For whatever reason – muscular styling, sheer brute force or, perhaps, the image of ‘those Yanks’ taking on the urbane Europeans and kicking ass – the AC Cobra is one of the most desirable cars on the planet. It is also one of the most replicated shapes in automotive history, rivalled only by Chapman’s Lotus 7. Their immense value has precluded our featuring any of the three original ’60s Cobras currently in New Zealand, but we collected together three cars which either have strong Kiwi connections and/or extremely good lineage to the original Cobra
In a more normal world the hand-beaten alloy body of Rogan Hampson’s Cobra FIA 289 replica would have a more traditionally finished appearance. However, run your eyes over the car’s polished alloy body and every seam and every weld is immediately evident. Look closer and you can see a genuine expression of the craftsman’s art – observe how each separate panel has been formed, and how each separate part of the body has been assembled. In a lesser car, these seams and joins would have been carefully filled, sanded smooth and covered in paint.
However, quite appropriately, Rogan has decided to leave his Cobra’s bodywork in its raw state – appropriate because it gifts the car with a singular immediacy that perfectly fits most enthusiasts’ perception of a Cobra. This is one bad-ass of a car!
And, if you thought the car’s exterior was tough and dangerous, you really know you’re in trouble the moment you climb into the Cobra’s cramped cockpit and kick the 289 into snarling life. With the V8 growling up front and your hands grasping the thin-rimmed wood-rim steering wheel, you are quickly put in touch with the awakened beast. The thin alloy body panels twitch and vibrate, while the messages sent to your fingers via the steering wheel remind you of nothing less than those of an angry animal rattling the bars of its cage. Even before you depress the clutch and feed the stubby gear lever into first the palms of your hands begin, unaccountably, to sweat – and the Cobra was still only idling!
MIND BOGGLINGLY EXPENSIVE
Original Cobras now command absolutely mind-boggling sums, despite being difficult to sell when new, with most having once been available at some point in their career at near junk value. Most original Cobras were bought to serve as competition cars and, like all cars of that ilk, after a year or two they became uncompetitive and were discarded. Road-going Cobras were being sold at a time when all the other sports car manufacturers were meeting demand by turning their sports cars into much more sophisticated Grand Tourers. Indeed, AC tried just that with the gorgeous AC 428. It is hard to imagine that at one time a Cobra was simply undesirable.
To make things complicated, the original cars which we would all recognise as Cobras were known under a number of different titles, and one could look very different to another, yet still be a ‘real’ Cobra.
The reason for the different names is mainly down to a fundamental disagreement throughout the car’s life as to who owned the rights to the design, concept, finance and the Cobra name. This makes things either very easy or very difficult for the replicaters, depending on whether they are just going for a ‘look’ or whether they want to replicate a particular vehicle – bearing in mind that being virtually hand-built, each Cobra could have subtle differences.
The reason the Cobra’s lineage is so contentious is that, as a car, it was never really ‘designed’, but evolved to fit the needs of a number of companies and individuals with quite different agendas. One could not have been achieved without the other, but who should take the credit, who owns the rights to build so-called ‘original reproductions’, and who owns the right to name their cars Cobra has always been a bone of contention.
The main claimants are John Tojiero (who designed the original chassis, and many subsequent modifications), AC Cars of Thames-Ditton in England (which manufactured all but one or two of the original chassis), Carroll Shelby, (a Texan resident of California whose idea it was to put a large American engine into a lightweight chassis for racing), and the Ford Motor Company (which Shelby persuaded to finance the exercise in order to promote its sporting image).
There is one further individual, a completely unsung hero who, as far as I know, has never made a claim for paternity of the car, but without whom the Cobra almost certainly would never have happened. His name was Ernie Bailey.
At the time Bailey became involved with AC the Hurlock family – which owned AC (Automotive Carriages) – had no apparent desire to race its products, simply to make a living. Bailey, who owned a carriage works in Buckland, was trying to finish off an unloved AC Tourer body, and discovered the Hurlocks were becoming anxious that their elderly model range needed updating.
Bailey also knew John Tojeiro, who had built some Cooper-inspired tubular sports cars with aluminium bodies similar to the early Ferrari Barchettas. Bailey introduced the two parties, with Tojeiro showing his Lea-Francis-engined sports car to the AC Directors.
In 1953, Tojeiro and the Hurlocks agreed that AC should manufacture and sell the car with its own six-cylinder, 2.0-litre engine, and that Tojeiro should get a five pound royalty. AC employee Alan Turner refined the shape and the car became known as the AC Ace. Aside from later specials or the Daytona racing coupé, the basic shape of the Ace was never changed.
