The First Cobra
By Rick Kopec
The first Cobra under construction in Dean Moon’s shop, February 1962. Rectangular “Powered by Ford” badges were quickly affixed to the side of the fenders. Better versions would be made and would become standard on every car. The engine was given the designation “HP-260-1” on the valve cover.
Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.
Everyone knows the story behind the very first Cobra, or at least they think they do. It has been told for 50 years, but with each retelling, small details change or misconceptions are reinforced. After 50 years, let’s look at what really happened.
We’ll start with Carroll Shelby’s own book, The Cobra Story, printed in early 1965. It really wasn’t written by Shelby; it was an “as told to” book. The actual author was John Bentley, a well-known automotive writer in the ’50s who wasn’t even credited on the cover. Shelby and Bentley covered Shelby’s life up to the Cobra very thoroughly. In fact, they didn’t get around to the Cobra part until the last quarter of the book. They are fairly accurate in describing Shelby’s marrying of the AC Ace sports car with Ford’s new small-block engine. But the marriage didn’t just happen in one day, as many people tell it.
From the early ’50s, Shelby saw sports cars and racing as an enjoyable hobby for everyone else but a stepping stone for himself. His goal was to build a sports car of his own. Racing provided the fast lane for Shelby to acquire enough experience to make that happen. He was eager to race in Europe so he would have the opportunity to travel around and to see, up close, the small shops — especially in England — that were building sports cars under their own names. Very few designed and manufactured their own engines because the expense was overwhelming, even for companies with deep pockets. It was far easier to use an existing engine. Shelby quickly saw that it was easier to build a chassis and body than it was an engine. But he also realized that it would be even easier if he had the right chassis and body to which he could mate a suitable engine. It was just a matter of finding one of each.
The commonly accepted version of the story is Shelby discovered that AC Cars had lost its engine supplier at about the same time he heard that Ford was developing a new, lightweight V-8 engine. You picture Shelby as a magician, cracking two raw eggs into his top hat, tapping it with his magic wand, and lifting out a white dove that flies off to the applause of the audience. The Cobra was born.
It didn’t quite happen that way. In the summer of 1961, Shelby began to get serious about building a car. He had driven a number of “specials” — essentially hot-rodded sports cars with large engines that ran in the Modified class. These cars were typically powered by Chevy, Cadillac, and Buick V-8s. But the successful ones were also lightweight. The engines may have only been a few degrees apart, but the key, Shelby saw, was a car that was light, yet strong enough not to shake itself apart during a race.
He had spoken briefly with Donald Healey and John Wyer about his sports car idea but had few actual details to provide. He also made a strong pitch to GM’s chief engineer, Ed Cole, about mating a Corvette engine to a Scaglietti-bodied sports car. Cole pushed a few engines through the back door to Shelby in Italy, but Zora Arkus-Duntov got wind of it. He demonstrated the territorial aspect of operating within a large corporation. Cole got the message and called Shelby: “Get rid of those cars. You never talked to me.” GM brass saw no need to bankroll a competitor to their own Corvette.
The AC Ace next caught Shelby’s eye. He had raced against Lew Spencer, who was now importing Morgans and Sunbeams. Spencer had been an AC dealer and had even successfully raced an Ace Bristol. Shelby called him and asked him what an AC Ace would cost, less engine and transmission. They met for drinks and Shelby picked his brain. He left their meeting thinking that AC would be the best starting point for his sports car.
On July 4, 1961, Shelby was at the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb representing Goodyear as its western distributor. He met Dave Evans, a Ford engineer in charge of Ford’s stock car engine program. Shelby was making contacts wherever he went.
In August, Shelby took the plunge and wrote a letter to Charles Hurlock, brother of AC’s owner, William Hurlock. Shelby said he was working on a sports car project that the AC Ace might figure in. He was considering several different engines. In the most general of terms, Shelby asked if AC might be interested in a marriage of its chassis to an American V-8. AC responded that it was open to the idea.
