x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Celebrating 50 years of British design and American grunt in AC Cobra

AC's Cobra defined macho in the 1960s. Kevin Hackett reflects on its half century at the top of any petrolhead's wish list.

A priceless collection of original AC Cobras of all variants is assembled in celebration of the car's 50th birthday at the Laguna Seca Raceway in California as part of the annual Pebble Beach concours event. Stephan Cooper / AP Photo
A priceless collection of original AC Cobras of all variants is assembled in celebration of the car's 50th birthday at the Laguna Seca Raceway in California as part of the annual Pebble Beach concours event. Stephan Cooper / AP Photo

AC's Cobra defined macho in the 1960s and Kevin Hackett reflects on its half century at the top of any petrolhead's wish list.

As I write this, there is a car auction taking place at Monterey, California. At the Portola Hotel, RM Auctions has 60 incredibly rare and valuable cars going under the hammer and a 1965 AC Cobra has just been sold. It has only ever had one (lady) owner and it was offered without a reserve, with its final sale price estimated by RM at US$400,000-$500,000. When the auctioneer's gavel hit the block, it sold for $720,000 (Dh2.64 million). Such is the fascination with the Cobra, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

This highly original example was bought by Flora L Darling - apparently one of life's real go-getters - in May 1965 from Hi-Performance Motors in Los Angeles. When she picked it up, the salesman is said to have remarked, "That's a mighty fast car, ma'am. Who's going to drive it home for you?" To which she looked him in the eye and replied, "I am. Why do you think I bought it, you fool?" With that, she roared away from the showroom and the car remained with her for 47 years. It's safe to say that Carroll Shelby, the man responsible for the Cobra's development and who died this year within just a few weeks of Mrs Darling's own demise, would have loved her.

According to her niece, Debra Redwine, she had served in the US Air Force during the Korean War, before putting herself through college to gain a degree in anthropology and buying a house in 1956. She ran a medical laboratory, was involved in charity relief missions in developing countries, was a competitive shooter and archer, a published author, a poet, a fine-arts painter and an accomplished silversmith. A year after buying her Cobra, she got a pilot's licence and bought her own plane. What a remarkable woman - I would love to have known her.

The Cobra was totally fitting transportation for someone with such an obvious lust for life, and RM Auctions knows this. She hadn't used the car since 1987, when her husband died, and it had remained in her garage under two dusty car covers before being found by her surviving relatives. With rusting wire wheels, cobwebs still attached, the auction house staff wheeled it onto the stage, reasoning that starting it for the first time in almost a quarter of a century should be the privilege of whoever bought it.

The auction sees another Cobra, a later 427 competition model, sell for $1.35m, and one more for $1.2m. The AC Cobra's time is now, of that there is no doubt, and values are only ever going to head in an upward trajectory. But why does this car have such a hold on our imaginations? It's far from pure, being a mishmash of British design and American V8 grunt and, if you see one on the roads of the UAE or anywhere else, your first thought is that it's a replica, a fake snake.

You only have to stand in the presence of a real one, or at least a faithful recreation, to instantly and fully appreciate why the AC Cobra is so admired. Its shape is simple yet brutally macho, reaching into the subconscious mind and taking it prisoner. It ticks all the right boxes for anyone with a love of performance cars and reminds us that cars don't need to be covered with spoilers or have gimmicky doors to stimulate the senses. It seems to be saying, "come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough", and most of us aren't.

The Cobra started out life as the pretty AC Ace, a two-door sports car that was powered by a six-cylinder engine supplied by Bristol. When Bristol announced it was discontinuing that unit to fit big American lumps in its own cars, AC was left with a supply problem, something that came to the attention of one Mr Shelby. In 1942, he was a chicken farmer, bankrupted when his second brood died from disease. But he soon found fame and fortune as a racing driver in the 1950s, even setting speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The story goes that, in 1961, he contacted AC with an idea about fitting the Ace with Ford's new V8 engine. AC said yes and history started to be made.

AC worked on the chassis in its UK factory to handle the extra power of a V8 and the space it needed under the bonnet, before shipping the cars to the US, where the newly formed Shelby American company pieced everything together. In all, it took just six months to create this new car, for which Shelby quite literally dreamed up the name Cobra.

