The Famed Cobra Daytona Coupe That Almost Didn’t Win, as Told by Its Designer

The Shelby Daytona Coupe represented an unknown quantity at the start of Le Mans in 1964. John Ohlsen, shown peering around the volunteer wearing the white T-shirt, believed in the car. Photography Credit: Eric Della Faille

On a hot June afternoon in 1964, just days before the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, only one of Carroll Shelby’s two entries for the world’s most important and prestigious race was on site and ready to run. All Shelby knew was that his new, completely untested, engineless second entry, having had its body just completed in Modena, was somewhere on the road being flat-bedded up from Italy.

Shelby’s impatience was simmering. The always difficult border crossing with fractious French customs could take hours or even days, time that simply wasn’t available. Knowing how much work remained to complete this second entry, his frustration with the situation was evident.

Shelby’s reputation and credibility with sponsors was tenuous. After the fast-talking Texan’s team had miraculously won the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring just weeks previously, Henry Ford II had taken a big gamble in backing him with his still highly controversial new design called the Daytona Cobra.

The radically shaped, Ford V8-powered GT had easily defeated Ferrari’s best, convincing the Deuce there was some real potential in their alliance. Now Shelby’s entire future with Ford was dependent upon his team’s success in a grueling, twice-around-the-clock event where few Americans had ever dared to compete. Competition from the impressive works teams of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari, AC and even Ford itself, with three of its brand-new GT40s, could not have been more menacing.

When the semi-completed second Daytona finally arrived from Italy, it was covered in dust and still smelling of fresh paint. Just weeks earlier, its bare twin-tube chassis had been completed at AC Cars in England and then flown to Shelby’s shop in California, where a dummy engine and transmission were installed so the headers and exhaust system could be fabricated.

Radiator, plumbing and electrics were then fitted, while a couple of structural tubes were welded in to support the new body. The mock-up engine and trans were removed, and the chassis was again flown halfway across the world to Rome so it could be trucked up to a tiny backstreet body shop in Modena called Carrozzeria Grand Sport.

The first Cobra Daytona Coupe was built in Shelby’s California shop, and, with designer Peter Brock present during the build, remained perfectly true to the original design. (Pictured are exact replicas.) The follow-up Cobra Daytona Coupes-there would be six in all-were built by Carrozzeria Grand Sport. The Italian crew reconfigured the roofline and made a few other adjustments as they followed their own muses. Photography Credit: Peter Brock 

Inside, a team of Modenese fabricators had been anxiously awaiting the chassis. Their objective was to create a copy of the first Daytona’s body, which had been built to my dimensions in Shelby’s shop in California. However, the Modenese wouldn’t have the luxury of copying off our only Daytona, as it was being prepped in France for Le Mans’ annual Test Days and would then be sent to Belgium for the race at Spa.

All they had were my drawings and a few photographs, but there was one other problem: The Modenese workmen had just discovered that my quarter-scale drawings for the Daytona’s body were in inches. The Italians worked in millimeters!

Even had I been there, I would have had no fast, practical method to convert the drawings or dimensions. Unfazed by this seemingly irreconcilable setback, the Italians simply looked at my drawings and the photos and began recreating the form by eye! I didn’t know it at the time, but this was actually the normal method of building racing car bodies in Modena, so my drawings were simply a visual guide.

But, as they studied the Daytona’s unfamiliar lines, there was just one other “minor problem”: It looked unlike anything they’d ever built. They actually thought I’d made an error. So, with the best of intentions, they simply recontoured the roofline to resemble the locally built Ferraris and then “improved” my nose and headlight details to better suit their Modenese aesthetic sensibilities.

Now, in Le Mans, with just hours remaining, the responsibility of putting this entire Daytona puzzle on the starting grid lay with John Ohlsen, Shelby’s young New Zealand crew chief.

Incredibly, Ohlsen was the only mechanic on Shelby’s team of veterans who completely understood the Daytona’s unique structure. That’s because he, almost singlehandedly, had built much of my first Daytona in California under the highly skeptical oversight of Shelby’s unquestioned team leader and chief engineering fabricator, Phil Remington.

At Shelby’s request, I originally designed the Daytona in secret, and its radical form adhered to none of the accepted dogma of racing car design. That proved to be a major problem. Its dramatically chopped tail and unfamiliar roofline were considered so counterintuitive and aesthetically unappealing that Remington and several on his crew actually refused to work on the project, believing it would be a waste of time.

Remington assigned the project to our Kiwi “new guy,” John Ohlsen. Amazingly, he dived in and started building.

Soon, a couple more of Remington’s select crew joined on their own after hours and helped build that first Daytona.

