Wild Beasts

A Stars and Stripes Cobra

How Carroll Shelby led Ford to win at Le Mans

Photo credit: Wheelsage

The Cobra, Ford Cobra or, more correctly, Shelby Cobra, was the result of the dream of having an American car, driven by Americans, that could hold its own and indeed defeat the all-powerful European Gran Turismo and sports cars of the likes of Jaguar, Aston Martin and Ferrari, to name just a few of the winners of Le Mans.

The Cobra immediately demonstrated its great potential in 1962 with performance far beyond its direct rival, the Corvette Sting Ray

This idea came to an American driver, Carroll Shelby who, after his 1959 victory at Le Mans behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, was forced to give up driving due to congenital heart problems and transformed himself into a car manufacturer. More accurately, a skilled car assembler. Shelby had noticed that a small British spider powered by a two-litre Bristol engine had performed excellently at Le Mans. The tubular chassis could well be the right basis for what Europeans call “an American extravagances”.

Powerful and muscular, with a large side exhaust pipe, the Cobra transmits the American racing car spirit to perfection

Shelby initially mounted a huge Ford V8 engine with 4,200cc making 335 hp, which later became 4,700cc producing 390 hp and mated that with a 4-speed manual gearbox under the hood of the small AC. Wisely, he strengthened the chassis, mounted decent-sized disc brakes and generously widened the wheel arches to accommodate bigger tyres than the originals. The result was spectacular: the ugly duckling had transformed into a splendid swan with a perfect stars and stripes character.

Equipped with an awkward hardtop for aerodynamic reasons, the Cobra achieved a stellar result in its debut at the 1963 Le Mans, finishing 7th overall

From 1962, the car was immediately impressive on the tracks and soon embarrassed even some of the European superstars. However, even when it didn’t win, it was clear that the Americans were leaving a mark on the big endurance races.

Just one year later, the Cobra returned to Le Mans in the magnificent new version, called Daytona, and arrived first in the GT category and 4th overall with Gurney and Bondurant

However, this was not enough to allow Carroll Shelby to be really competitive. With the support of Peter Brock who applied aeronautical-inspired aerodynamic principles, the powerful and now properly-sorted mechanics were clothed in bodywork that was as effective as it was beautiful: the car was the Shelby Cobra Coupe that took the name Daytona and dominated the GT class in 1965.

The Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans

Ford, which received incredible marketing coverage out of its support for the Cobra project, had even greater ambitions and invited Carroll Shelby to participate in their dual-objective program: to win at Le Mans and beat Ferrari who had refused to be bought by the American giant. This project culminated in the Ford GT 40 which Shelby contributed towards significantly.

The magnificent stance of the Shelby Cobra Coupe Daytona, produced in just 6 examples, 5 of them in Modena by Carrozzeria Gransport
The 4,700cc Ford V8 racing version equipped with 4 dual IDM carburettors Capable of producing 390 hp
The architecture of the Cobra Coupe with its front-central engine position for maximum weight distribution, which demonstrates that the entire project was based on intelligent rationality
This image epitomises the magnificent story of Carroll Shelby and his Cobra. Here at Daytona in 1964, when Shelby had just turned 41