THE FORD-SHELBY-COBRA REUNION
It's the swan song for Mr. Shelby
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Sun, May 6, 2012
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
HALF A CENTURY OF THE COBRA Words and pictures by Doug Stokes On April 21, 2012, there was a reunion, celebration, and gathering of the faithful at the NHRA Wally Parks Museum in Pomona, California Who’da thunk it then 50-some years ago when a former sports car driver from the lone star state shoehorned a 260-inch Ford V-8 into a spindly two-liter British teacup of a two-seater, and then had the nads to call his concoction by the name of the nasty-gnarliest snake that he could come up with; that, in large crowds, in public places, in hushed tones laced with overarching envy (smelling/bordering almost on idolatry), we’d be venerating that brand as the most holy of holies, the ultimate cool hot car for the ages, the standard bearer of all that was good, right, American (despite its Pommie past) and terrifyingly fast. Veneration usually reserved for religious attractions, is here aimed at vehicles shrouded in aluminum. You already know, or you’ll need to read someplace else, the full story of the Cobra and its maker, Carroll Shelby. There are thousands of legends grown up about the man and even more legends born out of those legends to choose from.
We were able to attend only part of what must have been a very long day for some and for others, one not nearly long enough. Not even nearly. A few months ago, a terrific team at the great NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum decided that the first 50 years of the Cobra car century should be celebrated, and opened a first class exhibit of some very special examples of breed (along with period photos and other special artifacts of the era). These cars came from the California confluence of the lakes guys, street rodders, drag racers, and sports car stiffs, a heady stew that earlier gave us the Scarabs and, after the Cobra, morphed into Dan Gurney’s equally iconic Eagles. To all of the above, fast was fast in a straight line for a quarter of a mile, over 10 miles of salt, on the roundy-round circuit, or on some squiggly road course somewhere out in the desert. Racing was not something that anyone did by punching parts numbers into a laptop. Parts (then) were parts, and putting them to use to cause wheels make big black marks on whatever surface you found yourself on, was nothing short of a way of life. To kick off the exhibit, the museum staff artfully arranged a multi-acre outdoor exhibit of Carroll Shelby’s cars, Cobras mostly, but 350GT Mustangs, and all manner of Cobra variants spanning the half-century of production and re-production. Every possible example of the Shelby touch (from street and track) was there, many were authentic, and others were presented in “continuation” and/or composite/tribute/knockoff (depending on whether you were paying or getting paid) to the breed. To my mind’s eye, it was almost as though there was no parking lot, just a wonderful coating of colorful cars, each one, on its own, interesting, but all of them together making some sort of metallic Cobra crazy quilt.
For this occasion, they even opened up the old Pomona sports car course on the western side of the massive Fairplex parking lot for some fast touring laps, parting the curtain of time just long enough for TV crews and photographers to get a few (thousand) shots of some prime examples of the breed streaming under the oft-photographed parking overpass that funneled cars into Turn 2 at the southernmost end of the course. I had worked setting up that road course as a college kid in the early 60s, putting up the mile or so of wooden snow fence along the interior of the (then) two-mile road course that was used twice a year to separate the viewers from the doers in those days. We faithfully attached signs that warned “Stay Back 20 Feet” on them, but the only time those signs could be seen was a day before the event when there were no people draped over them looking for a good photo of Shelby, Bob Drake, Duffy Livingstone, Betty Shutes, Frank Monise, John von Neuman, Richie Ginther, Mary Davis, Bruce Kessler, or Eric Hauser as they streaked around the flat, and in some places, tree-lined “parking lot” road course. Besides a couple of bucks, a production line sandwich, and a (much prized) pit pass for my work, at one race I was allowed to take a ride around the track with the guy who had just won Le Mans with Roy Salvadori on an Aston Martin. In those days, a course car would take someone (usually some fine looking filly) around the course between each race flying a racing flag to alert the fans and course workers that another race was about to start.
