The Shelby 427 Cobra Strikes Gold!

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 08/2015
  • posted in: Great Garages

The Shelby Cobra 427 is 50 this year, and the potent performance car is revered wherever it’s seen. This year, the also legendary Shelby G.T.350 is celebrating a golden anniversary, too, with special events planned during Monterey Collector Car Week at the historic Mazda Laguna Seca race track, as Ford reveals its new Shelby GT350.

With the assistance of the staff at the 10,000-square-foot Las Vegas Heritage Center, which celebrates the Carroll Shelby legacy, let’s celebrate the Shelby 427 S/C this month in its original and later versions. The Shelby G.T.350 follows, just by a bumper, later this year.

The Legend Takes Off

The original Shelby Cobra 427 race cars –– only 53 of the planned 100 were built in the 1960s –– are among the rarest and most valuable of American collector cars. “The Shelby American team made the big-block Cobra one of the most feared sports car in the world,” Shelby said.

In January 1965, Shelby and the Ford Motor Company introduced the 427 Cobra at Riverside Raceway, now gone. “While it looked similar, this was a radically different car because Carroll Shelby was not going to be outgunned by the new big block Corvette and a new high-horsepower Ferrari rumored to be in the works,” according to a statement from Shelby American, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Originally, the small block Cobra was powered by a 260-cid Ford engine and then by a 289-cubic engine Ford engine, similar to the popular Mustang. These had independent transverse leaf spring front and rear suspensions and flexed a lot. All of the small-block Shelby Cobras had CSX2000 serial numbers.

The car was very, very light at 2,020 pounds yet delivered almost 400 horsepower. As a result, the car was very fast and reliable, a great amalgam of a small British car and a powerful American powerplant. With a $5,995 MSRP, a total of 655 “small block” Cobras were built, 1962−1965. “CSX2000’s DNA can be found in every Shelby car and high-performance part we’ve ever built,” Shelby said.

One of America’s greatest drivers, he dominated sports car racing in the mid-1950s and was Sports Illustrated’s “Driver of the Year” twice. In 1959, Shelby was co-driver in winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Aston Martin. A heart ailment forced his retirement from racing in 1960, so he became a successful race team leader and entrepreneur. He died in May 2012.

Shelby first approached Chevrolet because of his experience with the stunning Scaglietti Corvettes. The great Italian designer handcrafted Corvette Italias in collaboration with Gary Laughlin, Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby. Only three of these priceless cars were created. Enzo Ferrari was not happy, as he was Scaglietti’s biggest customer.

Similarly, the idea for the first Cobras was to fit the 283-cid Chevrolet motor into the AC Ace chassis when the English carmaker lost its engine deal. But GM naturally turned down the opportunity to create a competitor to the Corvette.

Lee Iacocca at Ford Motor Company was the next call for the indefatigable Shelby in 1962. Ford agreed to supply motors and cash, so Shelby formed Shelby American around a group of Southern California hot rodders.

With typical aggressiveness, he called the car the Cobra. He said he saw the name in a dream. That was realized later that year with CSX2000, introduced to great welcome at the New York Auto Show.

From 1962−1964, the Shelby Cobra performed well throughout the world, leading to the Pete Brock-designed and Ken Miles-engineered Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe. This was a fast, beautiful car which won in its class at LeMans in 1964, co-driven by the Valley’s Bob Bondurant with Dan Gurney.

Together, the six Daytona Cobras and a few Cobra roadsters won the FIA World Manufacturers’ Championship on July 4, 1965 –– the only time an American car has won this series on European soil. This year is also the 50th anniversary of that great win. Shelby American is offering 50 continuation Daytonas, CSX9950–CSX9999, to celebrate this, in fiberglass or aluminum. The new car will be shown at Mazda Raceway, Aug. 15, during Monterey Auto Week.

The Big One

But, a new big block was rumored as well as a more powerful Ferrari. “The Ford small-block engines had reached their limit for power, and the leaf spring suspension could not handle additional stress given the 289 Cobra’s paltry weight; making it lighter wasn’t an option,” says Joe Conway, co-trustee of Shelby’s Trust.

The new CSX3000, weighing in at about 2,400 pounds because of the NASCAR-based racing 427, made almost 500 horses, also had a superior frame, new independent front and rear suspension and those large flares to cover massive wheels and tires. The cockpit was also bigger. “It was bigger and faster but at the same time maintained the unique, classic features of all the Cobras,” Conway says.

Notes Bondurant, CEO of The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler: “It wasn’t quite as nimble as the lighter 289 Cobras, but the 427s had better high-speed stability and acceleration.”

While he is better known for his success in the 289 Cobras, Bondurant once drove a 427 Cobra, CSX3006, at Brands Hatch in 1966 for the BOAC 500 with David Piper as co-driver. In torrential rain, they won the race outright ahead of a GT40. Bondurant, the first recipient of the “Carroll Shelby Spirit” award in March, says he last saw CSX3006 at SAAC 38 in Fontana in 2013 and believes a Canadian collector now owns the car.

Let’s take a look at a few of these great cars at The Heritage Center:

•1962 Shelby Cobra CSX2000 “The One” –– The first Shelby Cobra built and possibly the most valuable American sports car in the world, this survivor-condition Cobra was owned by Carroll Shelby. Painted several times for different magazine appearances (that’s a separate story), the car still has its original 4-speed, Ford 260-cid engine, brakes, interior and body.

•1965 Shelby Cobra CSX3178 –– Only 348 big block Cobras were built between 1965−1967 for $7,995 MSRP: Fifty-three had the race-ready 427, and the remainder had the more street-oriented 428 Ford engine.

This is a street-version big-block Cobra with the optional roll bar and automatic transmission and remains part of the Carroll Shelby legacy collection. The Carroll Hall Shelby Trust is now offering the remaining original Competition Chassis race cars that were started in 1965.

Built to the original specifications, the roadsters are sold as race cars with the CSX VIN and badge number originally assigned in 1965. A portion of the sale from each of these cars will be donated to help construction of the Shelby Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California, now in the design and build stage.

•1965 Shelby Cobra CSX3056 –– In the early 1990’s, Shelby American built continuation CSX3000 series aluminum 427 Cobras otherwise identical to those manufactured in 1967. The big-block Cobras were intended solely for enjoyment on the race track. CSX3056 was the first in that short run of Cobras and is part of Carroll Shelby’s legacy collection.

•50th Anniversary CSX8000 Cobra –– On the track, the Cobra defeated sports cars from Jaguar, Chevrolet, Porsche and others. Shelby is honoring this automotive icon with the 50th Anniversary Limited Edition CSX8000-series Cobra. Only 50 vehicles were produced, CSX serial numbers 8950 through 8999.

•50th FIA CSX7000 Cobra –– In 1964 Shelby American introduced the FIA version of the small-block Cobra which dominated its class in many forms of racing throughout the ‘60s.

To celebrate this 50th anniversary, Shelby American offered only 50 limited edition continuation Shelby 289 FIA Cobras. Each was painted Viking Blue with Arctic White FIA stripes and roundels, premium black interior, special billet anniversary badges, original style powder coated wheels and a variety of additional options.

Modifications included a new dash, widened front and rear fenders, cut-back doors, racing wheels featuring a pin drive hub and oil cooler scoops.

•50th 427 –– America’s first super car, the Cobra 427, dominated “A” Production class in SCCA and won several championships. To celebrate its 50-year anniversary Shelby American offered only 50 total 427 anniversary Cobras, with special gold 50th-anniversary badging, logos and features.

They were available in either aluminum or fiberglass bodies. Aluminum cars were offered in polished aluminum (with or without brushed stripes) or Guardsman blue with Wimbledon white stripes.

Fiberglass-bodied cars were available in Guardsman blue with Wimbledon white stripes, serial CSX4550– CSX4599. All carry a unique Shelby-issued MSO and place in the registry.

The Heritage Center offers free guided tours from Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 702942.7325 or see shelby.com

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