of the White Snake
Once upon a time
when automobiles in America had big, muscular engines
and gasoline was cheap, cheap and plentiful, I had entered my teen years
and, in typical fashion, had discovered hot rod magazines and custom cars.
It was the early 1960s and, at the risk of alienating most readers Ill
say now that I came from a Ford family. Even though there were tales of
my dad once owning a Buick, all I remember is having Fords back in the
day when that marque had the distinctive red, white and blue, tri-lion
The first family Ford was the blue 52, of which I have limited memories,
but Ill never forget that the front bench-style seat had an ashtray
installed in the center of its rear face for the benefit of smoking backseat
passengers. Which is evidence it was a four-door model. Im pretty
sure it also had one of those pull-ropes hanging in a shallow arc from
left to right. But I dont know if it had a 6- or 8-cylinder engine
and, at this late date, since both my parents have gone to the great drive-in
in the sky, theres no way of finding out. (I would imagine it was
an 8-cylinder, if I know anything at all about my dads preferences.)
I definitely remember the white 56 Victoria coupe. There was much
keen anticipation my sister and I shared the night of its arrival. Perhaps
my first memory of large material acquisition, we knelt on the couch gazing
out the living room window, peering into the darkness awaiting the bright
headlights that pulled into the driveway the evening my dad traded in
the 52 for the brand new family coach. Lets go for a ride!!
And a cool, classic ride it was! With that smart looking front end, sexy
hooded single beam headlamps, chrome jet-styled hood ornament and similarly
sculptured side adornment that swept back to those round cat-like taillight
lenses, this was a vehicle that stylistically outdistanced Chevrolets
offering that year. Not exactly a hot rod, the 56 Vicky was a sporty
two door hardtop model with a turquoise interior, padded dash and a 292
Y-block V-8 under the hood. And it was in the back seat of this car where
I met one of my first musical epiphanies. On a Sunday drive, whilst passing
beneath some high power electrical lines, the AM radio played Toni Fishers
hit The Big Hurtperhaps the first commercial recording
featuring the flanging effect. And there was an otherworldly static induced
by those power lines. A memory Ill never forget.
Also I think this was the car my mom learned to drive in. It was an era
when women in general were coming to terms with being somewhat equal citizens
and 1950s Rock & Roll was musically tearing down the traditional sexual
and automotive barriers. Heady times for popular American culture. Being
that there were now two drivers in the family there would eventually have
to be two cars. So after some ado, we became the classic two-car family.
And though we only had a one-car garage at the time we quickly added the
classic carport for the second vehicle.
We jumped into two-car familydom with a sky blue 58 Fairlane 500.
This was one of the two odd years between 1952 and 1964 when Fords
full-sized model was designed without their then trademark round taillights
(the other year was 1960). The 58 had two pairs of oval-shaped tail
lamps horizontally arranged within a sculpted nacelle. This perhaps a
design concession to that year being the first to offer twin headlamps
up frontan evolutionary standard most carmakers adopted that year.
But there were fins! Very much the same style and proportion as those
on the 57 model year but yes, there were fins! The front end, with
a faux hood scoop and "gunsight" ornaments on the fenders above
its dual beam eyes, had that classic forward gazing look. We were chasing
that damned Sputnik and, though we hadnt realized it yet, the success
of Explorer I would blaze the path that would eventually take us to the
moon. And soon all the Russkies would see were this cars four taillights
blazing away from them under the power of its big block 352 V-8. YeeFuckingHaw!
But this particular automobile was not just any F500. Ours was one of
the prized hardtop convertibles, the model that was also referred to as
the retractable. Via a well designed system of electric motors,
gears and geometry, this baby could dramatically flip its rooftop up,
up, rearward and down into its awaiting trunk cavity whose lid had just
as dramatically raised itself like a space age clamshell. Then the lid
would lower itself and batten down to conceal its robotic pearl. With
a minimum of muss and fuss but with a maximum of ooohs and aaahs, the
driver of this vehicle could then carry onward into the promising sunlight
or moonlight of open air touring! These were the days when a good AM radio
was all the average person needed for his or her motoring soundtrack (unless
you happened to be one of those damned 1950s intellectuals who liked either
classical music or post-bebop jazz; then you got the AM/FM option).
Despite Chevrolets grand pioneering of the small block V8 concept,
it was this models 352cid powerplant that ultimately became the
high-performance charger that set the stage for Ford's near domination
of NASCAR racing in the early 60s.* In other words, this sucker could
get up and move if it needed to. I learned this on an otherwise uneventful
nighttime family excursion. My father, upon hearing a wronged woman scream
HE STOLE MY PURSE! and immediately seeing the crook running
between cars and heading for the darkness of the next side street, jammed
the pedal to the metal and gave chase, screeching around the corner and
flying into the face of uncertainty. An ex-WWII pursuit pilot, something
snapped in him and he once again had a powerful P-51 Mustang strapped
to his ass. Im sure late 1950s family life could make a warrior
feel unsatisfied but, damn!, the bogey ducked between houses and got away.
