The 427 Cobra – Just Plain Awesome
Awesome is such an overused word these days. They use it for everything from bug spray to pancake mix. But sometimes the word applies! Particularly in this case: the 427 Cobra is, for want of a better word, awesome. Its raw acceleration, its ability to turn corners at any speed, and to stop just as suddenly puts it among the top three or four racing cars ever built. On the street, there aren’t many words to describe it.
The 427 Cobra was created in the best American muscle car tradition of taking the biggest engine you could find and putting it in your lightest car. The story of how the Cobra came into being parallels the story of road racing in America. And one man who built a little car company into an American legend: Carroll Shelby. Says Thomas L. DuPont: “This was a man who, when he was born, started looking at automobiles. He used to ride his bicycle down to the local race track to see what was going on. It was his passion. There’s nothing better when he’s passion, his avocation, and his vocation are the same thing. We all benefited from that because he just loved automobiles.”
Road Racing Gathers Momentum
In the late 50s and early 60s, as road racing was gathering momentum in the US, there were a handful of American racers that were helping put the sport on the map. Unfortunately, for American fans, there weren’t many American cars to cheer for except for a few hand built specials. Most of the racers came from Great Britain, Italy, and Germany. Carroll Shelby was intent on doing something about this. Thomas L. DuPont goes on: “There aren’t many man who’ve come, particularly in recent times, to the forefront of the automobile industry and built their own car and done it successfully. There’s a lot of men on the side of the road who built their car and did it unsuccessfully. Carroll Shelby was successful.”
Shelby’s Cobra was born in England in the early 50s with a 90 horse power four cylinder engine. But Shelby had a vision of a sports car that was a little more potent. By the time he was done, his car had a name: Cobra. And it now packed some real heat. Says Thomas L. DuPont: “When Carroll Shelby started producing Cobras, he took a defunct British car, put a Ford engine in it and said, ‘This’ll work.’”
Under Shelby’s direction, the small staff at Shelby American transformed the under-powered Bristol into the quintessential American race car. Each car was hand built and legend has it there were no two Cobras alike. Unfortunately, we’ll never know if that part of the legend was true. Between 1962 and 1967, Shelby made just 1011 Cobras, most with the high-winding 289 engine. Of the 50 or so 427 Cobras ever made, only three are known to exist today. The sad part of that is, very few people will ever know the joy of owning an original Shelby Cobra. But thousands of people today are paying tribute to the man and his car by building their own Cobra or buying a Y2K version of this legendary automobile. To understand why people wait in line to get a car whose design is over 40 years old, we’ll have to look at the real thing.
The Shelby Cobra is Born
The first Shelby Cobra was born in February 1962 when a Bristol body and chassis was shipped from the AC car’s factory in England to Carroll Shelby in Los Angeles. In less than eight hours, Shelby’s mechanics had installed a Ford 260 V8 and four speed transmission and were on the street looking for Corvettes. Within a year, Shelby had upgraded the car’s engine to the new Ford 289 and the car now had everything that was on sports car lovers’ wish list. Light, agile, and extremely responsive, the Cobra was almost immediately successful on the US road racing circuit.
The Cobra was the perfect example of form follows function. It was a racing car, pure and simple. Anything that didn’t help the car go faster or handle better just wasn’t there. It had an aluminum body, two seats, a steering wheel, a racing suspension system, and as much horse power as could be packed under its hood. Creature comforts were nowhere to be found on this car’s option list. “There’s no question that the car was built for racing,” explains Thomas L. DuPont, “It was then modified to be street legal. And by modified I mean very little. There’s no windows on the side, there’s no top, there’s no way to get out of the weather, the seats are way down low and bolted to the floor, there are no springs in them. This is a car where if there’s a bump in the road, you’re going to feel it. At 75 mph, who cares!”
By November of 1962, eight copies of the Cobra had been built and the car had been approved for racing competition This was all Carroll Shelby had been waiting for. By 1963, the Cobra with the 289 engine had won three road racing titles and had a top forty hit record besides. And, somehow, in the middle of all this, Shelby American had managed to make about 200 hand built street versions which stickered for $5995. The street Cobra’s short option list included a few chrome dress up items, an AM radio, and a heater. But everything most people wanted in a Cobra was included in the base price. But in December of 1963, the 427 Ford engine had been sitting around in the corner of Shelby’s race shop and somehow wound up inside a Cobra Roadster. This shot of brute horse power turned the Cobra into the fastest American made sports car ever and one of the world’s fastest cars period.
