Thunder Road Cars in Essex lives and breathes Cobras – genuine and replicas – to the point of obsession. The depth of knowledge, not to mention enthusiasm and skill, is probably best represented by this car dubbed the “Thunder Road 289FIA” which belongs to Thunder Road engineer Barry Jones. It is a visually perfect facsimile of Shelby Cobra CSX2260, the 289 FIA car raced by Phil Hill and Joe Schlesser at Sebring in 1964. CSX2260 also raced that year at Spa Francorchamps, at the Nürburgring and in the Targa Florio.
This is of course a replica, a kit car, but original Cobras were not a lot different in their approach. Real Cobras use an MGB steering rack; the indicator stalk from a VW variant; rear lights from a Hillman Husky; various electrical bits from Lucas’ general catalogue. In fact, in the peak 1960s racing years, an 'anything that will fit' approach was adopted – including using Corvette radiators and expansion tanks. Between races Cobra technicians were spotted nipping into the nearest Chevy dealer for spares – at the height of the Cobra vs Corvette Grand Sport war.
There were originally five 289 'FIA' Cobras built with the intention of dominating the FIA World Manufacturers’ Championship in 1964. They all had modified 289 bodywork, principally to accommodate wider wheels and tyres, the widening being more subtle than the 7 litre 427s. The enlarged wheelarches required a cut-back door (a reverse radius to the rear door edge). A more subtle tweak is the pair of dimples in the boot lid. An FIA regulation specified that a piece of control luggage must fit in the boot, but these five cars had 37 gallon (165 litre) fuel tanks, pushing the suitcase back a couple of inches. Legend has it that the first dimples were created by the aluminium boot lid being slammed on the luggage by a mechanic.
Some other key FIA features are the FIA pin-drive (centre-lock) hubs and wheels, the forward braced roll hoop and the offset petrol cap, with its own cowling. The cowling was necessary to prevent air sucking fuel out of the tank at speed. FIA cars were also obliged to run full windscreens …but these five cars had their screens laid back to 'cheat the wind'. I can’t help feeling there was some winking going on when talking about 'cheating the wind' - did someone mention cheating?
Barry’s car faithfully copies all these special features but there is rather more to his bodywork modifications than perhaps meets the eye. Truly, the devil is in the detail. Thunder Road has also sought to give the impression of the body being made of aluminium. To do this requires hand-working the glassfibre to fashion tighter edges and there’s no doubt that this intensive process has been a success: the car really does look like it’s made of metal. The sharpness of those boot lid dimples, the crisp, radiused leading edges of the bonnet scoop and the panel gaps. Open the boot or lift the hood and all the paneling is aluminium to further confound. Something else you can’t typically do with a replica Cobra is fit 'quick lifts' (the brackets bolted on the front and back of the body for easy lifting of the car with a special jack). To lift the car this way, from either of its ends, requires chassis surgery and the Thunder Road 289FIA’s solution is identical to the originals’.
The basis of this car is a RAM SC that Barry began building in 1988, finally hitting the road with it in 1994. A Cobra being his childhood dream car, building his own was the closest he felt he’d get to ownership – he even built it left-hand drive to be that bit closer to his dream! The thing is, the Cobra he really wanted was CSX2260 (currently in the States and worth over £500,000). Fate played its hand in 2005 when on a wet and greasy road Barry removed both ends from his car. Nearly 20 years after his first build began, Barry had since forged a career in engineering and teamed up with Thunder Road Cars. This time he set out to build not just any Cobra but the Cobra he coveted above all others: CSX2260.