The AC engine was good enough at first, but as it turned 40 Ken Rudd, who had enthusiastically raced the AC Ace, suggested AC adopt the Bristol powerplant – as used successfully in many cars of the era, including the Cooper-Bristol. The Ace-Bristol soon became the staple product for the AC factory, leading to the Aceca coupé and some considerable competition success – notably in North America.
Although successful, the Ace-Bristol later faced extinction when Bristol ceased production in favour of an American V8. Ken Rudd decided that Ford Zephyr power would do the job for him in racing, and persuaded the factory to follow suit. This initiative led to the (Ruddspeed) RS2.6. AC designer Alan Turner lowered the bonnet line, courtesy of the lower Zephyr six, arriving at the frontal styling we all associate with the Cobra. Only 37 RS2.6 cars would be produced before Carroll Shelby made an appearance at Thames Ditton.
THE AMERICAN CONNECTION
Shelby had made a name for himself by partnering Roy Savadori in the winning Aston Martin at Le Mans in 1959, but a heart condition stopped his racing career soon after and he set up a speed shop in Venice, California.
At the time Ford was attempting to improve its competition image and Dave Evans, one of the head honchos at Ford, knew of Shelby’s ambitions to build a sports car, and suggested Shelby make a proposal to the Ford top brass.
Shelby looked to Europe for a car that would provide the basis for his ambitions. He was spurned by Healey which, no doubt, was quite happy with its arrangement with Austin, and instead Shelby hit upon the AC Ace.
Evans and Shelby subsequently tied up a deal in 1961 which would see Ford Credit pay AC for shipping a complete car to Dean Moon’s Venice workshop, where Shelby would use Ford’s new 3622cc (221ci) small block V8 to power his new creation. With significant reinforcements, but still using single transverse leaf springs fore and aft, the AC Cobra (Shelby’s name for his dream car) was born.
Only a wider track and squared-off wheel-arch extensions gave away the fact that a V8 now nestled under the AC’s bonnet. The Salisbury 4HU differential was kept, but the AC’s Moss ’box was replaced by a Ford US gearbox, and disc brakes were fitted all round. Before production started the Windsor V8 had already grown to 4261cc (260ci), and Shelby’s finishing facility was moved to Lance Reventlow’s ex-Scarab works.
Shelby lost no time in supplying the car to Road & Track and Sports Car Graphic, and used its exceptional road-test figures for his publicity blurb: 0-60mph in 4.0 seconds, standing quarter in 13.8 seconds. All this with one car completed!
CHANGING THE SCRIPT
Shelby all but left AC out of the script at the Cobra’s US launch, concentrating on his own efforts with the car. Worse, he took AC’s badges off the car, and replaced them with his own Cobra motif – overshadowing AC’s involvement. This was a portent of things to come and, whilst AC knew it was on to a good thing, it was irked by Shelby’s self-promotion at its expense. As a result, AC ensured all British-produced vehicles lost both the Shelby and Cobra names.
Shelby went racing straight away, planning to build a reputation aimed squarely at Corvette and Ferrari sports car domination. Pete Brock developed the Cobra, with a roll-over bar, air scoops, alloy wheels and rear wheel arch extensions. Bill Krause was first Cobra race driver, but Dave McDonald would log the Cobra’s first victory.
Over in the UK, an AC-finished car was introduced to the British public in late 1962, whilst rack and pinion steering and a bigger radiator soon followed, along with another capacity hike to 4700cc (289ci).
Early Cobras have flat-sided wheel-arch lips, but after an abortive attempt at using Dunlop aluminium racing wheels, the trademark Halibrands became standard race ware, and the rear tyres soon started to outgrow the wheel arches.
As Shelby’s Cobras were built primarily with racing in mind, homologation within FIA rules was imperative, and this lead to the ‘FIA Cobra’ – our featured John Ohlsen-built car is a replica of this model Cobra.
Notable changes from the standard cars of the time were doors with wheel-arch cut-outs, bigger wheel arches front and rear, an extra inlet in the front lower valance, and a swage-line in the boot lid to accommodate an FIA-approved suitcase! Much of this work was done by New Zealander John Ohlsen in 1964.
A little later, Shelby realised the Cobra’s performance was limited on European tracks by lack of top speed due to poor aerodynamics. Pete Brock, John Ohlsen and driver Ken Miles developed a coupé version, later known as the Daytona, which bears little resemblance to the roadster. Several coupés were built (two in the UK and three in Italy), to slightly different designs, under Ohlsen’s instruction. The Daytona eventually won the FIA GT Championship and the GT class at Le Mans, and Shelby’s dream to beat Ferrari was complete. However, by this time the Cobras were being run by Alan Mann’s British racing team.
