4-page cover feature article from AutoWeek magazine, 11 March 1996, pages 18-21

Poles Apart: Two Mormon brothers and their MiG-building friends take on Carroll Shelby and his Las Vegas chain gang

by Dan Neil

"It's for you." HAD THE POLISH FACTORY WORKER NOW HOLDING THE PHONE out to me sprouted moose antlers, I couldn't have been more surprised. I had arrived in Warsaw that morning from St. Petersburg, Russia, then traveled by car for four hours, following a seemingly random route through every barnyard, pasture and town square in southern Poland.

I was with David Kirkham, an engineer from Provo, Utah (USA), who with his brother Thomas has set up a Shelby Cobra replicar operation in a Polish defense plant. Finally, we arrived at Kirkham Motorsports' secret location: a sprawling, brooding industrial campus with butter-colored buildings sett off by lawns overgrown with yellow forsythia. We drove through the gates, past guards with Kalashnikov assault rifles (AK-47s), then walked for several blocks down empty avenues flanked by workshops and open aircraft hangars, finally turning into a modest, unmarked building where Kirkham's Cobras are being built.

Only God knows I'm here, and then, only if He has been paying attention.

I take the phone, thinking it might be Him.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Neil, by whose permission are you in my factory?" an angry Eastern European man demands. "I am coming down there now to throw you out." Click.

Believing that I am possibly about to be imprisoned for military espionage, I find Kirkham and recount my phone call.

"I knew we were going to have a problem, dude," he says in a way that is not reassuring. As we are hot-footing out of the shop, he utters the one word that in the eastern block means universal confusion, delay, pointless paperwork and the arrogance of authority.

"Administration."

THE FOLLOWING STORY IS AN AMAZING VIGNETTE demonstrating the promise and peril of the Kirkhams' operation in Poland. (They ask that the exact location not be revealed so that their competitors, and there are many, can't horn in on their arrangement.)

The situation is complicated. David explains it to me as we crunch along the gravel sidewalk at a jog, toward the facility director's office.

Kirkham's cars are being built by a company within a company whose president (let's call him Bogdan) is being cased out for suspicious bookkeeping. Bogdan doesn't know this, apparently, nor does he know that Kirkham has arranged with the parent company to buy out the operation, giving the American full control. I have arrived on the very day that this is all made official, and by being rude to Kirkham's American journalist guest, Bogdan has made his passage into oblivion sudden and quite ugly. In fact, says Kirkham, "The guy just committed suicide."

We find the office of the General Director, and Kirkham begins speaking to him. "We have another problem with Bogdan," he says, dropping the surf-speak "dude" that ends many of his sentences. "I have my friend here, all the way from America to write about the cars and the plant, and Bogdan throws him out. After all the money I've brought in here, this is the treatment I get?" he asks, a little too theatrically.

The director thinks for a second. He has a meeting in two minutes and is hosting a press conference with a member of parliament in an hour. "Come with me," he says, and we are sucked into the jet stream of this big, angry Pole, storming toward the workshop.

Back in the shop he smiles and says, "You are my guest." Then he goes off to fire Bogdan.

"You understand what just happened here?" Kirkham asks. I do not. "The head of the company has said, 'You are my guest.' We have free access to one of the most secure defense facilities in Poland. Dude, that just doesn't happen for everybody."

I am impressed. And relieved to not be under arrest.

ONE THING IS CLEAR. THE KIRKHAMS' business means a lot to the Poles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this facility, like much of the military apparatus on both sides in the Cold War, lost its primary reason for being. In the last five years, the employment here has dropped from 20,000 to just 9000. The General Director's press conference was to announce that the factory had received an order to build six jet fighters, a relatively small job, but significant news under the circumstances.

The cash-starved parent company has been obliged to divide itself into smaller enterprises dedicated to private ventures, one of which is the Kirkhams' Cobra project. This project represents hard currency, cachet and meaningful work for the trained hands that the company has managed to hang on to.

BY THE END OF THE DAY, BOGDAN IS A DEAD MAN walking, extending sniveling apologies to all who will listen. Kirkham's operation is moved to a new building, a vast hangar facility with a floor full of computer-controlled mills and presses, lathes and cutters, TIG welders (editor: What? No 'MiG' welders?), and walls sprinkled with girlie calendars. It is a rogue carmaker's dream facility.

All things considered, it's a very good day for the brothers Kirkham.

THE KIRKHAMS ARE MORMONS. BOTH DAVID AND Thomas were educated as engineers at Brigham Young University in Provo, and each served a two-year mission in South and Central America going door-to-door trying to convert mostly Catholics to Mormonism. David almost died of a combination of typhoid, E. coli and giardia when he was in Peru.

According to David, Thomas is the brains of the operation, the expert on all things Cobra: but David is its charismatic soul. He is a Mormon straight from central casting: clear-eyed, fair, apple-cheeked, friendly yet intense, and sharp as a hawk's claw. Like his peripatetic brethren, he has truly scary amounts of faith. Faith, and a million dollars, is what got him in the door of this MiG plant in Poland.

