‘Hey Little Cobra!’ – Larry H. Miller’s Total Performance Automobile Museum

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 02/2014
  • posted in: Great Garages

Move over, Stingrays and XKEs: Shelby Cobras, GT350s, GT500s and GT40s are here, in one place, and all of them are fast and gorgeous.

From Salt Lake City, cruise 35 miles to Tooele, Utah, where Miller Motorsports Park showcases perhaps the greatest collection of Ford-specific race and street cars in the world: the Total Performance Automobile Museum.

Until his death in February 2009, automobile dealer and Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller maintained a lifelong passion for cars built by the Ford Motor Company and, in particular, those built by the great Carroll Shelby.

Miller started in drag racing, with a 1963 Ford Falcon Sprint convertible. “But he always admired Carroll Shelby and the cars that he built, and he looked forward to the day when he could own one,” says John Gardner, marketing communications manager for Miller Performance.

After a start in racing in 1952, five years later Shelby was Sports Illustrated’s “Driver of the Year” and, in 1959, winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans driving for the factory Aston Martin team.

Shelby excelled first as a driver, then, because of a heart condition, as a salesman of his concepts and owner of the racing team that won numerous Sports Car Club of America championships as well as victories at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. Shelby became the first and only American manufacturer to win an FIA World Championship.

After a mythic career, he died May 10, 2012.

A few months before, in October 2011, Shelby talked about his friend, Larry H. Miller: “He was one of the first early collectors of my Cobras. He recognized before anybody that they were going to be worth something someday,” he said. “You can’t say enough superlatives about Larry. He was a very giving man, and he was an absolute workaholic; he’s only guy I ever knew besides Roger Penske who worked 36 hours a day. I loved Larry.”

A few of Miller’s cars are on loan to the Shelby American Collection in Colorado, but the majority of the collection is at Miller Motorsports Park, Gardner explains. “Almost every car on display is capable of being driven, and until Larry’s death, a number of them competed in vintage racing events on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Gardner, and Miller’s son, Greg, CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, got our rpms revving recently:

•CSX-2002 Cobra –– No. 16 was the first Cobra built in Shelby’s shops in California and was the first factory competition Cobra. It was this car in which drivers Ken Miles and Dave MacDonald, recently elected to the National Corvette Hall of Fame, did all the development work.

Billy Krause drove it in its first race, the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at California’s Riverside Raceway in October 1962. He fell back at the start, then took the lead on the ninth lap, but the car retired after rear hub failure. Miles and Dan Gurney also drove this car. One of the most significant Cobras, this red beauty was purchased in August 2002.

•CSX-2128 Cobra –– No. 15, now black on black, was one of two Cobras built for the 1963 12 Hours of Sebring with rack-and-pinion steering. Raced by the Shelby American team from March to July of 1963, it was sold to Coventry Motors, owned by Allen Grant.

“This was allegedly the Cobra that made Larry Miller fall in love with Cobras,” Gardner explains. The cover of the Rip Chords’ Hey Little Cobra record album in the ‘60s showcased it. The song peaked nationally at #4 in early 1964.

Grant repainted it yellow, with black stripes and roundels, as designed by friend and later film-maker George Lucas. Shelby bought the car back in March 1964 and it was raced by the team until August 1964. Gurney, Miles, MacDonald, Bob Holbert, Lew Spencer and Graham ‘Tombstone’ Shaw were among the team drivers.

When it was auctioned in January 2005, having been returned to its original black livery, Miller and another bidder were battling. “Larry was victorious, but he later found out that he was bidding against none other than George Lucas!” Gardner says.

•CSX-2299 Daytona Coupe –– The blue No. 13 Daytona Coupe is generally considered the most valuable Cobra in existence and, perhaps, the most valuable American-built car. Shelby wanted to take Cobras to Europe in 1964, but the Cobra roadsters hit their aerodynamic limit at about 150 mph and were not going to be competitive against the formidable Ferrari GTOs for long, high-speed European circuits.

Using a fastback-bodied coupe body designed by Pete Brock, the Daytona Coupe won its class in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans. Brock’s ingenuity allowed the cars to go 20 mph faster just based on more efficient aerodynamics, and they ultimately approached 200 mph. Six coupes were built; this was the second one, and it had the best racing record.