To find a Shelby Cobra these days, you have to look in places like the DuPont Registry: a marketplace for classic and ultra big ticket automobiles. Automotive publisher and collective car authority Thomas L. DuPont regards the 427 Cobra as one of the most exciting cars in the DuPont collection. “This is a wonderful example of the Cobra. It’s a 427 big block side oiler. It’s got side pipes on it. It has big wide tires on it. One of the interesting parts about this car is where the gas tank is and where the gas filler is. When some of the original Cobras were designed they had a racing style gas cap in the Fender. If you went around the corner too fast, the gas would just leap right up the filler pipe. It wasn’t thought of as a really good idea for those who liked paint finish on their automobiles. So, they started to modify it and one of the ways they modified it is they just went in the trunk, cut the filler neck off, re-filled the body on the outside. They forget you might need to put the gasoline valve somewhere under there, so if you go into a big filling station with one of these big handles on it, you have a real problem. One of the interesting parts about this car and Cobras in general is they’re very hot when they’re running. If you’re wearing sneakers your feet are going to get hot. And if you step outside the door on this car and you manage to put your pant leg too close to the side pipes it can get pretty toast and melt the polyester in your socks. They’re flat low riding, not built for 6’9″ guys. But, they’re a blast. They’ll go from stop to full speed in a heartbeat.”
Shelby’s Little Cobra Beats Big Competition
In its short five year life span, Shelby’s little Cobra would race wheel to wheel with the world’s most exotic cars. In addition to the Roadster, Shelby also created the Daytona coupe and a lightning fast mid engine version called the King Cobra. The Cobra’s battles against its bitter rival from Detroit, the Corvette, are part of America’s sports car racing heritage But, without a doubt, its greatest legacy is its legion of devoted fans. During the 60s, hundreds of thousands of young sports car lovers watched the Cobras on the track and dreamed of one day owning one of their own. But Shelby never made enough to go around. So, in the spirit that created the Cobra in the beginning, these Cobra lovers mad their own. “It was kind of a boyhood dream. I grew up in the era of the Shelby Cobras,” remembers Hamilton Todd, “and I got to the age a few years ago when I wanted my dream car.”
If you ever see a Cobra on the street, don’t bother asking if it’s an original. It probably isn’t. With only 1000 ever built, they’re sort of rare. That’s not good news for people who have a passion to own a real Cobra today. But Cobra lovers will all tell you the same thing. When you have a passion for this car, the only fix is to own one. “Well, I decided I wanted to do it about fifteen years ago when I saw an original one,” recounts Jeff Adler of Wellington Florida, “and like anybody else I said, ‘Someday I will own one of these things.’” For years, would be Cobra owners just out of luck, unless their budget could accommodate a car that cost almost half a million dollars. But now, there’s some relief for their condition, thanks to a few companies who are helping people achieve their dream. Brett Everett is vice president of engineering for one of these companies. “It’s a rare exotic car. The originals go from $300,000 to $500,000. It’s beyond the reach of an average person. So, what you can do is kit car that puts this exotic car within the reach of the average guy.” Adds Adler, “The originals are far out of reach financially to a lot of people I felt that the best way to built is to do a replica.” Today’s Cobra replica can be a faithful reproduction of the original piece with correct weights and dimensions, exact body contours, and copies of the frame and suspension, well engineered Cobra replicas have re-created the look and the excitement of the original car. By substituting less expensive fiber glass for a mega dollar aluminum body and updating a few braking and handling pieces for safety’s sake, a Cobra replica can be an affordable fulfillment of this long awaited dream. For some, like Steve and Carole Hallbrook, this is a dream shared by husband and wife. Says Carole: “I’ve been with my husband since high school and he loved them then. We had friends that had one way back when. It was relatively new then and it’s always been his dream and I just kind of rode with it and finally the kids are grown and it’s time for Mom and Dad to play.”
The Brotherhood of the Cobra
Once people have achieved their dream of ownership they find another pleasant side benefit: the brotherhood of the Cobra. Today’s Cobra owners enjoy a special fellowship: for the love of the car and its heritage and for the common experience of building one. “It’s really nice. I pulled up and guys came over and offered cleaning solutions and rags and started cleaning on the car,” Brags Guy Theis of Valrico, Florida, “I never knew the guy before in my life.” Building one of these cars can be just as exciting as owning and driving it. Starting with a dream and a bare chassis, the Cobra lover’s imagination takes over as the car takes shape. Just as in the early days, today’s Cobras are individual works of art and no two are alike. Greg Balcanoff of Jacksonville, Florida adds: “We did things a little different than you see on other Cobras but each one of us does things different. Every Cobra’s a little bit different and pulls out your personality.” But just making the decision to build your own car can be traumatic.