The Kirkham family has been in the car restoration and parts business since the late 1980s, when the father, Thomas Sr., started T.K.O., a Ford specialty shop in Provo. In 1991, Thomas Jr., an aeronautical engineer, left the (U.S.) Air Force to create Kirkham Engineering, where his brother David joined him in the Cobra restoration business. In December 1994, David disassembled his own Shelby Cobra, CSX 3104, to replace some suspension pieces. As he did the arithmetic, he realized that to buy all the parts from the Cobra restoration guild was going to cost him $20,000.

"I said, 'This sucks, screw this (David is, he confesses, on the liberal side of Mormonism.) I'll make it myself.'"

David discovered that, over the years, the family had blueprinted most of the parts to 427 Shelby Cobras. He also had lots of original pieces given to him by the masters of the Shelby restoration trade, people like Mike McClusky--who helped Shelby build the first in his line of continuation Cobras--and Dave Dralle, who has 30 years experience working on and racing Cobras. There were also drawings, from well-known restorers like Bill Kemper and Chuck Gutke.

"Finally, we asked ourselves, 'Why don't we make a real car?'" Kirkham recalls.

But many have been broken on that wheel, and the Kirkhams knew it. One day, Thomas called his brother out to the airport to look at a Polish fighter-trainer he'd been asked to make some parts for.

Says David, "I looked at the way it was built, and thought, 'You know, this thing looks a lot like a Cobra.'"

He sent a fax to the factory, asking, in essence, if it would like to build his car. The answer that came back, David says lightly, was "Sure."

In March 1995, with the intrepidity of a car-building Brigham Young, David arrived at the Warsaw airport with a check for $1 million (U.S.) borrowed from his father, a retired (U.S.) Air Force intelligence officer who had parlayed hotel investments into a fortune. Along with the check was a half a ton of excess baggage, consisting of Cobra parts that David wanted duplicated.

"I couldn't believe this place exists," he recalls. "You know, people think about Eastern Europe, and they think the Yugo, the Trabant. I went to the place where they build MiGs."

After a handshake and a stack of joint-partnership paperwork that he doesn't fully grasp, David began shipping Cobra pieces across the Atlantic. Talk about faith. Among the first shipments were the 3104 car, the drawings to CSX 3107, and a frame built by Mike McCluskey that is identical to the Shelby continuation Cobra chassis.

But as the reverse engineering got spooled up, the engineers in Poland noticed what aficionados of these cars have always known: that the AC-built original Cobras were terribly out of whack in places.

"Did we copy these cars exactly?" David asks. "My gosh, if you could see some of the original left-to-right measurements you would die. We're talking an eight of an inch here, a half-inch difference in suspension measurements in unwrecked vehicles? Aparallelism is in the frame by one-sixteenth of an inch over eight inches. What is that, a degree, two degrees?"

"The guys were drunk when they welded these things together," he says. "AC was stoned or something."

The very thing that gave the rude and crude AC machines their sinister charm makes them difficult to copy. To solve the problem of asymmetry in the body, the Kirkhams used a Coordinate Measuring Machine to create a digital map of the left side of #3104. That data was put on 16 high-density diskettes and brought to Poland. The engineers at the factory used the data to create a mirror image for the right side. The complete 3D digital model was then fed to an advanced computer-controlled milling machine that carved a 1:1 metal forming buck out of a special laminate called MiG wood. This buck, looking for all the world like a wooden Shelby Cobra, sits in the workshop, perhaps the only truly symmetrical car molded off an original Cobra.

DAVID IS SURROUNDED BY WORKMEN IN THE SHOP now, and he's rattling off instructions in Polish about splining a steering gear shaft. The factory gets lots of foreign business these days, notes Zbyslaw Szawj, a senior plant official and friend of the Kirkhams, and all business is conducted in English. "Except for David," he says. "He is the only one who has learned to speak Polish."

"It's been the hardest thing about this whole project," says David. "But if you're going to protect your investment, you have to be able to talk to the workmen to find out what's going on."

And these workmen are the reason that the Kirkham Cobra should end up costing substantially less than equivalent replica. A typical engineer makes (the U.S. equivalent of) $4,000 per year, an aerospace worker $2,000. "I'm paying a dollar an hour for aerospace workers," Kirkham says. "That's why I'm here."

Stanislaw Malezynski, the chief engineer, approaches David with a lower control arm in hand. He is one of the shop's senior craftsmen. He seems embarrassed, because the ball-joint socket was a few thousands of an inch too large. He explains that he has chromed it to build up a hard surface, then ground it down. David reaches for it but Stanislaw waves him off. He wants to knock off a few burs before handing it over.

"These guys, everything has to be perfect," David says.