ON THE ROAD: OHLSEN FIA 289 COBRA REPLICA
Rogan Hampson’s car was started by John Ohlsen in 1986, and was intended for his own use. Alas, he never finished the car and its completion was later handled by Ivan Cranch, who undertook the car’s hand-beaten aluminium body. This car is known as an FIA 289 after the four race cars built to run in the FIA World GT Championships, all of which featured 289ci (4736cc) engines and transverse leaf suspension. Rogan’s car even features the FIA-suitcase indents in the boot and the cut-down doors made to clear the larger wheel arches.
The 4.7 litres of torquey V8 is a real handful in a car no bigger than an MGB, and it really gives you a taste of what it must have been like back in the ’60s when these transverse leaf-sprung Cobras were raced in anger. Tremendously fast and completely open to the elements, there are few experiences that can match driving a comparatively crude but powerful race-bred sports car on the open road.
Rogan’s Cobra is very long-legged, with fourth gear being rarely necessary on the road, as the engine revs freely and is gloriously loud. The cockpit is tiny, dominated by a huge steering wheel, with the gear shifter virtually behind you on the tunnel.
This Cobra feels as if it would be a real handful when extended, with immediate turn-in, and the possibility of the rear swinging round on you at any second. Whether at that point the car could be controlled on the throttle I wasn’t prepared to find out, but driving Rogan’s 289 sure gave me respect for anyone who pedals one of these cars competitively round a race circuit – as Rogan does.
The Mark II Cobra was inspired by Ford’s wish to fit an even larger, 7.0-litre (427ci) big-block engine. Shelby was unenthusiastic, having tried it before with disastrous results. However, with the lucrative GT40 programme being used as a carrot, Shelby did Ford’s bidding
Extra power and weight meant the original chassis was not up to the big-block, so it was re-engineered by AC’s Alan Turner to give increased torsional stiffness, with independent coil-over-shocks, wishbone suspension all round and an increased track.
The O/E big-block engine was a top oiler, and some had much cheaper and less effective 428s. The real performance V8 was the 427 side-oiler, which had cross-bolted main bearings – some even came with alloy heads.
Chris Amon did much of the development driving for the 427, as it needed to be quickly developed to allow the homologated 100 copies to be built.
Mark II Cobras are what most replicas are intended to look like – with huge rear arches, an oval air intake and bulging front wheel arches. These racing cars stood around without customers for a long time until dealer Charles Beidler suggested turning them into road cars. The 427SC (Semi Competition) became a legend, with lake-pipes, GT40 or Halibrand wheels and fearsome performance.
Once the SC bodies were used up, road cars had narrower rear arches, no bonnet scoop and Kelsey Hayes wheels. Mark IIs also lost the Rover-type rear lights in favour of round ones.
The Cobra body bucks and jigs, however, have been used by in the UK to produce the splendid reproduction SC which was next on our list.
ON THE ROAD: AC COBRA 427SC
To many, the 427SC is the best of all the Cobras. Interestingly, AC never completed the 427 SC at the time, as all the big-block cars were finished by Shelby in California.
One of the few cars in New Zealand that can lay claim to being a genuine AC Cobra, the car we drive here, was built by The AC Company in 2000, using many 1966 parts and formed in 16swg aluminium around a tubular space-frame using the original jigs and formers. Finished in Shelby’s racing colours, this Cobra came with a certificate of authenticity. Less than 40 cars a year are built, and the chassis numbers follow on directly from the original AC cars.
The 427SC was basically a homologation special which could not be sold to racing owners, and was therefore modified by Shelby for road use. This ‘detuning’ included adding a small lip around the wheel arch, lowering the compression ratio and fitting two 400CFM Holleys in place of one 750CFM. As well, bronze suspension bushes were replaced with rubber items.
Our featured car, however, has reverted to the 750 CFM carburettor. A real monster, this Cobra would have to be the ultimate sports car – a pure athlete. No frills, just oodles of grunt, skimpy bodywork and huge exhaust drain pipes running along the sills. By showing the burn mark on my ankle I can now claim membership of the SC driver’s club!
The noise and fury is simply unbelievable – and totally addictive. If ever a car was all mouth and trousers, this is it. Mind you, it also handles well and, whilst it would undoubtedly bite the foolhardy, the steering is extremely progressive and the car rides bumps well enough to keep firm control over direction. Unlike the FIA 289, the car is a progressive understeerer into corners, remaining flat and balanced until you dial in whatever oversteer you want with the throttle. A true thoroughbred.
THE AC 289 AND REPLICAS
Finally, AC in the UK made its own MkII coil-sprung road car with a 4.7-litre engine, and T10 gearbox. AC slighted Shelby by calling it the AC 289. The AC 289 featured wire wheels and narrower rear wings. This was probably the most civilised of all the Cobras, and possibly the best road car.