Im sure my mom later gave him a domestic piece of her mind about
needlessly endangering the family. Ouch!
At least, as attested to by a couple of decades worth of motoring songs,
American manufacturers were fully capable of building steeds that a man
could depend on. Witness the longevity of Fords classic flathead
V8 as both a motor for the modern Everyman and as a platform for pure
hot rodding pleasure. And without belittling Chevys aforementioned
OHV effort, theres just too much high performance history to sniff
at there. It was another 352 that purred underneath the hood of the next
family coach, a classy, white 1964 Galaxie 500XL fastback
hardtop with front bucket seats and the sporty center console languishing
between them. Yep, by this time Ford was fully into proving its mettle
through racing (whereas, notwithstanding some otherwise awesome powerplants,
GM wasnt**) and this years model was once again outrunning
the Pontiacs and Chevys on the oval tracks of NASCAR. But wait
this time the Dearborn firm had created a more than worthy competitor
to Chevys iconic pony V8.
In 1962following extensive development in the late 1950sand
within a newly mid-sized chassis, Ford introduced the legendary Fairlane
V8. Originally all of 221 cubic inches, this well engineered short stroke
animal was fleshed out to 260cid in 63 and also thrown beneath the
hood of the Falcons Sprint model, a successful transplant which
formed the basis of 1964s landmark Mustang. The rest would be history,
and perhaps the cry in Detroit was Let the pony parade begin!***
Regardless, the cry in Indianapolis the previous year was Gentlemen,
start your engines! when a couple of highly modified and maxxed
out (albeit slightly debored) 260s were dropped into a pair of Colin Chapmans
lightweight Lotus 29 chassisbehind the driver! god forbid!to
dramatically kick USAC racing into the future (an action-packed story
It was this stalwart 260 which powered the 64 Falcon Futura which
my dad drove home within weeks of purchasing the above-mentioned Galaxie.
Two car family, remember? And this gun metal grey fastback
with the red interior and full bench seat was the perfect car for my mom
and, I think, both parental units had taken this into consideration since
my sister had just come of driving age and I would quickly follow. Yes,
this was the car in which I learned to drive. Cleverly considered an economy
car, the Falcon could have been potent. Even with an automatic transmission
and stock tuned 2-barrel engine, this was a vehicle that really wanted
to giddy up and join the rest of the ponies out on the range. Listening
to the musical throb of its single exhaust was enough to make one want
to put on their driving gloves and grab the reins. Too bad it was eventually
rear-ended whilst parked in front of the house. Hit and run. In broad
daylight. A brutal, insulting end. Drat! Otherwise Im certain that
it would have been bequeathed to me.
Then, of course, there was Carroll Shelby and the Cobrathe real
story for which these ruminations are written. Perhaps the finest example
of Ford small block muscle flexing, this was the car that put all bets
off. Mr. Shelby, retired from race driving, had a dream. He wanted to
kick Ferraris ass. At that time the Italian team pretty much had
top end grand prix, sports and GT racing sown up and the Texan couldnt
stand to see the polite English racers their only serious competition.
Sure, there were Corvettes you could put on the track but, even with a
great engine, they were heavily unsophisticated in the handling department
and no match for a well bred sports racing machine. And, as mentioned
earlier, GM was not a supporter of racing (we can only imagine if they
had been†). As yet, there was no viable American alternative to take the
field so Shelby knew hed need to build one somehow. In a nutshell,
certain elements of fate would intervene:
Element #1 the Ford Motor Company had made an unsuccessful attempt
to purchase Ferrari in early 1963; they wanted a coveted piece of the
"world domination via racing" pie. But in a classic example
of tempermental Italian middle-fingered arrogance, Signore Enzo pulled
out of the deal.
Element #2 in 1962 the new Fairlane V8 had shown a lot of promise
as a high performance platform.
Element #3 there was the matter of AC Cars, a British concern that
built a roadster called the Ace, a beautiful, lightweight sports car.
It had great handling characteristics but had suddenly lost its supply
Element #4 did I mention that Shelby had a dream?
Kindred conspiracies, perhaps, but at this point the FoMoCo crew was about
to get snubbed by the prancing horsemen of Maranello and good ol
American Pride was at stake. Soooo a good ol American combination
of ingenuity, speculation and sheer bluster took over and in walked Lady
Luck singing a chorus of Hey, Big Spender! and the payoff
was big time. One story suggests that, without either company knowing
the other hadnt been spoken to about it, Shelby conned
both Ford and AC into believing his dream was a done deal. Another story
insists that negotiations were on a much more above board
order. Either way, the guys in Dearborn shipped him a couple of small
blocks and the blokes in Thames Ditton shipped him a chassis and body.
Sweet! And much can be written about how the fledgling company then created,
tested and promoted this first prototype but here its prudent to
consider it as a dramatic math lesson. Shelby simply added one and one
and came up with way, WAY more than two. The Cobra proved to be a winner
in no uncertain terms.
The first production version was powered by a high performance 260cam,
solid lifters, headers, 4-barrelpumping out an even 260 horses that,
in street tune, easily pulled about 5 seconds†† in 0-60 acceleration tests.