Their perfectionism has at times been maddening for the Kirkhams, who themselves are painstaking engineers with high standards for low tolerances. For example, when constructing the frame jig, the workers put the 3104 chassis and the McClusky chassis on a sophisticated temperature-controlled flat table in order to thermally stabilize them for more accurate measurements. Then they took the extraordinary step of making the jig perfectly orthogonal--that is, making all surfaces either parallel or perpendicular to the adjoining surface. They placed the jig on a huge milling machine that planed off the minute variations caused by the twisting effects of welding.

"It was amazing," says Kirkham. "I said, 'Guys, these cars, they're just not this accurate, they're just not.' I couldn't stop them. They wouldn't do it. They were losing money and they just wouldn't do it."

Kirkham claims his cars will be optimized replicas of the Shelby SC, straighter and truer than anything built by AC, made of aircraft materials to aerospace tolerances, yet remaining as true to the original as practical.

"Rule No. 1," he says, "If it won't bolt onto the original car, it won't go into ours."

Actually, he corrects himself with a smile. "Rule No. 1 is 'Don't ask Dad for any more money.'"

The finished product will be a road-or race-ready roller, for which Kirkham intends to charge $50,000. Considering the market, and the cost of other repliCobras with far less precision and quality in the materials, the price is enormously attractive.

That leaves only the engine, which is being developed at another facility in Poland, and has an aluminum block designed by Dralle, who has rerouted the oil galleys of the 427 side-oiler to the top. "The reason we did that," says Dralle, "is that if you ever broke a rod you could just weld up the aluminum, block."

The new block will be made in a permanent cast in a foundry in Poland--and it could ultimately flood the market with aluminum 427s, says Dralle. The pattern-maker is Tom Roberts of Santa Barbara (California), a well-known engineer who builds motors for Bob Glidden's Pro Stock cars.

The rods, too, are being cast in Poland, and they are duplicates of #6800 Carrillo 454 rods, but 0.1 inch (2.5mm) shorter. An Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum head and manifold under a single Holley 750 carb is planned.

But the Kirkhams will build an engine any way a customer likes, as long as it's a 427 Ford.

And it will be sold separately, unless the buyer wants a turnkey racer.

Dralle says that once the Kirkhams' aluminum block manufacturing is up and running, it should be very lucrative. "The 427 market is so dried up now," he says. "There are so few blocks and heads and manifolds. Everything is gone. What little there is out there is pricey."

A turnkey Kirkham racer is at least eight months and $70,000 away.

Which raises an interesting shadow, far from the precincts of Poland. In the process of building their aeronautic Cobra, the Kirkham brothers have also gone about cornering large chunks of the Cobra parts business. Both McCluskey and Lynn Park, the president of the Cobra Owners Club, who has been a dealer in Cobra parts for years, have sold parts inventory, drawings and tooling to the Kirkhams. Why?

"Well, first of all they seemed like nice guys," says Park, whose parts business has covered wheels, bumpers, suspension pieces, shocks, springs and more. "And the handwriting is on the wall. If you don't help them they're going to do this stuff anyway, and leave you in the dust. They can make all this stuff in Poland and sell it for half the price."

And what of the old man himself, Carroll Shelby? When I call him at his ranch in Texas, he at first feigns ignorance of the Kirkham brothers; but as we talk, it's clear that he's well aware of his new competition. In fact, he says, he too is building Bodies in the East, in the Czech Republic.

"Since these guys are making such a big deal about building a Cobra in Poland, I want to let people know that we keep up where you can build things too."

Shelby adds that he's exploring body-building sites in several offshore (i.e. non-U.S.) locations, where it's even a little bit cheaper than in Poland. He says he plans to offer bodies for his new CSX cars in fiberglass, aluminum and carbon fiber.

"I'm tired of people trying to knock off the Shelby Cobra and trying to pass off a lot of bullshit about them being better than Carroll Shelby's Cobra," he fumes. "Let's just see if the people would rather buy one from Carroll Shelby or some guy who goes off to Poland."

David Kirkham laughs when he hears of Shelby's plans to build bodies in the Czech Republic. "That's like skinny-dipping with piranhas," he says, drawing on his experience in observing business practices in the newly-free eastern bloc. "If he thinks he can do that, good luck to him."

In the end, Kirkham puts his faith in the craft and skill of his new Polish friends, made so improbably and so far from Utah--as opposed to the prisoners in Las Vegas building Shelby's Cobra.

"The guys who are working on my cars built a defense system that had our military nervous for 30 years," he says. "These guys know about metallurgy, they know about surface finishes, they know about tolerances, they know about fit. Is it possible that anyone in prison knows these things?

"No way, dude."



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return me to Kirkham Motorsports home page

take me to the AutoWeek article 1 ("Polish Peace Dividend")

take me to the AutoWeek article 2 ("Poles Apart")

take me to the Wall Street Journal excerpts ("The Hot Rod That Came in from the Cold")