Carroll Hall Shelby had achieved considerable success as a race car driver but was finally forced to retire from this stressful sport when he developed a heart condition. Not wanting to give up his great interest in motor sport Shelby had thoughts of building the perfect American sports car. He reasoned this could best be achieved by using a small powerful V8 engine married to a European chassis. His initial approach was to General Motors but as he outlined his thoughts on his ideal sports car the people at GM told him he had just described their new Corvette.
Not to be put off Shelby next approached Ford, who had just released a new small-block V8 engine. His concept included the use of this motor in an aluminium-bodied chassis from English small specialist car builders, AC. His timing was perfect as Lee Iacocca was at that time preparing Ford’s Total Performance crusade, which was to be launched in 1963. This was the beginning of a close association between Iacocca and Shelby which generated much excitement and success right into the late 1980s.
The First Shelby Cobra had a body made from folded sheet metal as a basic open two-seater with a rudimentary cockpit behind a long aggressive bonnet. This first car made a number of appearances as it went through a series of road tests and on each occasion was finished in a different colour. Being the subject of numerous photo shoots potential buyers lined up for the sports car they imagined was already in mass production. They were wrong. Never at any time either then or much later did the car go into mass production. Each car was carefully built by hand, each different from the car produced prior to or after it.
The first 75 cars had the 3.6-litre small-block V8 over bored to 4262cc which developed 122kW. Later Ford increased the standard small-block V8 to 4735cc developing 202kW and Shelby immediately adopted it. Many early buyers lined up for an offered modification having their 4.2-litre engine replaced by the larger power plant.
The Shelby Cobra became a potent vehicle on the racetrack. Shelby had a personal ambition to produce a car which could beat Ferrari. With the Cobra, Shelby achieved his wish on several occasions. Cobra brought Shelby, Ford and the USA their first ever World Manufacturers Championship, and scored many successes on race tracks around Europe. On the street the Cobra established a reputation for sports car performance and handling that ever since has been the benchmark to which all others are compared.
In its final form Shelby installed the Ford big-block 4.7-litre engine which developed 362kW. With a top speed of 259km/h the street trim Cobra was only produced in a small quantity as Shelby concentrated on preparing Ford’s new musclecar the GT40 for competition events.