While racing in Europe and North and South America throughout the 1950s, Caroll Shelby cherished one dream; building the world’s fastest sportscar. By 1956 he had already come up with a name for his car, it would be named Cobra. Soon after his 1959 24 Hours of LeMans victory for Aston Martin, Shelby was struck by heart problems. Reluctant to do so, he was forced to give up motor racing as a driver. This did give him time to make his dream come true.
Early in the 1950s John Tojeiro designed small sportscar, which was sold under the AC Ace name. Installed in the simple but effective tubular chassis was the Bristol 2 litre six cylinder engine. This unit was derived from BMW’s 328 engine and its design dates back to 1919. Its lightweight chassis and body, and effective engine made the Ace a moderately successful racer. When Bristol announced that the 2 litre engine would be phased out, AC was left without an engine to power the Ace. Previous attempts to install other engines, like American V8s had failed miserably and the end of the Ace production was announced.
When Shelby read about the end of the AC Ace, he immediatly contacted AC and his long time associates Ford. He convinced AC to continue constructing the Ace and Ford to supply special versions of their Fairlane engine for installation in the AC chassis. Shelby flew over to the UK to supervise the construction of the prototype chassis, which featured modifications designed by Shelby to ensure the hybrid would be driveable.
Although the displacement of the Ford ’260’ /V8 was more than twice as large and the initial 260 bhp output almost twice as large as the Bristol’s, the Ford unit weighed less. Main diffuculty in incorporating American V8 engines was their rather high torque figures. The rear-end needed considerable modifications to handle the torque produced by the Ford. With the beefed up rear suspension, the AC chassis took to the Ford V8 engine surprisingly well and after extensive tests 100 chassis/bodies and Ford V8s were ordered. Shelby’s Cobra was born!
The V8 Ford engines were derived from the ones used in the Fairlane and Fairlane 500, but they were delivered to Shelby in a somewhat ’tweaked’ form. Breathing through a single Holley Carburetor and fitted with ’hotter’ cams, solid tappets and larger ports, the V8 was good for around 260bhp. For competition use Shelby modified the engine even further. With an increased compression ratio and breathing through four twin-choke Webers figures of 335 bhp could be achieved, with the engine revving up to 9000 rpm. Stunning performance was the result of this very powerful engine, which is reflected by the acceleration and top speed figures. Had Shelby succeeded in building the world’s fastest sportscar?
In the mean time, the world’s largest manufacturer and Ford’s biggest competitor, General Motors worked intensively on building their fastest GT-racer yet. Dubbed Sting Ray, the fastest Corvette to date was set to make its debut at the 1962 Riverside 3-hour race for Grand-Touring cars. Coincedently Shelby’s workshop was around the corner of the Riverside track and his competition Cobras were about ready to make their debut as well. So in a weird twist of fate, both GM’s and Ford’s latest racers made their debut in the same race. In qualifying Shelby took the wheel of one of the two Cobras entered and shocked the crowd and even more so GM’s racing division by lapping over four seconds faster than the fastest Sting Ray. In the race Bill Krause had built up a lead of over 30 seconds in the first 30 minutes. He was forced to retire when a wheel came off and in doing so he handed the victory to one of the Sting Rays. A legend was born that day, but it wasn’t the Sting Ray.
Vowing to decimate the Sting Rays in the following season, Shelby and his Cobras took part in the first US manufacturers’ championship. The Cobra’s dominance was total and Shelby took the title with 111 points over Ferrari’s 28 and Chevrolet’s 19. All but one of the seven races of the championship were won by a Cobra. North America was conquered, but Ferrari still reigned supreme in the FIA World Championship, which was run for GT cars. Most championship races were held on high speed tracks where the Cobras with their brick-like aerodynamics were at a disadvantage. To solve this problem, Shelby commissioned Peter Brock to design a coupe body for the Cobra chassis. Dubbed the Daytona Coupe, the 20 mph faster Cobra made its debut in the 1964 season.
Although the World Championship was lost by the smallest of margins to Ferrari in 1964, the Cobra Daytona Coupe proved to be up to the task. When Ferrari failed to construct a legal replacement for the 250 GTO, the road was cleared for Shelby in 1965. Of the eleven races, the Daytona won eight. Today the Daytona is best remembered for the two consecutive GT class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in ’64 and ’65. At the end of the 1965 season rule changes left the Cobras pretty much obsolete for racing. In these four seasons, the Cobra built up an impressive racing record on both sides of the Atlantic.
Only six examples of the Daytona Coupe were constructed, making it one of the most sought after vehicles in the world today. Two Daytonas are on display in the Shelby American Collection museum in Boulder, Colorado, USA, the featured CSX 2299 is one of them. In its two year racing career four GT class wins were recorded, including the 1964 Le Mans victory with Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant driving. As part of a rare tour through Europe it is pictured at the 2004 Le Mans Classic, where it was co-driven by Bob Bondurant and the 2004 Nurburgring Old Timer Grand Prix. It still wears the #13 racing number used when Jo Schlesser and Hal Keck drove it the 1965 Daytona 24 Hours class victory.