Venom and Tire Smoke: The History Of The AC Cobra
When this vehicle’s silhouette cuts across your field of view, you know exactly what it is from a mile away. Even if you can’t see it, you’re sure to hear that legendary, thundering V8 soundtrack ricochet off every surface within 10 miles of its location. From the bulging fenders to that low slung roof and squat back end, the AC Cobra (better known as the Shelby Cobra) sticks in your mind and thrums in your chest in a way that modern cars can hardly hold a candle to. This is analog in a digital age. This is a legend.
This formerly British, completely American creation was built by a man whose rugged individualism and unique spirit have become synonymous with racing and performance vehicles the world over. You say Shelby and people know that you’re talking about a damn fast car. We’re going to cover everything you need to know about the legendary AC Cobra:
● The Origin Story
● The 427
● Kit Cars & The Future
If you’re anything like us, you should already have a lump in your throat and a bit of sweat on your brow. This thing is one insane machine, and we can’t wait to tell you all about it!
The Origin Story
To understand the AC Cobra, you’ll need to take a hop over the pond to Surrey, England in 1953 where A.C. Cars Ltd. was producing a vehicle that was an amalgamation between a Ferrari-inspired designer, and a respected British racing engineer. Its goal was simple: design a light, 2 seat sports car built on a tubular chassis that could do time as a streetcar but was really designed to be a race car. The AC Cars Ace was born.
Originally, this unique vehicle was powered by an equally unique engine that was a carryover from the WWII era. Powered by a 2.0L Straight Six built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company, this pre-war BMW design punched out 128HP stock but could be easily tuned to 150 HP for race duty. Aided by its incredibly low weight (~ 2,200 pounds), and advanced independent suspension, the Ace was an instant hit and began to dominate racing circuits in Europe and SCCA events here in America. It even took class honors at Le Mans in 1958.
In 1961, Bristol stopped producing the 2.0L Straight Six, leaving the future of this automobile up in the air. There were a few more versions of the Ace with bigger engines but none of them really took off. That is, until a certain man called with an interesting proposition.
Ace Turned Cobra
Carroll Shelby was looking to build a 2 seater sports car but struggled to find a chassis and a manufacturer that would support his efforts. Fresh off a diagnosis that effectively sidelined his racing career, Shelby was looking to continue his involvement in racing not as a racer, but as a team owner/constructor.
Those that know the automotive landscape today, know that Ford and Shelby are synonymous with each other, but back in the early 1960s, this relationship was just starting to flourish. Shelby, having seen Ace dominate SCCA events here in America, caught wind of the potential demise of this unique vehicle and contacted AC with a nearly irresistible proposal. Shelby wanted to see if a V-8 could be shoehorned into the tiny Ace, and he wanted AC to send out a car to Los Angeles for some, let’s just say, engineering experiments.
Needless to say, they agreed. Within a few months, Shelby was sitting on an Ace with no engine and no suspension. Carrol, ever the charmer, talked Ford into sending a few engineers to his shop as long as Shelby committed to install a Ford engine into every single one of his cars and committed to using Ford engines when the vehicle was ready for racing duty. Shelby ensured Ford management that his car would dominate the racing world and create a name for Ford in a period that was absolutely defined by brands like Porsche and Ferrari. By 1962, Shelby had indeed stuffed a Ford 260 C.I. V-8 into his creation (now called the Cobra) and within a few months, a 289 V-8.
Ah, but what happened in 1964 is what would really go on to cement the Cobra as one of the most outrageous vehicles ever.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to do any reading on Carrol Shelby, you’ll know that he was not the kind of guy that took things lying down. He couldn’t race anymore, so instead, he built racing teams. He didn’t think the 289 in the Cobra was good enough, so what did he do? Well, you guessed it, he added more power and cemented the 427 Ford V-8 “Side Oiler” as one of the most legendary engines to ever hit the streets. A place that the Cobra, arguably, should have never have been, due to the insane power its motor put out.
Shoehorning the 289 into the engine bay of the Cobra was no small feat, but shoving in a 7 liter V8 (we told you it was a monster) into an engine bay originally designed for a 2 liter straight six was going to be impossible. Again, calling on the masters at Ford, Shelby took to rebuilding nearly every single component of the AC Cobra to fit this massive powerplant. From stretching the body in nearly every direction to relocating the transmission tunnel and moving around suspension components; getting the big side oiler to fit in the relatively tiny engine bay was tough, but, in 1964 he got it done. Only the windshield, trunk lid, and windshield are interchangeable between the 289 and 427 Cobras, and the final result was staggering.
