Painted to celebrate the iconic
Ford AV Shelby 289 / 427 Cobra race car.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the CM21 2080 David Hart, Oliver Hart, AC Cobra racing in anger at Goodwood, where I go most years. This painting is based on a photo by Richard Huckett.
Even before he started racing professionally and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Carroll Shelby had a dream of building sports cars under his own name. But in early sixties, that dream seemed impossible. His health condition forced him to stop racing and his other business ventures didn’t look promising. But in 1961, he got the news that AC Cars from England would stop production of their AC Ace model since the Bristol six cylinder engines weren’t available anymore. True entrepreneur at heart, Shelby realized that the light and nimble British roadster could be a perfect match for a powerful American V8 engine and that this could be the chance of becoming a constructor, and not just a retired racing car driver. Very soon, he contacted AC Cars and they sent him an engine-less body to his shop in California. With some help from Ford Motor Company and a small team of mechanics, the first Shelby Cobra was introduced in 1962. It was powered by Ford’s 260 engine, and later with a venerable 289 V8, and it pretty soon took the sports car world by a storm. The combination of lightweight body, small dimensions and brute US power proved to be revolutionary and the car did extremely well in competition all around the world.
However, Shelby’s ambition wasn’t about to end there as he knew that Cobra had more potential. So, in 1964, Shelby started working on Shelby Cobra 427, an even more extreme version powered by a monstrous Ford big block 7 litre engine with around 450 bhp and over 600 Nm of torque. It was insane to put this kind of power in such a light car, but Shelby was not the guy who cared about sanity of his vehicles. He rightfully thought that there is no such thig as too much power and he was determined to build an ultimate classic muscle car. Instaling a 427 V8 proved to be more difficult and Cobra body needed to be stretched and widened with necessary improvements to the chassis and suspension. The overall design remained the same, but although 289 and 427 Cobras looked very similar, none of the body panels, except for hood, trunk and windshelid, are interchangeable.
Driving & performance
Equipped with the beast of an engine and four-speed manual transmission, Cobra 427 was astonishingly fast even by today’s standards. The 0 to 60 mph time was just over 4 seconds and 0 to 100 mph sprint took the amazing 10.3 seconds. For years, Cobra 427 was the fastest American car in every aspect. The brutal acceleration was one of the best selling points, and one legend says that Shelby put a 100$ bill on the dash of Cobra 427, saying that anybody who could reach it during acceleration can claim it. Apperently, nobody walked away a 100$ richer. However, such fantastic performance proved to be too much for some owners and lot of Cobras were crashed since the drivers weren’t used to that level of power and speed.
Yet, despite the numbers, the race wins and the gosh darn looks, the Cobra was not a showroom success. Burly and bold it might have been but, across all the models and special variants, fewer than a thousand Cobras were built and, in 1967, Ford made the call to quit importing chassis.
But the snake wasn’t dead. Even before the dust had settled on production, a cult following was in the offing that would lead to recreations, reincarnations and revivals, while the original Cobras would become the much-coveted stuff of legend. How coveted? CSX2000, the original prototype, sold in 2016 for $13.8m.
As for Shelby himself, he found undying fame with Ford, developing the Le Mans-winning GT40 before putting his name to the mightiest of Mustangs. AC, meanwhile, soldiered on with other models in Thames Ditton until, in 1984, the firm sold up, moved on and later wound down.
Its old factory is still there in the heart of the village, now an office space. Its role in creating an iconic transatlantic roadster with a guy from Texas? Remembered in that most understated of British ways: a little black plaque. Perfect.