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March 30, 2010

Snake Charmer

Carroll Shelby is putting the venom back into the Cobra 427.

This past August 27, during the Monterey Historic Races, a show of rare, expensive, and renowned vintage automobiles, a simple hand-lettered sign was posted that caused otherwise sensible car lovers to catch their breath. It read carroll shelby's rebirth of a legend/fia cobras and 427 s/c cobras/aluminum bodies by kirkham motors, and it meant Carroll Shelby, the father of the fastest and most famous American racing-roadster-turned-street-car ever, was back in the aluminum-bodied Cobra business after three decades. As proof, four gleaming bare-aluminum bodies welded to lightweight tubular steel frames were presented for inspection—two 289s, the car that whipped Ferrari on the race circuit in the 1960s, and two 427s, the bulge-hipped beauty with the monster engine that cemented the Shelby Cobra legend. "It was pretty spectacular," says Tom Conley, who heads Cobra sales for Las Vegas-based Shelby American Inc. "We must have had a thousand people all over them."

First produced in 1962, the Shelby Cobra is an automotive exemplar. The roadster is a racing icon of timeless body design, and the pinnacle of American car collecting. "The Cobra is the benchmark for performance," says auto-parts manufacturer Lynn Park, co-president of the Cobra Owners Club of America and owner of eight original Cobras—six 289s and a pair of 427s. "They're fast, they handle, they stop. A good 289 will go from zero to sixty in under four seconds—the 427 is even faster. Maybe the ride is a little hot sometimes, but that's your red badge of courage that you've endured the Cobra."

The Cobra was born in the early 1960s when Carroll Shelby, a gruff Texan who'd earned a measure of racing renown by winning LeMans in 1959, hit upon the notion of putting a big American engine (a Ford V-8) into a lightweight European racing roadster, the aluminum-bodied AC (Auto Carriers) Ace. The CSX2000—as that first car was labeled—debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1962 and went on to dominate international racing for the next four years. (It was later renamed the 289, in reference to the car's engine displacement.) "It won the hearts of racing enthusiasts around the world, apparently for all time," wrote Curt Scott, who publishes The Complete Guide to Cobra Replicas in Car Collector Magazine. "Nearly forty years after its debut, this sidepipe-packing predator still displays the most widely recognized profile in race-car history."

Three years later Shelby unveiled the 427 (also named for its engine displacement). Despite its 425 horsepower, it wasn't nearly as successful on the track as the 289 was, but it won hands down on design. Today the 289's looks are dismissed among Cobra cognoscenti as "slab-side." "It's an ugly little contraption," comments Cobra dealer Dave Radtke, who owns House of Cobras in Orange, California, "but the 289 is an amazing car for the legends that grew from it."

On the other hand, the curvaceous fenders and sinuous lines of the 427 are what most people associate with Cobra today. "The 289 was the world-beater, but the 427 is what everyone remembered," says Scott. Shelby himself ramped up the car's image by building supercharged versions for celebrities like Bill Cosby and casino owner/car buff Bill Harrah.

Nonetheless, just 655 Cobra 289s and 348 Cobra 427s were ever produced, all of them in partnership with AC and Ford. They are temperamental, frequently loosely built, and always demanding to drive. Moreover, Shelby Cobras are legendary for their vibration. And while the 427 is an easier ride than the 289, all that horsepower makes the engine run so hot that it overheats in traffic. Finally, only true buffs and collectors tolerate a vehicle without side windows or a heater, or one in which the margin of safety is as thin as a body and frame that together weigh less than 250 pounds. But as the years rolled by, the car's cachet steadily increased; the speculative market of the late 1980s caused the price to skyrocket. Million-dollar sales were rumored but never verified. Today that Shelby Cobra market has cooled considerably, with prices about half what they were at the peak. "A really nice 289 is now worth about $150,000," says Radtke. And, he adds, the 427 is $250,000 to $400,000, depending on type and condition.

Shelby Cobra knockoffs began entering the market as early as 1972, states Scott. The giveaway: The body was almost always fiberglass, not aluminum. Later dozens of Cobra replica manufacturers sprang up, among them AC, which still produces a copy for $140,000. Some were reputable and made decent clones without purloining the Cobra badging, to which Ford still has rights. (Only Carroll Shelby himself can use the Shelby Cobra name.) Both Scott and Radtke estimate that 1,000 or so new Cobra replicas are produced every year. When completed by the owner or an assembly shop, says Radtke, most end up costing $35,000 to $70,000.

