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Showdown! - Rivals: AC Cobra vs Ferrari 250GTO

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It was one of the sternest rivalries on track, and the legend continues to this day...

The battle between Enzo Ferrari and Carroll Shelby that developed in the early 1960s was so intense that it has become known as the ‘Ferrari-Cobra Wars’. Not so much a David and Goliath contest, it was a battle between the autocratic Modenese aristocrat of sports car racing and a hot-rodder from Texas with a truckload of determination.

Ferrari had dominated sports car racing since the 1950s and its fast, beautiful, effective machines were the weapons of choice amongst the wealthy gentlemen racers of the period. The cars were usually ahead of the opposition in terms of engineering development, on the race track anyway, and the drivers had the benefit of the continuous evolution of the red cars over the decade.

Enzo Ferrari had become God in Italy, his company the citadel of racing car development, and his power spread to the corridors of the Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile, racing circuits and anyone else involved in the organisation of motor sport. Ferrari’s word was law and Enzo was used to ruling the roost and winning on his terms.

Meanwhile, on an entirely different continent on the other side of the world, young racing driver Carroll Shelby was making a real impact competing at major road racing circuits in America by driving every fast car he could get his backside into – Jaguars, Allards, Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches and Astons – against the world’s best drivers, including Fangio, Collins and Moss.

According to his fellow driver Roy Salvadori, ‘Shelby was a really good driver and he won race after race. He was fast, cool and kind on the machinery.’

Tall, lanky and good-looking, the Texan was a real showman. He would wear a 20-gallon Stetson at every opportunity, along with flashy cowboy boots. And he was a chicken farmer. On one occasion he went directly from the chicken farm to test a racing car, still wearing his bib-and-braces farm overalls.

Someone commented it was a good look so Shelby adopted this ‘farm boy’ image when he went racing in Europe, which perplexed and infuriated the smart and soberly dressed Enzo.

Having done well as a hired gun driving in the States in the 1950s, Carroll Shelby was spotted by Aston Martin racing manager John Wyer, which led to his European début. Shelby based himself in Modena and met up with Enzo Ferrari to discuss a drive. But the Commendatore’s imperious manner rubbed up the easy-going Texan the wrong way and a grudge was initiated. Shelby resented the way Ferrari set his drivers against each other. This was a calculated move to get the most out of the Ferrari team drivers but this ‘tweaking’, as Shelby labelled it, led to the death of many drivers. ‘That son of a bitch killed my friend [Luigi] Musso. And he killed others, too.’

Le Mans was the greatest motor race in the world in the 1950s and ’60s. It was an endurance event that broke cars and drivers alike and just finishing the punishing 24-hour race was a feat in itself. Against all the odds, Carroll Shelby teamed up with Roy Salvadori for the 1959 race and won in the Aston Martin DBR1.

At Goodwood later that year, Shelby, Moss and Fairman secured victory as well as the World Sports Car Championship for Aston. Ferrari regarded the win as merely a stroke of luck.

At the height of his racing career in 1960 Carroll Shelby announced his retirement because he was suffering from a hereditary heart disease, angina pectoris. He sold his Dallas sports car dealership and moved to Southern California, previously the epicenter of the wartime aviation industry and thereafter the hotbed of hot rodding and racing car fabrication. He became the distributor for Goodyear tyres and set up a racing driver school at Riverside circuit; a bit of a comedown for one of the world’s top motor racing champions.

At the same time in Modena things were not going entirely smoothly. Well, they never did! Ferrari’s dominant 250 Short Wheelbase was found to be lacking, according to Giotto Bizzarrini, who in 1960 was appointed head of Ferrari’s Experimental, Sport and GT Car Department. He found the SWB ‘had the ride of a Wild West wagon’ with its firm leaf springs and spaghetti chassis.

So he strengthened the chassis, changed the spring rates and supplemented them with tube dampers. This improved the 250, which Enzo was intending to use to defend his sports car title the next year. But in 1961 Ferrari sales manager Girolamo Gardini returned from the Geneva Auto Show where he’d seen the new Jaguar E-type. Like the rest of the automotive world, he was shocked. Gardini was convinced this Jaguar would beat the SWB and, although a 250 had finished third at Le Mans the previous year, Ferrari instructed Bizzarrini to start working in secret on a replacement racing car. Bizzarrini was given a 250SWB as his mule. He altered the rear suspension by placing coil springs over the tube shocks, then he focused on his two favorite areas: centre of gravity and aerodynamics.

The engine and transmission were moved back in the body to create a front-mid-engine design. This also allowed the car’s nose to be lower and to bring weight closer to the car’s centre of gravity, dramatically improving cornering speeds. The first prototype was nicknamed Il Mostro but during its first test, with Moss and Mairesse behind the wheel, this ugly prototype lapped several seconds faster than a standard 250SWB.