The RAM body is one of the more accurate replicas but it is a generic Cobra shape, lacking any particular distinguishing, model-specific features. It is therefore a good basis to evolve from, but every panel has been modified for the 289FIA. Another benefit of the RAM is the space frame chassis that can be set up to handle very well indeed. The running gear in Barry’s car is a small block Ford but a larger 302ci (5.0 litre) instead of the correct 289ci (4.7 litre). The transmission is a 4-speed Toploader (period-correct) while the rear axle is Jaguar based, giving the car independent rear suspension with coils rather than a transverse leaf spring. The Thunder Road 289FIA has outboard disc brakes (correct) all round, although they are modern ventilated Wilwood rotors and calipers. The genuine AC hubs and Halibrand wheels have been engineered to fit exactly, with the right offsets so they sit in the same position in the arches as those of CSX2260. The 1964 FIA cars had slim side pipes which did not penetrate the bodies. The problem for road use is that these sidepipes were fed straight off the header. Barry has a set for noisy track days but they are not even close to being street legal. Rather than fit side pipes with mufflers in them (which made them too fat), Barry opted for discreet tailpipes to use on the road.
Of course, I had to drive it but I was mindful of the fact the car is priceless to Barry. The cockpit is snug with most of the space occupied by the transmission tunnel. All the gauges are in the correct place including the speedo in the opposite corner of the dashboard so as not to distract the driver. Although many manufacturers used Britain’s first motorway for high speed runs in the 1960s, legend has it that AC testing their Le Mans cars on the M1 at over 180mph led the Ministry of Transport to impose a 70mph speed limit in Britain in 1967 – it must have been great in 1964 to not need to be distracted by the speedometer.
All the switches are as you would expect for a racing car so the starting sequence is to switch on the ignition, flick the fuel pump switch, wait for the ticking to slow down – and then go for the big round button. Brrrrrrrrrrruuuuuuum...The throttle required tickling to begin with before the engine settled to a lazy tickover, the car rocking gently. Barry has set up the pedal locations and travel to suit himself, which didn’t entirely suit my larger feet. I’d have preferred more travel and more space – both of which are easily achieved if required.
Once comfortable I headed off in the direction of one of my favourite lanes – a few miles of tarmac with plenty of variety in terms of surface, corners and undulations. It’s a road that never fails to expose a car’s failings. The 289FIA proved to be extremely good. It was unfazed by the peculiar cambers and inspired sufficient confidence to carry a lot of speed through the turns. With around 350bhp its performance is lively but mild rather than wild in the world of Cobras. That is of course a relative statement – an 1100kg car with 350bhp, heaps of torque and a 90” wheelbase can serve up as much drama as you want. This is a surprisingly nice car to drive and feels just as well made as it looks. It does, naturally, make a lovely noise but I’d really like to hear those open sidepipes spitting at the hedgerows. Not sure the whole of Northamptonshire would agree though.
Thunder Road Cars routinely builds, finishes and repairs Cobra replicas but this is the first, though probably not the last, time the company has gone to such extraordinary lengths to copy a specific example. There are far more details than I’ve recorded (door hinge angles and the 'meatball' lights are a couple more) but they all conspire to achieve the remarkable feat of making a GRP body look like aluminium. As a consequence the finished car has an air of authenticity about it that even the most beautifully built replicas do not reach. The stunning, mirror-smooth paint is the correct Viking Blue, the colour worn by all five originals. Each of those cars had a different coloured stripe for identification from the pit wall. Parked in a race circuit paddock it was fascinating to watch people double-take when they saw it.
Hidden enhancements and conveniences like the sturdy space frame chassis; coil-sprung suspension; the mighty Wilwood anchors; a single Holley four barrel carb (correct for a 289 in period, but CSX2260 had the optional four Weber 48 IDAs) and better upholstered seats add to the car’s appeal – which is more than can be said for the mid-90s 'Q' plate. If you took a mid-60s C2 Corvette and hung contemporary C6 Corvette running gear beneath it you would have the best of both worlds and a car the envy of most petrolheads. If you performed similar surgery on a ’64 Shelby Cobra you would be lynched or marched to a psychiatrist - you can’t do it.
And that’s where I think the Thunder Road 289FIA scores: it looks utterly 1964 but uses a bit of concealed 21st Century know-how to make it a better car to drive. Cars can be built from scratch or existing RAM SCs can be modified to match specific CSX2000/CSX3000 series cars. With TVR and Marcos off the radar, an authentic-looking, beautifully built V8 bruiser like this might be worth a look. Go on pick a Cobra, any Cobra…