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Feature: Cobra Reincarnated

Ray Thursby

Henry Ford was wrong: history is not bunk. Refutations abound, especially in the auto industry, where the Superformance Coupe represents yet another example of the past’s influence on the present. Without its ancestor, the remarkably successful Cobra Daytona, a car that has become firmly embedded in racing history, the Coupe would not exist. And that would be a shame, because this car, now nearing the end of what can be considered a 41-year development process, is brilliant.  Peter Brock possesses the credentials to revive the spirit of the Cobra Daytona coupes that made so strong an impression on the racing world 40 years ago. From his pencil flowed the lines of the original; his hands shaped the wooden buck on which the panels were formed, and his studies in aerodynamics led to the then-unique shape of its tail.

Over the ensuing three decades, Brock was approached by a number of entrepreneurs who wanted to build a new version of the coupe, but he turned them down. Among the rejected suitors was Jim Price, an auto enthusiast who owns High Tech Automotive, a South African company that established a reputation for building quality products with its Superformance replicas of the Shelby Cobra roadster. However, Price ultimately convinced Brock to sign on after agreeing to re-create the Daytona in a way that satisfied Brock’s perfectionist mind-set. One vital detail was the inclusion of Bob Negstad, a superb chassis engineer who, while at Ford, played major roles in the development of the original GT40 and Shelby Cobra 427.


Ten years later, the design and development work of Brock, Price’s crew, and Negstad, who has since passed away, has produced the Superformance Coupe. Neither replica, kit car (except by legal definition), copy, nor continuation, it represents the evolution of the Daytona coupe. Others own the rights to the original name, so the new car bears the less-evocative moniker. However, anyone familiar with the history of these cars will recognize the Superformance Coupe as an updated Daytona. And those who appreciate beautiful design and know nothing of the car’s past will not care what it is called.

For practical purposes, the Coupe is larger in every dimension than the Daytona, its body is fiberglass rather than aluminum, and no parts interchange. But when comparing the cars’ shapes, you would have to view old and new side by side to be certain which is which. The Coupe is a magnificent piece of automotive sculpture that—unlike many cars which invite you to jump in and put things in motion—needs to be admired before you even think about where to insert the ignition key. The Coupe is near-perfect from every angle; in overall form and detail execution, it is exquisite. Light caresses its surfaces as if highlights had been painted on by an artist. A cliché is merited here: As much as any inanimate object can be, the Coupe seems alive and breathing. It appears ready for action, which, of course, it is.

The behind-the-wheel pleasure it promises is as alluring as its visual delights. As seen here, with a small-block Ford V-8 engine massaged by the tuning wizards at Jack Roush Performance Engineering, it has 500 horses to propel a mere 2,866 pounds of car wrapped in a wind-cheating skin.


Gear ratios in its Tremec 6-speed transmission deliver stunning acceleration (from rest, the Coupe breaches the 100 mph barrier in a whisker over 8 seconds) and a maximum speed on the far side of 200 mph.

Speed alone is hardly a positive. In fact, without the proper chassis, suspension system, and brakes, it is a definite negative. No worries here: An immensely stiff tubular chassis carries ultrasophisticated suspension hardware designed expressly for the Coupe, along with massive vented disc brakes and power-assisted steering that provide an excellent balance between effort and road feel.

High-speed capability inevitably requires some compromises. Even with springs softer than those specified by Negstad when he laid out the chassis and suspension, the ride is firm, almost excessively so on bad pavement. A little more suspension compliance should at least be an option for buyers. Likewise, the lack of adequate sound-absorbing materials means the engine—and, in lower gears, the transmission—always makes its presence known. These are exciting sounds to be sure but, as with the ride quality, they might be too much for the long journeys for which the Superformance Coupe is otherwise so well suited.

When judged on appearance and finish quality, the Coupe’s interior earns high marks. Entry and exit demand more agility than is required for getting in and out of, say, a Ferrari 575M, but not too much more, and driver and passenger are in for a treat once settled into their cozy space. The leather-trimmed seats are supportive and comfortable, and headroom and legroom are adequate, if not generous, for most adults. The interior space reflects the basic appearance and layout of the original, subtly changed for the needs of road use.

Habitability is only a minimal consideration in racecar design, because racers can tolerate almost any discomfort that makes a car go faster. But potential Coupe buyers are likely to care about the car’s finished interior panels, quality carpeting underfoot, and a decent audio system. Despite these additions, the interior tends more toward efficiency than luxury; it is a sea of black broken up by bright trim around air-conditioning vents, gauges, the shift lever and hand brake (the latter is also chromed), steering wheel spokes, and a row of shiny toggle switches, each neatly labeled. All controls are self-explanatory and easy to reach and operate. Solenoids, controlled by an unmarked button on either side of the transmission tunnel, operate the door latches. To open the doors from outside the car, you press a button on the key fob. A glove box and small covered bins in the rear provide secure storage for small items, while a vacation’s worth of luggage can be laid on the flat rear floor.

It all sounds great: history, speed, reasonable comfort, and solid craftsmanship, wrapped up in one of the most gorgeous bodies ever set on four wheels. But for some, the kit-car stigma nullifies all of these attributes. It should not. The designation allows the Coupe to remain exempt from certain safety regulations. Compliance would have been costly, and it would have required the addition of bumpers, for example, which would detract from the car’s appearance. The kit amounts to a fully finished car into which the owner installs, or has installed, the (Ford) engine of choice—any will do, so long as it is based on the Windsor small block and its intake system clears the hood—and the Tremec gearbox.

