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Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe Continuation – Brutal beauty

Words: Glen Waddington; pictures: James Lipman

Half a century ago, Carroll Shelby tore up European racing convention by beating Ferrari at its own game – with the Cobra Daytona Coupe. This continuation car celebrates that anniversary

It’s fair to say that, on looks alone, the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe halts you in your tracks. Stops you dead. Those legendary curves, that tarmac-hunkered nose, the sheer devil-may-care attitude of that abrupt tail; 50 years ago those aerodynamic refinements won Shelby the GT III class in the 1965 FIA World Sportscar Championship.

Pete Brock’s design work had turned an olde-worlde roadster – one with its roots in a genteel English sports car, let’s not forget – into something capable of seeing off Ferraris in sustained high-speed racing. You know, the kind of racing in which reduced drag scores you
seconds and greater stability keeps you on the track. Even if, underneath, it was deliberately as unsophisticated as always, running as it did
(and still does) on what good ol’ Carroll Shelby himself once referred to me as ‘buggy springs’.

So, yes, there are transverse leaf springs, a spindly twin-tube chassis and also a big V8 thundering away under this shining aluminium bodywork. So far, so original. Yet this is not one of the six Daytonas created back in the day.

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

No, earlier this year Las Vegas-based Shelby American – the company that carries on in the name of its founder, following Carroll Shelby’s death, aged 89, in 2012 – announced that 50 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupes would be built, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that historic Championship victory. It was the only American car ever to win that title, at its second attempt finally toppling Ferrari and the 250GTO, having been runner-up in its maiden season the year before. With drivers including Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant, and running with Ford’s Alan Mann Racing team, the Daytonas claimed class victories in such races as the Sebring 12 Hours, RAC Tourist Trophy, Daytona 24 Hours, the Nürburgring 1000km – not to mention 25 Land Speed Records at Bonneville. Bondurant won no fewer than seven of his ten races in that season and was promptly snapped up by Ferrari’s Formula 1 team!

So, an anniversary worth marking, then. ‘The Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe helped a small American team beat a racing giant,’ says Joe Conway, CEO of Shelby American. ‘The tenacious Shelby American team fielded six sleek Cobra Coupes against the Ferrari juggernaut, winning the FIA Sports Car Championship on 4 July 1965. It’s a critical piece of Shelby American’s racing legacy and a big reason why Shelby trounced Ferrari with skilled drivers, like Bondurant, behind the wheel. This limited series of anniversary cars brings the legendary Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe back to life.’

The first of those is the car in these pictures. It made its public debut at Gordon McCall’s Motorworks Revival during the Monterey Auto Week, before going on display at Laguna Seca. It was then shipped over to the UK and presented at the Goodwood Revival in September – as a reminder of just how Euro-centric the World Sportscar Championship was. After all, there are those who would say this car means more to Europeans than it does to natives of its homeland.

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

At Goodwood it shared track space with the six original (and priceless) Daytonas, the only time those cars have ever been brought back together, and was hosted by Bill Shepherd Mustang, the Surrey-based specialist and European distributor for Shelby American who already imports Shelby’s Cobra Continuation cars. As the Shelby licensed and authorised Shelby-Mod Shop for the UK and European Union, the British company built the very first of the new Shelby GT Mustangs, complete with its unique Shelby VIN (as tested in Octane 150).

‘The deal for my business to represent Shelby American in the UK and Europe was put forward to me by Carroll Shelby himself during his last visit to the UK in 2004,’ says Shepherd. ‘It was Carroll’s own personal wish to establish his brand in the UK and Europe, markets he’d overlooked for 40 years, and he asked me to put that right. So I see this as completing a promise I made to a dear friend a long time back. While I only knew him in the last decade or so of his exciting life, he became a friend and was a total star, devoid of any arrogance or self-importance. He was a gentleman and always a racer, to the very end!’

The Daytona travelled over with staff from Shelby American. I meet at Bill Shepherd’s place with sales boss Gary Patterson, a man who lives in Las Vegas and likes nothing more than to head out onto quiet desert roads in one of the company’s Continuation Cobras. He lets slip a telling anecdote: ‘There aren’t so many police out there but, if you’re going to speed, make sure you go faster than 140. They can’t catch you then.’

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

It’s raining hard outside and the Daytona isn’t road-registered, so we’re biding our time until a later date for what will be an exclusive Octane test and photo shoot at a secret location. It’s a chance to chat through a few details about the car first, though.

‘The body is built off-site in the US, and so is the frame,’ he tells me. Any more details about who is actually responsible for the aluminium body construction clearly aren’t forthcoming, though the structure incorporates safety improvements and is stronger than the original without sacrificing its integrity as The Real Thing, and they are constructed according to the original blueprints.

Each of the original six cars was slightly different, so one specification – which represents the best of all six – was chosen for the new car; all
50 will carry new Shelby American serial numbers, from CSX9950 to CSX9999. While the aluminium car wears a price tag of $349,995, a glassfibre version – ‘True to spirit though reimagined as if it had remained in production,’ says Keith Belair, Shelby American COO –
is available for $179,995.

In each case, that price is without a drivetrain. The cars are delivered as rolling chassis and can be equipped with a choice of Ford V8 and transmissions from Shelby American, an arrangement that neatly sidesteps type approval.

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

‘The body, chassis, steering, leaf-spring suspension, brakes, leather trim, instruments and so forth all come together in Las Vegas,’ says Patterson. ‘A third party sources the engine. In the case of this car it’s a 347ci smallblock, all-aluminium with pushrods, an old-school American V8, based on the Ford 289 and 302. It puts out 450, maybe 500 horsepower; pure in-your-face raw performance,’ he chuckles.

