The Shelby Cobra


The Shelby Cobra, first developed in 1962, was one of the most important and influential automobiles of the 20th century. The basic idea of the cobra, concocted by racing genius Carroll Shelby, was to stuff a whole lot of power into a light chassis. Hot Rod rated the first generation cobra’s at “271 hp…[and] 312 lb ft of torque” (Wright 54). While those numbers aren’t too impressive by today’s standards, today’s average sports car weighs 800-1000 pounds more than the Shelby Cobra. That means a power to weight ratio better than a Chevrolet Corvette or that of a Dodge Viper. Due to the Cobra’s stunning good looks, wicked fast performance and handling, and deep racing roots, it stands on a pedestal of automotive excellence far above everything else, inspiring American automobile manufacturers to build great cars. Matt Stone, a writer for Motor Trend summed it up pretty well when he strove to “select just one automobile from the last half century as the most significant subject” in their fifty-year history of automobile journalism (170). Stone stated that, “were it not for this car, there would be no Shelby Cobra’s: 260, 289, 427, Daytona Coupes, or otherwise… there would have been no Shelby Mustangs… count out the likelihood of there ever being a Dodge Viper” (170). Clearly the Shelby Cobra was quite an influential car, quite possibly dictating the course of American performance vehicles.


The sleek muscular shape is the first thing everyone fell in love with about the Cobra. Its beautifully shaped fenders, obtrusive side exiting exhaust, boisterous hood scoop, and open cockpit created an all out roadster appearance that enticed every red blooded American. The body, however, cannot be fully credited to Carroll Shelby. The first Cobra’s body was purchased straight from AC Cars in Britain, the AC Ace. This is
the roadster design that Shelby needed to make his cobra come alive. The shape of the


AC Ace was truly nothing like America had ever seen before, but the cobra wasn’t ordinary in any sense of the word. The beautifully crafted fenders were like the haunches and fierce tiger ready to pounce. Exhaust conventionally exits the rear of a vehicle, but not Carroll Shelby’s Cobra. He constructed a beautiful side exiting exhaust system that would later be copied by the Corvette. The headers dumped into exposed glass pack mufflers residing just under the door of the vehicle. A thin heat shield was placed over the muffler, but singed hairs on the legs of not too wary drivers and passengers proved they were just for looks. The subtle yet effective scoop placed on the hood of the cobra gave it a little extra character, while also scavenging cold air from outside the engine bay, feeding the big Holley carburetor. The open cockpit of the Cobra definitely set it apart from the crowd. Corvettes make great roadsters in convertible form, but they just didn’t have that extra edge the Cobra had. That edge was that this was no frilly sports car, this was an all out roadster. The first Cobra didn’t even have side windows or a convertible top to be raised; it was truly a road car. This lack of amenities gave way to making the car incredibly light, and this weight factor combined with an American V-8 small block meant the last glimpse that corvette got of you was your tail-lights.


The performance of the Cobra was the second great facet of its existence. The Cobra was born out of Shelby’s original vision, stuff a whole lot of power into a very light chassis. The earliest cobra only boasted a 260 cu in version of the Ford Fairlane motor. This engine wasn’t too shabby, but it was nothing to write home about. Soon after the first 260 was mounted in the engine bay of the cobra, Ford delivered a new motor to Shelby. This engine was the 289 cu in small block, featuring performance specific cylinder heads and camshaft. Producing 271 hp and a gut wrenching 312 lb ft of torque meant wicked fast acceleration out of the little 2400 pound chassis. The big four-barrel Holley carburetor, solid lifter camshaft, and 11.1 compression ratio lent a hand in producing these impressive numbers. This combination produced