Once, on Ohio Route 322 in the rural part of the state east of Cleveland, when the flat two-lane blacktop gave me almost three miles of visibility, seeing no cars in front of or behind me, and knowing that none of the towns along that stretch had police departments, I scared myself silly getting that beast in the photo above up to 125 miles per hour with a simple tap on the accelerator. Man, it was great. I did, however, finally have to stop and turn around to help an Amish guy by the roadside pick up the cheese wheels and wedges that my draft had sucked off his farm stand.
His first statement was, "Is that a Cobra?"
Maybe it was because I was exposed to it at an impressionable age, and with a couple of wrenches in my hands, but I've always thought that one of the world's great works of art is the carbureted V8 Cobra engine. If form follows function in architecture and graphic arts, then surely this automobile engine, the pure product of mid-century American engineering, deserves a place in a museum. [There actually is a Ford V8 museum in Auburn, Indiana.]
It has certainly captured the imagination of many different types of men and women through the years. Some have been actual engineers, some garage or shade tree mechanics, weekend hobbyists, farmers with something rusty and discarded in the corner of a barn, Southern California hot rodders, or a 20-year-old in Ohio who has just purchased a 1969 Ford Torino GT with the 390 c.u. Cobra package from a neighbor for $100. This writer even knows a professional poet who has about a dozen cannibalized V8's scattered about his garage in various conditions, all waiting eventually to be consolidated and fitted into a 1932 Ford pickup truck. Whatever their background, they're all motorheads; and motorheads love V8's.
There is a bit of an "attitude" about a Cobra V8, too, that's rather hard to describe unless you take into account the guy who managed to make a simple auto engine an international corporate statement and the rallying point for a kind of asphalt patriotism.
Imagine, if you will, a collection of Detroit auto executives in the 1960's gathered in a top floor office: Brooks Brothers sack suits, horn-rimmed glasses, skinny ties, button-down shirts, the full Mad Men look. At least one has a pocket protector. Their boss, Henry Ford II, and his hatchet man, Lee Iaccoca, have just given them a directive to build an American car that can compete with the best that Europe has to offer in both the showroom and the race track.
As the last innovation of these men was the Ford Edsel, the most unpopular car in U.S. automotive history, the room is rather glum. Then in walks a tall, rangy, drawling Texan wearing a suede, western-style sport coat with no tie. He looks around the room for the whisky decanter, rests his cowboy boot-shod feet on the nearest side table, and tells "the fellers" that he is "fixin'" to build them a car like no other.
I'm sure they thought he was either some kind of turbo-powered savior or a complete lunatic. In reality, Carroll Shelby was a little of both.
He had done a number of things in the automotive world, mainly selling cars, building cars, repairing cars, improving cars, and racing cars. Perhaps you will notice the leitmotif in his activities? Born in a small town in Texas in 1923 and having spent his childhood in bed with a heart ailment, the teenage Shelby was told by doctors that he had "outgrown" his malady [ah, early century medicine] and thus indulged his interest in machines by attending the Georgia Institute of Technology [whose president at the time was my wife's grandfather, by the way]. Unfortunately, Shelby's academic career was interrupted by WWII.
After the war, during which he served as a sergeant in the air corps, he sought to recapture the thrill of aerial derring-do by entering as an amateur in auto races, performing so well that he became semi-professional and then fully professional, driving for several of the leading teams of the 1950's in competitions as significant as the Le Mans 24 Hour race, which he won in 1959 driving for Aston-Martin. During the race he came to admire the sturdiness and style of the British AC automobiles against which he competed. So much so, that when he retired from racing at the end of that year, Shelby received the license to sell AC autos in the USA as part of his new company, Shelby-American.
There was just one problem, though. Shelby thought that the 2-liter engine that AC installed in its cars resembled more a sewing machine than a high performance motor, so he replaced it by fitting, barely, a robust, bulletproof Ford V8 under the hood. The Shelby Cobra, as it came to be known, would become the hottest and most desired high performance automobile in the United States, outselling similarly priced models from Ferrari, Porsche, and Mercedes.