Saba
Words by Tommaso Bertotti
Thanks to Paolo from ShelbyCobra427for lending us the car

Carroll was a racing driver, probably one of the best in the USA during the 50’s. He participated and won a lot of race on Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin sports cars, up to winning the 1959 edition of the Le Mans 24 hours. During his racing career, which ended in 1960, Shelby had enjoyed the handling qualities of European cars, superior to any American car of that time. What he couldn’t understand were the engines of those cars: expensive, complicated, often unreliable, difficult to maintain.
Carroll Shelby was not just a driver, he was also an entrepreneur: when he parted from races he probably had already decided that he would offer the world a solution to this problem.
The Cobra doesn’t look like an American car. It is not a misconception: in fact, its origins are English.
To be precise in Thames Ditton, Surrey, the cradle of UK motoring. Here in 1954 AC Motors began to build and sell a two-seater spider car, featuring a tubular chassis and independent suspension. It is called Ace, and is powered by a 2-litre in-line six-cylinder that delivers about 120 horsepower, produced by Bristol and based on an old BMW design. The car was produced in small series and had a good success, when in 1961 Bristol discontinued the supply of engines and the AC was forced to look for an alternative.
Back in the US, Shelby was thinking and thinking to a project that was obvious to him, but seemingly no-one ever thought about yet. A car with an European style chassis, powered by a large American V8: powerful, reliable, within reach of any workshop. Thanks to his network of people, cultivated during his racing career, Carroll learned of AC’s difficulties, and made his proposal, which was welcomed by the Brits. Ford, willing to have a car to beat the Corvettes on the US tracks, provided the much-coveted V8s, some newly introduced 4.3 liters small-blocks. Just the time to put the pieces together, and the first car was in Ken Myles’ hands for road testing. It’s 1962, a Cobra is born.
What I have got here is the replica of a Mark III, the 1965 evolution that introduced the Ford V8 big-block “427”: about 7 liters of displacement, over 400 hp and 650 Nm of torque. Compared to the first series, the frame has been redesigned and double wishbone suspensions introduced, in order to try to tame the beast under the hood. If you want to go fast, you have to be a skilled driver, and you must be aware of what you are doing, or the alternative is to get hurt. It’s not a car to have mindless fun with, it’s born for racing. Shelby created it to beat the European manufacturers: it had to be fast, not easy. When you turn the ignition key (which is on the left, as in all the cars that somehow have Le Mans in their blood) and the vibrations of the v8 make their way into your flesh, you begin to really understand the nature of the Cobra.
Just after a few corners I know that I will not be able to give it too much confidence. It would need more time to get to know it, to understand its reactions, to interpret its signals. The front is very precise, direct, the steering wheel transmits well all the feedbacks coming from the tarmac. The weight is relatively high for the type of car, but by today’s standards it is still a feather and also thanks to the the short wheelbase the Cobra is very comfortable in the low-radius curves.  
It is the cavalry that must be managed carefully: the tyres tend to slide despite the important width, and losing the rear-end in acceleration is a moment, if you are too violent on the accelerator. 
Driving it is perhaps a little hard, but very pure, without contamination of any kind.
It’s not easy to tell aboutthe smell of the hot side exhausts, virtually without a silencer at all, or the adrenaline rush that you get even just by touching the accelerator, not to mention the excitement that pervades you when the engine exceeds 3000 rpm, and that becomes almost scary when you realize that it can rev much higher.

Instinct, Ferocity. Braveness. These are the words that may come closest to the experience I just had. And, I think, they’re also representative of what Shelby’s character was when, almost 60 years ago, he was creating something new and beautiful.

the Soulful Driver

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