The AC Cobra: Myth and Reality

by J Kraus

AC Cobra

“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.

Cobra 260/289
Year Venue Pos Note
1963  Daytona 4
 Sebring 11 Behind two 2-litre 4-cyl Porsche 356B Carreras
 Le Mans 7
 Bridgehampton 1 (Also 2nd O/A)
1964  Daytona 4
 Sebring 5
 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
 Goodwood 4
 Sierra Montagna 4 Behind a 2.0 litre 4-cyl Abarth-Simca 2000 GT
 Bridgehampton 4
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
 Oulton Park 4
 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
 Bridgehampton 5
1966  Sebring 15 Behind a 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZ2
Cobra 427
1965  Bridgehampton 3
1966  Sebring 10 Three places behind a 2.0-litre 4-cyl Porsche 904
Cobra Daytona Coupe
1964  Sebring 4
 Le Mans 4
 Goodwood 3
1965  Daytona 2
 Sebring 4
 Monza 8 Behind a 1.6 litre 4-cyl Alfa Giulia TZ
 Oulton Park 7
 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
 Le Mans 8
 Reims 5
 Coppa Citta 3

All 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.

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11 thoughts on “The AC Cobra: Myth and Reality

  1. I believe it is quite fair. Ask yourself which car actually best met the definition of prototype.

    By the end of the 1965 season, Ferrari had manufactured over thirty 250LM’s and sold them to privateers. Shelby built just six Daytona Coupes and didn’t sell any of them. They were only campaigned in-house by Ford affiliates: Shelby, Ford France, Allan Mann Racing and AC Cars.

  2. J. Kraus: I think you need to do a little more research on the Cobras. Maybe you had too much Vin Jaune. The Cobras faired much better than you set forth in your tribute.

    Log on to Wikipedia to see what I’m talking about.

    R. Preuss
    Peoria, IL

  3. I am not sure to which Wikipedia page you refer. All that the English Language AC Cobra page says is that “it was raced successfully by many privateers and went on to win races all the way into the 70’s” – not much specifics there. The French Language page only mentions the 1965 Manufacturers GT Category victory which I referred to in the original article. The German Wikipedia site makes no reference to competition history.

    Remember, this posting is discussing competition at the international FIA-sanctioned level – events that each year counted toward the World Championship. As I mentioned, the Cobra certainly won a number of amateur, local and national contests, and most likely a fair share of unsanctioned late-night drag-race challenges.

    If there is a event in which a Cobra claimed overall victory that meets the above criteria and is not listed; I will certainly amend the table accordingly, and send anyone providing the information one (1) 4-ounce package of Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Chili Mix. Offer good in Western Europe, UK, US and Canada. Limit one per customer. Offer expires 17 March, 2011.

    It was well worth a trip to Wikipedia however. I had no idea that Shelby was marketing Carroll Shelby’s “Pit-Stop” Deodorant for “Real Men” back in the 1960’s.

  4. Carroll Shelby deodorant! That is too funny. I wonder how high a can of that would be bid up to at Barrett-Jackson.

  5. There were two issues with the Cobra. First, the roadsters were not fast enough for circuits with long straights because of their high aerodynamic drag. This is exactly the reason Shelby produced the six low-drag Pete Brock-designed Daytona coupes that, as mentioned, were never sold to the public.

    The second was that the cars rarely seemed to perform to their potential under real world conditions. On circuits comprised of public roads (i.e. Nürburgring, Targa Florio, Tour de France) with the attendant bumps, dips, varying surfaces, etc; their record was mediocre. As it shows above, their best finish recorded at the Nürburgring was 7th.

    The Targa Florio was subject to an all-out assault by Shelby in 1964 with a five car squad driven by the best talent he could muster including GP stars Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Masten Gregory; but the best they could do was 8th overall (Gurney). Three of the cars broke down, two from suspension collapse. Shelby never returned.

    The old Tour de France was particularly grueling. In addition to the usual perils of public roads, the Tour encompassed several stages requiring full-throttle standing starts. In the 1964 TdF, three of the six Daytona Coupes were entered by Shelby American and Ford France. All retired with mechanical failure.

    The best finish I can recall for a Cobra under the rigors of competition on public roads was 2nd at the 1963 Tour de Corse, hard on the heels of the winning Citroën DS 19.

  6. The Tour de Corse Cobra was driven by the late Jo Schlesser, a family friend. The reason for his defeat by a DS19 was that he actually ran out of tires.. You had to be a force of nature like Jo to coerce that car around the “mille virages” of Corsica. The Kleber tires used would not last more than 40 km..

