Britain’s AC Cars was already producing its little Cobra model when it shipped a chassis over to the U.S. back in February 1962, modified to take a big American V-8. It was bound for Carroll Shelby, a former Army Air Force pilot, race driver and automotive designer convinced he could beat his European competition at their own game.
Working out of a small shop in Santa Fe Springs, California, Shelby and his team managed to shoehorn in a 260 cubic-inch engine lifted from a Ford Fairlane. It marked the birth of the legendary Shelby Cobra. In the coming years, Shelby would offer two even bigger engines: Ford’s 289 and 427 cubic-inch V-8s. But until his death in 2012, the legendary Texan entrepreneur kept that first Cobra for himself.
Now, four years after his death at the age of 89, the original Shelby Cobra, chassis number CSX 2000, is going up for auction, and auction house RM Sotheby’s is predicting it could set an all-time record for an American automobile.
“Carroll Shelby – the man, the larger-than-life Texan, and the battle-tested racing veteran – fired a shot across the bow of every sports car manufacturer in the world and, in doing so, set the car world on fire with the Cobra,” Sotheby’s says in a press release.
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The original Shelby Cobra will go across the auction block during the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance next month.
If it delivers on its expectations, Sotheby’s will beat the record the auction house set just four years ago, when a 1968 Ford GT40 race car commanded a bid of $11 million.
That’s nowhere near an all-time automotive record, of course. A 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO holds that honor, having gone for $34,650,000 at the Bonham’s Quail Auction – also held during the Pebble Beach Concours week – on August 14, 2014. With the buyer’s premium, the figure actually leapt to $38,115,000.
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American-made cars have never quite caught up with their European rivals, but the Shelby Cobra could give it a good shot.
What was known as the AC Ace, and then the AC Cobra, was notable for its lightweight design and nimble handling. The chassis was comprised of steel tubing over which aluminum body panels were fitted. But the AC model lacked the sort of powertrain that could make it a real contender.
Shelby wrote to the British maker asking if he could get one of the Cobras, sans engine and transmission, and they air-freighted it over to California.
He had originally hoped to use a Chevrolet V-8, but Chevy didn’t want to set up a competitor for the Corvette, so it said no. Shelby then turned to Ford, the number two maker happy to help take down the ‘Vette.
With the Fairlane’s V-8, a modified transmission and a new rear differential in place, the team started road testing, the newly renamed Shelby Cobra turning 0 to 60 times in the low four second range. That was enough, the Texan said, to make it a “Corvette-beater,” something it proved with its first victory at Riverside International Raceway on the second of February, 1963 – exactly one year to the day after the original Cobra chassis had landed in Los Angeles.
Only a relative handful of Shelby Cobras were built back in the 1960s. But in the late 1980s, Shelby American, the entrepreneur’s Las Vegas-based company, rolled out a series of “Continuation Cars,” authorized reproductions with more modern amenities.
Shelby was tripped up when, in the early 1990s, he announced plans to finish building the 100 original Cobras using the AC chassis – production stopping after just 55 were completed. It turned out they were counterfeits, using a platform actually manufactured in California. The scam proved a costly embarrassment.
But there appears to be no doubt about the authenticity of the car going across the Sotheby’s block. And based on what other Cobras have gone for in recent years, the auction house appears to have reason to believe it’s on the way to setting a new record.
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