Cobra: British beauty with an American beat

| 15 Nov 2011

What fantasy does the Cobra best conjure up? Blasting down lush lanes en route to Silverstone in a car with wire wheels, English plates, and the steering wheel on the right? Or gunning along a high desert road riding on beefy Halibrands with a steeply raked screen, single roll-over hoop and side pipes? Depending on which side of the Atlantic you stand, both are just as evocative of the famous Anglo-American hybrid.It’s only November but it feels like the Cobra anniversary is revving up already.  New books have arrived hot off the press from American publishers while premier events at Monterey and Goodwood have announced they will both host dedicated races.Just as at Le Mans in 1963 when Shelby and Thames Ditton entered cars, America and Britain look set to compete for the ultimate tribute to the V8-engined sports car legend.Having just returned from a creative meeting with Goodwood’s Lord March and his team, the Revival looks set for a strong American theme in 2012 with a tribute to ex-Shelby team ace Dan Gurney perfectly complementing the Cobra birthday party. How many of the Daytona Coupés will make the trip across the pond remains to be seen, but it would be a first to see a full set of racing GTs with Willment and A98, Barrie Bird’s spectacular recreation of the British ’64 Le Mans challenger, squaring up to the Pete Brock-styled FIA challengers.Cobras have previously required hardtops to compete at the Revival, but for the anniversary race we’ll hopefully see a few roadsters storming around the beautiful West Sussex circuit, drivers exposed as they wrestle their V8 brutes through St Marys and Lavant.The spotlight on both sides of the Atlantic will primarily be on Texan Carroll Shelby, who instigated the Cobra, but hopefully the Brits who played an important part in its genesis will also be acknowledged. One unsung hero of the Cobra story is Alan Turner who, from joining the Hurlock empire in 1939, had a hand in the many diverse projects built at Thames Ditton over the next 42 years, right up to the 3000ME. If one person should get credit for the beauty of the early Cobras it’s Turner who originally transformed the Tojeiro special into the Ace, and later masterfully cleaned up the styling for the stunning 2.6.

With the Ace’s signature moustache sculpted away, he created the template for the Cobra. This modest man, now frail and in his 90s, later designed the AC Le Mans Coupé A98 (above), which I’ll argue is more beautiful than the famous American Daytona Coupé.

Ken Miles (below, right) was another Englishman who was crucial to the development of the Cobra, from the early racers through to brutal 427. “Shelby American was never really an American company because Englishmen like Ken and mechanic John Collins were instrumental to its success,” recalled Shelby of his close friend, who died testing the Ford J-car at Riverside in 1966.

Christened ‘Teddy Teabagger’ because he regarded a teapot and fine teas as essential as his toolbox around the pits, Miles was tireless in his development of the Cobra. From SA’s Imperial Highways factory, Shelby had arranged access to the airport runways from 11pm to 7am where Miles would often test through the night. “He was a real warhorse,” said Shelby. So next time someone claims the Cobra as an American sports car, just educate them to the origins of the chassis and styling.  Sure they refined the beast and glamorised its appeal, but it was born in Thames Ditton.