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Carroll Shelby and the AC Cobra

You wouldn't think the year 1928 could possibly be associated with performance, but the end of the roaring 20's was also accompanied by the birth of the great Carroll Shelby. Carroll spent his early days bedridden due to a heart condition, but by his early teen years, his health was good and he developed an interest in racing cars.  Carroll cut his teeth racing a Willys during high school before World War II intervened.  He served in the US Army Air Corps as a flight instructor as well as a test pilot. His love for motorized things was in full bloom by the time he left the Army, and he quickly became involved in the amateur racing scene after the war.

Photo from the Carroll Shelby Foundation

His competency behind the wheel earned him a seat with Aston Martin, Cad-Allard, and Maserati during the 50's.  Carroll's amazing racing career inspired him to continuously seek better performing cars and it was that motivation which would lead to his name becoming iconic in the motorsports world.

Shelby's biggest claim to fame was his development of the AC Cobra:  By combining an AC Ace and a throaty American V8, he created a legendary sports car.  The looks and performance of the Cobra have made them very desirable among collectors, and in their true form they now fetch anywhere from $375,000 to $500,000 and in certain cases, even higher. 

Photo from the Carroll Shelby Foundation

So how did all of this get started? AC had been experimenting with a few motors in its Ace platform. Most notably, the Bristol straight-six powerplant. However, by the time the late 50's and early 60's rolled around, the Bristol-six was considered dated and engine technology had advanced.  Bristol had all but ceased engine production and left AC in somewhat of a power predicament. AC decided to experiment with a 2.6 litre Lincoln engine for the Ace, but in 1961, Carroll Shelby contacted AC to see if they'd modify an Ace to accept a V8. AC agreed on the condition that Shelby could find a suitable powerplant to park under the hood of their little sports car. Chevrolet wasn't interested, as they felt the Corvette was their version of a high performance European sports car.   Ford, on the other hand, had a newly-created lightweight small block V8 which was designed and tuned for optimal performance.  The engine was Ford's 260 CI, 4.2L V8,  and the Shelby-Ford relationship was born. 

AC did the initial mating of the V8 to their chassis, then the entire package was disassembled and shipped to Shelby in 1962 to be combined with a proper drivetrain. Carroll claimed the assembly of the entire package took less than eight hours in a little shop in Santa Fe Springs, California.  Once assembled, the car was road tested with great success. AC put the car into production and the rest is history.

The Cobra evolved to handle many engines, such as the Ford 289 and 427.  Ironically, Chevy would be faced with a car that would prove formidable against its Corvettes and Shelby made it known that he wanted the Cobra to be a "Corvette Killer".  The "Cold War of American power" was on, but the car did not achieve business success at the time.  Ultimately, Ford and Shelby pulled the plug on the program in 1967 due to troubled financials.  AC continued to produce their own versions of the roadster up until 1973 and other automobiles into the early 80's. AC officially closed their doors in 1984 and ultimately sold off their name and tooling.  

Though the story has a less-than-perfect ending, the Cobra has to be one of the most recognized classic cars on the planet. It also happens to be one of , if not the most re-produced car in automotive history.  Kits can be bought and assembled at home and are routinely fitted with monstrous powerplants. "Kit Cobras" as they are known, are staples at any local car show. Authentic Cobras can be found with relative frequency as well. The popularity of these cars are so strong that in 2011, Gooding and Company featured a 1963 Shelby Cobra 289 Factory Team Car which sold for $2.58 Million.

So add a Cobra to your list of dream-cars. Nothing beats the sound of a V8 mated with the open-car feeling of a British roadster. 

In memoriam of the great Carroll Shelby, racer, entrepreneur and father of the Cobra.

Jeff Walker

About Jeff Walker

Jeff Walker is a Classic Car Insurance Specialist and financial services professional; As the son of a Drag-Racer and auto restorer, he was born with a wrench in his hand and learned the trade at an early age. His specialty is 60’s and 70’s American Muscle but his mechanical ability has afforded him the opportunity to work on all types of cars from Alfa-Romeos to Gullwings and everything in-between. Jeff is also a motorcycle fanatic and maintains his own stable of classic & collectible bikes. He is happiest when a car or motorcycle project is underway in his garage.

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