There are few classic cars better appreciated by enthusiasts and valued by collectors than Carroll Shelby’s muscular roadster, the Shelby Cobra.
The car was born in 1962 as a Ford-powered challenger to the Corvette when Shelby, a Le Mans-winning race driver sidelined by a heart condition, decided his future was in building fast sports cars rather than racing them.
Ford Motor Co.
Ingenuity met opportunity when England’s AC Cars discontinued production of its Ace sports car because engine supplier BMW stopped making the 2.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that powered it.
Ford Motor Company’s compact, lightweight small block V8 debuted in 1960 with the arrival of that company’s new generation of unibody models like the Falcon and the Fairlane. Shelby thought the 260 V8 would fit into the Ace’s engine bay and that his racing connections at Ford would permit him to get the engines for what would become the Shelby Cobra.
Bolting a 260-horsepower V8 into an obsolete British chassis produced a fast car—with a top speed of 140mph—but not one with tolerable ride or handling. Boosting the power with the 271-horsepower, 289 cubic-inch engine in 1963 only exacerbated these problems.
“There I was, with all that Cobra horsepower, and the rear wheels were bouncing and leaping around so badly that I could barely keep the beast on the road,” reported a Car and Driver review in the magazine’s test of the early Cobra.
Naturally, Shelby’s solution was to put in an even bigger engine! However, Ford’s monstrous big block 427 “side oiler” engine would never fit in the AC frame. To accept the 427’s massive bulk, Shelby’s team designed a new chassis with wider, stronger frame rails, upgraded coil spring independent suspension, and more precise rack and pinion steering in place of the flimsy frame, leaf spring rear suspension, and recirculating ball steering.
Ford Motor Co.
The five-inch-wider car gained the ostentatious fender flares that gave the 427 Cobra the voluptuous lines that made it a poster car while the skinny-hipped 260 and 289 Cobras were mostly overlooked.
So while the name stayed the same, the 1965 Cobra boasted sexier lines and an all-new chassis that made the car both faster and more comfortable to drive—or more accurately, “less uncomfortable.”
The 510-horsepower 427 still vaporizes the rear tires upon application of more than the slightest pressure on the accelerator, while its immense bulk weighs down the car’s front end. A recent drive in an accurate replica confirmed that it is difficult to put the 427’s power to the ground, but it is impossible not to grin broadly while trying.
Even with the terrible tires available in the 1960s, Car and Driver was able to launch a 427 Cobra to 100mph and stop it again in 14.5 seconds. And as the magazine reported in its 1965 review, Shelby test driver and racer Ken Miles accomplished the same thing with racing rubber in 13.8 seconds. Hemmings Motor News reports the car’s 0-60 time was just 4.0 seconds.
Ford Motor Co.
“This was one of the fastest cars of the ’60s, ‘70s, the ‘80s, even into the ‘90s, and it’s still pretty fast today,” remarked noted collector Jay Leno on his show Jay Leno’s Garage.
Ultimately, Shelby built three hundred and forty-eight 427 Cobras, though about 100 of them used the cheaper, less-powerful 335-horsepower Ford 428 big block engine instead of the 427. That added to the tally of seventy-five 260 Cobras and five hundred and eighty 289 Cobras. The car ended its production run in 1967 with just over 1,000 of the distinctive roadsters built.
The rarity of these original cars has driven the price paid by collectors to levels that keep them out of the hands of most regular enthusiasts. Classic car insurance specialist Hagerty estimates that a top-value 1965 Cobra 427 S/C is worth $2.4 million. One in merely “excellent” condition is still good for $2.15 million, while a “good” car would cost $1.85 million and a “fair” car is worth $1.5 million.
These prices have driven an industry for Cobra replicas which lack the original cars’ collectability and value, though they do offer accessibility for the rest of us. Industry-wide, 60,000 fake Cobras have been built. Some of these are of very dubious quality, but others are better than the original cars.
Today, Shelby American will sell you a new and improved 2018 Cobra S/C for about $115,000. This provides access to an authentic Shelby Cobra for less than a tenth the price of an original 1965 car, making it a modern classic that’s available to car enthusiasts who haven’t founded a Silicon Valley success story.
Ford Motor Co.
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