When Ford Met Shelby: The story of the Shelby Cobra - WFSB 3 Connecticut

When Ford Met Shelby: The story of the Shelby Cobra

Carroll Shelby with the 3 Cobra roadsters that would win the 1963 USRRC Manufacturer's Championship. Carroll Shelby with the 3 Cobra roadsters that would win the 1963 USRRC Manufacturer's Championship.
Carroll Shelby with the 2007 Shelby GT500KR. Carroll Shelby with the 2007 Shelby GT500KR.
The 2010 Shelby GT500 coupe. (all photos ©Ford Motor Company) The 2010 Shelby GT500 coupe. (all photos ©Ford Motor Company)
By Jack Nerad

The biggest irony surrounding Carroll Shelby's Cobra is that, while it has become an icon of Ford performance, it might just as well have been powered by Chevrolet.

Along about 1961 Carroll Shelby, an ex-Texas chicken farmer with a big heart (today, after surgery, it happens to be somebody else's), was forced to leave racing because of a health problem, and was looking for something to do. Starting essentially from nowhere, or at least a suburb of nowhere with the name Leesburg, Texas, Shelby had made quite a name for himself in, of all things, European sports car racing. In fact, he once turned down Enzo Ferrari when Il Commendatore offered him a factory "ride," which tells you something about his level of confidence.

Unfortunately, Shelby's strong will was unmatched by his heart, which seemed about ready to fail him. So Shelby retired from the stress of the cockpit to his West Coast tire distributorship to consider his options. He wanted to stay in racing in some form or other, but he wanted to do it on his terms.

One of his first thoughts was how well a compact American V-8 engine might work in a light, but sophisticated European sports car chassis. The chassis he had in mind was the A.C. Ace, a featherlight two-seat roadster that A.C. had been building for several years. The first engine he considered was the small-block Chevrolet, which had come into the world in the 1955 model year and changed everything everybody thought about Chevrolet. It was an engine so good that it would still be in volume production 40 years later.

Shelby made some discreet inquiries in Detroit about the possibility of putting Chevy motors in the Ace and going sports car racing, but, appealing as this might have sounded at first glance, the powers that were in the corporate halls of General Motors ultimately said no way, Jose. It seems they had their very own sports car -- the Corvette -- and they were not about to compete with themselves if they could help it. The godfather of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov, was reportedly one of the key players who was dead set against any such arrangement, though, as the years passed, he and Shelby developed a healthy respect for one another and, ultimately, a friendship.

So it was that Shelby made another round of inquiries, this time to Ford Motor Company. In Dearborn, his reception was somewhat more cordial 1.) because Ford had no sports car or its own, 2.) because Lido Iacocca, the newly anointed Ford division head was ready and willing to use racing as a marketing tactic and 3.) it was an easy and relatively chap way to rub sand in the face of Chevrolet.

It was also an opportune time, because Ford was just about to unveil a new V-8 engine that was much more suited to Shelby's purpose than the big-block Ford that dated from the early Fifties. Ford engineers had designed the new engine, which had an original displacement of 221 cubic inches, for Falcons, Fairlanes and other "smaller" cars that the company was about to introduce. With its "thin wall" block casting, it was light, compact and powerful. The job of fitting the Ford V-8 into the engine compartment of the A.C. Ace was not difficult at all. In fact, the new power plant was lighter and more compact than some of the previous engines used by A.C.

Charles Hurlock at A.C. Cars was more than ready for the new engine, particularly since his company always seemed to be hovering near the abyss -- which seems to be the fate of most sports car companies. With little more than a phone call from Shelby as his go-ahead, he had a small-block Ford installed in an Ace chassis.

In April 1962 a prototype of the Cobra was exhibited at the New York Auto Show and the automotive press went ga-ga. Of course, that kind of press was just what Iacocca had in mind, and to keep the positive ink flowing, the Ford exec bankrolled the Shelby effort and installed some of its own engineering talent to make sure development went smoothly.

What came together in the Venice, California, factory that had, ironically, been the home of the Chevrolet-powered Scarabs, was an inspired blend of minimalist British sports car technology and American muscle. The Ace wasn't quite as kit-carish as the Lotuses of the day, but it was close. The tube frame chassis had but a 90-inch wheelbase. Its attractively styled but rudimentary aluminum bodywork lacked niceties like side windows, and its top had all the complexity of the deluxe version Erector set. Underneath, however, it had independent front and rear suspension, while Corvette and even the fabled Ferrari 250 GTO of the era used live axles. The suspension systems weren't very sophisticated by today's standards -- they both used transverse leaf springs, an arrangement soon to be found in the Corvette Sting Ray of 1963 -- and the suspension was often betrayed by the flexible chassis, but it was an advantage nonetheless.

The major thing the Ace brought to the party was the incredible lightness of being. Topped up with gas, oil and water it weighed just a Genoa salami or two more than 2,000 pounds. The Corvette of the era weighed about 1,000 pounds more, so, with similar horsepower on tap, it wasn't hard to figure which car would prevail on the race track. The fact that the Cobra was equipped with huge 12-inch disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering, while the Corvette had drums and recirculating ball, just tilted the playing field that much more.

Even with a stellar team of veteran racers like Pete Brock, Ken Miles and Phil Remington, the Cobra didn't win right away. Running at the Daytona 24 Hour in 1963, using a mishmash of engines in a variety of cars, the Cobra's best finish was fourth. By the time the Cobras reached the Sebring race, they were equipped with a 289 cubic inch version of the Ford engine, but their highest finish there was eleventh.

By then, however, it was becoming obvious to most in the racing community that Shelby's Cobras were a forced to be reckoned with on the track and on the street. It's not hard to see why. With the 271-horsepower high-performance 289 under its rakishly curved hood, the Cobra could sprint from zero to 60 miles per hour in six seconds. Though the Cobra was hardly an aerodynamic gem, top speed was upwards of 150 mph.

And there was more to come. First, given the assignment from Ford to beat Ferrari in the long-distance sports GT races, Brock drew up a stunning coupe body for the Cobra that added more than 20 mph to its top end. The Cobra Coupe gave Ferrari plenty a scare at Daytona and other venues, but finally it was its successor, the Ford GT40 that turned the trick at Le Mans.

At about the same time the Daytona Coupe was coming together, the Shelby/Ford brain trust was also looking for an answer to the big-block Corvettes that were rumored to be on the way. They found that answer in the Ford parts bin, the performance version of the big-lock Ford 427, which was said to produce more than 500 horsepower.

The 427 Cobra was capable of a remarkable feat. It could accelerate from zero to 100 mph and then decelerate back to a stop in less than 14 seconds. Even today, it takes a supercar to simply reach 100 mph in 14 seconds, lot less achieve it and come back to a stop. Little wonder that what Carroll Shelby wrought (and Ford bought) retains legendary status today.

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