It is funny how history plays out; sometimes the outcome is never as expected. This certainly applies to the Shelby Cobra which has to be the most unexpected high-performance car of the golden era. In some respects, it is a fluke it ever got produced.
Ford had played its cards right in the 1950s and released the two-seat V8 powered 1955 Thunderbird which was an instant hit with the buying public. Chevrolet had beat Ford to market with its two-seat 1953 Corvette by two years however the Corvette had a lukewarm reception. In fact Chevrolet had considered cancelling the Corvette, it was only with the Thunderbird’s release that Chevrolet decided instead to improve the Corvette. With an infusion of V8 power (260 CID V8) in 1955 (the 1953-1954 Corvette had the blue flame straight six) and a new exterior styling update in 1956, the Corvette was off and running building its reputation as a legitimate high-performance two-seater sports car. The Thunderbird was just the kick in the pants Chevrolet needed to put the Corvette on the right track.
Though the two-seater 1955-1957 Thunderbirds were stylish status symbols, Ford still made sure to offer high-performance versions of the Thunderbird’s 312 CID V8 to buyers who demanded more. For instance a high-performance supercharged version of this motor was available in the 1957 Thunderbird. Chevrolet fired back with a potent optional fuel injected 283 CID V8 in the 1957 Corvette.
The war had started and the competition was bringing out the best in both cars. That was until Robert McNamara stepped in. McNamara who later became the President of the Ford Motor Company and would thereafter serve as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, had been looking over the marketing data for Ford’s hit Thunderbird. He came to the realization that by moving the car into the sporty 2+2 segment (adding a backseat), the car would sell in higher volumes meaning higher profits for Ford. To his credit he had read the market correctly and a 2+2 Thunderbird was a big hit with buyers when it was released for the 1958 model year, with sales nearly doubling over the previous year.
However this success was won at a cost. Ford gave the V8 powered performance two-seater market entirely to Chevrolet. And the Corvette flourished making a name for itself on the street and at the track. It is hard to imagine it now, but back in the early 1960s racing was a big deal to the Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler). They all subscribed to the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” philosophy. And Ford not having a two-seater to compete with Chevrolet on the race track was probably getting Ford upper-management a little agitated.
As fate would have it at around this time Carroll Shelby, a race car driver, was forced to retire from his successful racing career due to health problems. Carroll who was also a chicken farmer, wanted to still be around fast cars. If he could not race them, he was going to build them.
In 1961 Shelby contacted AC Cars, a British auto manufacturer that made a two-seater roadster. He asked if they would build a modified version of their roadster which would allow enough room for a V8 motor under the hood. AC’s roadster had originally been designed to fit a narrow Bristol straight six. AC agreed to make the necessary changes, and Shelby commenced on a hunt for a V8 motor to drop in the ultra light roadster. As fate would have it, Shelby went to Chevrolet first who turned down Shelby’s request to use a Chevrolet V8 engine for his sports car. It was a decision that Chevrolet soon grew to regret. Shelby went to Ford next, and they gladly agreed to provide Shelby their new small-block 260 CID V8.
Ford having lost its two-seat Thunderbird a few years prior was elated at the prospect of teaming up with Shelby to give Ford another two-seat performance car to do battle with the Corvette. The Corvette since the two-seat Thunderbird’s departure at the end of the 1957 model year, had built up its own racing credentials. The Corvette’s light fiberglass body, low stance, great handling, and V8 power made it a natural born racer. However the 260 V8 powered AC Cobra was considerably lighter than the Corvette, which spelled big trouble for the 1962 Corvette. Even the Corvette receiving a displacement bump from 283 to 327 cubic inches (for its V8) for 1962 would not make up for the Cobra’s weight advantage. Aluminum body panels and a bare bones interior gave the 260 Cobra a weight of just 2,170 lbs (the 1962 Corvette weighed 3065 lbs in comparison).
AC built the first Cobra with a Ford 221 CID V8. The 221 V8 was never intended to power the Cobra, it was only used as a template for the Cobra build, since the 221 V8 was the same exterior dimensions as the 260. After assembly the Cobra was sent in February 1962 to Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, California. This is where Shelby and his team dropped in the Ford’s 260 horsepower high performance (HiPo) 260 V8 (code named XHP-260) and a 4-speed manual transmission while performing other finishing touches on the car. As the legend goes when the car was completed, Shelby on his first Cobra test drive went roaming on the streets of the Los Angeles area looking for a Corvette to bait into a race. As luck would have it, no Corvette was found that day. This first Shelby AC Cobra was chassis number CSX0001, it went on to be an auto magazine test car. It was repainted many different times (usually every time it was passed on to a new entity to be tested), to give the impression that Shelby had a whole fleet of new Cobras.
