A Cobra Experience

I’ve been to a few automotive museums – one, in Danville, is probably world renowned. They have for example one of the 6 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadsters. They have a limousine – very rare – made in the People’s Republic of China used only for high dignitaries like Mao. As far as I know, it is the only one of the handful made that the Chinese let out of the country.

I have tried to get to the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. Every time I have been through there it has either been closed as normal or closed for remodeling.

If I find myself in Stuttgart (BTW did you know this town is named from older German meaning “Stud Farm? – hence the Porsche logo)  – but if there, and I don’t spend a few days to see the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche Museums, take away my gearhead card.

I don’t deserve it.

But I have never been to a museum in which every single automotive exhibit – every one – is a car I would lust to have!

That would be the Cobra Experience in Martinez, CA. And it is in an unlikely place – in the back of an industrial park on the 2nd floor.

My Garmin couldn’t even recognize the actual address – 777 Arnold Drive – so I picked the nearest – 755 – and don’t worry – the sign will lead you to it. Go around in back, up the elevator, knock 3 times and ask for Vito.

OK, that last part isn’t necessary.

Because of the Pandemic they are only open once a month, and then by reservation.

When I stepped off the elevator, it was as if I was transported to another world – automotive nirvana. Front and center was a “Continuation Cobra” – a 289 FIA – made with the blessing and under license from Shelby-American with a Shelby registration number. It is going to be raffled this June! Naturally I bought tickets. What a hoot that would be to drive!

While waiting for my docent and the tour, I walked around that car and the workmanship was superb.  I can’t imagine one of the original 5 made in 1964 (2 survive today) would look any better.

Want to know why engines today are all hidden under a plastic panel?

Because they are ugly – just lumps of wires and aluminum. Engines in the past were things of beauty. Take a look at those 4 weber carburetors with velocity stacks – just like the original 289 FIA Cobra.

The engine from the Continuation Cobra – 289 FIA. 4 Weber carburetors with velocity stacks. Just as the original, made for racing. Beautiful!

Anyway, I bought a few tickets – considering they are trying to stay afloat  -as millions of businesses – due to this Pandemic and regulations being open 1 day a month – and even if I don’t win, it helps the museum.

I was wondering what I can add to this post that isn’t already on the Web and Cobra related.

One can find a ton of Cobra pictures – many of those cars you see on the net are here on display.

Well, we can start with some questions I posed to one of the knowledgeable docents:

In homage to lex (for whom this website is dedicated), I will be YHC – Your Humble Correspondent.

YHC 1. Not much credit is given to Phil Remington but I think without him Shelby couldn’t have been what they were. How much of Phil is in the Cobra that was converted from the AC Ace? 

ANSWER: Phil Remington was the key to Shelby’s success. He came to Shelby American with the acquisition of Lance Reventlow’s Scarab shop in June 1962 and left Shelby American in 1968, after Ford pulled its funding. He was a crack fabricator and could diagnose and fix most problems with a car before mere mortals could figure out what was going on. The only other guy who gets mentioned in the same breath with Rem is Ken Miles. 

YHC 2.  I have heard a variety of reasons why some Cobras were fitted with the 428 rather than the 427. At least one of the reasons doesn’t reflect well on Shelby. So why were some of those 428s stuffed into the 427 Cobra? After all that was a motor used for station wagons.  

ANSWER: Cost. The earliest 427 Cobras were built for racing and were delivered with very expensive side oiler 427 engines (cost about $1,200 in the day). These blocks were cast of high nodular iron and precisely finished for racing and made 485 hp. When the 427-racing program devolved into a street car, the switch was made to center oiler 427 engines which were a little less expensive and more plentiful and still made 425 hp. Later, as the bean counters at Ford became more involved in Shelby American and Shelby himself was busy elsewhere for Ford, someone decided to install 428 police interceptor engines which were way cheaper (about $425 in the day) but less powerful, making about 345 hp. . After customers complained, the switch was made back to side oiler engines for the last few dozen cars.  

YHC 3. That funny speedometer on the 289 FIA off to the right. I have heard that the FIA * required it so Shelby told Remington to just put it off to the side for spite? 

ANSWER: Doubt it was spite, probably more like wanting the driver to focus on the revs. The FIA did require a passenger seat, so more likely it was placed over there to scare the shit out of a rider.

YHC 4. It is pretty funny but then you don’t need a speedometer for racing. 

Just a remark aside. Jay Leno said something I thought very profound about automotive design. 

He was profiling his 63 split window Corvette and was saying this was done over 50 years ago. And you took that Corvette when it was new subtract 50 years and look what the cars were like. See how far they progressed in just those first 50 years. The first 50 years were revolutionary while the second, just evolutionary. 

I remember Shelby saying in an LA radio interview decades ago that even then the Cobra chassis was old. But people look at that car and it just projects brute power and speed.  

ANSWER: Yes, the chassis on the 289 Cobra is rudimentary at best, horse and buggy derivative. The 427 is much more sophisticated, designed by Ford, a derivative of the GT 40 program. 

Other things I learned today? The 427 Cobra, which came in 1965 and replaced the 289, was originally designed by Ford for racing, a derivative from the GT-40 program. Only by the time it was born, Ford was wanting Shelby to focus all of his efforts on the GT-40. This is the car that won LeMans very convincingly in 1966. And continued to win through 1969.

The Mustang GT350 was shipped from Ford’s San Jose plant minus hood, exhaust, and steel wheels (among other omissions I am sure). Shelby’s shop turned them into the GT350.

