by J Kraus
“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
– John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address, Yale University, 11 June, 1962
Octane recently conducted a poll of their readers to select the “Greatest Race Car Ever” (with the Maserati 250F ultimately receiving the accolade). To guide the readers toward machines with suitable pedigrees, a number of automotive luminaries were assigned the task to nominate appropriate candidates. Columnist Carroll Shelby thereupon put forth his own progeny, the AC Cobra.
Upon hearing this news, my mind drifted to years past. I was around when the Cobras were competitive and while I recall them being worthy contenders, I also remember them often struggling on rough or undulating surfaces such as one would encounter at the Nürburgring or Targa Florio. I also could not recall any major outright victories.
Thus, on a chilly evening with little on the agenda, I poured into my glass the remains of a bottle of Vin Jaune, cut some slices from a block of Compté and retrieved the appropriate volumes of Automotive Year and back issues of Autosport. I was consoled to find that my memory had not in fact deceived me.
Regardless, a legend has grown over the intervening decades that paints the Cobra as a sort of Attila the Hun that lay waste to all in its path. Wikipedia states that the Cobra was extremely successful in racing. Another site proclaims: The (Shelby) Daytona Coupe dominated race tracks all over the world.
In my judgement, in order to dominate a race track, one must cross the finish line first, or in the case of the 24 Heures du Mans prior to 1971, travel the furthest distance. History shows that on the world stage, Cobras rarely accomplished either feat.
While often performing with alacrity at regional and national levels; its international sporting record is not so laudable as many believe. In fact, a Cobra ever only won one single race outright in FIA sanctioned international competition. Dan Gurney took the chequered flag at the 500 km of Bridgehampton, the final round of the 1963 season, at the wheel of a 289 Mark I roadster. That was the first, last and only overall win for the Cobra in top echelon motorsport.
Below is a table documenting the Cobra’s best overall finishes in the years it was competing in the Manufacturers’ Championship. The results show a worthy enough record, but a bit insufficient to warrant the sobriquet of Greatest Race Car Ever. Indeed, I have noted numerous instances where the Cobra was vanquished by cars much less adulated in the mainstream automotive media.
|Sebring||11||Behind two 2-litre 4-cyl Porsche 356B Carreras|
|Bridgehampton||1||(Also 2nd O/A)|
|Targa Florio||8||Behind a 2-litre 4-cyl Porsche 356B Carrera|
|Spa||9||Behind three 2-litre 4-cyl Porsche 904’s|
|Nürburgring||23||Behind two 1.3 litre 4 cyl Abarth-Simca 1300’s|
|Le Mans||18||Three places behind a 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZ|
|Frieburg||4||Two places behind a 2.0 litre 4-cyl Abarth Simca|
|Sierra Montagna||4||Behind a 2.0 litre 4-cyl Abarth-Simca 2000 GT|
|1965||Daytona||10||Behind two 2-litre 4-cyl Porsche 904’s|
|Sebring||19||Behind a 1.3-litre 4 cyl Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite|
|Monza||12||Five places behind a 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZ2|
|Spa||13||Behind two 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZs|
|Rossfeld||10||Behind a 2.0 litre 4-cyl Abarth Simca|
|Ollon Villars||12||Four places behind a Fiat Abarth 1600 OT|
|1966||Sebring||15||Behind a 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZ2|
|1966||Sebring||10||Three places behind a 2.0-litre 4-cyl Porsche 904|
|Cobra Daytona Coupe|
|Monza||8||Behind a 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZ|
|Spa||5||Two places behind a 2-litre 4-cyl Porsche 904|
|Nürburgring||7||Behind two 2.0-litre 904’s and a 2.0-litre Dino|
told, over a three-year period, there were only six podium finishes for the Cobra. Without considering the Daytona Coupe, history records only three podiums for the Cobra roadster, the model endlessly replicated by Shelby enthusiasts. The astute reader will also notice that the Coupe, in its drive for the championship crown, never achieved outright victory. When they were not being occasionally usurped by 2.0 litre Porsches, they were defeated by Ferrari prototypes, usually the 250LM.
To bolster his case, Shelby makes note of the fact that the Cobra won the 1965 Manufacturers’ Championship for GT Cars. The Cobra indeed attained this title, but it was all but a fait accompli, as they essentially ran unopposed within their classification. In 1964, Ferrari and Shelby both exploited FIA rules loopholes to run the GTO and the Daytona Coupes in the GT class rather than the more competitive Prototype category. In 1965, Ferrari intended to homologate their new 250LM as a GT car, but it was forced to run as a Prototype because the now more vigilant FIA doubted the ability of Ferraris’ small workshop to produce the required minimum number of cars while simultaneously building their designated Prototypes (the 275P2 and 330P2), the road cars and their Formula One GP cars.
As a result, the Cobra (with the Daytona Coupe leading the way) garnered the 1965 GT Championship, as there was now no more credible competition in the GT Over 3.0-Liter category; and Ferrari won the Prototype Championship and Overall Victory. Thus, the Cobras Manufacturers’ Championship win, while certainly deserved and laudable, was a Trophée de Catégorie, a class win; not overall victory. A bit short of race track domination.