In 1994—furious at the clones as well as the outright counterfeits that used the name—Shelby stormed back into the Cobra business. He resurrected Shelby American outside Las Vegas, next to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway racetrack, to make partial Cobras, and Carroll Shelby Enterprises in California to make Cobra parts. The irony is that Shelby used fiberglass bodies, just like the knockoff producers, but charged a lot more. By the time it was completed, a Shelby American 427 cost approximately $90,000. Now Shelby is making a Cobra true to the original, but the irony is that he was incited to do so by a Cobra replica maker, Provo, Utah, manufacturing engineer David Kirkham. He turned Shelby's head with an aluminum-bodied replica that's as close to the original as its creator had ever seen. Shelby was so impressed with Kirkham's replica that in 1997 he allowed it to be placed alongside Cobra originals in the paddock area at the Monterey Historic Races—an honor Shelby bestowed on no other maker. Now together they're putting a top-quality Shelby Cobra on the road again.

Kirkham had fallen for the Cobra as a child. And while he was a student at Brigham Young University, he began to apply his studies in metallurgy to the family business of car restoration, reverse-engineering Cobra parts from a 427 street version Shelby Cobra the family owned. By the time he had graduated, Kirkham had copied and produced virtually every part in the car. "The idea was to provide a cheaper supply for our business," he says. "Cobra parts had become extremely expensive."

That left the Cobra body and frame, the only major components Kirkham had not yet duplicated. A solution appeared in 1995 when Kirkham, with his brother and brother-in-law,visited a huge military aviation production facility in Mielec, Poland, from which his brother-in-law had recently bought a MiG fighter trainer for $10,000—a relative bargain. "When I saw that plane the light bulb went on," notes Kirkham, who looks like an engineer right down to the Dilbert-style eyeglasses. "I realized an aircraft is nothing more than an aluminum skin over a steel-tube structure, welded together." That, of course, was the basic structure of the original Cobra. What had further captivated the three Americans and led them to visit the factory was that thousands of skilled workers stood idly at millions of dollars' worth of sophisticated metalworking mills and lathes.

Once the Kirkham brothers found out the plant was interested in making Cobra bodies they decided to convince their father to take a flyer. Kirkham spoke no Polish then. "Sheer engineering was the only way we could communicate," he says, recalling his first meetings with the foreign team. He scratched out messages in the dirt using only mathematical symbols: plus, minus, equal, not equal, less than, more than.

"In the end we had built a car out of thin air," says Kirkham, who shuttled back and forth between Poland and Utah overseeing the completion of the new 427, which required 17 versions at a cost of nearly two million dollars. "I took our original Cobra 427 and using a CAD [Computer Aided Design] system electronically produced 3-D surfaces of the car." Based on these specifications the Poles made the tooling and dies necessary to reproduce the body and many of the component parts—so perfectly the new parts were interchangeable with the old ones. Moreover, the frame and body were better than the original's because the Poles used a superior aircraft-grade alloy for the aluminum skin. Kirkham raps sharply on a fender. "Now, if you did that on the original, you'd leave knuckle marks," he says. Producing in Poland had one other enormous advantage: It cost a fraction of what it would have in the United States.

Cobra fanatics were lining up to pay $85,000 to $95,000 for a Kirkham Cobra, calling it the best and most faithful Cobra replica ever made. Many even thought it was better than the original. Certainly the Kirkham was an improvement on Carroll Shelby's own glass-bodied Shelby Americans. "A Kirkham will run circles around most of the Cobras made in the sixties," says Scott. "It's a masterpiece."

"Kirkham has become the premier Cobra replica builder," avers Park, who has but one replica among his fleet of nine Cobras—the Kirkham. "Except for the Cobra tag missing, you wouldn't know you weren't in a real Cobra. The other replicas are Cobras in looks only."

The first three cars were delivered in 1996, and 17 more in 1998. By then, the time from order to delivery had stretched to six months or more, and the Kirkhams realized their production could never go beyond 20 to 25. "We're simply not big enough," says Kirkham. So when Shelby American's Tom Conley, who'd known the Kirkham family for years, called last summer, the Kirkhams were ready to talk.

Shelby American finally admitted that it couldn't make a "real" Cobra again without a well-made aluminum body. (The company still offers a custom-made aluminum body, at the cost of $44,000.) With dies in place and production set up, Kirkham made better-alloy bodies for far less. On the other hand, the Kirkhams had no sales network, limited financing, and a strained-to-the-limit production facility, whereas Shelby American had a dozen established dealers, a desire to expand, and a new production facility in Las Vegas. Plus, the car could legally wear the Cobra badge, and Carroll Shelby's still-considerable clout would be behind it. As Shelby told Kirkham, "Nobody is as good at making the cars as you are, but nobody is as good at selling them as Carroll Shelby."