Then in November the infamous Palace Revolt occurred at Modena and Bizzarrini was unceremoniously fired, along with top Ferrari men Chiti, Tavoni, Della Casa and Gardini.

Young Mauro Forghieri took over Bizzarrini’s role and continued the development of what was to become the 250GTO. He used Scaglietti to fabricate what became the GTO’s stunning bodywork and this legendary machine went on to emphatically win three World Championships.

Back in Santa Monica the Texan chicken farmer was on the case with an idea for his own road-racing car, now that he was bored with selling tyres and teaching wannabes how to go racing. He had long harboured the idea of putting a large and powerful American V8 into a light sports car. Allard had done this before but had failed.

In September 1961 Shelby heard about two fortuitous events within the space of a few days. First that AC Cars in Britain had lost the Bristol engine for its AC Ace, and second that Ford was about to produce a lightweight, thin-wall casting V8, named the Canadian X21, for its pick-up trucks.

Shelby immediately contacted Don Frey, assistant general manager of the Ford Division, and WD Hurlock at AC Cars to outline his idea for a light, inexpensive, high-speed sports car. Ford and AC agreed with the concept so Shelby shipped himself and two V8s over to Thames Ditton, along with drawings and instructions from his US workshop.

‘The name Cobra came to me when I was thinking about creating a sports car. I can’t explain why. All through the years of trying to put this thing together, I never changed my mind and never doubted I would call my car the Cobra,’ said Shelby.

The AC Ace was a lightweight 840kg roadster with a chassis designed by John Tojeiro. The simple chassis consisted of a ladder frame of three-inch diameter tubes with cross bracing and box structures at each end to which the independent suspension was attached: a transverse leaf spring at the top with A-arms on the bottom, both front and rear. The aluminium coachwork was pop-riveted to the longitudinal frame and to various steel hoops that defined the body’s shape.

The pretty body was not very aerodynamic, the chassis was not very rigid, the suspension was rudimentary and the engine was an unknown unit designed for pick-ups. But Carroll Shelby’s idea was beginning to formulate into a road-racing car. Three months later the first Cobra, chassis number CSX2000, was completed in Thames Ditton. It was then shipped over to Los Angeles where the latest version of the X21 V8 – a 4.2-litre, high-performance engine with a four-barrel carburettor, solid lifters and hot cam – was dropped into the chassis and mated to Ford’s T10 gearbox. The all-up weight was just 900kg, with 50/50 weight distribution.

The prototype was taken to the New York Auto show, where it proved a hit. Enough orders were taken to ensure the birth of the Cobra. As with Enzo Ferrari, Carroll Shelby was building road cars to fund his racing efforts. Now that he had the backing of Ford, he lifted his sights to racing the Cobra and to taking on his nemesis in Europe.

In roadgoing form the new Cobra was not developed for racing and so was not tough enough for flat-out work. Shelby had taken on Phil Remington as his chief mechanic, fabricator and constructor and they set to the car. The AC was designed to cope with the much less powerful Bristol engine so Remington began to replace everything that was liable to break in race conditions. The worm-and-sector steering was beefed up (later changed to rack-and-pinion with the MkII version), rubber suspension bushes were changed to bronze, the suspension was strengthened, disc brakes were added to the rear and the V8 engine was uprated.

Photos, dimensions and specifications of this race-prepared Cobra were then submitted to the FIA for homologation as a Grand Touring car. Optional listed equipment included a ram manifold, sidedraught 58mm Weber carburettors, Flame Thrower ignition, engine hood scoop, 37.5-gallon (US) fuel tank and roll hoop. The rules required the production of 100 cars within the previous 12 months, although only eight had been constructed by August. But with a bit of rule bending, the Cobra was homologated as a GT car to compete in the Over 2-litre class of the FIA Manufacturers’ Championship, which included Sebring, Nürburgring and, of course, Le Mans.

Rather a lot of rule bending was going on in Modena at the same time. Ferrari had started the development of the 250GTO. Although based loosely on the 250SWB, the GTO was a very different car or, at least, an extreme development with its lightweight chassis, dry-sump Testa Rossa engine, five-speed gearbox and aerodynamic bodywork. The GTO caused a furore because the rule bending was so extreme. Ferrari was banking on the Appendix J Section of the FIA rules that specified that any modifications introduced after homologation were in the ‘normal evolution of the type’ and did not change the characteristics of the homologated model.

Ferrari submitted a picture of the SWB for homologation and listed the five-speed gearbox and dry sump as options. So a further 100 cars were not required to be built; Enzo named his new car the GTO, ‘O’ for Omologato. Suddenly the SWB weighed 115kg less and had a top speed of 180mph. Clever.

The Cobra’s first race was at Riverside on 13 October 1962. Bill Krause was driving this three-hour production car race against Ford’s bitter rival Chevrolet with its new Corvette Sting Ray. The Cobra drove clean away from the Sting Rays and led the race until a rear stub axle broke and the wheel fell off. Chevrolet was shocked and Ford was impressed at this inaugural showing. The Cobra clearly had huge potential.

At the Nassau Speed Week race in the Bahamas the Cobra was up against the Ferrari GTO for the first time and it was running second behind a GTO when its tie-rod end broke. In the second GT race the Cobra was again second behind a GTO when it ran out of petrol. Finally, on 3 February 1963 at Riverside, a Cobra claimed its first victory, with Dave MacDonald finishing first and Ken Miles second ahead of the Corvettes. In September Dan Gurney won at Bridgehampton in a Cobra, the first time an American driver had won an FIA race in an American car.

Shelby’s hot-rod Cobras continued to dog Ferrari’s thoroughbred GTOs at Daytona, Sebring, Targa Florio and Le Mans but the truth was that the Cobra was a road racer developed to perform on American circuits with their shorter – and therefore slower – straights and medium-speed corners.

The Cobra was a rushed job consisting of an American pick-up engine shoehorned into an out-of-date chassis, whereas the Ferrari GTO was a race-engineered evolution of a long line of race winners. Hence the GTO was worthy of taking the World Manufacturers’ Championship in 1962, ’63 and ’64, winning everything from the International Trophy at Silverstone, the Goodwood TT and the Kyalami 9 Hours, to the Tour de France and the Angolan GP.

Nevertheless Shelby had stunned the racing fraternity with his Cobra, especially showroom rival Chevrolet with its comprehensively trumped Corvette. Of course, Shelby did finally achieve his ambition with his evolution of the Cobra, the Shelby Daytona Coupe, which beat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1964, the first time ever that Ferrari GTs were vanquished at Le Sarthe. Some chicken farmer.

In total some 75 MkI and 655 MkII Cobras were produced against 36 Ferrari GTOs. A GTO cost ,000 when launched while the Cobra came in at a more affordable 00.

The Ferrari 250GTO you see here, chassis number 3767, is painted in the unusual ‘BP Green’ preferred by its original owner David Piper. Delivered in July 1962, it was soon shipped out to South Africa for the Kyalami 9 Hours, where it won overall. Having raced in South Africa, Angola, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas as well as all over America and Europe, this is one of the most important and widely travelled GTOs in existence.

Says ‘Pipes’, ‘When I first bought my GTO I didn’t touch it – the car was sacred. Ferrari built it and I knew it was perfect. As I wasn’t that competitive with the car, however, I looked for ways to make it go faster. I replaced the relatively narrow front wheels with the rears, as the GTO has a tendency to understeer. I then visited Borrani and got them to make some 7½-inch rear wheels, then later some 8-inch ones.

‘As far as the engine was concerned, it was best not to play around too much or try and be too clever if you wanted to maintain reliability. But a few things did make a difference. One was to reduce the diameter of the primary exhaust pipes and fit the shorter side-exit exhaust system, which gave better torque. The GTO was the culmination of many years of development on the 250SWB, and really there was very little you could try that Ferrari had not assessed before,’ he adds. This famous GTO is now in the custodianship of a well-known British collector who has fortunately retained its unusual Piper-specified Verde paint finish.

Also photographed for this feature is Cobra CSX2051, an extremely rare and very early Shelby car. It was constructed in November 1962 and shipped to George Reed in New York, who immediately specced it for racing with a roll hoop, racing tyres and anti-roll bars. He entered it in the FIA Sebring 12 Hours endurance race in March 1963 with co-driver Nate Karras.

The next owner then installed the improved 4.7-litre engine and, over the following six years, the Cobra was raced at numerous US circuits, winning the Badger 200, Road America and Meadowdale. The steering was changed to the more desirable MGB-derived MkII rack-and-pinion set up and the Cobra is now in the custodianship of Gavin Henderson, who plans to race it in this season’s various historic racing series.

From blue blood to blue collar. From a true racing thoroughbred to a perfunctory hot rod. From the wily old fox in Modena to the optimistic chicken farmer in Texas. Motor sport extracts the competitive edge from the most competitive players.

Enzo Ferrari was arguably the best motor sport protagonist we have ever seen. Carroll Shelby was probably the most determined underdog we have ever witnessed. Together they fought one of the most fierce battles in motor sport, much to our benefit. Watching a simple but effective Cobra besting a pure blood GTO cannot fail to bring a smile to the most ardent racing enthusiast’s face. Ferrari was ultimately better but the Texan hot rodder punched well above his weight and made his hard-fought point. Great rivalries get the blood boiling, whether it be scarlet or white and blue…

Thanks to Carroll Shelby; Fiskens; Peter Bradfield Ltd; Michael Lee for the superb GTO; Gavin Henderson, custodian of Cobra CSX 2051; and Blakeney Motorsport Ltd, which prepares this important Cobra.


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