Shelby arrived in a wire-wheeled AC Ace painted a rather conservative tannish-metallic color (“fawn beige” I think). It was said to have a small Ford V-8 engine under the hood, but other than that, it was simply a one-off engine drop-in deal similar to a Cad-Allard, or some of the other swaps, like sticking a V8-60 into an MGTC—cool, but one of a kind, maybe two or three at best. Sure, it was a ride to remember in CSX2000, sure it was Carroll Shelby (before he was SHELBY) and, sure that little SOB flat flew around Pomona, the pavement running sideways under it in every one of the nine turns, but no one knew then, not even Carroll Shelby… Of course, that big SOB made it stick, and even sold a little Chili on the side. And that unforgettable lap brings us full circle to the 50-year deal at the Museum. So, after 50 years, the Cobra in all its iterations and aftermarket glory is still as iconic as the day is long, and still the snot-nosed, give-a-shit, hot rod “sport car” (no “s”) for which no excuses were ever given nor were ever enough. First of all, this was another of those, “you had to be there” deals start-to-finish. Sure, there were hundreds of Cobras and their direct (and indirect) derivatives. Sure there was a wonderful panel discussion with some great stories and even a question or two questioning the memory of how well (or not so well) the first Cobras actually handled. Sure there were some swell examples of the line, from “Cobra number 1” (well, it said so on the placard and the glossy black car did have a big white 1 painted on its flanks) to all sort of resin replicas shown with and without patina. Sure there were Cobra hats, tees, shirts, jackets, umbrellas, key chains, photos, stickers, books, posters, parts, pieces, ashtrays, and other assorted amulets by the boothful. But the real show was the stories told in the corners, one-on-one, two or three at a time, by the people were there. That’s why one goes to these events, and that’s just how it was at this meeting of the cult of the Cobra cult—and that’s why it can only be hinted at in this story.
From Bondo to Brock (Bob Bondurant, Pete Brock) to just about every living, ambulatory member of the people that built ‘em, worked on ‘em, and raced ‘em, the stories and the extemporaneous interchange is something that is the heart and soul of such a get together. Among the celebrated were: Grant (Jerry), the other Grant (Allen), J.L. (Henderson) who took care of Shelby’s Goodyear Racing Tire business for 43 years, Scooter (Patrick), Davey (Jordan), John (Morton) who, like Brock found even more recognition with the Datsun brand, Sherry (McDonald) wife of the fearless driver who wrestled Cobras to a number of first victories before perishing way too young at Indy in 1964, and even arch-enemy Guldstrand (Dick) the Corvette maven who raced them hard every time they were on the same track (“hey, we kept them honest”). Even better, “Goldie’s” droll answer to the inevitable: “Nice seeing you!”: “Better to be seen than viewed.” They were all there, the Snake and Miss Hurst Golden Shifter (Don Prudhomme and Linda Vaughn) and one more name for the Cobra faithful: Lynn Park, he of the cavalry campaign hat, and the guy who’s considered by all as the preeminent (it’s said that Shelby asks him!) expert on all of snakes ever to come out of Shelby’s basket. There were many moments and the photos that lined the walls of the exhibit were each and every one a full-on story starter if you happened to be standing next to one of the people picture therein. Again, this is not to gloat over the fact that I was there and that you were not, but to invite readers to join in when a where they can when heroes hang out. The cars will always be there valued or valueless, but the warriors will not. Alas, the man who raced in farmer’s bib overalls with a nitro pill under his tongue to stave off recurrent angina, the man in the highly-appropriate, chewed up western hat, the failed chicken farmer, Ol’ Shel, the world champion racing car constructor, and the father (and mother) of the Cobra, was only there in spirit. Said to be the longest-lived heart transplant patient ever, at 89 we’ve been told that he is in very poor health and that his prognosis not at all good. Of course, Shelby’s lifelong penchant for proving people (very, very) wrong about anything about him (his cars, his health, his production numbering system(s), or his way with the ladies) is a huge part of his legend. He was sorely missed at this event, but very far from forgotten. – Doug Stokes
POSTNOTE: If you are at all stirred by any of the above, don't miss the next gathering of the elders that comes around. There aren't many around like the ones mentioned. In the end, the cars are not the stars without the people who animated them. Go hang with them while we've got 'em. One more thing: THANKS Tony, you are sorely missed. For more information about the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, go to www.museum.nhra.com For LA Car's history of Carroll Shelby in pictures, along with a few thoughts on Mr. Shelby's passing by Doug Stokes, click here.