cover feature article from AutoWeek magazine, 11 March 1996,
Apart: Two Mormon brothers and their MiG-building friends take
on Carroll Shelby and his Las Vegas chain gang
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.
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.
God knows I'm here, and then, only if He has been paying attention.
take the phone, thinking it might be Him.
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.
that I am possibly about to be imprisoned for military espionage,
I find Kirkham and recount my phone call.
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
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.)
situation is complicated. David explains it to me as we crunch
along the gravel sidewalk at a jog, toward the facility director'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
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.
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
in the shop he smiles and says, "You are my guest."
Then he goes off to fire Bogdan.
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."
am impressed. And relieved to not be under arrest.
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.
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.
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.
things considered, it's a very good day for the brothers Kirkham.
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.
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.
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.
said, 'This sucks, screw this (David is, he confesses, on the
liberal side of Mormonism.) I'll make it myself.'"
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
we asked ourselves, 'Why don't we make a real car?'" Kirkham
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
David, "I looked at the way it was built, and thought, 'You
know, this thing looks a lot like a Cobra.'"
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,
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.
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."
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
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.
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?"
guys were drunk when they welded these things together,"
he says. "AC was stoned or something."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
guys, everything has to be perfect," David says.
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.
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."
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.
No. 1," he says, "If it won't bolt onto the original
car, it won't go into ours."
he corrects himself with a smile. "Rule No. 1 is 'Don't
ask Dad for any more money.'"
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.
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,
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
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.
the Kirkhams will build an engine any way a customer likes, as
long as it's a 427 Ford.
it will be sold separately, unless the buyer wants a turnkey
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."
turnkey Kirkham racer is at least eight months and $70,000 away.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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?
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me to the AutoWeek
article 1 ("Polish Peace Dividend")
me to the AutoWeek
article 2 ("Poles Apart")
me to the Wall
excerpts ("The Hot Rod That Came in from the Cold")