The weather didn't dampen this year's Mille Miglia as the finest classics came out to play
The only one of its kind, this Carroll Shelby creation is the epitome of the 1960s American muscle car.
Carroll Shelby, who turned 84 on January 11, has been on a roll for decades. It’s fair to say that no name in the automobile world is better known than his. His racing achievements are legendary. Mention of his ground-shaking, tyre-smoking Cobras immediately excites. And there is one such beast in that breed of Shelby road cars that puts all others to shame. It’s called Supersnake.
Imagine taking a 427 Cobra and boosting its 450bhp by twin superchargers to nearly double that – to 800bhp. Imagine it has an automatic transmission, of all things, and will top out at 200 miles per hour. And now imagine this one-of-a-kind, quintessential American muscle marvel is up for sale, with no reserve, yours for the taking if your money speaks loudest.
That was the situation at the 2007 Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it was for sale to the highest bidder. To whom is not our concern here; the auction will have come and gone by the time you read this. Ours is a story of the car and how it came into being – not where it went or what the gavel price was.
To help tell this saga, who better than Carroll Shelby himself to supply a beginning.
‘It was the ultimate Cobra. The most powerful Cobra that was ever built at that time. It was my idea, but I don’t do anything; I have people do things. I have ideas about what I think should be built, that’s all I am. I’m not an engineer. I don’t know what you’d call me – an innovator, maybe.’
This self-made innovator Shelby’s idea was launched on March 1, 1965, when work began on 427 Cobra, Competition Version, Roadster Serial Number CSX3015. Six months later the completed car was shipped from San Pedro, California, to England and for a year was toured and demonstrated in Europe before it was returned to the Shelby American factory. Then the fun started.
Converted from competition Cobra to SC – semi-competition – status to qualify for road licensing, the Supersnake began to morph from the 3015 chassis. Not one (as with Shelby’s GT350 Mustangs) but two Paxton superchargers were installed to churn under Supersnake’s special bonnet intake. A beefy C-4/6 automatic transmission was swapped into the drivetrain, while other performance mods completed the transformation. Finally to his liking and ready to drive, this personal car of Shelby’s was, in essence, Carroll himself.
‘I drove it for about three months. And I drove it on the Turismos Visitadores run in Nevada, where the car was clocked on radar at 190 miles an hour. The captain of the Nevada Highway Patrol rode with me.’ It was a time when Nevada had no speed limit, and the Turismos were car guys with the newest, fastest wheels available. ‘We drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and drove to Reno and had dinner with Bill Harrah, and drove over to Lake Tahoe, and the next day we drove back to Vegas, and from Vegas back to Los Angeles.’
Steve Earle, long before he founded the Monterey Historic Automobile Races and other vintage festivals, was on the Turismos run, too. ‘I remember early in the morning and Shelby going through the streets and that sucker idling blublublublub – and the windows were shaking. I thought we’d get busted before we even got out of town!’
It was fun while it lasted, but Shelby could see the writing on the wall. ‘Times pass, and this time went away,’ he said. ‘They tried to hang onto it for years, but it never meant anything after they had the speed limit in Nevada.’ Meanwhile, the time of Supersnake for Shelby passed, too. The car was advertised for sale and, in February 1970, songwriter Jimmy Webb, who had had a hit with By the Time I Get to Phoenix, bought it for a total of ,000. But by now CSX3015 was not the only Supersnake.
A second one was built on a standard Cobra chassis, number SCX3303, for Carroll’s friend Bill Cosby, who wanted a car that would go really fast. Shelby signed a plate on the clone’s dashboard that read: ‘This car is guaranteed to do 200mph.’ Shel told us what happened. ‘When Bill Cosby got his, and his wife got in it, they went to the first corner and turned to the left, and he stood on it and spun it. She got out and walked home and said, “Sell it!’’ ’
In 1969, the Cosby car was bought in San Francisco by Tony Maxey, whose unlucky drive along the Pacific Coast Highway sent him off the road and to his death. The wreckage of 3303 has long been the subject of dispute, an issue my friend of 50 years insists be known about. Here are Shelby’s own words: ‘The car that they claim was the clone was another phony by Brian Angliss, who owned AC cars, who picked it up out of bankruptcy and built a bunch of “replicas” trying to claim that they’re real Cobras, which they aren’t.’
Years passed, with Jimmy Webb still owning and driving his 3015 Supersnake. In a letter to Carroll Shelby in 1991, the songwriter stated: ‘I am eternally grateful to you for creating such a magnificent monster.’ Webb also informed Shelby that he had ‘defended this car tooth and nail against accountants, wives and girlfriends for almost 20 years.’ When, in 1995, the authorities came down on Webb for tax arrears, 3015 was seized and committed to government auction.