Back in the US, the Shelby Cobra legend petered out in the shadow of GT40 and, whilst AC followed up with the beautiful Frua-bodied 428, the UK company subsequently hit hard times – although it would later be resurrected on several occasions.
Since that time, many replicas have been made of the sensuous but brutal Cobra. So many, indeed, that Shelby, Ford and AC have failed in their attempts at damping down the procreation of illicit replicas.
ON THE ROAD: ALMAC COBRA 289 REPLICA
Keith Lane of East Tamaki’s Gearbox Shop has a superb, locally produced Almac Cobra. Alex McDonald, the brains behind Almac Cars, designed the car’s glass-fibre body and it is generally recognised as being of superb quality. Underneath the car is a Graham Berry-designed ladder frame, made specifically for the Almac.
Fixtures and fittings have all been sourced to represent, as closely as possible, the original AC design. It’s a very fitting tribute to the original Cobra, Keith having aimed at making a very quick but useable road car with clean lines reminiscent of the final AC 289.
Keith started the build in 1989, but it took until 1994 for the Triumph BRG-painted masterpiece to roll out under its own steam, provided by a 205kW (275bhp) 302 Windsor V8.
Using a Supra five-speed gearbox and Jaguar differential, Keith has built in adjustable sway bars, while NZ-made Halibrand replica wheels support 235-section Yokohama rubber. Good enough for a 14-second standing quarter, the car provides Keith with all the performance he needs – and unbeatable pose value.
The car is a real credit to Keith’s building skills, not only looking and sounding great, but being fully sorted in the driving department as well.
The Almac is very progressive to drive and, being a 302, feels slightly more delicate than the 427, but has the same basic handling characteristics.
Each of the Cobras we tested has a distinctive voice all of its own. Predictably, the 427SC was loudest, its huge side-oiler growling like a caged grizzly at rest and, when prodded, responding with an avalanche of noise as it smoked its way towards the rapidly approaching horizon.
By comparison, the 302-engined Almac sounded almost like a pussy-cat – muted, almost civilised but with a lovely, soft V8 wuffle.
However, the prize symphonic piece was provided by the 289 FIA. Somehow, there is no substitute for the sound of a properly race-tuned Ford 289 V8. Pitched well beyond the low, ominous rumble of the 427, and far meaner than the 302, the hard-edged sounds emitted by Rogan’s Cobra on full song send a delicious ripple right up your spine – simultaneously raising all the hairs on the back of your neck. You only need to experience that once to understand the attraction Shelby’s venomous snake still holds for lovers of fast, loud motoring machinery!
All told, not a bad day at the office!
JOHN OHLSEN – SNAKE CHARMER EXTRAORDINAIRE
John Ohlsen was born in Auckland in 1937 and became an apprentice panel beater, then an apprentice mechanic. Fascinated by the racing scene, John helped out with every racing project he could, including Stan Jones’ Maybach Special. He started building ultra-fast high boy specials and stock cars, but got to know many of the established overseas race stars, including Carroll Shelby, during their racing exploits in the NZ summer.
He decided to go to Europe and worked for Stirling Moss’ F1 team. He then headed to Italy with future Kiwi Lamborghini engineer Bob Wallace. As Maserati was ceasing its racing activities, John worked on some American racing projects, and then on the Sebring Sprites. By now somewhat of a motor sport gypsy, Ohlsen found himself working in the Venice workshops of Carroll Shelby, where he was drafted in to help with the Cobra operation.
John built the FIA Cobras, and the first Daytona coupé in 1963, thereafter being the person who was sent all over the world to oversee the build of the coupé replicas required for the 1964-’65 season.
As a mechanic for the team, John was badly burned in a pit accident, but after that Shelby gave John the chief mechanic’s job for the fledgling GT40 team.
In 1969 John returned to live in New Zealand with his wife, Jean, and with Shelby’s agreement built jigs to make replicas of the 289 in Onehunga. The first was completed in 1989, with many of the castings and mouldings formed by John in NZ, using original plans and his own first hand experience.
John died suddenly in 1998. His wife Jean, and son Paul, are still knowledgeable supporters of the Cobra fraternity in New Zealand.
Car AC Cobra 289 FIA AC 289 Replica (302) AC 427 (Shelby S/C)
Length 2286mm 2286mm 2286mm
Track 1320mm 1371mm 1371mm
Chassis Tubular space frame Ladder Frame Tubular space frame
Body Hand beaten alloy Glass fibre Hand beaten alloy
Engine 4.7 litre V8 5.0 litre V8 7.0 litre V8
Power 270kW 270kW 425kW
Torque 270Nm 270Nm 400Nm
Brakes Disc Disc Disc
Suspension Transverse leaf Coil over shock Coil over shock
Words: Tim Nevison Photos: Sean Craig