  7. Very misleading Mr. Kraus. I don’t have time to correct all the errors here but I’ll at least present the facts for others of the 1964 World Championships results.

    Targa Florio
    #146 Dan Gurney / USA Shelby Cobra CSX2323 Shelby American Inc. – Finished 1st. GT+3.0

    Spa-Francorchamps
    #3 Bob Bondurant / USA Shelby Cobra CSX2345 Shelby American Inc. – Finished 1st. GT+3.0
    #4 Jo Schlesser / F Shelby Cobra CSX2301 Shelby American Inc. – Finished 3rd. GT+3.0
    #2 Innes Ireland / GB Shelby Cobra CSX2323 Shelby American Inc. – Finished 5th. GT+3.0
    #1 Phil Hill / USA Shelby Cobra Dayton CSX2287 Shelby American Inc. – Finished 6th. GT+3.0

    Nürburgring
    #99 Jo Schlesser / F Shelby Cobra CSX2301 Shelby American Inc. – Finished1st. GT+3.0

    Freiburg
    #66 Bob Bondurant / USA Shelby Cobra roadst CSX2345 Shelby American – Finished 1st. GT+3.0
    #68 Jochen Neerspasch / D Shelby Cobra roadst CSX2301 Shelby American – Finished 2st. GT+3.0
    #67 Jo Siffert / CH Shelby Cobra roadst CSX2260 Shelby American – Finished 3rd. GT+3.0

    Sierra Montagna Crans
    #176 Bob Bondurant / USA Shelby Cobra CSX2345 Shelby American – Finished 1st. GT+4.0
    #177 Jo Schlesser / F Shelby Cobra CSX2260 Shelby American – Finished 2st. GT+4.0
    #175 Jochen Neerspasch / D Shelby Cobra CSX2301 Shelby American – Finished 3rd. GT+4.0

    • Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. The points you raise are correct, but they just bolster my argument. They are not victories, just class wins, nothing more. Let’s look at them one at a time.

      Targa Florio: Yes, the Gurney/Grant Cobra won the Over 3-Litre category, but was vanquished by smaller displacement Under 3-Litre machinery and only managed to finish 8th Overall. A Porsche won the race, followed by Alfa Romeos, a Ferrari and more Porsches. Finally in 8th place; the Cobra.

      Spa: The four Cobras mentioned did place highly in the GT Over 3-Litre category, but once again, it proved to be a relatively slow category. The leaders setting the pace were 3-litre Ferraris finishing 1,2,3,4 and 6th, and 2-litre Porsches placing 5,7 and 8th. Bob Bondurant, piloting the fastest of the ground-pounding, pavement-rippling 4.7-litre Cobras only managed to secure 9th Overall.

      Nürburgring: The Jo Schlesser Cobra did take top honors in the Over 3-Litre classification, but hold on to your hat; it came in 23rd Overall. Think about that for a moment. Three of the twenty-two cars that trounced the mighty Cobra that day were Abarths, powered by tiny 1.3-litre Simca engines. A modified version of the engine that drove millions of French women to the boulangerie everyday for fresh croissants!

      Freiburg: Yes, three Cobras claimed the top places in the Over 3-Litre category, but the best they could do at the end of the day was 4th Overall. Almost, but not quite on the podium. This was actually a great day for the Cobra: nothing shabby about a solid 4th place finish.* I must note however, the class victories were a bit hollow as no other cars showed up to race that day in the Over 3-Litre category.

      Sierra Montagna: As you point out, the Cobras cleaned house in the new Over 4-Litre category, as well they should have, since no other cars raced that day in the Over 4-Litre classification. It did go quite well for the Cobras however, as Bob Bondurant again claimed a commendable 4th place Overall.*

      As I stated in the original post: “The results show a worthy enough record, but a bit insufficient to warrant the sobriquet of Greatest Race Car Ever.”

      * Result listed in my original table of best finishes

  8. Thank you for setting the record straight. I have long been an admirer of Carroll Shelby and his Cobras, but I have often been perplexed at how a car with such a primitive chassis (the 289 leaf sprung versions) could have been so successful even when considering the output and light weight of the small block Ford. This very succinctly puts it all into perspective. And it does not diminish my respect and admiration for CS and his efforts. As was so well stated by Autoweek magazine on the occasion of his death (and with a big nod to then current Dos Equis beer commercials), he was “the most interesting man in the world”.

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