"There had been some bad blood between Shelby and the Kirkhams in the past; we had to get past that," says Conley. ("Let's see if the people would rather buy from Carroll Shelby or some guy who goes off to Poland," a fuming Shelby had been quoted in a 1996 AutoWeekarticle). Business sense overcame emotion. "After a lot of talking we agreed Kirkham would sell us the bodies attached to the frames," says Conley, "and they'd take themselves out of the retail business and make Shelby American their exclusive customer."

Production of the assembled vehicle (missing only the engine, transmission, and paint) is in Las Vegas, with final assembly to a customer's specifications taking place at one of the dozen Shelby dealers. The dealer-set final cost of a fully accurate 427 is $115,000 to $120,000—a relative value compared to the fiberglass Shelby American Cobra's final cost of around $103,000. With the same badging as the original car, the first Shelby American Cobra, this time with body by Kirkham instead of AC, was delivered last November.

The arrangement is a loose one, and it allows either of the companies to walk away after all purchase orders have been satisfied. Shelby American could find another body-and-parts supplier, or Kirkham could eventually go back into Cobra replica production. However, the likelihood of either firm pulling out is minimal, says Conley, as long as the hybrid Cobra is the success everyone predicts it will be.

For information and a list of Shelby American Cobra dealers, call 702-643-3000.


Send in the Clones?

Now that Shelby American and Kirkham have joined forces, what will happen to the thriving but largely unregulated Cobra replica market? Shelby American's Tom Conley posits that it will fade away, at least at the upper end. "To be honest, Kirkham was the only serious competition in the $80,000-plus market. With them gone, there won't be any replica business at that end of the market."

But it may also create a brand-new and far more exclusive Cobra collector market for the few factory-built Kirkhams produced before the Shelby American deal. Kirkham had delivered just 54 full or partial 427s. Of this number, only 16 were turnkey models, meaning completely finished by Kirkham and bearing the KMP (Kirkham Motorsports Poland) marque and a serial number. These are the turnkeys: 003-007, 010, 020, 022, 024, 027-028, 030-031, 034, 043, 047.

Happy collecting.


Buying a New Cobra

U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency regulations for new cars require things like crash-testing and smogging the engine for emissions—far too expensive for low-production vehicles like Shelby American Cobras and Cobra replicas. That's why it's impossible to buy a new turnkey Cobra for street use. However, Cobra parts are unregulated. When those parts just happen to be put together but fall short of a complete car, they are called an "assemblage of motor vehicle parts," and they are still unregulated. That's why most manufacturers, Shelby American included, produce a partially assembled car. Many are what is called a "rolling chassis"—the body attached to a frame with the wheels on. Most are missing an engine and transmission, and they come unpainted. The partially assembled Cobra is then completed to a customer's specifications by an independent shop or dealer. That's legal too.


Cobra Buying Advice

Cobra dealer Dave Radtke has been immersed in the car's mystique for 15 years, and in 1996 he opened House of Cobras in Orange, California, the sole Cobra-only dealership in the country. Radtke usually has 15 to 20 used or new Cobra replicas for sale, as well as the occasional original 289 and 427. Herewith, Radtke's buying tips:

• The mistake most first-time Cobra buyers make is checking under the hood before anything else. Instead, examine the frame by crawling under the car with a tape measure. "Measure it diagonally. It should be a rectangle," Radtke says. Then measure from the front axle to the rear axle on the left side and the right side. "It will amaze you how many are more than a half-inch off."

• Scrutinize the welds, beginning with the frame's main welds. "Are they good-looking or do they look like they were done by some guy named Bubba?" Next look closely at the small bracket welds "to see if they were welded by the same hand."

• Trace the wiring. "How the wiring is held in place is important because Cobras vibrate like crazy," says Radtke. Don't be impressed by wires secured by self-tapping screws sunk into fiberglass. The vibration will eventually cause those screws to back out.

• Eyeball the car. The fit and finish of the doors, trunk, and hood should be even and unblemished. The wheels should be exactly centered in the wheel wells. Stand 25 feet behind a Cobra and look at the rear tires. "They should stick out or stick in the same amount on both sides."

• The final test. "The best test of all is to sit down in the driver's seat, twist the key, and take it for a drive," Radtke says. "If it feels like a safe car, if it feels like it's not going to fall apart on you, if it feels like the car you want it to feel like—then it's probably the car you're looking for."

For a brochure or more information, contact House of Cobras, 154 South Cypress, Orange, CA 92866; 714-639-8088; fax 714-639-8087. Browse cars currently for sale at the Web site: www.houseofcobras.com.

Richard John Pietschmann is Departures' automotive writer.