Even before the Mustang first gained a snake badge, Carroll Shelby had a respectable racing reputation. Though after his heart condition meant he had to leave the track, he switched to building race cars instead of driving them. One of his earliest creations is still highly-praised and highly-valued: the Shelby Cobra 427. And right now, Jay Leno is taking care of a very special one.
The Shelby Cobra 427 is an American performance and muscle car icon
Back in the 50s and 60s, the word ‘hybrid’ didn’t mean what it does today. Back then, the term was usually applied to a car with a European chassis and an American powerplant.
That’s exactly what the first Shelby Cobra is: an AC Ace roadster with a Ford 4.3-liter V8 and 4-speed manual, Road & Track explains. And its performance is still impressive by modern standards. It’s shorter, narrower, and about 200 pounds lighter than an NA Miata. And with that Ford V8, it went 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds.
However, that wasn’t enough to beat the Chevrolet Corvette on the racetrack. So, Shelby decided to go for broke and give the Cobra even more power. First came the Cobra 289, with a 4.7-liter V8 that made 271 hp on the road, and 370 hp on the track, Hagerty reports. It was so much extra power that the car needed a retuned steering rack. But it still wasn’t enough.
Thus, in 1965 Shelby released the Cobra 427. Under the hood is a 7.0-liter V8; R&T reports a restored example developed 433 hp and 477 lb-ft at the rear wheels. In-period, Hagerty reports the engine developed 510 hp, though The Drive reports some made as much as 620 hp. Which, in a sub-3000-lb car, is quite a lot.
So much, in fact, that the Shelby Cobra 427 has some extensive modifications over the 289 model. It has a longer chassis, wider wheels and tires, and thus, by necessity, a wider body, Hagerty reports. It also has coil-spring suspension, instead of the 289’s leaf springs. However, like the earlier Shelby Cobra, the Cobra 427 has 4-wheel disc brakes.
How Jay Leno ended up taking care of a 1965 Shelby Cobra 427 Competition
Carroll Shelby couldn’t homologate the Cobra 427 in time for the 1965 racing season, The Drive reports. So, he detuned 23 of them and added a street-legal muffler, windshield, and indicator lights. These were sold as Shelby Cobra 427 Competitions. And the example currently sitting in Jay Leno’s garage is one of them.
Its history before it ended up in Jay Leno’s hands, though, is worth a read, Hagerty reports. It was first bought by the son of South Carolina’s then-governor for street- and track-driving. The Shelby was then sold to a succession of owners for SCCA racing, one of whom flipped it on-track in 1970. Though before that, it became the only Cobra 427 to win two championships in two countries, RM Sotheby’s reports.
The 1965 Shelby Cobra 427 Competition was restored in 1977 with a new body and a few additional safety mods. Following that, the Cobra competed in a few vintage racing events, before finally ending up in the hands of a previous owner. He further refurbished it with a rebuilt suspension and transmission, a freshened interior and paint, and a new engine. Finally, in 2016 it sold at an RM Sotheby’s auction for $2,255,00.
Remarkably, Jay Leno’s car collection doesn’t include a Shelby Cobra 427, though he does have a replica. However, he didn’t buy this particular example. He’s just giving it a temporary home away from the wildfires plaguing California at the time of writing. And he’s been enjoying driving it very much.
What he appreciates most about it is its raw and visceral nature. There’s no protection, not even windows. The side pipes scream directly beneath you, adding to the thrill of the sheer acceleration. In short, this Shelby Cobra 427 still bites hard.
You can get a more affordable taste of its speed
Because original Shelby Cobra 427s and 289s are now multi-million-dollar classics, they’re out of reach for all but the well-heeled. However, you can do what Jay Leno did instead: get a replica.
Superformance and Factory Five both make Shelby Cobra replica kit cars that you can buy pre-assembled or put together yourself. Plus, you can order them with a wide variety of engines, including a modern Mustang GT 5.0-liter V8, Motor Trend reports. Superformance’s latest kit, the MKIII-R, even offers a Roush-tuned 550-hp V8 option, Automobile reports.
Alternatively, you can get a Cobra directly from Shelby American itself. The company makes continuation versions of the 289 and 427 models; the latter is actually based on the Competition version. The body comes in fiberglass or aluminum, but underneath is a brand-new chassis with fully-independent suspension. And while there’s still a ‘427’ V8, Shelby offers it in multiple configurations, with up to 750 hp.
Admittedly, these Shelby Cobra replicas are still somewhat pricey. A roller continuation model starts at $95,995 with the fiberglass body. Factory Five’s complete Mk4 Roadster kit starts at just under $20k, but you have to supply your own paint, wheels, and tires in addition to the powertrain and assembly.
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