Like most gearheads, I fell in love with cars when I was a little kid. I remember asking my dad when I was about nine years old what his favorite car was. Even though he was never a big car guy, he answered immediately: “The 1966 Shelby Cobra.” It was somewhat out of character for my dad to have an interest in such a specific car, so immediately, I was intrigued.
As it turns out, the Cobra — perhaps more than any other car of its generation — set the high-water mark, not just for flat-out performance, but for mystique too. Rumors and legends swirl around it, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
The first example of the AC Cobra ever built, the CSX2000, was estimated to be worth $25,000,000 almost three years ago, and if it were ever sold, would probably have a shot at becoming the most valuable car in existence — such is the legacy of the Cobra. But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, since the car currently resides at the Shelby Museum in Las Vegas, and its sale would be the automotive equivalent of the Louvre selling the Mona Lisa.
Editors’ Note: CSX2000 did go under the gavel, and sold for $13.75 million — missing its estimate, but making it the most expensive American car ever sold at auction ahead of an $11 million Ford GT40.
The Cobra popularized the unholy marriage between an American big-block engine and a British body and chassis, thanks to the genius of Carroll Shelby. Shelby’s first choice for an engine supplier was Chevrolet, but not wanting to cannibalize Corvette sales, Chevy declined.
Ford, on the other hand, was more than willing to power a competitor for its arch-rival. So in 1962, the Blue Oval’s 260ci V8 was shoehorned into AC Car’s CSX2000 chassis in a Los Angeles shop, and the first Shelby Cobra was born. Production began shortly thereafter, and by 1965 the Cobra’s engine displacement had grown, culminating in the iconic 427.
From the outset, it was clear that the Cobra was going to be fast, but just how fast must have been a surprise to Shelby himself. Compared to virtually everything else on the road or track, the Cobra’s 0-100-0 mile per hour time of 13.8 seconds was absolutely astonishing. Chevy’s Corvette was finally dethroned as the ultimate American sports car as the Cobra kicked off a remarkable stint in the U.S. Road Racing Championship series, during which the car only lost one race in three years.
Perhaps it was the Cobra’s exploits in the United Kingdom that truly began to fuel the Shelby mystique. In preparation for the 1964 24 hours of Le Mans, AC Cars’ race team needed to conduct high speed testing of their Cobra Coupé GT. However, none of the British racetracks had a straightaway anywhere near as long as the iconic three-mile Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans.
So, early in the morning of June 11, Jack Sears, the team’s driver, pulled the Cobra onto the public M1 Motorway and laid the hammer down. The result was a calculated top speed of 185 miles per hour — extraordinary even for a race car. At the time there were no speed limits on the M1, so Sears technically didn’t break any laws. But when the British press got wind of the event, it became a sizable scandal.
Three years later, a 70 mile-per-hour speed limit was implemented on the M1 and all other previously unlimited British roadways. Though the speed limit enactment can’t be directly linked to Sears’ exploits, many give him and the Cobra credit nonetheless.
Cobra production lasted five short years (1962-67), but the car won an astounding number or races and cemented Carroll Shelby as a giant in American automotive history. And while Shelby stopped building the car (for a time), the Cobra went on to become one of the most popular kit cars in history with thousands of knockoffs vastly outnumbering the originals.
Today, all the Shelby-made cars are damn near priceless, but despite its long list of wins and superlatives, perhaps its most lasting impact was on the generation that witnessed its half-decade of brilliance and became lifelong car lovers themselves. Even those, like my dad, who never succumbed to full-blown gear head status, can instantly recall the Cobra fondly as an object of desire and awe. Can you think of any modern cars with that kind of staying power?
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.