‘It’s got a larger bore, longer stroke; great power-to-weight ratio, great balance. Just a 3in round-tube chassis and transverse leaf springs but the Cobra always proved how nimble that could be. If you want creature comforts, this isn’t the car for you,’ he adds, with disarming honesty. Transmission-wise, this one runs a five-speed Tremec, though it’s possible to spec a more traditional Borg-Warner four-speed.

Much of the Daytona’s hardware was obviously already in place as the company had been building Continuation Cobras since the mid-1990s, and still owned the blueprints for Pete Brock’s aerodynamic bodywork. ‘We’d been talking about it for a couple of years,’ says Patterson. ‘We wanted to pay tribute with a worthy representation. This is not a replica. This is true to the original.’

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

Would Patterson be flattered if I compared this creation with Jaguar’s recent E-type Lightweight continuation cars? A shrug and a smile is the response.

It might be a coupé that won the GT class but don’t go thinking the Shelby Daytona – even a brand new Shelby Daytona – is the hushed and cushy cruiser type of GT coupé. This is very much the toolroom racer, just as raw, focused and lacking in unnecessary niceties as the original six. There’s been no temptation merely to make something that looks like its forebear while capitalising on the whims of those who fancy a gorgeous car yet can’t live without air conditioning, power steering, something to play tunes on. Nor carpets, doortrims, even sound deadening.

Instead the spec is pure competition car: 35-gallon stainless steel tank, Trigo FIA wheels, a wooden Shelby-branded steering wheel, four-pot Wilwood brakes, heatshields over the footboxes. There are Shelby-branded leather seats too, but they’re simple buckets and the steering column and its single stalk are still recognisably 1960s VW Beetle.

Much of the interior is untrimmed aluminium, all beautifully finished and painted in non-reflective black, and the dashboard is a straightforward T-shape with wonkily labelled toggles plastered across the centre console and an array of Carroll Shelby signature gauges with a straight-topped hood above them, more for visibility than style. A duct at each end pours cool outside air in. Hope it’s enough. Fire up the V8 and it’s like it’s in there with you. A cacophonous rumble fills the cockpit, all anger and spite, yet you respond not with trepidation but a smile. A wide one. The pedals – floor-hinged and AC-badged – are hefty in each case, though their movements turn out to be progressive and their weight is less noticeable once you’re carrying speed.

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

And so I potter out towards the test-track, shifting with a stiff yet short and precise movement into second, bringing up the clutch pedal assertively, not allowing the strength in its reaction to have me kangarooing along. A bit more input with the right foot, a deepening of that growling, metallic clatter, a sudden, forceful shove in the back; noticing there’s no play at the wheel yet very little self-centring either. The wooden rim is slim yet broad in diameter and every inch of movement translates directly into action at the tarmac.

And soon we’re flying along. There’s just so much torque! Ample doesn’t nail it, really. The V8 will rev to around 6000rpm and I try it once or twice, but this isn’t the Mulsanne Straight so there’s not really any point. Instead you lamp it one, enjoy the vicious onslaught of power and extreme noise, feed in precise movements to clutch pedal and gearshift; up a ratio, back on the power, feel-as-much-as-hear that V8 rumble all over again. It’s intoxicating, addictive, and a reminder of how good old-fashioned engineering and the concept of big cubes over fancy ideas make a great recipe for entertainment that seems to be hardwired straight into your soul.

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

Scary, though? Not really. You don’t need to hang on tight; hands held lightly at ten-to-three on the wheel is fine, though on more than one occasion I thank my stars it’s a dry day as just a touch too much throttle can easily have the tail deciding to rule the day, but it’s progressive, and gives plenty of warning.

What surprises is just how little I’m reminded of an open Cobra. Sure, mechanically this car is pretty much identical to the roadster, bar some updating here and there and an engine that’s progressed somewhat from the factory 289 spec. But the cabin ambience is entirely different, that enclosing roof, the proper doors, sloping tail, wrap-around windscreen and race-plain dashboard conspiring to have you believe you’re in an entirely different car. One that wraps you up in the noise and ferocity of that V8 rather than leaving you to catch its retreating exhaust note.

Fact is, the Daytona really moved the game on from the Cobra. Intentionally so, of course. The Cobra could gain the measure of so many rivals over short courses and twisting circuits; it was powerful, agile, light, and had great traction. But Shelby’s sights were set on the likes of Ferrari and Le Mans. He needed a car that could be driven flat-out fast in a straight line for a long time. There was no point simply adding power to the Cobra, and that’s not such an easy thing to do with the 289 V8 anyway. The answer lay in aerodynamics.

A hardtop Cobra had achieved 167mph along the three-mile Mulsanne Straight in 1963. And so Pete Brock got to work, developing a lower, longer fastback version of the Cobra with a Kamm tail, using cardboard as a template over a roadster chassis and moving the driver’s seating position lower and further back for the lowest possible roofline. Despite an entirely new supportive superstructure, the FIA accepted Shelby’s new entrant as a bodywork variation on an homologated chassis.

And it got the desired result. ‘Back in 1965, the Daytona caught Mr Ferrari by surprise,’ says Gary Patterson. Fair point. With the continuation car, there’s no surprise at all. And that’s a good thing.

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

Factfile – 2015 Shelby Cobra daytona coupe

Engine 347ci (5686cc) V8, OHV, four Weber carburettors  Power 450-500bhp (est)  Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  Steering Rack and pinion  Suspension Front and rear: lower wishbones, transverse leaf spring, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar Brakes Discs  Weight 1200kg (est) Top speed 170mph (est)

This article was originally published in Octane 151, January 2016

Shelby Daytona Photo: James Lipman

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