Winning Converts

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Peter Brock, on the right, had the vision for the Daytona Coupe. John Ohlsen, in the middle, believed in the project when few others did. And Ron Moore, on the left, did some drafting for Brock. Photograph Courtesy Peter Brock Collection 

My lines for the Daytona were inspired by an obscure treatise on automotive aerodynamics written in Germany in 1937. I’d discovered this technical white paper in GM Styling’s library while designing the XP87 Sting Ray Corvette for VP of Design Bill Mitchell.

I had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Mitchell of the value in the report’s startling coefficient of drag numbers, but he wasn’t interested. Rebuffed, I quietly put the yellowed sheets aside, knowing their potential value for another time.

Six years later, on my own and with no directional oversight other than Shelby’s cautious encouragement, I penned the lines for the future World GT Champion. As a student of racing history, I knew that Shelby’s powerful Cobra roadsters, successful as they had been in winning the United States Road Racing Championship in 1963, would be totally outclassed in Europe.

On the superfast circuits like Le Mans, Spa and Monza, where the 180-plus-mph speeds of Europe’s elites from Ferrari, Jaguar and Aston Martin would top our Cobra roadster’s maximum by at least 20 mph, there was no chance. The Cobra’s future success demanded a complete redesign, but no one within the Shelby organization except me had any idea how to proceed.

Horsepower wasn’t the answer, as the team’s trusty 289s, with 385 horsepower, were already at the peak of present technology. Superior aerodynamics were the answer, but no one on the Shelby team was familiar with the subject because high speeds had never been required on America’s short tracks.

In the early ’60s, aero was still a black art. The Germans had been years ahead of everyone prior to WWII, but almost everything they’d discovered had been lost, destroyed or forgotten after the war. I had quietly convinced Shelby that a recent edit in the FIA’s arcane racing regulations would allow us a complete body change, provided our Cobra’s chassis remained unchanged.

A skeptical Shelby approved my concept, provided I could present the idea on paper to our veteran team of racers and convince them of the concept. When I asked about our “budget,” Shelby made it very clear: There was no budget to build anything, much less a completely new design.

Undeterred, because pencil work essentially cost us nothing, I worked up a presentation that described the aerodynamic value of my strange chopped-tail shape and presented it to the team. Silence. Almost everyone on our team, except Shelby’s top driver, Ken Miles, rejected the far-reaching concept.

Miles, from England, had seen what the Germans were capable of prior to WWII and agreed to personally help me and John Ohlsen create a full-sized wooden “buck,” upon which aluminum panels could be formed–provided the funds to build the entire prototype somehow became available.

Asking Ford for financial assistance, of course, was out of the question. At that point, Shelby was still a relative outsider in Dearborn. Ford’s management had been delighted with the Cobra’s 1963 success against their cross-town rivals at Corvette, but those racers had all been privateers; there was no way Ford management considered our tiny California operation capable of taking on Europe’s best.

Besides, Ford’s team had already spent millions acquiring Eric Broadley’s Mk6 Lola to develop its own Ferrari challenger, the GT40. Protective insiders at Ford felt they didn’t need any more competition than they already had.

Fortunately, after winning Le Mans and retiring from racing in ’59, Shelby had been awarded the 11 western states’, distributorship for Goodyear’s new racing tires. With a couple of my ballpen sketches in hand, Shelby met with Akron’s top management and convinced them of the promotional value of building our challenger. With funding promised over lunch, a corner of our shop was allocated to build the car.

In spite of all the internal dissension, Ohlsen, Miles and I persevered. We led a small group of shop converts into building our first Daytona Coupe in 90 days!

Miles then proved the design on track at Riverside Raceway, smashing his previous Cobra lap record by 3.5 seconds. On Riverside’s back straight, even with “short course gearing,” he topped 180. He knew right then that with proper gearing, our Coupe had the potential to compete internationally.

The Cobra’s newfound speed became a turning point in Shelby’s career. Even a cautious Remington could not refute the reality of the numbers. Days later, in Florida, the Coupe set a lap record in our first race of the ’64 season. On the high banks of Daytona during the 2000Ks, it easily outran the highly favored Ferrari GTOs for several hours until sidelined by a spectacular pit lane fire.

Five weeks later, it again set a GT lap record while winning the 12 Hours of Sebring. These two performances convinced Henry Ford II to back Shelby’s crusade for the World GT Championship in Europe. Now, three months later in France, the clock was ticking.

Under Its Own Power

The two Cobra Daytona Coupes faced stiff competition from the GTO Ferraris at Le Mans. Despite mechanical issues, John Ohlsen, Shelby’s crew chief, pulled the team to victory. Photograph Courtesy Peter Brock Collection 

Ohlsen worked tirelessly through the remaining hours to combine our new, untested, Modena-built Coupe with a new BorgWarner four-speed and Ford-Cobra engine that had just arrived by air from California. A set of large 5s was painted on the Viking Blue surface, along with some distinctive white markings on the front fenders so the team’s signaling crew could tell the Italian Coupe apart from its almost identical twin, No. 6.

