Right from the very first Revival Meeting in 1998, Goodwood has had quite a soft spot for the Shelby American Cobra. Several of us remember how the decidedly uncultured original Cobra roadsters, with their ground-shaking American Ford V8 engines, turned the British racing form book on its head through 1964. I also vividly recall ‘Ole Shel’ – Carroll Shelby himself, the AC-derived Cobra’s originator – standing on our pit counter during an early Revival practice session, as a British-prepared version of one of his cars came out of the chicane, and rocketed past us at simply stupendous speed…
Carroll just spun round, his eyes wide under the shading brim of his trademark Stetson, and he gasped “Shee-it! I ain’t never heard a Cobra sound like that one!”
Aah yes, well, ahem – cue much shuffling of feet and mention of the weather amongst we Brits around him, while very conscious that we were positively radiating much pride at having shown that where race engineering is concerned, our fellow countrymen certainly do know a thing or two. Now I would agree that this is not, perhaps, the ‘true spirit’ of historic racing but, just occasionally, I think that those of us who have been racers all our lives can be excused a little national pride.
That is something that any follower of the Olympic Games, or the Ryder Cup, or the America’s Cup, will appreciate since Team America has turned it into an art form. Such entirely reasonable if – to their rivals – quite often far over-the-top partisanship certainly burst to the surface through 1964-65 where the Shelby American works team’s fabulous Cobra Daytona Coupe cars were concerned.
These ‘Coops’ were gloriously styled by Shelby’s resident engineer/aerodynamicist/stylist Pete Brock. Only six of them were built to attack Ferrari’s long-maintained stranglehold on the top class of the FIA’s Grand Touring Car World Championship. And those six works Daytona Coupes then stuck it to Ferrari’s 250 GTOs and, after running the Prancing Horse very close in 1964, they did indeed snatch away their FIA GT World Championship title in 1965.
This is why, at this year’s Revival, we mark the 50th anniversary of that success by reuniting all six of those original Daytona Coupes at the Goodwood Motor Circuit, where in 1964 they were just beginning to learn the basics of how to defeat Ferrari…
Cobra fans have been well-served by Michael Schoen’s great book The Cobra-Ferrari War, which tells the full story of that programme. To be honest, it amplifies the international importance of the Cobra-Ferrari conflict in the GT Championship, whereas at the time what really gripped racing enthusiasts – certainly here in the UK and on mainland Europe – was more the parallel Ford-Ferrari war in the sports-prototype World Championship of Makes overall. The closed Ford GTs and GT40s duelling for outright victory at Daytona, Sebring, Spa, the Nürburgring and Le Mans was more important than the GT side-show of the ‘Coops’ versus the ageing GTOs…but this was naturally not so to ‘Ole Shel’ and his Cobra crews.
My purpose in highlighting this perspective is neither to decry the Daytona Coupes nor to diminish them – merely to put them into proper focus, in which they still so dazzlingly shine.
They were fabulous-looking cars. They were fabulous-sounding cars, and with their 4.7-litre Ford V8 engines they were fabulously-fast cars. What’s more, they were often fabulously well-driven by their very best team stars – with Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Bob Bondurant and Sir John Whitmore to the fore.
In 1964, Dave MacDonald/Bob Holbert in car ‘CSX2287’ gave the Daytona Coupes a great start by winning the GT Category of Florida’s Sebring 12-Hour race. In the world’s most prestigious endurance race, the Le Mans 24-Hours, Dan Gurney/Bob Bondurant then won the GT Category in car ‘CSX2299’. Here at Goodwood in that year’s RAC Tourist Trophy, Dan Gurney and ‘2299’ finished 3rd overall for Shelby, again beating Ferrari in the GT category.
But then 1965 was the ‘Coops’ great year. They won their class in the Daytona 2000Kms (Jo Schlesser/Hal Keck/Bob Johnson in ‘2299’), the Sebring 12-Hours (Bob Bondurant/Jo Schlesser driving ‘2299’ yet again), the Monza 1000Kms (Bob Bondurant/Allen Grant in ‘2601’), the Nürburgring 1000Kms (Bob Bondurant/Jochen Neerpasch in ‘2601’), the Reims 12-Hours (the inevitable, immensely impressive Bob Bondurant yet again, this time with Jo Schlesser in ‘2601’) and the Sicilian Coppa Citta di Enna at Lake Pergusa (you guessed it, Bob Bondurant in ‘2601’). This title-winning season was rounded-off with 25 class World Land Speed Records set on the Bonneville Salt Flats, co-driven by Craig Breedlove/Bobby Tatroe.
These Cobra Daytona Coupes clocked 196mph on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, and averaged more than 150mph over 1500 miles at Bonneville. In team colours of Viking Blue (1964) and Guardsman Blue (1965), they truly put Ferrari in its place. And how.
Photography courtesy of The GP Library