A few hours’ work or a few extra dollars paid to the mechanic of choice seems a small price for what the Superformance Coupe delivers, especially when the low base price (less than $90,000, regardless of how extravagant the engine) is factored in. Few options are available, or even necessary: Pick your color—with or without stripes and/or the half-white rear cove in which the original Daytonas carried their racing numbers—and select an engine. All that remains is to enjoy the ride.

Superformance
www.superformance.com


The Original Daytona Coupe
In late 1963, when Peter Brock first proposed rebodying the existing Shelby/AC Cobra roadster to make it more aerodynamic—and thus faster—Carroll Shelby and the honchos at Shelby American were dubious, to put it mildly. Given the way the existing cars were performing, no one saw the need to try anything new, especially when it involved what seemed at the time to be a very odd design.

Brock did have one supporter on the team: the late Ken Miles, Shelby’s brilliant racer and test/development driver. At his urging, Shelby agreed—still reluctantly—to authorize the construction of one coupe, providing it cost next to nothing and could be built without taking anyone away from the race team. Brock had no problem agreeing to the latter demand; nobody wanted to work on it anyway, with the exception of new hire John Ohlsen.

In a mere 90 days, with the help of Ohlsen and Miles, Brock had the coupe, based on a standard Cobra competition chassis, ready for testing. In early February 1964, Miles drove the unfinished coupe in a test session at Riverside Raceway, where his fastest lap was a full 3 seconds quicker than the best Cobra roadster time. Soon after, it won its class in the Sebring 12-hour race, handily outrunning its closest competitor, Ferrari’s legendary GTO.

Shelby, with Ford money in his pocket, ordered five more coupes, with bodies built in Italy. One of them won its class—and finished fourth overall—at the Le Mans 24-hour race in June 1964. Other victories followed, and it seemed certain that the Daytonas would win the 1964 World Manufacturers Championship. Until, that is, the final race of the season, scheduled to be run at Monza, Italy, was canceled. Denied the opportunity to earn points in Monza, the Cobras lost the championship to Ferrari by a narrow margin. It has been said that Ferrari convinced the Monza organizers to cancel the race.


By then, Shelby had lost interest in the Daytona coupe. The Ford GT program was now in his hands, along with a lot of Ford money, and the executives in Dearborn had declared that further development of the Daytona, which had so far proven to be faster than Ford’s own mid-engine coupe, was forbidden. Even so, when handed over to a British team for the 1965 season, the Daytonas won eight of the 10 races they entered and captured the championship that had eluded them the previous year, albeit with no major opposition from Ferrari.

And then, like so many racing cars of the period, the six Daytona coupes were deemed worthless. They sat, some for several years, in Shelby’s shop, awaiting buyers who were slow to come forth. Should one of the six—all have survived, and all but one have been restored to better-than-new condition—change hands today, it would command a sum in the range of $5 million to $6 million, for Peter Brock’s once-scorned design has come to be valued for its beauty as well as its racing success.
The Other New Daytona Coupe
Nowadays, Carroll Shelby is a big fan of the Cobra Daytona coupe. For some years, he owned one of the six originals and was therefore receptive when Paul Andrews, proprietor of Cobra and Shelby Classic Cars, approached him with the idea of building “continuation” versions of the original, using either existing Cobra roadster chassis or near-identical re-creations. Along with Shelby’s blessing came the right to use a block of serial numbers sequential to those assigned in 1963.

The new coupes, 10 of which have been completed or are under construction at the present time, are incredibly faithful replicas. Andrews supervised the restoration of three of the six built in 1963 and 1964, and so he was able to take measurements and examine details to ensure accuracy. The final body shape, hand-formed like the originals in aluminum, is something of an amalgamation, because all three were different. However, a customer can order a car with a body that precisely matches any one of the originals.


Underneath the skin, the new cars are equally correct. Their ladder frames are indistinguishable from those supplied to Shelby by AC Cars, and all parts are sourced from the original manufacturers or are purpose-built duplicates, from the transversely mounted leaf springs used in the suspension to the switches and gauges in the cockpit to the small-block Ford V-8 engine with four large Weber carburetors that barely clear the bulge in the hood panel.

Finish quality of the continuation cars, built at McCluskey Ltd. in Torrance, Calif., is naturally far better than that of the 1963–1964 cars. The first six were racers, built quickly and altered (sometimes crudely) as they competed; they needed to look good only at a distance. Expectations are higher now, so the new cars are delivered in 100-point show car condition, although a couple of those that have already sold were intended for—and have competed in—vintage racing.

All this hand labor and attention to detail comes at a price. A “standard” coupe, built on a new chassis and equipped to original specifications, costs about $350,000 and takes a minimum of one year to complete. Because each is built to order, customer wishes—for air-conditioning, more powerful engines, and detail changes, for example—are accommodated at extra cost.

Thanks to Andrews’ project, Carroll Shelby again owns a Daytona coupe. His combines one of the new bodies with a chassis salvaged from an original Cobra roadster.

Orders for the McCluskey-built Daytona coupes can be placed through Andrews at 609.744.2813. 

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