However, contrary to common belief, when AC Cars lost its supplier of Bristol engines (just prior to receiving Shelby’s letter), the executives were not sitting around staring at the ceiling and contemplating the 100-year-old company’s demise. They were considering other engine sources, like the Jaguar six-cylinder and the Daimler 2.5L V-8. Another company, named Ruddspeed, which today would be called a tuner, was working on an AC Ace powered by the Ford 352ci V-8.
This was when lightning struck. Shelby heard a rumor about a new, 221ci, lightweight V-8 under development at Ford and immediately wrote to Dave Evans. He told him he had heard about the engine and asked if it might be suitable for competition, and if so, could he get one or two to evaluate for his sports car project. Evans called him as soon as he received the letter. He was excited and promised to send Shelby a couple of the new engines. Shelby lost no time writing to AC, providing the specific dimensions of the new engine and saying he would soon be shipping one to the company. The project was off and running, but it took on the characteristics of one of those Slinky toys. Plans and details spread out and then quickly compressed. AC Cars began drawing up blueprints for the changes that would be required to the Ace chassis. Internally they called the car the AC 3.6L because Shelby did not, at that point, have a name for his new car.
The name “Cobra” came to him in a dream. That part of the Cobra story has been consistent from Day One. In his book, The Cobra Story, he said he always kept a notepad and pen on the nightstand. When he thought of something in his sleep he would write it down; otherwise when he woke up, he would have forgotten it. When the car was in transit from England to Los Angeles by air, he woke up in the morning and “Cobra” was written on the pad. As soon as he saw it, he knew that was it.
Based on when the car was being shipped, Shelby came up with the name on February 2, 1962. He picked up the car the next day at the Los Angeles International Airport and brought it back to Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, where he was renting space. He had already received three engines from Ford (now bored to 260 ci) and had hired an engine specialist to massage one of them to get more horsepower out of it. At that time there was nothing in the way of ready-made speed equipment for this engine, so everything was experimental.
When Shelby and one of Moon’s guys got back from the airport with the engineless car in raw aluminum, word had spread that Shelby’s new car was coming and a crew was ready to pitch in. Shelby, who often said that mechanical abilities were not his strong suit, took a step back and watched others work on the car. He was the automotive equivalent of Tom Sawyer painting the picket fence. The engine and transmission were installed, the electrics were connected, fuel lines were plumbed, and a few guys went through a dozen boxes of steel wool shining the aluminum body. All that is true.
As soon as the car was running, Shelby and Moon took off, tearing around Santa Fe Springs (which was nothing like it is now; in 1962, outside of the main drag, there were mostly vacant fields and oil wells). They were looking for Corvettes to race. Whether they found any or not is lost to history, but you would think that if they had, they would not have kept it a secret. Something to keep in mind, though, is that this one car encompassed everything in Shelby’s world. Had he wrecked it at that point, there probably never would have been a Cobra or anything else to follow it.
Shelby couldn’t wait to get the car some exposure in the press. One reason was, of course, ego. This was an exciting car, and who would want to keep that a secret? Another reason was that he was going into business to sell cars. Since he was just starting off, Shelby couldn’t afford to buy advertising. He had someone hand-letter “Shelby” on the nose and trunk. AC had shipped the car with its circular AC emblems.
Shelby called up a bunch of automotive journalists around Los Angeles and invited them to Riverside Raceway for a preview of the new car. He gave them rides around the track, and they were suitably impressed. Within a couple of months the car was featured in several magazines.
Next on his list was the New York International Automobile Show a few months away. He brought the car to custom painter Dean Jeffries. He suggested that it be painted a shade of yellow that would highlight the car’s contours to their best advantage under fluorescent lighting. Shelby agreed. Dean Moon’s signature color was bright yellow, and over his lifetime he created dozens of cars of all kinds, from drag racers and dry-lake racers to show cars and transporters. They were all painted Moon Yellow, and Moon spent the next 40 years telling anyone who would listen that the first Cobra was painted Moon Yellow. It wasn’t.
But after the New York Auto Show and its appearance on the cover of Road & Track, the car was painted red, and Shelby made sure it was seen by his journalist pals. Then it was painted blue, giving the impression that Cobras were pouring out of his factory. That would come soon enough, but right then Shelby needed a jump-start to sell cars.
What followed is, as they say, history.