Without even firing the engine, Ohlsen’s baby was rushed to tech before the line was shut down. With the circuit now closed to practice, the only alternative was to take the just-completed Coupe to the small airfield behind the Le Mans main grandstands and make a few passes up and down the runways to ensure everything functioned properly and that there were no leaks.

By race morning, there were still a dozen small tasks to complete, detail refinements that had been learned at Sebring and Spa. The biggest change was the addition of a rear spoiler.

My original design, with a driver-controlled adjustable rear wing, had been overruled during the prototype’s final construction by a still-skeptical Phil Remington. When again pressed to build the wing after the Coupe’s convincing win at Sebring, Remington replied, “It’s already fast enough to win. It ain’t broke so we’re not going to fix it.”

But at Spa in Belgium, just weeks before Le Mans, Remington finally became a believer. My predictions of a need for more rear downforce came true. Driver Phil Hill exited the Coupe after the first few laps of practice on the superfast, undulating circuit, saying it was too dangerous to drive.

Overnight, Remington fashioned a rear spoiler from a sheet of scrap aluminum. It completely transformed the car’s handling! Hill set a lap record the next morning and then put the Daytona on the front row for the race. That single modification would completely change the Daytona’s potential for the rest of the season.

With the 24 Hours scheduled to start at 4 p.m., an already exhausted Ohlsen continued to labor, checking and rechecking every possible detail. America’s Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney had been selected to drive the new Coupe. Neither had ever driven a Daytona, so the seating position was adjusted and personal preferences for comfort were attended to.

Their odds of success over 24 hours–in a completely untested car, with unfamiliar drivers, on one of the fastest circuits in Europe–seemed remote at best. Bondo’ was a rookie on the circuit, but Gurney had already raced there five times. By contrast, our well-proven Sebring winner, with New Zealand’s young phenom Chris Amon and Germany’s veteran Jochen Neerpasch, seemed a far better bet. And so it would prove to be long into the night.

The expected strong challenge from proven consecutive Le Mans winner Ferrari never materialized–even with its four works-backed GTOs. Our twin Daytonas dominated the GT class, running a solid one-two, with the Amon/Neerpasch Coupe setting a fast, destructive pace that humbled the Italians. With strict orders from Shelby that there be no internal challenge from Gurney and Bondurant in No. 5, our tired crews on pit row slept for hours between pit stops as the competition slowly disintegrated. Even the three highly anticipated new Ford GT40s had tanked.

All seemed perfect for the twin Daytonas until well into the night, when Amon came in to refuel and change drivers. Under the rules, the engine was shut off. When service was completed, Neerpasch was given the “go” sign. He flicked on the lights and hit the starter switch. Click, click.… The lights dimmed. Dead battery.

Our disbelieving crew scrambled, hauling out a set of jumper cables to restart the engine. “Non, non!” our pit marshal yelled, waving back the crew while explaining in broken English, “Ees not legal to start ze car with outside assistance!”

This bewildered our crew. Having never raced in France, they didn’t know the rules were completely different. This simply didn’t make sense.

What to do? They looked in their cache of spares for a fresh battery. “Non!” It wasn’t legal to replace the battery, either.

Our pit marshal kept repeating, “Ze car must start undair eet’s own power!”

Our guys looked at each other, wondering. His comment seemed so obvious. In the pressure of the moment, however, our crew didn’t understand that our pit marshal was actually trying to help by offering a clue. Under the rules, he was not permitted to offer advice or assist in any way.

Our leading GT had now been in the pits for over 17 minutes. The fastest works GTO Ferrari was catching up. In those dwindling seconds, Bondurant, in our No. 5, roared past the pits, taking the GT lead.

By now, our pit area was teeming with officials. Even some serious-faced crew from Ferrari’s pit had materialized to see what had detained our No. 6.

Even Shelby had scrambled down from the team’s scoring platform above the pit to take command of the situation. He talked heatedly with the ACO officials, who had appeared just as mysteriously to monitor the situation.

Ferrari’s pit boss was waiving protest paper! Pandemonium!

Frustrated with the time lost in arguing, our crew opted for what seemed the only possible solution: They simply inverted a spare battery over the failed unit and jump-started the car. The moment the car fired, an imperious ACO official stepped in front of the car, waving his arms and saying it would be disqualified if it moved.

Shelby pushed him out of way and told Neerpasch to get moving. Shelby was figuring it was best to have the car on track while a “solution” was being negotiated with the ACO officials.

Then an even more senior ACO official appeared, telling Shelby in no uncertain terms, in very plain English, that if our leading No. 5 car was not signaled in on the next lap, both of our cars would be DQ’d! No recourse. There was nothing to do except comply. Even Shelby’s status as a past Le Mans winner meant nothing to the ACO officials.

