Anyone with a passing interest in cars knows the Shelby Cobra. The Corvette may forever be America’s Sports Car thanks to its 60-plus years of service, but for five years in the middle of the 1960s, Carroll Shelby’s Anglo-American Ford-powered supercar captured the hearts and minds of gearheads, and spawned over a million imitations in the decades since. What makes this more astonishing is that Shelby built under 1,000 Cobras, and that both Shelby and AC (the British company that built Cobra bodies) are still building replicas of the cars that made them famous so long ago.
But for some people, the Cobra isn’t Shelby’s greatest achievement, nor are the Mustangs that have his name on them. In 1964 and ’65, Shelby built six cars that changed the racing world forever. Known as the Daytona Coupe, these cars helped legitimize America as a major player in international racing, and despite their brief time in the spotlight, their incredible success story and beautiful styling seared them into the memories of countless racing fans. In 2014, the original car, CSX2287, became the first car to be given National Historic Vehicle status by the Department of the Interior, making it an official national treasure.
And it all started in 1963 with a crashed Cobra, a sketch on a yellow legal pad, and a whole lot of skeptical people. Ferrari was at the top of its game, with the 250 GTO dominating the racing world. Shelby’s roadster was a great straight-line car, and could dominate on short American tracks, but in the international racing world, it was considered a joke. Shelby hated being the butt of a joke.
The Cobra was beautiful and muscular-looking, but it suffered from poor aerodynamics. Speaking with Road and Track decades later, Shelby driver Bob Bondurant recalled: “Aerodynamically, the roadster was a boxcar. At Spa in 1964, we’d be flat out in fourth, and the GTOs and Porsche 904s would just drive around us and pull away.” Shelby desperately wanted a car that could crush Ferrari on its home turf, and turned to a 26-year-old designer named Pete Brock to do it.
From the shop floor at Shelby American, Brock quickly came up with a coupe design after taking the chassis from a Cobra that wrecked at Le Mans in 1963, and placing the steering wheel and seat where he thought it should go. With its low, curved front end and steeply raked windshield, it bore a passing resemblance to the 250 GTO, but out back, the car became a source of controversy at the company.
Brock had come across the 1930s-era studies of Dr. Wunibald Kamm, a German physicist who argued that a smooth automotive design with an abrupt, flat tail greatly reduces the aerodynamic drag of a vehicle. The only problem was, no one had designed a Kammtail car in years, and it completely went against conventional wisdom of the day. The engineers at Shelby hated the car, even going so far as to bring in a former racing pilot to try to talk Brock out of it. But he stood firm, and he had the support of the one person that mattered: Carroll Shelby.
What’s more, Brock was quickly vindicated. In its first shakedown on the track, the coupe hit speeds of 186 miles per hour on the straightaway – the same top speed as the 250 GTO. After a month of dialing it in further, the car could easily top 190. Then, it was given the green light to go racing.
The Shelby Daytona debuted in March 1964 at the 12 Hours of Sebring, where it won the GT class. An additional five cars were constructed, though their bodies were built by Carrozzeria Gransport in Modena, Italy, then shipped to the U.S. The second of these cars, CSX2299, became one of the most dominant competition cars in the world, winning its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the RAC Tourist Trophy, the 1965 24 Hours of Daytona, and the ’65 12 Hours of Sebring. By the end of its first racing season, the Daytona had finished second in the World Sportscar Championship’s GT III class.
But the 1965 season was Shelby’s year. On top of Daytona and Sebring, the cars won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the Grand Prix at Spa, the 1,000-kilometer race at the Nürburgring, 12 Hours of Reims, and Enna-Pergusa. It dominated the GT III class, taking home the championship with a 19-point lead over the second-place team. And then, it was all over.
In 1964, Ford attempted to buy Ferrari, but a series of acrimonious negotiations between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari led to the deal falling through, and with Ford hell-bent on humiliating Ferrari on the track. The Daytonas ran Ford 289- and 427-cubic-inch V8s, but Ford wanted its own car to beat Ferrari. It enlisted Carroll Shelby’s help in developing the GT40, and even though it was the height of the Daytona’s success, Shelby put the full weight of the company behind the project. When the 1965 season ended, what should’ve been a massive success was barely acknowledged. The Daytona was old news.
In 1965, CSX2287 was retired from racing and sent to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where it set 25 land speed records. But a year later, Shelby took the car and the five others and unceremoniously sold them at the Shelby American “garage sale.” The price: $24,000 for the lot, or about $175K today. That car changed hands several times (including being owned, briefly, by infamous music producer Phil Spector), before becoming the center of one of the strangest automotive court battles in history. Today, it’s safely in the hands of a collector and revered as a national treasure.
As for the other five cars, several are still raced at historic events, ensuring fans born decades after the fact can still see Daytonas doing what they do best. Astonishingly, despite the recent boom of the collector car market, a Daytona hasn’t changed hands since 2009, when it sold for $7 million. If one sold today, it would likely sell for more than four times that much, possibly even giving its old rival, the Ferrari 250 GTO (the current title holder for world’s most expensive car), a run for its money.
Despite its brief moment in the spotlight, the Daytona has become one of the most beloved cars ever built and, like the Cobra, has inspired thousands of imitators. Shelby currently builds continuation models with comforts like air conditioning and a stereo (options the notoriously hot, cramped racers didn’t have), and California-based EV company Renovo even builds an electric Daytona track car. Neither comes cheap ($179K and up for a Shelby, $500K and up for the Renovo), but with the original six cars being some of the most iconic and valuable things on four wheels in the world, the modern cars kind of seem like a deal.
While the Cobra is Shelby’s lasting legacy, and his work on the Ford GT40 made that car arguably the most famous American racer of all-time, the Daytona Coupe is a legend in its own right. At the end of the front-engined endurance raging era, it proved that the Americans could beat the Europeans at their own game, and opened the door for some of the most exciting competition in racing history, courtesy of Shelby and Ford.