It finished first in the GT class and fourth overall in its debut race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, co-driven by Gurney and the Valley’s Bob Bondurant, slapping Enzo Ferrari with his first defeat in the GT class at the race since the class was established in 1959. Had it not been for a long pit to bypass an oil cooler, it probably would have won outright. At the season-ending Tourist Trophy at Goodwood in England, Gurney won again.

This Daytona Coupe also took first in GT and second overall in the 1965 24 Hours of Daytona, driven by Jo Schlesser and Hal Keck, and placed first in GT and fourth overall in the 1965 12 Hours of Sebring, with Bondurant/Schlesser, helping Shelby become the first and, to date, only American manufacturer to win the FIA GT World Manufacturers Championship.

Purchased in January 2000, CSX-2299 was described by Miller as “my very favorite car in the whole world. It just stops my heart every time I see it.”

•SFM5R535 1965 Shelby GT350R –– With the Cobra already successful, Ford asked Shelby for a high-performance street version of the Mustang. The 1965 Shelby GT350 Mustang is considered the iconic version. This white/blue No. 535 is an original R-Model –– the 35th of 36 pure racing GT350s built –– and was sold to Peruvian racer Benito Lores.

The car raced a few times, but when the engine was damaged in 1967, it was stored for a decade, then sold and repaired. It stayed in Peru until 1984, when it was sold to an American collector, who returned it to the United States for restoration. Miller acquired it in 2005.

•P-1015 GT40 Mk II –– Henry Ford II attempted to buy Ferrari in the early 1960s, but Enzo Ferrari backed out. Miffed, Ford vowed to beat Ferrari, joining General Manager Lee Iacocca’s “Total Performance” program with the expertise of Eric Broadley, founder of the British company that built Lola racing cars, to develop the Lola Mk 6 prototype into what became the Ford GT40.

After an inauspicious debut in April 1964 with the Mk I GT40, Ford rebounded with a 1-2-3 finish in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans with three Mk IIs. The following year, a Mk IV won Le Mans again. “The Ford GT40 is an icon of motorsports, and an icon of American automobiledom,” Gardner says.

Five variants of the GT40 were made: the Mk I (289 engine); Mk II (427 engine); Mk III (427 engine for street; six built); Mk IV (427, but engine banned after ’67 Le Mans); and the “Gulf Cars” (289 engine, with three Mk II chassis, raced as Mirages in 1967 with different bodies).

One of this last iteration, No. 40, P-1074, which was later used as a camera car in Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, was purchased by the Miller family in 2011. “The Larry H. Miller Collection is the only such collection in the world to have one of each,” Gardner adds.

GT40 Mk II P-1015, light blue with white stripes and red splashes around the headlights, was fitted with a 427-c.i.d. NASCAR engine and entered in the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona, the first-ever 24-hour at Daytona, where Miles and Lloyd Ruby won overall.

Next, it was then entered in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of eight Mk IIs in the race. Shelby American brought three, as did Holman-Moody, and two came from Alan Mann Racing.

“Following the final round of pit stops, this car, entered by Shelby American and co-driven by Miles and Denis Hulme, was leading the No. 2 Shelby entry of Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon (P-1046). The No. 5 Holman-Moody entry of Ronnie Bucknum/Dick Hutcherson (P-1016) was 12 laps back,” Gardner says.

“As the end of the race neared, Ford executives, anticipating their first-ever overall win at the world’s most prestigious sports car race, ordered a ‘photo finish.’ The cars closed ranks and crossed the line, but the race officials deemed that the No. 2 had started further back on the grid and had thus covered more distance and awarded that car the win.”

As a result, Miles, who had won at Daytona and Sebring earlier in the year, was denied the “Triple Crown” of endurance racing. He was killed later that summer testing a prototype of the forthcoming Mk IV.

After 1967, a succession of owners drove it, including Richard Reventlow, brother of Lance Reventlow, creator of the 1950s Scarab sports racers, and it carried a variety of paint schemes. In the early 1990s, it was restored to 1966 Le Mans specs and was purchased by Larry Miller in 1999.

“The collection can mean many things to many people,” Miller says. “To the Ford enthusiast, it represents the world’s most significant collection of Ford sports and racing cars associated with Carroll Shelby.

“To the general auto enthusiast, it is a collection of some of America’s most historic sports and racing cars,” he adds. “To others, it highlights what is possible when one man with a passionate vision pursues a dream and makes it a reality.

“My father loved those cars and wanted to share his passion with others. It remains part of his legacy that will endure for many years to come.”

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