North Carolina Cobra collector Chris Cox paid a reported 5,000 to make the car his, and later gave Supersnake its own nickname – Jake. Chris explained: ‘I almost got run over in it by an 18-wheeler that locked up its brakes and started sliding sideways, and someone told me the engine brake they have in those is called the Jake Brake. I honestly thought I was going to be with the other Supersnake. I’ve had a lot of powerful cars, Formula One cars, everything, but this thing is just amazing. It’s extremely fast. You have to learn how to drive it. I think Carroll tried to build the fastest thing he could, and that’s what it is.’
Cox kept 3015 for a number of years before finally selling it to David Scaife in Pittsburgh. ‘My buddy bought all my Shelbys from me because I got tired of them. You get like that.’ To replace 3015, Cox has bought a Ferrari 412 that he plans to race.
After David Scaife, SCX3015 went to yet another owner, Harley Cluxton III of Scottsdale, so conveniently close to the Barrett-Jackson Auction that recently brought the gavel down on the sale of the car, ending Cluxton’s custodianship. But, in the few short months he owned this one-and-only surviving Supersnake, Harley gave it the attention of a doting father on a favourite child.
Cluxton, who is president of historic car company Grand Touring Cars, Inc, is a proponent of the American love for ingenuity, for making something because it can be made. In this sense he is very much like Carroll Shelby, whom he sees as a friend and fellow car man to be greatly admired. ‘The car is about Carroll,’ Harley told me. ‘It’s what it stands for, and what it did, through all-nighters of planning to make it go that fast. It was the American ‘Hey, man, let’s try this! Or, let’s do that!’
We pushed 3015 outside for photography, past his Daytona Coupe and GTO. Harley drove for years, for Luigi Chinetti; he owned the Mirage team and is still involved in vintage racing. Fast cars and the people associated with them are his life.
‘The car, other than repainting, I’ve kept as close as possible to how it was, as a sort of time-warp. I never thought that it should be ready for Pebble Beach. I never thought that I should put on new exhausts. It has its original body – and the rear flares, everything, show that it’s a comp car. It doesn’t have the lip around the rear haunches like an SC does. It’s heavy in the front, because of the two Paxtons. But it wasn’t meant for road racing.’
Cluxton had driven his competition 427 Cobra, CSX3017, with great skill on the vintage circuit. He knows Cobras, lives them. ‘This one was meant for cruuuuuuuuising.’ Time to start it.
You turn the key, toggle on the fuel pumps, one and two. They’re not the original Stewart-Warners that tick and stop, but big Holleys that hum constantly. Fuel pressure goes to six pounds. Give it about a quarter throttle, back off again, turn the key and it starts. You feel the power in your bones.
There are two cooling fans up front, for hard running. The blades are angled so they pull air to the radiator. Another fan behind the radiator pushes air to it. Because of the Paxton blower on the driver’s side at the front of the engine, Shelby had to move the oil filter in front of the radiator. It’s like a puzzle that will only work one way. The transmission oil cooler is in the front wheelwell, passenger side. Driver’s side gets fresh air just for the driver. All this power makes a lot of heat.
The Paxtons draw air through a wire mesh screen – there’s no room for a big filter. The impeller blades are rounded to keep rocks from jamming them, so the boost pressure is only two pounds, but it’s still a terrific punch. Twelve inches of vacuum. There’s no fuel gauge, for no comp Cobra has one. The tank holds 42 gallons, and the blown seven liters drink a lot.
You idle the engine until oil pressure drops from 80 to 60, and water temp starts to come off the peg. And remember, the transmission is automatic. Put it into ‘Drive’ and ease away, left foot brake, right throttle. Unless you’re on it hard, it shifts at 3000rpm. When the water temp is in the safe zone, you can stand on it. The Halibrand mag wheels wrapped in Eagle rubber take you into another dimension. There’s little wheelspin; the automatic is at work. But if you want smoke, pull the Cruise-O-Matic back to ‘1’ and nail it.
Steering is exactly like a competition 427, though just a little heavier because of the weight up front. There’s no power assist. The brakes work – Girling calipers, same as on the street GT40s. You go, you won’t ever forget it.
Shelby told me, ‘If we hadn’t quit building the Cobras, I would have wound up with a 1500-horsepower Cobra. I’ve got Cobra engines now of 1600 and 1700 horsepower. I’m putting some of these into the cars, and some of them I’m not. But that was just a thought way back then, and it happened to be towards the end of the Cobra’s era and it was something I thought was unique at the time.’
It’s amazing how Shelby defies age. His voice growls sometimes, like a comp Cobra, like the distant run of the Supersnake; then mellows, and ends in a high-note chuckle like it’s coming from someplace else. He has a presence you want to think of as an embodiment of horsepower. Yes, he’s the innovator. ‘I never quit thinking of something more powerful than what we’re building now. I don’t think about what I built last week – I think about what I want to build next week.’