There were no pit lane “deals” to be negotiated. A grim-faced Shelby gave the order to our crewman to write “IN!” in large letters.

In the quieting aftermath of the situation, our French photographer and translator quietly explained to our crew chief our personal pit marshal’s misunderstood command: He had been trying to tell them that the car must start under its own power, which had been clearly understood, but not the secret meaning of his wording–which would have made sense had we raced at Le Mans in the past.

Since the engine had been started by “outside means” and the car had been waved onto the track against ACO orders, it was clearly DQ’d. But, if the engine had only been started and not moved a millimeter, that would have been allowed! The intent of marshal’s wording was to allow the engine to run for enough time to recharge the battery and then be shut off so it could restart under its own power!

Taking the Heat

The Shelby team’s No.5 car took the lead when No.6 ran afoul of the officials. And then No.5 ran into its own issues caused by an oil cooler leak. Photograph Courtesy Ford 

The cause of the alternator’s failure? The dyno-fresh engine had been equipped with a brand-new fan belt. After more than 12 hours of hard racing, the belt had stretched, allowing it to slip on the alternator pulley. With no continuing charge, the battery had run down and destroyed our No. 6’s chance of victory. When Bondurant pitted in No. 5 for the driver change, the alternator drive belt was readjusted.

Bondurant and Gurney, in the brand-new, untested Daytona, had now climbed to third overall, challenging the theoretically faster Prototype 275P Ferraris for the overall win. In all the 40-plus years of Le Mans history, a GT-class car had never won overall. Ferrari’s closest GTO was 50 miles astern with no seeming chance of victory.

At daybreak, Gurney unexpectedly pitted. Oil pressure was fluctuating badly and traction was “squirrely.” Upon raising the hood, we saw that the entire engine compartment was bathed in hot oil. It was so thick that the heated fluid had streamed back under the chassis and onto the rear tires, causing the car’s instability.

The Coupe’s front-mounted oil cooler had taken a rock, bursting one of its oil-filled cooling fins. Under pressure, oil had sprayed everywhere.

When the dipstick was pulled, only a fraction of an inch remained on the shaft. Several cans to refill the engine were quickly opened, only to again prompt “Non, non!” from our arm-waving pit marshal.

Under the rules, the car had to run another five laps before oil could be added. But without oil, the engine could be irreparably damaged. There was no option. In a momentary thrash to save time, the cooler was pinched off, allowing Gurney to go out again for the mandatory five laps.

Circulating as quickly and carefully as possible to prevent complete oil starvation from g-forces in the corners and under acceleration and braking, Gurney skillfully nursed the coupe around the 7-mile circuit, knowing the fastest GTO Ferrari was now gaining.

Back in our pit, Remington and Ohlsen worked feverishly to build a bypass for the damaged cooler, but this took almost five laps. During this agonizing interval, the remaining GTO Ferrari slowly passed Gurney to take the GT lead.

When Gurney finally reentered our pit for fuel and tires, the dipstick was again pulled. Nothing! Maybe less than a quart remained. Miraculously, the engine had survived.

With the oil line repaired, Gurney was sent out again but admonished to drive by the oil temp gauge, not the tachometer. At this reduced speed, Gurney could not gain on the now-leading GTO without risking a blown engine.

For another couple of hours, the two “raced”–fourth and fifth overall–with the slower Ferrari now able to hold off the previously faster Daytona. In the final pit stop/driver change, Bondurant was cautioned to watch the oil temp.

Toward the end of the afternoon, fate intervened. The leading GTO pitted, unable to continue. A broken universal on its driveshaft ended any chance of maintaining Enzo’s once dominant position as the world’s fastest, most reliable GT racer.

At 4 p.m., Bondurant crossed the finish line, winning the GT class for Shelby. He was also fourth overall.

Bob slowed on the front straight so Gurney could climb in the passenger side while Ohlsen opened the rear hatch to climb in and hitch a ride to the podium.

It was the first time in history that a previous Le Mans winner had also won as a team owner. Shelby’s status with Ford changed immeasurably. Had the oil cooler not failed, the Daytona’s speed would certainly have made it a contender for the overall win.

In 24 hours, America’s status in the world of motor racing was changed forever. John Ohlsen’s status within the team had changed as well: He’d become the crew chief who almost single-handedly helped build and prep a Le Mans winner.

Success: The Cobra Daytona Coupe, at first dismissed as a folly, finished first in class and fourth overall at Le Mans. John Ohlsen flipped open the hatch for his ride to the podium. Photograph Courtesy Peter Brock Collection 

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Comments
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slowbird
slowbird SuperDork
7/25/20 3:42 a.m.

Le Mans sure had some unusual rules. Still does, to some extent.

Danny Shields (Forum Supporter)
Danny Shields (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
7/25/20 3:49 p.m.

Great story!

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