It was the production of the Mustang GT350 that forced Shelby to move from his small Venice CA shop to an empty hanger at LAX. BTW the ramps you see in the previous link were used to aid Shelby workers installing the Ford Drivetrains into the Cobras. Shelby installed all of the Cobra drivetrains from the cars shipped from England.

One thing that I always wondered – why do you see so few Cobras with a convertible top? I’ve seen exactly 1 in all my years. Believe it or not, it was an original owner parked next to me at the Monterey Historic races.

One of the docents told me that every AC Cobra came with a convertible top, but they were almost useless. Difficult to assemble (like putting up a tent!), no side door windows – like many 50s and earlier British sports cars, just a side curtain you had to install on the top of the door. Consequently virtually nobody used the top, even though they were given one.

Other things that amazed me at this museum? Seeing everything from machine tools to a desk used at that first small shop. The engine dyno, for example, was purchased surplus in LA and was probably used in World War II. Old battered tool chests belonging to Shelby mechanics that traveled around the world and won championships.

Maybe this excitement moves me from gearhead to automotive geek, but seeing these old tools reminded me that it wasn’t the equipment but the people at Shelby-American who in just a few years made Shelby a world wide force to be reckoned with.

What a ride that must have been!

Here’s a few pictures – I apologize for the small resolution but we are running out of space at 90% allowable and Lex comes first, and I am making one more pass through the Wayback Machine.

A 1957 AC Ace – the Parent of the original Cobra! Complete with leaf spring suspension – like a buckboard. It took Phil Remington and crew to make this a world-beater.

Wheel Display of every Shelby from the first Cobra to the LeMans-Winning GT40. Love those knock-off Halibrand Wheels!

The Engine that, combined with Colin Chapman’s Lotus and the driving of Jimmy Clark, Changed Indy forever in 1965. Based on the 260 cid V8. Just their engine exhibit alone is worth the trip!

A Comparison of the Tubular Frame of the 427 Cobra (Red) and the 289 Cobra (yellow). Like the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, this frame gave the Cobra lightness – weighing 1,000 lbs less than the Corvette. The 427 also had a vastly improved suspension over the 289.

** Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (French: International Automobile Foundation) – the Paris-based body that governs all international motorsports.

01-25-21 Since writing about the Definitive Carroll Shelby Documentary, visiting the Cobra Experience Museum described here, and meeting the knowledgeable docents there , and coming across this “lost interview” (done in the late 1990s, I learned more about the history of the 427 Cobra.

In the “Lost Interview”, Carroll describes his friendship with the father of the Corvette (actually more of the “step-father” who brought it to its potential), Zora-Arkus Duntov.

Duntov was always dealing with the huge bureaucracy at GM. But he had planned, with the introduction of the revolutionary Stingray in 1963 to have a racing version, called the Corvette Grand Sport. He was planning on having 125 made, and at 500 hp and 1,000 hp less than the stock C2 Corvette, would have really given the 289 Cobra a run for its money. Actually weighing 1,000 less than the standard C2 with more hp, would have been more than the 289 Cobra’s equal, weighing about the same.

Despite the plan being killed by GM Management, Duntov snuck the 5 prototypes into the hands of privateer racing teams. And at the Nassau Speed Week, the Grand Sports showed what they could do.

Vindication came at the December, 1963 Nassau Speed Week, a week long party punctuated by races run to promoter Red Crise’s own rules. For the first time, the Grand Sports were allowed to compete directly with the Cobras. Earlier, the two privateer Lightweights had been recalled by Chevrolet and, along with a third, extensively improved. Now fitted with 377 cubic inch aluminum engines, the cars were entered by “owner” John Mecom. Conveniently, a group of Chevrolet engineers chose Nassau for a one week vacation.

Driven during the week by Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Dick Thompson, John Cannon, and Augie Pabst, the Corvettes simply demolished their Cobra rivals. Wrote Leo Levine, “The Chevrolet equipment won so easily, there was even some embarrassment on the part of the factory personnel, who had hoped the journey south would escape unnoticed. But at the same time, they were smirking.” Even three years later, now hopelessly obsolete, an extinct Chevrolet was able to awe A.J. Foyt, at least for a moment.

It was from this that Ford designed the 427 Cobra. By the time it came into being, GM quashed the plans of Duntov and killed the planned production run of 125 Grand Sports.

As Carroll said in the lost interview, had Duntov had his way there probably wouldn’t have been a Cobra. But he was always trying to implement his plans “pulling a 10,000 lb sled” against the GM bureaucracy.

But wouldn’t that have been a rivalry! The Corvette Grand Sport against the 427 Cobra!

03-02-21 – As I have studied the history of Shelby-American, the one thing I find most astounding is that in 3 short years – from their first Cobra in 1962 – they won the FIA World GT Class in 1965. And at LeMans but for a pinhole leak in an oil line, with Carroll Shelby telling driver Bob Bondurant to “take it easy” – they might have won overall! The GT-40s of that year all DNF because of politics. At the 11th hour, engineers at Ford substituted the 427 motors they prepared to the ones Shelby-American prepared. And all of the head bolts of the substituted engines failed over that 24 hour race.

But for that maybe that spectacular 1966 1-2-3 finish might have been in 1965! And in 1965, maybe the Cobra Daytona Coupe might have won overall!

But auto racing is full of “if only’s”. As one engineer said on a YouTube interview, the oil temperature was at 300 degreeds and still the car held together. More likely had they pushed it the Cobra Daytona would have dropped out. Good call by Carroll Shelby to Bonderant.

This Adam Carolla produced documentary on Shelby (on Netflix) is excellent.

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  1. Pingback: An Amazing Small Shop | The Lexicans

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