If every muscle car owner had to build their dream car from the ground up instead of buying it in one shiny running piece there would probably be fewer on the road today. It is a testament to the love that people have for the Cobra that so many choose to build their own. Fortunately, many of today’s Cobra kits have engineered the stress out of building the car. Still, though, there are some precautions that need to be observed. Adler names a few: “I probably was ready to make the biggest mistakes and that is not to investigate companies, not just the quality of their product but how they treat their customers once they’ve walked out the door whether they’re buying a turn key or something else.” ‘
The first decision prospective car builders should make is how much of the construction they want to do themselves. These days, some companies will do some or most of the construction according to a customers’ needs. The old joke about needing a degree in mechanical engineering isn’t true anymore. Brett Everett talks about his work: “One car we’re kind of proud of has a lot of nice components like aluminum block 427 engine with high horse power , tested at 650 horse power . Tubular front suspension, coil over shocks for ride height. You’ll notice it has the real knock off wheel spinners. 12″ brakes with the racing calipers. Radiators has aluminum high efficiency for adequate cooling. Electric fan. We’re running a Richmond five speed transmission. That’s a very heavy duty five speed transmission with an aggressive first gear so you can get very good acceleration of the line performance and at the same time use, perhaps, a 3.0 rear end ratio for good highway economy. The rear end is a 9″ fully independent You have the 9″ center section. The geometry of the suspension is like a Jaguar. It has a lower arm with trailing length with dual coil over shocks similar to the Jaguar suspension Inborn disc brakes. 11″ ventilator disc brakes.”
If a person does decide to most of the work, they find out quickly that it’s a lot of fun and a lot of work. But a project like this can be a creative exercise and good old fashioned garage therapy. Greg Balcanoff built his Cobra from the ground up and enjoyed doing it. “When you have a stressful job it’s just great to get out on the weekends and maybe turn some wrenches and create something, which I thought was great to do and I knew the project would be nice at the end and it’s a sports car and one of the only true muscle sports cars left, I think, and I really enjoyed it.” Adler doesn’t claim any special mechanical skills, but the Cobra he built was as close to the original racing Cobras as he could make it. “I’m really not mechanically inclined. I didn’t do any of the internal engine stuff. I had somebody do that. But to drop a motor in and just place bolts where bolts are supposed to go, it really is simple.” Above all, there’s no substitute for experience. Those who have built a Cobra are happy to share their experiences with people who are thinking about taking on this project. Balcanoff suggests: “Go to some car shows and talk to people who have actually built cars and get an education that way. It’s up to the individual. A lot of the individuals don’t have the time. They have the ability. If you do have the ability it’s a great project for the weekends or evenings or whatever.” Finally, when it’s all done, the payoff is one of the most exciting moments in a Cobra lover’s life. “The day I picked it up,” says Hamilton Todd, “when I rode it up, because it’s the first time I’d actually seen it and rared up and ready to go and sitting out front with about five or six guys polishing it. And it was sitting there idling and it was just kind of a -gasp – there it is.”
Not many experiences live up to people’s expectations but a ride in a 427 Cobra comes way high up on the short list of those that do. When you finally get a chance to jump in a Cobra and take it for a ride, it’s a feeling that very few cars ever made can equal. That’s when people start using the A word. “The car is awesome. A lot of horse power. A lot of torque,” gushes Gary Fortunato, “something like the Viper, however the Viper takes it to one more step as far as civility.”The Cobra is a car that will literally do just about anything you ask it to. Driving this car is a no limits experience that was once reserved for race drivers and fighter pilots. In a car like this, one needs to be extra careful, especially in the rain. Mike Redmond discusses this issue: “It’s a little hairy when it’s raining and a lot hairy when it rains a lot!”
The Next Generation’s Cobra
A few modern super cars today offer a little more refinement. Maybe a smoother ride along with performance. But part of the Cobra’s appeal is its down and dirty approach to going fast, while the Viper might be a sharp instrument, the Cobra is a hammer. Fortunato goes on: “The Viper, basically you look down at the gauge, as far as how fast you’re going, and you can’t believe you’re over 120-130 mph. This one you feel it.” People who have built their own Cobra will tell you that the excitement of the project comes in stages. There’s the initial quickening of the heartbeat when you first see the car, the lump in the throat when you decide to do one of your own, and the long hours in the garage, punctuated with flashes of delight when something you fabricated turns out better than you expected But when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, when your baby is about ready to roll out, that’s when the excitement reaches its peak. After five years of working on his Cobra, this is where Andy Botwick is right now. “Forty years I’ve lusted after. With cars, I’ve never done anything with cars before instead of maybe change my own oil and a friend of mine built one of these. I saw it and as soon as I saw it one day the light went on and I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ Now that the kids have gone and the dog has died, I look for something to spark those creative juices once again and this is really wonderful. And I love acceleration and the exhilaration of acceleration, I think this is going to do it for me.” Andy’s even got his first ride in the car all planned out. “I’m going to take my best girl for a ride! I’m going to enjoy it. I plan to drive the pants off of it and drive it all the time.” Maybe it’s not just the Cobra that’ awesome. Maybe the owners are a little bit awesome themselves You have to admit , they sure look like they’re having fun!