Peter Brock: Capturing the true history of the Shelby Cobra

Photograph Courtesy Ford

Time has a way of distorting history so that, if not corrected by those who lived it, it becomes inaccurate fact. Englishman Rinsey Mills, perhaps more than any automotive historian of the chaotic Shelby era, had a firm grasp on the earliest events of the day by being on site at the AC factory in Thames Ditton almost from the day the first tubes were laid in place to create one of the world’s most storied automobiles, Carroll Shelby’s Cobra. 

From that point on, Mills, an enthusiastic historic and vintage car racer and exacting historian of the sport, began making arrangements to cover the Cobra’s earliest successes in America as well as almost every FIA endurance event in Europe. Once Shelby’s snakes, some sheathed in sleek aero-friendly bodies called Daytona Coupes, had crossed the ocean in search of the World Sportscar Championship for GT cars in 1964, Rinsey was always trackside taking notes.

As Carroll Shelby’s first employee, I was on hand at Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, California, when the second of the first two completed cars, chassis No. CSX 2000, arrived in 1962 in bare aluminum to have its engine installed. What few know in the Cobra’s intensely choreographed Shelby PR history is that the first running Cobra, chassis No. CSX 2001, was actually completed a couple of weeks earlier in Pittsburgh by then-friend and financial business partner Ed Hugus. 

It was actually Hugus who paid for the first shipment of semi-completed Shelby automobiles to be delivered to America. Had Hugus not been willing to front Shelby the cash for those first few cars, the Texan’s whole operation might well have dissolved. 

Even the name Cobra had not yet been conjured in a fitful dream by the charismatic ex-chicken farmer. Shelby revealed to me a few mornings after CSX 2000 had its engine installed that it was going to be called the Cobra. Prior to that point, he had his name painted in large red script on the car’s brushed-alloy surface, just above a small, all-silver badge that had been attached at the AC factory in England. It denoted the car as an AC-Shelby. 

That tiny silver emblem with the letters AC really rankled the Texan, as he desperately wanted people to believe the entire project was his. He had it removed as soon as it was practical to weld in the holes and file the surface smooth to cover the truth. In concept, it was Shelby’s automobile, but AC first had to build the almost-finished chassis and body so Shelby’s small team of mechanics could install the engines and running gear that made them real racers. 

What I most enjoyed while reading Rinsey’s in-progress manuscript was that he filled in all the details of races that I wasn’t able to attend in Europe. His first-hand accounts, direct from drivers and team members through the ’64 and ’65 racing seasons, can’t be found anywhere else because few were as close to the events and participants as he was. 

My California perspective gave me insight into the team’s early reluctance to believe in Shelby’s vision of racing the Cobras in Europe. But then in late 1963, after winning the SCCA’s first USRRC title here in America, I experienced the crew’s growing confidence in themselves as a cohesive force. They would go on to accomplish what Shelby had originally envisioned in his personal objective to dethrone Enzo Ferrari’s dominant position as one of the world’s great GT constructors. 

There have been many stories written about the Shelby era, but few focus on the most intense time period–prior to his joining forces with Henry Ford II in 1965 to finally devastate Ferrari’s hold on the overall FIA endurance racing championships in 1966.

Rinsey’s book, “Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupes,” is the back story of how it all came about and how a single concept, with the financial support of Goodyear Tires, helped rebody Shelby’s Cobra roadsters to create the Daytona Coupe and change the course of motorsport history.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Cobra and Carroll Shelby articles.
More like this
pooler New Reader
11/26/20 2:44 a.m.

I like this car, racing! [spam]

You'll need to log in to post.

Our Preferred Partners