As fine a road car as the Shelby Cobra makes, the real reason the Texan created the Anglo-American hybrid sports car was to be successful in motor sport. Shelby harboured a desire to beat General Motors in national racing, where the Corvette had established itself as a force in the SCCA Production Class Championship.
The concept of the lightweight, high-powered AC Cobra was born out of necessity – the all-conquering Corvette may have been laden with power and torque, but it was heavy. When Cobra emerged from Shelby American at 500kg lighter than its target car, the Texan knew that he had a winner on his hands – with the help of Ford and AC.
In 1963 the 289 went on to dominate the SCCA A Class Championship, and drivers were queuing up to race the Cobra. The car was rapidly winning plaudits, and went on to star at international events.
AC Cars at Thames-Ditton prepared a pair of 300bhp Cobras for the ’63 Le Mans 24 Hours. They were fast, and a number of subtle aerodynamic modifications helped them to 159mph along the Mulsanne Straight. The best Cobra finish at La Sarthe was seventh – a great first result.
The privateers did just as impressively, too. CSX2151 (above), also known as ‘Hairy Canary’ is perhaps the most famous early competition car in the UK, and its history mirrors so many of these early cars. It also remains significant in Cobra history, as it is recognised by the Shelby Register as one of 21 Independent Competition (privateer) cars. It was the first of the breed to be fitted with rack-and-pinion steering and a 289ci engine.
After passing through the Shelby Automotive factory, it was sold to Richard J Neil Jr (Dick Neil) who, after taking the car back to his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, upgraded his 289 and painted it a strident shade of yellow, hence the nickname.
Neil raced CSX2151 extensively at home, with his crowning glory being victory in the Hawaiian Grand Prix in October 1963. The car continued in competition throughout the 1970s and ’80s before coming to the UK, when Bill Bridges bought it in 2003.
After a painstaking restoration it continues to race, including taking a starring role in events as diverse as the Goodwood Revival, Tour Auto and the Springbok Trophy. But as with all Cobra people, Bill is emotional about his car: ‘I always promised myself a Cobra. Well, it took 40 years, but it is the most enjoyable car I have ever owned.’
Enjoyment isn’t the only advantage to choosing a 289 for competition work. Kevin Kivlochan, owner of COB6008, reckons these are the best Cobras of the lot. ‘The 260/289 is eligible for FIA papers,’ he says. ‘This is one of the great benefits and privileges of owning such a car. It gains you access to some of the best events in the world and the opportunity to share the car with some of the genuine heroes.’
His car has certainly been campaigned extensively in the UK. It was originally built for Bruce Ropner, the founder of Croft racing circuit, and was raced between 1964 and ’67 by its owner as well as by Keith Schellenberg – and briefly driven by Jack Sears at the opening of Croft.
The right-hand-drive 289’s international racing career also included a run to tenth place at the 1965 Angolan Grand Prix. However, just as importantly, Kevin continues to race the car. Between its 21st century competition debut at the 2001 Goodwood Revival and its appearance at the 2009 British Grand Prix support race, COB6008 has strung together an impressive set of results.
Kevin loves Cobras: this is his third Independent Competition car, including Hairy Canary, and he thinks the best yet. ‘It’s a complete collection in one car! What more can a man want?’
Cobra racer: ‘Whizzo’ Williams
Not a lot of people know that Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams owned a Cobra 289 until very recently. Well, actually it was a Hawk replica, but it was a very accurate copy: ‘The guy who sold it to me had a real 289 as well, and when I called to see the Hawk I walked up to the wrong one!’
But Barrie has extensive experience of racing the real thing, too, and in recent years has been a crowd-pleasing favourite at the Goodwood Revival RAC TT in Cobras owned by Chris Phillips and latterly Miguel Amaral. He reckons a properly sorted Cobra is virtually unbeatable.
‘People think of me as a show-boater but that’s all for the crowd – I’m actually very smooth with the throttle. And a Cobra is very easy to steer with the throttle: if you need to use the steering wheel much, there’s an imbalance in the car’s set-up! You essentially steer it with your feet.
‘The key, we found when setting-up Chris Phillips’ cars, is to keep the suspension relatively soft; the car may appear to roll more than some others but it keeps its wheels on the ground and you can accelerate out of corners knowing the rear wheels are doing equal work. The engine’s huge mid-range torque also means you can use one gear higher than you might expect, and that reduces the effect of torque change if you need to suddenly lift in a corner.’
In fact, so enamoured is Barrie of the Cobra that in his recent biography he put it at number eight in his top ten of all-time favourite cars, out of the hundreds he’s raced in a 52-years-and-counting career.