The first model, known as the 260 Mk1, had a production run of 75 cars before being superseded by the 289 Mk2 in 1963. Its power-to-weight ratio was incredible, weighing just 920kg with 271 horses packed under its bonnet, giving it stonking levels of performance for the time. Acceleration from rest to 100kph in 5.7 seconds is impressive, even five decades on. By the time the Mk2 ceased production, 730 Cobras had been built, but Shelby was only just hitting his stride.

Racing success was what Shelby wanted, and the Cobra 289 had delivered that, but the competition was constantly upping the ante. What he needed was even more power, and it came in the mighty, muscular form of the 427 Mk3. Displacing seven litres, its Ford V8 produced 425hp and this meant a significant overhaul was required for practically every component - something that took place remarkably quickly. The body was widened to cover the fatter tyres and new Halibrand magnesium alloy wheels, while the exhaust pipes were fitted down the side of the car, screaming to the world that it was way, way tougher than the rest.

The 427's formidable power was still too much for the chassis. It was - and still is - an untamable beast, entirely deserving of the deadly serpent's name bestowed upon it. Nevertheless, some skilled drivers were able to wring its neck, setting some incredible speeds. The test driver Chris Amon clocked 160kph from rest in 8.8 seconds, and even more impressive was its 0-160-0 time of just 14.5 seconds. It was, by all accounts, the fastest and most extreme road car in the world.

In the end, though, the 427 never made it as a competition car because AC didn't manage to build the 100 required for homologation by the FIA in time. Sales were inexplicably slow, and after 343 Mk3s were built, that was it for the Cobra. It's estimated, however, that there are more than 50,000 replica Cobras in existence, making it the most replicated automobile of all time, by a huge margin. Why?

Like many cars, the Cobra has steadily gained in popularity over the decades. With a total production run of just 1,073, demand for the model soon outstripped availability, so the only way for enthusiasts to live the dream was to build their own. And the Cobra's simplicity of design and construction, along with the plentiful supply of Ford V8 engines, meant that was entirely feasible for those with enough mechanical know-how and space in the garage.

The reputation of the Cobra for wild performance and visceral thrills was partly down to the widely held belief that it was solely responsible for the UK's enforcement of a 70mph (112.6kph) speed limit. What actually happened was that AC, being just a couple of weeks from entering its re-bodied and re-engineered Cobra Coupé at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1964, thought it best to see what top speed it was capable of achieving. So the racing driver Jack Sears took one for a run on the M1 motorway in England.

This was not unusual for manufacturers back then, at a time when the country's motorways were practically empty. Sears reached what he thought was the car's terminal speed, went back to base and told the engineers what revs he'd pulled. The boffins worked out, from the axle ratio, size of tyres, etc, that he had hit 185mph (298kph). Sears' co-driver, Peter Bolton, repeated the exercise and hit the same speed, all taking place before 5am.

By lunchtime the same day, Sears was contacted by a journalist for the Sunday Times, who'd heard from the nephew of AC's then boss, Derek Hurlock, about the high-speed antics. The paper ran the story, it hit the headlines and the press went into meltdown, decrying the test run as an irresponsible stunt; an example of how Britain had decayed.

Shortly after this, the 70mph limit was enforced, but the truth of the matter was that the government had been planning the limit long before most people had even heard of AC or its Cobra. But, as the saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and the story only added to the Cobra's legend.

AC eventually went bust and the name has been passed from pillar to post over the decades, with various attempts made to restart Cobra production.

The resulting cars can, unusually, be viewed as originals, and the standards of construction are light years ahead of the models built in the 1960s. The Mk4, built between 1983 and 1996, was superb in almost every respect, but the state of the world economy (sounds familiar) put paid to any long-term success.

The company lives on, known as AC Heritage, still making 289 and 427 model Cobras, using the original 1960s factory tooling, with tubular chassis that bestow upon them period correctness and a direct bloodline. These "Continuation" models cannot be named Cobras, though, because of a legal objection by Shelby, but that doesn't mean they're not the real thing and they represent sound investments for the future.

In these days of faltering economies and nanny-state interference on almost every level of life, the raw, uncompromising AC Cobra represents a halcyon time of carefree existences, when humans were able to push limits to their often illogical conclusions without fear of retribution. It's a car that will never date and, 50 years after Shelby built the first one, it remains more deeply desirable than ever. This snake, whether real or fake, will never become extinct. Happy birthday, Cobra, we're glad you haven't lost your fangs.