Arguably the best of the peak of Ford’s Big Block era, the 427 was designed to do one thing; rev hard, and be driven fast. It earned the moniker “side-oiler” because Ford engineers built a passage through the side of the block so oil could be more easily delivered from the crankshaft, optimizing lubrication at higher RPM ranges (typically above 5000). The 427 ran a devilish 12.5:1 compression ratio, and with all the improvements made to the engine internals, it could reliably run at high speeds for extended periods of time.
Horsepower was said to have been around 475 in tuning found in the AC Cobra but many people, including Shelby himself, say that the power was definitely more around the 550 horsepower mark, with over 500 lb. ft. of torque.
Let that sink in for just a second here.
In the May of 97’, Motor Trend did a fantastic story comparing the new’ish for the time Dodge Viper, and an original Shelby Cobra 427 S/C. The curb weight on their example hit the scales at a staggering 2480 pounds. Yes, this nearly 500 horsepower, rear-wheel-drive car was only shoving around a mere 2480 pounds! Performance for the Cobra was unbelievable, with 60 coming up in 4.6 seconds, the ¼ mile in 12.7, and a 0-100-0 MPH run taking only 15.6. seconds. All of these numbers were within nipping distance of the bonkers Dodge Viper, from a car that was 30+ years older at the time.
Impressed? So were Sheby’s customers. One of our favorite all-time stories about the Cobra is the $100 bill game that Shelby would play with potential buyers of the Cobra. He’d tape a $100 bill to the dashboard and tell his passenger they could have it if they could grab it. Immediately, he’s take off like a bat out of hell, sending his passengers flying backward in their seats and holding on for dear glory. As the story goes, not a single person snatched that $100 bill but plenty of people were willing to plop down plenty more $100 bills to buy this mega-machine.
From the street to the track, the AC Cobra simply embarrassed everything that came across its path in everything from straight-line speed to brutal acceleration. Production ended in 1968, when AC finally halted production of the body.
Only 998 Cobras were produced from 1962 - 1968, with 348 copies being of the 427 ilk. Of those, only 260 were destined for the street while the rest were designated as Competition or Semi-Competition models that were designed to compete in racing events all over the nation. While there isn’t an exact number on how many vehicles are left today, Shelby American and Shebly Historians estimate there are fewer than 100 actual, real Cobras out in the world. When they go up for sale, wow, do they bring the big bucks!
Kit Cars & The Future
For many enthusiasts, owning an original AC Cobra or Shelby Cobra is completely out of the realm of possibility. To meet this need, several Cobra replica companies sprung up in the 1970’s to fit the needs of the motoring public, and continue on the lineage of the Cobra line without having to rely on AC for bodies. Some of the biggest names in the business are Superperformance, Factory Five and Backdraft with each having their own version of the Cobra formula. Sure, having an original would be a dream come true but having a replica gives you all the feelings of the original for a price that’s not much more than your family SUV. Although there’s much to be said about the legal battles between Ford and Shelby, at the end of the day, Shelby was a fan of well-built replicas and staggered by their success. Ford, on the other hand, is another can of worms for another day.
These modern kit cars are faster, handle better, and are several measures safer than anything produced in the 1960s. They’re typically sold as a kit, and then passed on to anxious owners who then spend upwards of 300 hours putting the entire car together. Everything from the motor, to the paint is completely custom on replica Cobras, and at the end of the day, there’s nothing to be ashamed about it when rolling down the road in these thoroughly engineered masterpieces.
Companies like Factory Five Racing sell more Shelby kit cars today, than ever before.
An American Icon
Carroll Shelby epitomizes the American ideal. Tough, fun-loving, always ready for a scrap, and and never afraid to keep pushing harder or faster. When it comes down to American performance royalty, you simply do not get much better than Shelby, and the AC Cobra is really the ultimate example of passion perfected. All you have to do is get your hands on a replica, hit gas, and hold on for dear life.
Much like the AC Cobra, Whiteknuckler products are created from blood and sweat of American makers who believe in creating a product as much about style as it is about functionality. Just like the Cobra, our products will look as good 50 years from now, as they do today, and they carry on a timeless elegance that transcends all generations.
Buy it today, use it for years. That’s the Whiteknuckler way.