STREET tune, mind you. Its minimal spaceframe construction and aluminum
body allowed it to tip the scales at slightly more than 2000 pounds dripping
wet (a Corvette weighed in at about 3200 lbs). Underneath its skin was
a unique suspension system which featured lower A-arms and, serving double
duty as the upper member, a hefty transverse mounted leaf spring. Aside
from the requisite shock absorbers and sway bars, thats all there
was. Primitive, simple and effectively giving the car a handling characteristic
not unlike a mega-Flexy Flyer. Some drivers more eloquently described
how it handled like a ballet dancer. By late 63 Ford
had punched out their engine to 289 inches
and thats when
things really got interesting.
By this time the Cobra was tearing up the tracks in SCCA racing, dominating
A Production and consistently showing its taillights to Sting Rays,
E-type Jaguars and all manner of Porsches. This is not to mention one
of these animals, in 63, taking first in class and an impressive
seventh overall in the 24 hours of Le Mans. Its easy to conjecture
that Ferrari was already feeling the virtual bruises on its haughty Italian
behind. Cutting to the chase, Shelby-American had created a monster. And,
by 1964, had upped the ante by building both the highly successful Cobra
Daytona Coupe for GT competitions (which , in 1965, clinched the FIA Manufacturers'
World Championship for Shelby-American and Ford) and the King Cobra, a
rear-engined, Cooper-bodied Sports/Racer that solidified the legend. And,
wouldnt ya know it, this is not to mention Shelbys invaluable
help in creating the first Ford GT-40 which, by 1966, pretty much beat
the pants off any other GT racing machine on the European circuit.
Id say that the Texan had achieved his dream. But I digress.
As I stated early on, hot rod fare was de riguer for the average teenager
in the early 60s and this beautiful little American hot rod happened
to be manufactured within mere miles of where my family lived at the time.
The Shelby-American plant was located on some undeveloped acreage in the
middle of what was once swampland in Venice, California; not very far
at all from the old Hughes Aircraft plant where Howard had built the legendary
Spruce Goose. For some reason SoCal's post-WWII landscape not only invited
real estate developers but also, and perhaps more significantly, encouraged
Oddballs and Beat-Gennies to erect their "freak flags" ala coffeehouse
cool, pinstriped ethical, flamed surfboard, the Dodgers have left Brooklyn
and come here! Ecstasy! WOW! So why shouldnt a rabid Texan establish
a foothold in the middle of a cultural hotbed of ideas that was already
infecting the rest of the nations sensibilities? It couldnt
have been a better time and California was full of both dreamers and doers.
I lived in a second-story bedroom on the northwest back corner of our
house. This room had two windows, one that unceremoniously faced the house
next door and the other that faced rearward to the low hills that separated
my immediate world from my world of dreams. Beyond those hills was a hazy
lowland that stretched westward to the Pacific Ocean and southward to
what was becoming LA International Airport. The Red Line, LA's fabled
light rail transit system, was gone but there were a few wide, open roads
left over from the 1930s and '40s before automobiles were mandatory for
20th-century Angelenos. These asphalt ribbons plied through the then sparsely
populated landscape which led to a magnificently undervaluedunless
you were a surfershore break. At the age of thirteen it was impossible
for me to break out and go easily to this world but on cool nights I would
lay in bed and be bathed by the breezes which found their way inland and
through that rear portal. Like any teenager worth his salt, I ran down
many batteries listening to the clandestine transistor radio that wirelessly
connected me to the outside. Tunes like Nelson Riddle's "Route 66"
and Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place To Go" were already magical
anthems but in the dark, midnight hours both the moving air and the moving
airwaves made those tunes and those moments priceless. If only it were
me motoring around in the moonlight, engine thrumming, wind in my face
and hair, driving toward the heart of this or any other Life!
Whether or not social analysis matters in defining an era, there are always
those events which cast indelible colors and shadings upon, at least,
how we perceive the movement of the times we live in. And, perhaps, our
place in them. The early 60s were a heady time; the Historical Jury is
definitely not out on that. The race to the moon was in full orbital swing
and guys like Ed Roth and Darryl Starbyrd were boldly reshaping our automotive
fantasies. Under the auspices of heavyweight boxing, Muhammad Alis
one-two punch knocked the bejeezus out of one nations sensibilities
and the Nation of Islam came along to chant the mandatory 8-count. Then
there were those damned Beatles and all those screaming little girls making
the average American boy skip his normal Saturday afternoon at the barber
shop. And, as a word, Woodie had earned at least two meanings.
In short, our country had passed colorfully through puberty and, having
successfully smacked down the bullies of the Second World War, was now
boldly dancing at the bandstand of its teenage years. The era had birthed
itself into the pure philosophy of Rock & Roll as a way of Life, it
had a good beat, and the West Coast was strongly calling the tunes and
pointing the cameras. So why not an ultra cool California sports car that
redefined the very essence of the term hot rod?
Why not indeed?
(cont'd; part II)
©2010, 2012 SPOT/No
shelby american cobra/mustang guide