This American Sports Car Earned the ‘Greatest Ever’ Title, Not the Legendary McLaren F1

Even though Gordan Murray already designed its spiritual successor, the McLaren F1 still looms large in the automotive consciousness. From its Toyota-Sera-inspired doors to its gold-lined engine bay, it’s a supercar that still feels, well, super. But according to Road & Track, it’s not the best sports car. Instead, that title belongs to the Shelby Cobra 289.

How Road & Track set out to find the “greatest sports car of all time”

Road & Track recently gathered a group of cars at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park for a seemingly simple reason: finding the car that best represents R&T. Or, to quote, the car that “best conveys speed, engagement, beauty, and joy.” A sports car that makes you want to keep driving it even after the fuel runs out. And the cars gathered there, dating from the modern day to the 1940s, were certainly no slouches.

A white Shelby Cobra 289 'Street Cobra'
Shelby Cobra 289 ‘Street Cobra’ | Shelby

The oldest car was a 1949 MG TC, one of the earliest British roadsters. And, incidentally, helped launch Carroll Shelby’s career before he created the Cobra. R&T also brought a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, which the current owner bought used back in 1958. Chronologically, the next car was an original 1965 Shelby Cobra 289, the car which would later inspire the Dodge Viper.

Also on the guest list? A vintage air-cooled Porsche 911, a 1967 911S. A 1988 E28 BMW M5, a luxury sedan that could hang with Ferraris. R&T also brought an Acura Integra Type R and a 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata. And, as we’ve already stated, a well-maintained McLaren F1.

R&T drove these cars at Lime Rock over several days. And when it came time to vote, the Shelby Cobra 289 emerged as the unanimous winner.

Comparing and contrasting the Shelby Cobra 289 and the McLaren F1

In terms of outright performance, the McLaren F1 seems to have the Shelby Cobra 289 on the ropes.

A black 1993 McLaren F1
1993 McLaren F1 | McLaren

The McLaren F1 has a mid-mounted 6.1-liter V12 rated at 627 hp and 429 lb-ft. That’s sent to the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual that, incredibly, has stock BMW 5 Series’ synchros, R&T reports. And thanks to a world-first carbon-fiber chassis, the F1 only weighs 2579 pounds. As a result, it goes 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds, Car and Driver reports, on to a top speed of 242 mph.

The overhead rear 3/4 view of a white Shelby Cobra 289 'Street Cobra' with a red interior
Shelby Cobra 289 ‘Street Cobra’ overhead rear 3/4 | Shelby

The Shelby Cobra 289 is actually even lighter at 2020 pounds. But it only has a 4-speed manual. And its 4.7-liter carbureted V8 puts out ‘just’ 271 hp and 312 lb-ft. So, in-period, MotorTrend estimates it could manage a 5-second 0-60 mph time. It’s fast but not as fast as the McLaren F1.

And in terms of features, the Shelby Cobra 289 is less car than the McLaren F1. The Cobra has no external door handles, and the particular car R&T drove had only one side mirror. Its body is hand-beaten aluminum, and if you’re not careful, the doors can crease the fenders. Shelby didn’t fit modern-style rack-and-pinion steering until 1963, Hagerty reports.

In contrast, the technology featured in the McLaren F1 is partially why R&T previously called it “the world’s greatest car.” It has a built-in modem so the technicians back then could remotely diagnose problems. The BMW-built V12’s cylinders are individually tuned, R&T reports. To resurface the flywheel, technicians use a slab of granite with a lab-certified flatness of 0.00004”.

The McLaren F1 can seat 3 people across. It has a racing-style fuel cell that needs to be replaced every five years. Instead of a conventional defroster, McLaren gave the F1 a plasma-sprayed windshield that defrosts using electricity. And removing the shift-console trim bolts required special-ordering a custom tool because of how thin the heads are. Again, ‘supercar.’

Why R&T gave the Shelby Cobra 289 the win

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To be fair, the McLaren F1 lives up to all its hype. Even today, it’s a legitimately quick car. But it’s not necessarily a fun one. It demands your focus, and that you drive it like a race car. Unfortunately, “’ there’s not a lot of fun. There’s a lot of awe,’” R&T reports. The F1’s sheer dedication to performance is plainly evident. And to quote R&T, it’s “the greatest supercar ever built.” But as a sports car, the Shelby Cobra 289 has it beat.

Shelby put larger engines in the Cobra besides the 289-cubic-inch V8; most famously, the 427 one. However, at least with the smaller engine, the Cobra is “a puppy, a Miata with torque,” R&T reports. You just slide it slightly around corners with the engine roaring away. The V8’s torque curve is basically flat, meaning even if you’re in the wrong gear, it’s no problem. And there’s plenty of sensation in the steering, suspension, and seat.

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In short, the Shelby Cobra 289 is simply “’ sheer fun,’” R&T reports. And that’s why, ahead of the McLaren F1 and the other competitors, it’s R&T’s greatest sports car.

It’s an easier car to own and maintain

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The sense of awe and reverence around the McLaren F1 is further inflamed by the supercar’s rarity and price. A price that has only grown over the decades. Back in 1994, the F1 retailed at $815k, the equivalent of $1.43 million today. But today, it’s easily worth 10 times that.

That’s not to say an original Shelby Cobra 289 is cheap. Even a fair-condition example typically goes for $830k, Hagerty reports.

The side view of a black Superformance MkII 'Slab Side'
Superformance MkII ‘Slab Side’ side | Superformance

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Luckily, there are several replica and continuation alternatives to choose from. A finished Superformance MkII hovers around $100k and the racing FIA model around $150k. Used models on Bring a Trailer typically go for around $50k. If you buy a powertrain-less Shelby continuation, a fiberglass model starts at just under $96k, and the aluminum model starts at just under $181k.

As for maintenance, a Shelby Cobra 289, new or old, is noticeably easier to deal with than a McLaren F1. The classic model uses the same service manual as the contemporary Mustang, R&T reports. And the modern versions offer fuel-injected engines. That means less downtime and more smile time.

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