The Cobra is staggeringly quick by today's standards, but in the sixties little could touch it. Ollie Stallwood looks at an Anglo-American legend...
There is no creature so widely found in ancient mythologies, from the Bible to the Aztecs, than the snake. At the same time there are few cars that are as surrounded by myth and legend as the AC Cobra, a vehicle which carries the image of a serpent on its badge. Some blame the reason Britain’s motorways have a 70mph speed limit on the Cobra after a coupe version was allegedly recorded at 185mph on the M1 in 1963. Legend has it that when Carroll Shelby demonstrated the car he would stick a $100 bill to the dashboard and challenge the potential customer to grab it will under full acceleration, but none ever managed. Even the very name ‘Cobra’ is said to have come to Shelby in a dream.
There are as many tales of heroic driving, near-misses and earth-shattering performance as there are Cobras and this legend doesn’t look like dying out any time soon. After all, this car possesses one of the most recognisable shapes ever devised and thanks to a hunger for replicas that never looks like abating; the bite of Cobra is as strong as ever.Part of the appeal of the Cobra is its quirky Anglo-American lineage. The story goes that Shelby, an American racing driver, had always noticed that European cars had better handling than those from the US, but lacked the outright grunt. For this reason he wrote to British specialist carmaker AC in 1961 to see if it could build a modified version of their pretty Ace two-seater, modified to take a V8 engine instead of its straight six.
AC agreed and although it is commonly thought that the big V8 was ‘shoehorned’ into the well-handling Ace, a lot of work went into making sure the car was balanced and handled well, helped by the fact that the engine was reasonably light. Early cars had 4.2 and 4.7 litre V8s, while some were fitted with a mighty 7.0 litre Ford motor, and while the performance of other sports cars from the sixties has become less impressive by today’s standards, the Cobra’s acceleration is still comparable to anything on the road today. The 0-60 mph time of the 427 (7 litre) was recorded by one magazine at 4.2 seconds, with a top speed of 165 mph. It was little wonder that this car, spawned from an unlikely union between American muscle and a dainty British sports car, made such an impact.
But the Cobra has always carried with it an image of being scary and unwieldy - a fearsome package that was difficult to tame. But is this where reality begins to be entwined with myth? Rod Leach is a man who knows Cobras better than most, having owned and sold them for 35 years, and says they are not as scary as people make out. He now runs ‘Rod Leach’s Nostalgia’ – a Cobra specialist based in Hertfordshire. In 1963 he saw a Cobra on the A303 and swore that one day he would own one. 45 years later he has owned 320 real ones and says he has the same enthusiasm about the car now as he did the first day he saw one.
‘To get in is simplicity itself,’ he tells me. ‘The cockpit is small but it’s an easy car to drive. There is so much torque low down you can almost take off in top gear. They aren’t that hairy – that’s a myth. It’s a short chassis, yes, but it’s not a heavy engine and you can chuck it around, I’ve never understood people who say it didn’t handle.’
Having said that the first 7 litre he owned had to be rebuilt after its owner gave it the full beans and went sideways on Kingston by-pass, destroying the car and almost killing himself. Little more than the engine was left after the car caught fire, but the owner ordered it to be rebuilt from his hospital bed, before selling it to Leach who fitted it with his now famous COB 1 number plate (which incidentally started life on a Mini).
‘In the sixties there was little that could touch an AC Cobra,’ he explains. ‘It was a combination of a light aluminium body and huge power that made for unheard of performance. The performance is different to that of a Porsche, it’s not cammy – it’s just oomph from the moment you put your foot down, relentless shove and a soundtrack to go with it.It’s a timeless appeal and a timeless design. After 40 years the simplicity of the big American V8 still does it for me and many, many others and as another generation comes along they want a Cobra too.’
Real sixties Cobras, which cost around £2,500 new, now fetch around £250,000, and the cheapest way to get a proper Cobra is a MKIV, which start at £60,000. There are an estimated 40,000 Cobra replicas on the road now and that number continues to grow. The Cobra story is nowhere near over – who know, perhaps there are a few more myths and legends to come?
PH Hero Rating: 8/10
Pictures: Rod Leach