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The American legend of Caroll Shelby

Caroll Shelby

Among the American lightweight sport cars, the Ford Cobra is one of the best examples, though actually, it never was either a Ford or a hundred percent American car. In fact, the original design comes from the AC Cars of Britain, a handicraft manufacturer in the 50s of the last century, which produced sport cars suitable for different engines and was the first to use aluminum for bodywork.

As a preference, AC cars used to install inlinesix Bristol engine (a design derived from sixcylinder BMW cars in the period between wars) which were also used for its two-seater Ace (As) of 1961. The American driver and trainer, Carroll Shelby, who knew and drove this model, was able to persuade AC owners to build some units capable of mounting an American V8 since they thought to replace the outmoded Bristol for the 2.6-litre six-cylinder Ford Zephyr.

Shelby wanted to install a 5 liters V8 engine Chevrolet Corvette but GM refused the idea because it was afraid of competition in which the Corvette itself could be involved.

At this point, Shelby resorted to a 4,3 cc V8 Ford and a 5,13 cc V8 Chrysler. However, the first Cobra mounted a smaller V8 (the Ford 3.8) tested by AC engineers in their factory of Surrey (chassis CSX 2000) and unveiled in January, 1962 for the first time.

Already baptized as Cobra, Shelby made fifty cars, all of them were equipped with 260 V8 (260-cubic inch equivalent to 4.265 cc and 260 hp), until another V8 Ford were installed on Cobra n° 51, 289 this time (a cubic inch cylinder equivalent to 4,7 litres), the predecessor of Ford Windsor. To this end, Alan Turner, the chief engineer of AC, made some changes to the chassis from Britain, like a new steering rack (a combination of MGB and VW Beetle), compatible with Cobra simple and stand-alone suspension system, based on transverse leaf springs along both axles. That is how Cobra II was born in 1963 becoming in the fashionable sport car along the Atlantic, although it was known as a challenging car that was hard to drive (mainly for its weight disparity between both axles since the front one was overloaded). Shelby beat the Corvette in US, thanks mainly to its lower weight (about 250 kg less and even the Cobra II which already weighed -1 050 kg- unladen weight) and it competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Europe, 1964, having Jack Sears and Peter Bolton at the wheel, who had been timed at 298 km / h on Les Hunaudières straight circuit.

The Cobra Mk II and Mk III

The technical solutions somehow basics increased its reputation as dangerous, and reinforced the tendency to set speed limits in open road, being UK the first to implement it. It was due to (according to some press) excesses in testing the racing team of AC Cars ...

To improve its shortcomings and regain its leadership in the competition, Shelby produced the Cobra Mk II FE in 1963, with a 6.4 V8 engine Ford (FE 390), but proved very difficult to drive (according to driver Ken Miles, it was "virtually undriveable"). Ken and AC Cars were forced to rethink all that would lead to Cobra Mk III in 1965.

The Cobra Mk III was built in close collaboration with Ford R & D Department in Detroit under the name of Ford (although it was still manufactured by Shelby and AC). The V8 FE gave way toV8 427 that Ford had already mounted on the GT, opponents of Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is an engine of 7 liters and 425 hp, the largest engine ever mounted in a sports car that allowed Cobra Mk III to show the 262 km / h top speed, and also other version for competition that drew 485 hp at the same engine (achieving 290 km / h).

The development of Cobra Mk III took place in 1964, and in October of that year AC mounted two unfinished prototypes that were sent for evaluation to Shelby manufacturing facility in California. Ready for its production with some slight modifications, its release was announced on January 1rst, 1965, but it was unsuccessful, mainly because of its high price and the Ford Mustang was the star of the USA market at  that time (and whose sport car versions were made by the Carroll Shelby himself). To lower its price, it was set up in 1966 another quite cheaper V8 Ford engine (428) that almost had the same capacity and was best to use in street. But the Cobra Mk III never won the same fame of its predecessors, although around 300 units were sold between 1965 and 1967, including all its variants (427 normal and competition, and 428). It stopped having competition prestige (since Ford itself came competition, with the GT 40 which neutralized its successor, the Shelby Cobra Daytona) especially when it did not get the FIA homologation to compete in 1965 and stopped running in the Shelby motor-racing team.

But it was made to compete in the sport category in the hands of private motorracing teams, using Mk III S/C version (semi competition), that also embraced
about thirty unapproved official Cobras for competition. They won countless successes from 1967 to 1972 and today they are the most widely prized cars among collectors.