In 1960, racing driver Carroll Shelby was diagnosed with a heart condition at the age of 37. After a successful career in motor racing that included a first overall win for Aston Martin in the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, Shelby was forced to consider retirement. One more race beckoned before the Texan hung up his hat – the LA Times-Mirror Grand Prix at Riverside, in which he finished third.
Shelby’s self-enforced departure from racing was undoubtedly very difficult after a glamorous career in international motorsports competition. He initially ventured into wildcat oil well drilling and even started a Texas trucking company. In 1961 he became the Goodyear Racing tire distributor for the West Coast and formed a motor racing school at Riverside Raceway in California. The resulting financial successes yielded by these projects allowed Shelby to pursue a long-held dream of building his own car.
The notion of producing a hybrid sports car was, at its core, quite simple. While British manufacturers retained an edge for styling, road holding, and superb brakes, American firms held a distinct horsepower advantage. This “best of both worlds” concept was, of course, nothing entirely unique. Post-war Allards, Cunninghams, and Nash-Healeys were all built under the same basic premise. Shelby, however, considered Austin Healey, Jensen, and Bristol before settling on AC after hearing that builders of the stylish and sturdy Ace-Bristol sports cars had lost their engine supplier when Bristol ceased engine production.
Attractive, lightweight, and well-proven, the AC Ace could, by Shelby’s thinking, be turned into a successful production racer by replacing the aging six-cylinder Bristol engine with a powerful, deep-breathing V8. In fact, AC’s own engine was an outdated single overhead camshaft six-cylinder unit that had been designed in 1919.
And so, in September 1961, Shelby wrote Charles Hurlock of AC Cars to propose a hybrid car using the AC sports car body and chassis. “I’m interested,” wrote Hurlock, “if a suitable V8 could be found.” Shelby moved quickly when editor Ray Brock of Hot Rod Magazine told him of Ford’s new lightweight V8. Shortly thereafter, Shelby had an early 221 cubic inch example installed in a stock AC Ace. In fact, the V8 weighed just slightly more than the six-cylinder Bristol.
Ford engineer Dave Evans then offered Shelby an even better solution. A high performance 260 cubic inch V8 was already in production for Ford’s Falcon and two engines would be on the way to him soon. These were immediately sent by airfreight overseas and on February 1, 1962 Carroll Shelby flew to England to test drive the new Shelby Ford “Cobra.” The rest, as they say, is history!
The Shelby Cobra was a tremendous success not only because of its sheer road-tearing power but also because of its predictable handling, strong brakes and highly attractive styling. Yet, while the “thin wall” 260 Ford V8 block initially fitted to Cobras was a formidable performer, the advent of the solid lifter, high-performance 271 horse 289 offered a significant advantage. The extra power and torque gave the Cobra the edge Shelby was looking for in his wars against Chevrolet’s Corvette.
Besides the higher output engine, later Cobras incorporated several important improvements. The Mark IIs that began production in early 1963 used rack and pinion steering in place of the Mark I’s worm and sector setup. The Mark II also had considerable tweaks to the front-end geometry, including shorter front wishbones compared to the Mark I, as well as altered uprights and spring connections. Total Mark II production was about 528 cars although even AC records differ on this figure and the situation is further clouded by discoveries of previously unknown Cobras, as well as a long parade of replicas and backyard conversions of AC Aces concocted over the past several decades.
This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in January of 2009 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona and in March of 2011 at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Florida.
271bhp, 289 cu. in. overhead valve V8 engine, four-speed transmission, ladder-type steel tubing chassis with independent front and rear suspension via A-arms, transverse leaf springs and tubular shock absorbers, rack-and-pinion steering, and four-wheel disc brakes. Wheelbase: 90"
Source: RM Auctions; Select images and copyright courtesy of Gooding & Company Photo Credit: Brian Henneker