The 260 Cobra proved to be a success on the race track, the Corvette proved to be no match for it. By 1963 Shelby had replaced in the Cobra the HiPo 260 with Ford’s new HiPo 289 V8 which was also from the same engine family as the 260 and 221 V8s (it had the same exterior block dimensions as the 260 and 221 V8s). Shelby kept making improvements to the Cobra. The first 125 Cobras which were produced from 1962 to 1963 are considered the Mark I platform. Starting in June of 1963 the Mark II platform was released. The main identifier of the Mark II platform is the front fender air vents which the Mark I did not have. The Mark II platform was much more refined and overall better than the Mark I. By late 1964 when Shelby started producing the 1965 289 Cobras, the platform had reached an apex, most of the little issues such as engine overheating and handling issues especially steering quirks were gone. The platform was pure perfection and was the best performance car money could buy back in 1965 (of course this is excluding the 1965 427 Cobra). Unfortunately 1965 would be the 289 Cobra’s swan song, in mid-1965 the big-block Ford 427 powered (Mark III) Cobra would make its appearance spelling the end of the 289 Shelby Cobra. Though the brutish 427 Cobra would get the entire spotlight since its introduction, the 289 Cobra has in recent years begun to get some of the credit it is due with prices skyrocketing accordingly. The price variance between the two continues to decrease. The 1965 289 Cobra was the last year for the Mark II platform. In a lot of respects it was a more balanced car than the heavier 427 Cobra which had the large Ford FE big-block 427 V8 under the hood.
The 289 Cobra was small in stature with a length of only 151.5 inches, a width of 61 inches, and a height of 49 inches. However the gas tank was big for a car of this size with an 18 gallon capacity, which was needed due to the thirsty nature of the 289 V8.
There was no mistaking the sound of the street version of the 289 Cobra for the other pedestrian cars; the straight dual exhaust system let the competition know there was a high-performance V8 under the hood. The HiPo 289 that powered the Cobra was a Ford Windsor small-block V8 that produced 271 horsepower and 312 lb-ft of torque. The HiPo 289 (known as the K-Code 289) was also available as an option on other Fords during this time period such as the Mustang, Fairlane, and Falcon. It would also later serve duty in the Shelby GT-350 Mustangs. The 1965 HiPo 289 was a real performance motor with a 10:5:1 compression ratio (prior to April 1964, the compression ratio for the 289 K-code was 11.6:1) and a solid-lifter cam. The 289 had a large 4.0 in. bore and a short 2.87 in. stroke. There were two available induction systems: a Holley 4 bbl. and a multi Weber carburetor setup. The latter of which was geared for the racing crowd and it consisted of four (Weber) 2 bbl. downdraft carburetors. The 289 Cobra was one of the fastest production cars back in 1965 with a 1/4 mile in the high-13 second range and a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds. Top speed was a very impressive 138 mph which was impressive considering this was back in an era when most performance cars had top speeds that were not much higher than their 1/4 mile trap speeds.
The only available transmission on the 289 Cobra was a Borg-Warner 4-speed manual. The clutch was a hydraulic single dry plate setup.
Handling was of course very impressive, it was the closest thing a buyer back in 1965 could get to no holds barred race car handling. The front and rear suspensions were a lower wishbone and upper link transverse leaf spring design. Both front and rear suspensions had telescopic dampers. Steering was a rack and pinion design with no power assist.
When the 289 Cobra was replaced with the 427 Cobra in the middle of the 1965 model year, it marked a passing of the torch. The 427 Cobra would be an even bigger success than the 289 Cobra. Unfortunately this would be short lived, 1967 would be the Shelby AC Cobra’s last year. Soon thereafter the Cobra took on legendary status with many more buyers cropping up than available supply. By the 1980s the AC Cobra replica car business exploded and the Cobra has become the most widely made replica car in history. Though these did not have the Shelby name they had everything that we all love from the originals. In fact most of these can be easily mistaken for the originals.
With original 289 Cobras being rarer to find than an honest politician what’s a buyer who wants a real Shelby 289 Cobra to do? Fortunately Shelby America, INC in Las Vegas has the answer in the form of two brand new Shelby 289 Cobra models; the CSX7000 and CSX8000. The CSX7000 is the FIA version which is geared for the racer while the CSX8000 is an authentic recreation of the original street (CSX2000 series) 289 Cobra. Back in 1965, Carroll Shelby probably thought when the last 289 Cobra rolled off his facility, that it was the last of the 289 Cobras. If that was his thought, he could not have been more wrong; 45 years later we all know the 289 Cobra is too good a car to die.
Special Note: The Cobra as seen in this article’s photos is the “Real McCoy” – a genuine 1965 289 Cobra that was upgraded to the period correct Shelby racing Weber carburetor setup, racing style roll bar, and Shelby racing wheels with vintage Goodyear racing tires.
Written and image contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved