How a streamlined Mercedes SSKL and the Shelby Daytona Coupe overcame the same obstacle–decades apart | Column

Those of us who’ve invested so much of our lives in special automobiles have learned over time that it’s not just the cars that have made the time spent so personally rewarding. It’s their histories and the people who were so intimately involved in their creation and use that adds such luster to ownership–or even dedicated and enthusiastic interest when actual possession is only a dream. 

Sometimes the story behind the creation of such objects is so wonderfully improbable that it becomes legend, adding to the aura surrounding a car’s history and its special moment in time. Whatever element of a new design that somehow made it unique, history proves there was always some doubt or even heated resistance surrounding the initial concept because it threatened the status quo. 

Elsewhere in this issue, the article “Aero Awakening” tells the story of a visionary design and the small, dedicated group who changed automotive history because of their certainty in a concept that would prove superior to the established and long-accepted standards of excellence. If you care to look for other examples in a doubting and skeptical world, there are many such parallel tales of success. It’s from each of those lessons learned that we receive the inspiration to make positive changes in our own lives. 

[Everything changed when this radical Mercedes-Benz SSKL won at Avus in 1932]

Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld, a young German nobleman, was certain that his ideas for controlling or redirecting the invisible resistant substance that limited the ultimate efficiency and top speed of existing designs could best be demonstrated in competition. The ultimate proof and success of his aerodynamic concept, excitingly confirmed before thousands of incredulous race fans, proved a self-evident triumph over prevailing doubt, forcing its grudging acceptance and ultimately almost universal adoption.

I found the details of von Fachsenfeld’s startling redesign of a proven winner, dramatically demonstrated at the Avus circuit in Germany in 1932, so similar to the events surrounding my own experience in 1964–during the creation and hurried development of the first Daytona Cobra Coupe for Carroll Shelby–that I couldn’t help but smile. A direct comparison of the situations and the personalities involved in both events and the final results remains to this day an important lesson.

Shelby’s burning desire in 1964 to successfully race his Cobra roadsters in Europe against Enzo Ferrari’s championship-winning 250 GTOs was limited by the same invisible substance that was impeding the best efforts of the works-developed Mercedes SSKL racers in 1932: air. 

My suggestion in late ’63 to Shelby and his key advisors was that we adopt the same aerodynamic principals that had proved so successful to von Fachsenfeld, and it was met by disbelief and almost complete resistance. At the time, Shelby’s close-knit crew were without doubt the best road racers in America, but most were unfamiliar with the German technology that had been used so successfully on Europe’s high-speed circuits some three decades prior to the Cobra’s recent domination on America’s short tracks. With scant knowledge of early European race history, they rejected my concept to completely re-skin the Cobra roadster with an adaptation of a form that had proven so effective prior to WWII. 

Note that I said “almost complete resistance.” Everyone had objected except Ken Miles. Our veteran English test driver/engineer had some keen awareness of history. He quietly convinced a skeptical Shelby to let me at least draw up my concept for a formal presentation to our entire team. A week later, after showing the group detailed drawings and explaining the sound logic behind my lines’ projecting success, there was still a reluctant silence to proceed.

As a result, Miles and I, along with our Kiwi crew chief, John Ohlsen, and a couple of very talented, open-minded and late-coming Shelby team members, completed our first Daytona Coupe in 90 days.

The initial test at Riverside with Miles at the wheel proved our effort was instantly capable of matching the best from Europe. The impregnable truth of stopwatch numbers convinced the once-skeptical team to revise their thinking. It welded them into an even tighter force with newfound vision. 

Our first two Daytona Cobra Coupes went on to set lap records at every circuit upon which they turned a wheel, and with four more added for 1965, they went on to win the world GT Championship. Had he been there, Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld too would have smiled.

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