America’s answer to the Ferrari 250 GTO

Caroll Shelby cherished one dream while racing in Europe and North and South America throughout the 1950s; building the world’s fastest sports car. By 1956 he had already come up with a name for his car, it would be called the Cobra. Soon after his 1959 victory at the 24 Hours of LeMans for Aston Martin, Shelby was struck by heart problems. Reluctant to do so, he was forced to give up racing as a driver. This lifestyle setback turned out for the best, however, as Shelby had the opportunity to pursue his Cobra-building dreams.

A few years earlier and on the other side of the globe, John Tojeiro designed a small sports car, which sold under the AC Ace name. The open-top car was a simple tube-frame chassis with a Bristol 2.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine derived from the BMW M328 engine. The lightweight combination made the Ace a moderately successful racer. However, its success was jeopardized when BMW began phasing out the 2.0-liter. Other engines were tested, including American V-8s, but the AC Ace’s future seemed dim. So dim in fact, Tojeiro decided to end production of the car.

That’s when Shelby heard about the AC Ace and its lightweight design. He immediately contacted AC, along with his long-time associates at Ford Motor Company. He convinced AC to continue constructing the Ace and Ford to supply special versions of its Fairlane engine for installation in the AC chassis. Shelby and his team of engineers and builders shoehorned the V-8 into an AC at Shelby’s Venice, California shop. Of course, these early AC Ace cars were the roadsters that became known as the Shelby AC Cobra. The cars enjoyed a successful racing career, but could never outrun Enzo Ferrari, Shelby’s longtime Le Means rival, and his Ferrari 250 GTO.

That’s where the Shelby Daytona Coupe comes in. Shelby had Pete Brock design a more aerodynamic body for the AC Ace – one that would allow for higher top speeds at Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight. The design worked, allowing the coupe to hit 190 mph. The car’s debut race would be the 1964 Daytona Continental 2000 at the famed Daytona international Speedway in Florida.

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  • 1964 - 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe
  • Year:
    1964- 1965
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    V8
  • Transmission:
    4-Speed manual
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    385
  • Displacement:
    4.7 L
  • 0-60 time:
    4.4 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    191 mph
  • car segment:

Exterior

1964 - 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 671242
The Daytona’s nose is far pointier, taking after the Ferrari 250 GTO.

The Shelby Daytona Coupe’s AC Ace heritage is evident in its design, though Pete Brock’s aerodynamic improvements certainly make for a unique exterior. The Daytona’s nose is far pointier, taking after the Ferrari 250 GTO. The headlights are covered in plastic, making for a more streamlined shape. The large grille of the Shelby Cobra was greatly reduced for higher top speeds, leaving a small opening under the bumper, flanked by two driving lights.

Obviously the open-top roadster design had to be changed. Brock fabricated a fastback-style design coming off the windshield with a large Plexiglas rear window for good rearward visibility. A large spoiler helped with downforce at higher speeds. Side windows were also installed, sealing the cockpit from the whipping wind. Out back, the car’s buttress featured a concave design with four small taillights. The car’s tapered waist along the rocker panels allowed for exhaust pipes to run under the doors, helping save excess weight.

Interior

1964 - 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 671244

The Daytona Coupe was pure racecar. It had no convenience features or creature comforts. Two racing bucket seats sat on either side of the transmission tunnel, with the driver getting the Shelby’s typical wooden steering wheel with its three spokes. A bank of gauges to the right kept tabs on engine vitals and the all-important speed, while rocker switches filled the center stack. The lower console’s single feature is the manual transmission shifter. It doesn’t get much more spartan than this.

Drivetrain

1964 - 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe High Resolution Drivetrain
- image 671251
The Daytona’s suspension used the same leaf springs as the AC Shelby Cobra Mark II, a more race worthy version of the original roadster

Shelby was well renowned for tuning Ford V-8 engines. The V8 Ford engines were derived from the ones used in the Fairlane and Fairlane 500, but had a more aggressive camshaft solid tappets and ported heads. With an increased compression ratio and breathing through four, twin-choke Weber carburetors, the 289 cubic-inch engine produced around 385 horsepower and could rev to an impressive 9,000 rpm.

Like the AC Cobra, the Daytona Coupe’s rear axles were substantially beefed up to withstand the extra torque fed from the 4.7-liter V-8 and was geared with a 3.07 ring and pinion gear. The Daytona’s suspension used the same leaf springs as the AC Shelby Cobra Mark II, a more race worthy version of the original roadster.

Racing History

1964 - 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 671255

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 11 races that year, 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 1964 and ’65. At the end of the 1965 season, rule changes left the Cobras pretty much obsolete for racing. In those four seasons, however, the Cobra built up an impressive racing record on both sides of the Atlantic.

Competition

1964 Ferrari 250 GTO

1962 - 1964 Ferrari 250 GTO High Resolution Exterior
- image 575337

The Ferrari 250 GTO is a slick car. In fact, it can be argued the Daytona Coupe borrows much of its design from the Ferrari. The fastback rear window, the covered headlights, the small oval grille down low – all of it can be found on both cars. Regardless, the cars were different animals build a world apart. Nevertheless, the Ferrari gave the Daytona Coupe a hard run for its money in 1964. The Italian racer packed a 3.0-liter V-12 engine that produced 302 horsepower. The lightweight Ferrari could easily crack 190 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. The Ferrari would go on to win multiple races over multiple years, making it one of Italy’s most storied racers.

Read our full review on the Ferrari 250 GTO here.

Conclusion

1964 - 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe High Resolution Exterior
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Only six Shelby Daytona Coupes were ever built. Incredibly, each have a storied racing history and still exist to today. The first example, chassis number CSX2287, was the original prototype developed by Shelby and Brock. After its illustrious racing carrier, the car had disappeared in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t until 2001 when the car was found in a California storage unit after its owner’s suicide. An extensive legal battle ensued, but ownership of the car eventually fell to a collector. The car now sits unrestored but mechanically reconditioned as a permanent member of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The car is estimated to be worth over $4 million.

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    • Only six ever built
    • Became obsolete thanks to FIA rules
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