A Legend Laid Bare: The Very First Shelby Cobra


Story By Matt Stone • Photography As Credited

Carroll Shelby and a memorable gang of SoCal hotrodders had gathered in Dean Moon’s shop. It was early 1962, and a new Ford small-block V8 was being lowered into the empty engine bay of an AC Ace roadster. This is where the whole Cobra thing began.

The car was Shelby’s development mule–a show car, a press car. It was on the move all the time in those early days, and was repainted several different colors so people–primarily magazine editors–would think there was more than one. Shelby owned it when it was born, and it is absolutely not for sale at any price.

CSX2000 is wonderfully worn but beautiful in every way, medium metallic blue at the moment and not likely to ever change colors again. Half the gauges don’t work, though the right turn signal does. All the time. No matter which levers I fiddle with.

The car’s thin, wood-rimmed, alloy-spoked steering wheel feels like it’s made of Red Vines. There are shaggy tears in the original leather seats. A crack in the blue paint on the top edge of the dainty, alloy passenger door reveals a glimpse of an earlier coat of yellow.

The engine compartment is a bit shabby, the welds on the handmade headers not exactly NASA quality. Who knows how old these rock-hard Goodyear Motorway Special tires are: 6.70-15s on the rear, a 6.50-15 on the right front, and a 6.40-15 on the left front. Close enough.

Some would label CSX2000 as “weathered” or even “thrashed”; others would say it has “patina.” I say it’s historic, fabulously unmolested, and deserves to stay this way.

Turn the key, press the starter button, and the solid-lifter V8 snaps awake, settling into a slightly cammy, clackety idle. Wisps of blue smoke trail from the 1.5-inch-diameter dual tailpipes, indicating piston rings that were indeed rode hard, put away wet, and kept from seeing much action in the last 20 years.

But the little 260 revs willingly and, once running, transforms the first Cobra from a vaunted, horrifyingly valuable museum piece into–as Shelby calls ’em–a sport car. It sounds good. It even smells good–old car smells. Depress that firm clutch pedal, select first with the stubby gearshift, and we’re away.

The engine–plenty broken in by now–revs easily and speaks the expected small-block-Ford sounds. Each tall gear seems to pull forever. Redline is 5750 rpm, though it’s been to 7000 and more countless times.

We dare not take it there anymore, lest one of those original piston rings decides to help an original piston and ventilate the original engine block–not something I want to be responsible for. But a crisp one-two shift at 5000 revs brings a bark of old rubber, and suddenly it’s 1962: I’m Sports Car Graphic magazine’s John Christy, doing the very first article on Shelby’s new creation.

There’s plenty of play in the worm-and-sector steering, but it’s probably caused by the tires. They make the whole car feel squishy. But considering that at least two of them were put on the car when JFK was in office, I’m just happy they roll and hold air. Better not push the handling thing. No such problem with the brakes, however; the unassisted four-wheel discs, inboard at the rear, require a firm shove with the right foot, but there’s plenty of stopping power. And very little dive or squat. No CAD-developed, electronically managed suspension system here–just transverse leaf springs, a somewhat flexi chassis, and worn-out shocks.

Let’s go through the gears again. That tall rear-end ratio lets the first Cobra roll at freeway speeds in second and comfortably in third. Fourth feels like an overdrive; imagine what this combination of flexible V8 power and light weight would be able to do with drag strip gears.

The engine’s hardly smoking at all now after a bit of a workout; maybe there are some rings left in there after all. Another one-two-three-four run–at nearly redline this time–elicits much whooping and hollering from both me and my passenger/photographer, former Motor Trend Editor-in-Chief C. Van Tune.

Though it wouldn’t much impress a Viper or a Corvette these days, the Cobra is fast–way fast–when viewed through the eyes of 1962. And it’s none too shabby even today: It should still crank out a zero-to-60 in about 5.0 seconds.

The ride is relaxed, and the feeling from behind the wheel is not unlike that of my own Sunbeam Tiger–no surprise, since it too is a British roadster with a 260 Ford V8 and Carroll Shelby as a founding father. The Tiger is luxurious by comparison, although the Cobra has more legroom and a more athletic feel.

As I drive CSX2000 through the Nevada desert on this hot summer day, I have to wonder: How many road tests has this car been through? How many burnouts, quarter-mile runs, speed shifts and doughnuts has this poor baby laid down–on its original engine and trans, remember?

How many Corvettes has it hosed the highway with on yet another midnight prowl? How many books and magazine covers and articles have featured this single little roadster? How many of my journalistic forbears–including some of the greats of this business–as well as movie stars, race drivers, engineers and other hangers-on, have worked it through the gears “just one more time” with a smile on his or her face?

Hard to say. I’m just damn glad to have been one of them.

Shelby American Automobile Club: Preserving Shelby’s Legacy

A great car deserves a great club, and that’s the job of the Shelby American Automobile Club. In 1975, long after the thunder of the ’60s had subsided, the club came about with a simple goal: Preserve Shelby’s legacy. At the time, remember, performance had largely fallen out of favor; the day was instead dominated by crushed velour, landau tops and a 55-mph national speed limit.

Fortunately, club officials had the foresight to write down facts and details–things that often fade away over time. They gathered notes detailing model specifications, production runs and individual ownership histories for each car bearing a Shelby serial number.

Today, the fruits of that labor are quite tangible. The club produces three registries, each one topping 1200 pages: early Shelby Mustangs, late Shelby Mustangs, and then Cobras and GT40s. Interested in the complete history of an individual car? Thanks to the SAAC you can research it fully, from delivery to current owner.

Over the years, the SAAC has expanded its focus a bit to include most all Ford-powered performance cars, from Tigers and Panteras to Bosses and Mangustas. Late-model Mustangs are welcome, too.

In fact, all fans are welcome. As their site boasts in bold font, ownership is not required for membership–just enthusiasm. Dues for American addresses are $50 per year, and they’re $75 for everywhere else. Members receive The Shelby American as well as access to their club-only website, which contains those all-important classified ads.

The club also hosts a national convention, and this year’s is scheduled for Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway August 20-22. The weekend’s schedule includes a swap meet, car show, parade laps, track time and vintage racing. SVRA will be at the track that weekend, too.

–David S. Wallens

Shelby American Automobile Club membership@saac.com saac.com

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn Dork
6/17/18 10:57 a.m.

Since stock engine valve float sets in around 6000, and you say this one can turn 7000, I assume they hot rodded it at the start?

jimbbski
jimbbski Dork
6/17/18 3:05 p.m.

I met a guy that was the second owner of a Cobra very much like this. It was painted brown, don't ask why, I didn't. This was in 1995 when I was buying a car from the second owner,  a Fox Mustang. He has just purchased it from the first owner who he had know for like 30 years and had on many occasions made known the fact that he would buy the car from him whenever  he was ready to sell it. Well  that happen in '95 when the first owner turned 80. The car had been sitting for over 25 years un-driven. It needed every rubber part replaced as they were either rock hard or crumbling but he was able to keep the tires as they still held air,  but you wouldn't want to drive anywhere on them.   

miles_wilson
miles_wilson
6/18/18 1:24 p.m.

@wsphon Safe to assume that hot-rodding was prevalent at the conception of the Cobra, especially for a mule that stuck around this long!

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