SEP 17th 2015

Turning down a Daytona Coupe for $800 and almost dumping the lot into the sea, with Peter Brock

On the Thursday before this year’s Revival meeting and for the first time in history, all six original Shelby Daytona Cobras were lined-up together in the same place. Not only did GRR have the privilege of being among the first people ever to take in the sight, but designer Peter Brock was there also. Considering the setting, what happened next was an interview that could never have taken place before and is likely never to happen again …

Peter brock Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe

‘It’s indescribable, really’ he beams, gazing at all six cars lined up in Goodwood’s recreation of the Sebring pits, awestruck at the sight before him. ‘I never expected this to ever happen and it’s such a great honour for it to happen at Goodwood. That’s what makes it so special. Lord March loves automobiles and to have the Daytonas honoured here is about as good as it’s going to get for these cars.’

Peter Brock Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe

As impertinent as it felt to ask for Mr Brock’s attention after the man had waited over 50-years to see the cars presented together, we just had to grab the opportunity to ask him more about the story behind them and to point out the subtle differences between each. ‘The thing is we had absolutely no money’ he begins. ‘I even had to go to the butchers to buy a big roll of brown paper and draw up the design on the floor! It took just 90-days to do, so we had to make a lot of compromises which I only got to rectify when the Superformance (replica) cars were made. Put the two side-by-side and there are lots of subtle changes.’ We have to ask for an example and Mr Brock obliges: ‘When the air came off the screen we found out that it came out too far and wasn’t going where it was supposed to go (back into the rear brake duct just behind the doors), so we had to fit the deflectors to the A-pillar on these cars.’ 

Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe

Standing by car number 16 (chassis 2602) we’re treated to the spectacle of the car’s designer running his hand back and forth over its panels as he explains the subtle differences that make each car stand out. ‘See how the roof slopes forward? That connects better with the windscreen line. The high point of the roof on this car is in the optimum position. That should make this one about three to four miles per hour faster.’ Speaking of outright speed, we ask if he was surprised at just how fast the cars were. ‘Well they had to go that fast’ comes the immediate reply. ‘We knew that the Ferraris were hitting 185mph. Even on the first day of testing we hit 183mph and we knew that with higher gearing we’d be up into the 190s. It was incredible that, when we took the car to Daytona, whoever got into it then broke the lap record. Bob Holbert had never driven it before, but jumped right in and set a new record. Then Dave MacDonald hopped in and and he broke the record. The same thing happened at Sebring. At Le Mans Jo Schlesser broke the lap record and at Spa Phil Hill did the same. None of these guys had driven the car before!’

Peter Brock Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe

Despite the apparent effectiveness of the Daytona, Mr Brock is under no illusion that the car he’d come up with which was setting circuits on fire was not necessarily the last word in hi-tech. ‘It’s really a very crude car’ he concedes. ‘I mean, this is a chassis designed in 1939. It’s a very simple automobile, but a very easy one to drive. Really fun. You gotta manhandle it. Gotta be brave.’ And was each car they built an improvement over the previous one? ‘No, they stayed pretty much the same. We made a few minor mechanical improvements. The starter motors would vibrate apart at first, so we ended up packing them with plastic which cured that.’ It also turns out that the team wasn’t too bothered about chassis number continuity. ‘Chassis 2286 and 2287 came in at the same time, but we just built whichever was closest to the door and so 2287 was actually the first car we built. We didn’t worry about serial numbers or any of that …!’

Peter Brock Daytona Cobra Coupe

What Mr Brock shared with us next almost had us falling onto chassis 2602 to stop ourselves from keeling over. ‘Thinking about it, it’s amazing that they all still exist. I could have bought one for $800 but turned it down.’ What? Eight hundred dollars? It turns out that after the first car built (chassis 2287) returned from Europe it was sent to Bonneville where it set 25 new speed records. When it returned to the Shelby premises in Los Angeles it was not a pretty sight. ‘Oh man that car was in such a mess when it came back. It was caked in salt after running for 12 hours, the headlights were falling out, the doors were broken… it was horrible! Carroll came down, looked at it and said “Oh man!” then he asked around the workshop “anybody want this thing? We’re gonna junk it. How about eight hundred bucks?” We all laughed and walked away …’

Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe

As astonishing as that last paragraph may be, it turns out that the cars were lucky even to have made it back to the States. ‘The other amazing thing about them is that some of them had been sent to the UK on bond to Alan Mann Racing‘s workshop and effectively loaned to the team. When Le Mans was over Carroll didn’t really care about the cars because he was involved with the GT40 programme by then. So one day the tax men visited Alan Mann’s workshop and said “okay, we’re going to have to collect the tax on these cars. That, or they have to be out of the country in two weeks or we’re going to fine you.” So telexes went back and forth to America, but nobody was really paying any attention. Anyway the tax men came back and said “okay, we’re going to take these cars, put ’em on a barge out to the North Sea and dump the lot overboard.” Well that finally got the attention of the folks in California, but the only reason they decided to ship the cars back was because that turned out to be cheaper than having the UK government sink ’em! That’s how little value the cars had at that time. Nobody cared about them at all.’

Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe

The original Daytona was eventually sold to a man who made a model of the car and who drove it on the street for two years to promote his business before selling the car to put his two daughters through college. At some point the car became the property of controversial former music producer Phil Spector who apparently drove it often on the streets of Los Angeles and who would appear to have been something of a leadfoot; his manager making him get rid before his licence was revoked – so many were the speeding tickets he racked up. A not-so-well known fact about this car is that in 1968 (by which time it was little more than just an old and obsolete racing car) it appeared in an episode of the Monkees called ‘Monkees Race Again’ where it raced against the Monkeemobile, a clip of which you can see here:

By the mid-Seventies the car’s whereabouts were unknown until it was rediscovered in 2001 and eventually sold to the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia, by whose generous permission the car appeared at the Revival along with its sisters, which brings us to the question of what other cars at Revival are of interest to Mr Brock. ‘Oh just about any car from that era’ he replies, smiling from the memory of it all. ‘The Aston Martin Project 212 car, the lightweight E-Types, the Low-Drags … One car that won’t be here though is the Maserati 151-3 with the Drogo body. That’s such a fabulous car…’ We point out that the car in question, which we featured as a Goodwood Great not so long ago, is in fact here in Paddock Three. ‘It’s here?’ he exclaims, his face lit up with unbridled glee. ‘Is it really here? Oh wonderful!’ There then came another astonishing revelation to rival the others we’ve been privy to since our chat began. ‘That’s what my car would have looked like if I’d understood better how the rules were written …’ Apparently the translation of the ACO rules was a ‘complicated’ one in which one or two of the finer points may have been lost in translation.

Daytona Shelby Cobra Coupes

‘Drogo obviously understood the translation better!’ Peter concedes. Moving around to the driver’s door of chassis 2602 he draws our attention to the aforementioned wind deflector, the window itself and the scoop behind the door to carry  air to the rear brakes. We’re somewhat surprised to hear him declare that ‘this is all crap. It slows the car down’ and ‘had we interpreted the rules in the same way as Drogo the side window would have been completely different and there wouldn’t have been any turbulence off the side of the windscreen. What we did here was just a fix to try and make the rear brakes work.’ Pointing to the wind deflector, the side screen and the brake duct he says ‘had we got this right the car would have been completely smooth and a few miles per hour faster, maybe more. What we did have in our favour though was 4.7-litres when everyone else was working with just three …’

Peter Brock Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupes

At this point we were still stood alone in front of all six cars with just Peter Brock and his wife. It was surreal, but we couldn’t conclude our talk without wandering over to the other end of the paddock and having our esteemed guest talk us through what he sees on the Maserati T151-3. A swift ‘phone call to the car’s owner Barrie Baxter and a short stroll later and we’re pushing the Tipo 151-3 out of its paddock shelter and into the late afternoon light. As if the occasion wasn’t memorable enough a Spitfire and P-51 Mustang take off and proceed to swoop low over the paddock as we pick up our conversation. Mr Brock behaves differently in front of the Maserati. He was more relaxed in front of the Daytonas, understandably, but presented with the T151-3 he is far more animated, his eyes darting over over every square inch of its surface, constantly snapping photos of it from every conceivable angle. Despite not being far off entering his eightieth year, he’s visibly as excited and animated as anyone else at the Revival now he’s come face to face with a car he has such respect for and which he’s never before seen in person.

Peter Brock Maserati T151

‘Compared to the Daytonas this is very much the same thinking as far as the aero is concerned’ he begins. ‘Instead of a teardrop shape which most people thought of as aerodynamic at the time, the flat roof and chopped-off tail followed the aerodynamic theory which was being developed in Germany and Italy at the time. When the two original 151s were built they were so fast, but when this car crashed at Le Mans it was pretty much the end of Maserati going racing at the time.’

Peter Brock Maserati T151

Looking again at those side windows whilst at the same time smiling and shaking his head, he says ‘oh if only I could have done the windows this way on the Daytona… What a fabulous, fabulous car this is. All the ideas I wanted to use are incorporated into this car. Our thinking was parallel and yet totally separate; we never met. It’s such a shame that they didn’t get to develop this car some more because it was incredibly advanced. People still don’t know that much about them, but it’s still probably the most exciting car of that era. You know,  of all the cars built at that time I have the most respect for this one.’

Peter Brock Maserati T151

Yet despite Mr Brock’s glowing admiration for the Drogo car, he can’t help but apply some of his thinking to its stunning shape. ‘I wish I could take it and just move things around here and there. I’m sure that when Drogo finished it he wanted to change things about it as well. Just a spectacular automobile… Such an iconic shape.’

Spotting something new he drops down on his haunches to get a better view of the low part of the windscreen. ‘Look at the rake on that screen!’ he exclaims ‘Look at the way the glass has been flushed in, too!’ He laughs. ‘Oh the things I didn’t do on the Daytona that were done on this car. When I look at it I think “if only I’d known…” I worked with Fantuzzi in Italy when I was there and would have loved to have worked at Drogo’s place. The things we could have come up with …’

Peter Brock Maserati T151

Walking away from the Maserati and the Daytonas we reflected on Mr Brock’s last statement.  Never mind beating Ferrari at their own game, had Brock and Drogo managed to pool their ideas and incorporate them into one car, what are the odds that it would have easily cracked 200mph? What’s more, what kind of car might it have prompted Ferrari into building, had that been the case? And while we’re at it, how much could we get one of the Corvettes for that cleaned up at Le Mans this year …?

Photography: Nigel Harniman, Pete Summers and Tom Shaxson

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