Article and photography by Richard Butschi
It is truly an American icon - the vision of Carroll Shelby, engineer, auto racer and entrepreneur. In the early ‘60s, Shelby had the simple idea of putting a big engine in a small car to race. He chose the Bristol, a successful British 6-cylinder racer built by AC Motors of England. He contracted AC to adapt the chassis to hold a small V8, then went looking for a suitable motor. Shelby was turned down by Chevrolet, who feared competition of another sports car. Ford was looking to compete with Corvette and offered Shelby a 221 cu.in. Windsor V8. By the time the engine was shipped, adjustments had been made and it grew to the “260” used in early Falcons and the first Mustangs. AC exported the first versions to Shelby’s company in Los Angeles. They were complete cars minus the engine and transmission, which Shelby installed. The first 75 units, called the MKI, had the 260 powerplant. The next 51 received an updated engine – the 289, which Ford was introducing.
Improvements were constantly being made by Shelby, such as the front end to accommodate rack and pinion steering in the Mark II. A 390 cu.in. engine install was attempted for competition cars with disastrous results, so the new Mark III received a heavier frame with coil-spring suspension, wider fenders and larger radiator opening to help cool a massive 427 cu.in./425 hp “side oiler” engine.
Virgil Dietz, of NE CR, got ahold of an unfinished replica Cobra in September of 2000 on a tip from his son, buying it while recovering from surgery (when you are to avoid making major financial decisions). It was finished only in gray gel coat, without a dash, “9,000 loose wires”, and armed with a fiesty 351 Windsor and T5 tranny. Virgil’s family drove Fords so it was a natural fit. Being a drag racer, he took it to Tri-State Raceway in Earlville, impressing the crowd by hammering it in second gear which resulted in an impromptu “donut” on the track.
Virgil continued to work on the Cobra, boring a “tougher” 351 Windsor 1969 block .040 over and installing a 4.17 steel stroker crank making it a “427” coupled to a Tremec TKO 5-speed trans with an 8.8 Ford rearend. Brakes are Wilwood 4-piston and the rear axle was upgraded from 28 to 31 splines. The car was manufactured by Classic Roadster, a division of Leisure Industries which makes boats, so the body consists of heavy duty fiberglass yet weighs only 2,600 lbs. The head-turning Ford “Flame Blue” paint and ghost stripes were applied by Chris King of King’s Hot Road Shop in Keota. The American Racing wheels were custom-made with 7” backspacing necessary to fit the Mickey Thompson 10.6” wide rear rubber within the fenders. Up front are 15x8” Goodyear Eagle GTIIs.
Future plans for the Cobra include replacing the current 750cfm Quick Fuel carburetor with an 850 “center squirter” which happens to be a direct replacement meant for the original 427. After that, Virgil will likely head to a chassis dyno, as he’s very curious about the numbers it should make.
And while there are many “purists” that will pooh-pooh a replica model, or “kit car”, there are obvious reasons why they are so popular. And they are spelled with dollar signs. Although produced from ‘61 to ‘68, the number of AC Cobra units totaled only 998. Of those, 665 were leaf-spring suspended 289s and 343 were coil-spring 427s. Prices now range from $500k on up with one 427 selling at Barrett-Jackson in 2015 for $1,595,000! There were also special Cobra “packages” offered by Shelby, such as the Dragon Snake, Slalom Snake and Super Snake which was outfitted with dual Paxton superchargers. Some of these limited-production models sold for over $5 million at auction, so Virgil is probably looking at his inspected and “titled-as” ‘65 Cobra as “close enough”.