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he Cobra is both an albatross

around Carroll Shelby’s neck and

an eagle on his shoulder. It is an eagle

because as a sports car, the Cobra has

become an American icon. It sprang

from the imagination of one man – it

was not designed by a committee. It

initially raced against the new

Corvette Sting Ray, where it was the

underdog. It quickly established itself

as a dark horse that overcame the best

sports car that the General Motors

monolith could devise. The competi-

tion Cobras were developed and pre-

pared by a tight-knit group of

California hot rodders, British and

New Zealand race car fabricators, for-

mer USAC mechanics and dry lakes

racers. Once the cars began consis-

tently beating Corvettes in this coun-

try, the Cobra Team put Ferrari in its

cross-hairs. That meant traveling to

Europe, and within three years the

Cobra emerged as the World Cham-

pion. It was like a Hollywood movie,

except that it was all true.

The Cobra is also an albatross

around Carroll Shelby’s neck because

everything he has done since the

Cobra is measured against that car.

Fifty years later it is still a credible

high performance sports car capable of

holding its own against any other pro-

duction car you can name. It appears

on just about every “Top 100,” “Top 25”

or “Top 10” list of the Most [

fill in the


] “Important,” ...”Influential,”

...”Celebrated,” ...“Desirable” sports

cars of the past 50 years. The Cobra is

a very high bar to scale. Even for Car-

roll Shelby.

The genesis of the Shelby Series 1

was not a direct line from the original

Cobra. Shelby sensed the decline of

the performance car as the shank end

of the 1960s approached. Federally

mandated safety and emission regula-

tions and increased insurance costs

conspired against 400-horsepower

muscle cars. Shelby began stepping

out of the picture as the 1969 models

appeared. The Cobra roadster was al-

ready history and by 1968, the “Cobra

III” – a prototype for the “next gener-

ation” Cobra which came to be called

the Lone Star – dead-ended with only

one example produced.

Shelby correctly interpreted the

signs of increasing governmental reg-

ulation and diminishing performance.

He spent the 1970s dabbling in com-

mercial real estate in the U.S. and run-

ning a safari company in the Central

African Republic. However, the politi-

cal climate in that country was chang-

ing rapidly, so Shelby divested his

interests there and returned to the

U.S. In 1983 he got a call from Lee Ia-

cocca, who asked him to help provide

some performance sizzle for the ailing

Chrysler company by jazzing up some

of the 4-cylinder, front-wheel-drive

cars in its stable. Shelby climbed

aboard, certainly to help out his old

pal, but also to show the automotive

world that while he might have been

out of the picture for a decade, he was

not a washed-up has-been. He still had

the magic touch.

The result was a generation of

Dodge-Shelby models, followed by a

series of Shelby-Dodge cars built by

his own company, Shelby Automobiles,

Inc. based inWhittier, California. Car-

roll Shelby, it turned out, still had the

yen to build another sports car with

his name on it. His experience with

the Cobra had taught him that he

could not go it alone; he needed a very

close relationship with a major auto-

mobile manufacturer. As the Shelby-

Dodge program began to wind down at

the end of the 1980s he was working

on just such a car. As fate would have

it, his health turned south and the

long term prognosis was not good; in

not so many words, his doctors told

him not to buy any green bananas.

The fix was a heart transplant,

but you don’t get one of those

overnight. Shelby’s case was evaluated

by a committee of specialists and after

he successfully passed through that

gauntlet, his name went onto a list. In

the meantime his condition grew

steadily worse. When he finally got

near the top of the recipient list he

was advised not to travel more than

two hours away from the hospital be-

cause a donor heart could come at any

time. It was a waiting game. In June

of 1990 that call did come. Shelby re-

ceived his transplant and the rest is

history. Or so it might seem.


Fall 2016 35

Carroll Shelby proves that the original Cobra was a tough act to follow - even for him.

— Rick Kopec